Camera tech for ad creatives. Or why “shoot it on HD” is the wrong answer.

The old moto was “shoot it on 35.” And if there were good folks behind the lens, you were virtually ensured a decent negative to make pretty pictures in post production.

“Shoot it in HD” has a lot less meaning. In fact, HD is a delivery format and not really a camera format. And since cameras come in all flavors of HD, it’s a lot harder to dictate terms that will ensure you get a great “neg” to work with in post.

I’m going to write about what some of those flavors mean and how they will affect your picture – without getting too technical, of course.


A good starting point is to talk about camera sensors. There are generally two types of senors used on HD cameras you’ll hear about, CCD (charged couple device) and CMOS (charge modulation device).

These two types of cameras sensor have different strengths which lend themselves to  very different looking footage.

CCD sensors are the more mature technology and what you’ll find in both the common camcorder and most professional television cameras. They’re  usually small senors that create crisp, high-quality, images but due to optical physics, generally produce a very large depth of field.

CMOS (charge modulation device) is the newer technology on the market. CMOS technology allows senors to be larger and thus provide a more 35mm film style look. This is the technology you’ll find in most digital still cameras , HDSLRs, and most high-end movie production cameras. They don’t do as well with movement, note the dreaded rolling shutter.

What’s an ENG anyway?

Not so long ago if you asked for a HD camera some sports/news guy would show up with one of those cameras that rides on his shoulder. This is what’s referred to as an electronic news gathering camera (ENG). It’s where the large investment by the industry had been focused when the broadcast industry was forced to go HD.

If you’re looking for something cinematic, that’s not what these cameras are designed to create. Think huge depths of field where everything in the frame is in sharp focus. This technology is perfect for sports, news and reality TV. So if you want your ad to look like sports, news, or reality TV show, this is your camera.

Hacking an ENG, a talented DP can make a ENG look more like 35mm movie camera with the use an adapter. An adapter, in this case, is a lens that fits over a lens to give it a more cinematic feel.

At the end of the production day, these cameras provide a tape or a video file in 720 or 1080 with about the same latitude as a JPEG. So your color correction will not be on the same level as a 35mm negative.

HDSLR. Like my brother has this camera that shoots 1080p.

Three years ago Canon came out with a camera that has really sent a shock wave through the commercial production business. Though far from a perfect solution, the 5D MKII allows anyone with a few thousand dollars to capture  1080p HD video.

Now three years later, professionals have created wonderful accessories and have learned how to maximize the capabilities of this camera and it’s younger brother the 7D. There’s even a healthy community of people “hacking” these cameras to do some spectacular things. In fact, last years House season finale was shot on these cameras. You probably didn’t notice.

The benefit of HDSLR is their relatively large sensor size which enables them to deliver a shallow, cinematic depth of field. Also the Canon mount offers the possibility of adapting all kinds of high-quality lenses – just like a professional movie camera.

Canon is no longer the only one in this field. Panasonic, Sony, and Nikon all have strong players too. There have also been some hybrid cameras spawned by this technology including the Sony VG-10 and the Panasonic AF100.

Limitations of HDSLR? How about limited ability to capture long takes, over heating issues, rolling shutter, capture format, and sound. Most of these issues can be addressed in a professional commercial production environment. But not by your intern with his dad’s tripod.

Canon HDSLRs provide a 1080p H264 file. This is high-quality, but more or less the same as shooting in JPEG mode. Meaning, the camera does not produce the RAW data that would give the most latitude in post. Better not blow your highlights.

Professional Digital Cinema Cameras

The first commercially viable system was created with the collaboration of Sony and Panavision. Panavision took the existing CCD technology and built a new, and very expensive lens system that gave Sony’s small sensored (compared to motion picture film) camera a 35mm film look. Over the last decade this technology has advanced and been used on many large budget feature films. Panavision’s Genesis now uses a sensor comparable in size to super 35 (which is technically smaller than full-frame 35).

Arriflex was next to the plate with the D-20 a super 35 CMOS camera. Then, a few years later, Oakley founder Jim Jennard introduced the Red One, a substantially cheaper, very flexible, and more accessible digital movie camera. (Disclaimer I used to work on Oakley’s advertising.) It took a minute for people to take this camera seriously, because who exactly was this billionaire building movie cameras in his basement? In the past few years, this camera has become widely adopted all over the world.

Most of professional cinema cameras are capable of providing a raw file at the end of production that that provides many of the same benefits in post as a negative. In fact, the latest Red cameras provide a 5k file or 4k, high-dynamic-range, raw file. In a commercial production environment, where you’re finishing to 1080 or 720, this provides almost unlimited ability to crop and tweak the image without losing detail.

OK. So the right answer is Red?

The right answer is to ask question about why you would use one particular camera over another. And make sure you and your director, and the DP are on the same page about how you want the footage to look at the end of the day. If you’re shooting something with an improv style like The Office, an ENG or camcorder style camera will more likely be able to capture the unpredictable scene as it unfolds.  If you have a lower budget, HDSLRs provide a great value if you’re able to work within it’s limitations.

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Posted on: February 1, 2011, by :