WoMP: <$1,000 Camera

In this episode of Weapons of Mass Production we compare a few sub-$1,000 cameras to see which is best-suited to motion picture/video use.

The cameras were:

  • Canon T4i with 18-55mm kit lens ($899)
  • Sony NEX-6 with 16-50mm kit lens ($998)
  • Panasonic GH2 with 14-42mm kit lens, both stock and with Flowmotion v2.02 hack ($699)

Let’s get this out of the way: All three cameras are very capable, great cinematic images can be shot with any of them. But they’re not quite up in that stratosphere of “so good it just doesn’t matter any more”. They each have their strengths & weaknesses.

John with cameras on merry-go-round

John with cameras on merry-go-round

I know there are a lot more cameras I could’ve chosen from. I chose these because (i) Canon has consitently been a leader in DSLR video quality, so I felt they should be represented, (ii) mirrorless is the way of the future for video, so I wanted the others to be mirrorless, (iii) these all have larger chips that ‘traditional’ video cameras (the handycam you’d get at Best Buy made specifically for video) which gives us better light sensitivity, shallower depth-of-field, and that cinematic look that viewers of my show are concerned with.

Canon T4i:

I chose this one as the overall winner even though it has a couple shortcomings. It’s not as sharp as the Panasonic, and the form factor (with optical viewfinder instead of electronic) isn’t as good for video as the others. But it was the best in low light, it was the best with dynamic range, it was just about even on the other tests, and there is a hack available for it (Magic Lantern) that gives some really nice functionality. It worked predictably, it has a nice articulating touch-screen, it has a histogram to aid exposure, and having the cleanest image matters a lot to me. I think it’s embarrassing that it can’t resolve the same detail as the much older Panasonic, but you have to remember that these cameras are all stills cameras first, so sometimes the video functionality comes as an afterthought.

Kevin launches Sherlock the helicopter

Kevin launches Sherlock the helicopter

Sony NEX-6:

The Sony actually did quite well, and if size (for travel) is a concern, I’d suggest this one. It’s just a hair behind I think in the image metrics, but not in a huge way. The focus issue did drive me crazy. Maybe there’s a menu option I didn’t see that prevents it from going to sleep. I actually had to reshoot the sharpness (helicopter) comparison because it did that same focus thing to me. That’s why when it did it again for the dancing, I decided to leave it in the video that way. It has focus peaking (that shows you a highlighted version of in-focus areas on the display) which really helps with video, and I doubt this issue would ever come up when shooting stills. It’s a solid camera, very similar to Canon in image quality, great if you’re a space-conscious traveller.

Panasonic GH2 with Flowmotion Hack:

The Panasonic is pretty plain and simple: It is the sharpest. In fact I think it’s the sharpest camera under $10,000. I think this camera is the clearest proof that the manufacturers are holding-out on us, and releasing cameras that aren’t as aggressively great as they could be, because they want to segment their market and control the upgrade timeline. I was actually surprised as how sharp the camera is right out of the box, sans hack. The hack really comes into play when you have a lot of motion in the scene. On the stock version, the compression falls apart into jpeg-y blocks, on the hacked version it’s clean throughout. Sadly, the camera lost (sometimes emphatically) on every other test. So even though it’s the cheapest and sharpest by some margin, I can’t give it my whole-hearted recommendation.