Sony, Panasonic, Canon DSLRs in 2014-15

Is Canon Forgetting Indie Filmmakers?

When Canon released the 5D Mark II in 2008 and then followed up with the 7D in 2009, indie film and video production was revolutionized. These cameras combined great optics with full HD recording. Just as importantly, their cost was within the reach of many indie filmmakers. The Canon DSLRs were all the rave.

In 2009, the talented Vincent LaForet opened people’s eyes to the potential of these DSLRs for filmmaking with his video “Reverie”. Shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, the video got more than two million views in the first week alone.

Perhaps even Canon did not realize what an outstanding camera they created. Their DSLRs were so successful that they hurt the sales of Canon’s pro video cameras.

Since then, a Canon DSLR camera had been an easy recommendation for any indie filmmaker. However, in the last couple of years the competition has been catching up. The second half of 2014 saw the release of two outstanding DSLM cameras: the Panasonic Lumix GH4 and the Sony α7S. These two cameras have brought in some features that no Canon DSLR currently offers. So, as we look around at camera choices at the beginning of 2015, is a Canon DSLR still the top choice for indie filmmakers?

Just a little background information. Tom Antos and I have been big fans of Canon DSLRs. Since 2009, the Canon 7D has been the workhorse of our production company. We love working with it – even when we had an expensive camera like the Red One on the set, sometimes we would still end up shooting more with the DSLR. The camera allowed us to move faster and focus more on shot design and performances. Even though we would lose in the recording quality, we feel that we ended up with better final product because we had more time for other aspects of filmmaking that are just as crucial.

But, with all our affinity for Canon DSLRs, it’s still difficult to ignore what the competition now offers. The three areas where Sony and Panasonic seem to have gotten a leg up on Canon are the 4K resolution, the codec and the slow motion recording.

Let’s compare the current top DSLR/DSLM models from each company, i.e. the Panasonic GH4, Sony α7S and Canon 5D Mark III. We will also have to mention Canon’s newest release – Canon 7D Mark II – as well as the upcoming Canon 5D Mark IV (rumoured to be announced on March 17, 2015 and shipping in April).

Of the three top models, only GH4 offers 4K video recording right in the camera. The Sony α7S also outputs 4K video but it has to record to an external recorder, such as the Atomos Shogun. In fact, the Shogun recorder can be used with both of these cameras and it turns them into powerful beasts – it allows to record 4K in RAW or the high-quality 10-bit Apple ProRes 4:2:2 (up to 30fps), or shoot slow motion (120/60/50 fps) in full 1080P HD.

On the other hand, none of Canon’s DSLRs allow you to record in 4K – they don’t support it natively and also don’t allow to record 4K externally. Certainly, Canon equips their cameras with chips capable of recording video in 4K. Therefore, it is not clear why they do not enable external 4K recording, the way Sony has done with the α7S.

Another area where Canon is fallen behind is the video codec. The GH4 uses bit rates of 100 Mbps at 4K and 200 Mbps at 1080P. Sony’s α7S uses the high-quality XAVC S Full HD (50 Mbps). And, of course, these cameras offer the option of improving the codec to 10-bit (or 8-bit in case of α7S) Apple ProRes 422 via the Shogun recorder, all at 4K resolution.

On the other hand, Canon’s native codec in the 5D Mark III is capable of recording at ALL-I 91 Mbps or IPB 31 Mbps. These numbers look solid, but footage recorded with this codec is not quite to the par set by the other two cameras (it looks softer, more blurry).

Also, with respect to slow-motion recording, Canon is now playing catch-up too. The new 7D Mark II is only the first Canon DSLR to offer 60 fps at 1080P resolution. The upcoming 5D Mark IV is sure to match that number, but there is no indication that it will offer any faster frame rates.

In comparison, the GH4 natively offers 96 fps at full HD. Sony α7S comes with 60 fps at full HD (like 7D Mark II and 5D Mark IV) but shoots 120 fps at 720P – none of the Canon DSLRs can match this. And again, with the use of the Atomos Shogun, the frame rates can be increased all the way to 120 fps at 1080P.

It is wonderful to be able to film slow motion above 60 fps. It is one of the great things that the Red cameras allow you to do. But these cameras are very expensive and that is why there has been so much excitement around the GH4 and α7S. Unfortunately, Canon has been slow to increase their specs in this area.

The final point of comparison are the small video functionalities which are often overlooked when considering a camera purchase, but are very important when actually using the camera on daily basis. The following functionalities are present on the GH4 and α7S but are missing on the current Canon DSLR models: exposure histogram, zebra pattern, focus peaking, audio level monitoring.

Having said all that, I am sure there are points on which the Canons win over the competition. Also, some of the gaps that have emerged can be eliminated by using the Magic Lantern hack (overriding Canon’s firmware). The problem with that is that Magic Lantern is unstable and so not recommended for big projects or work for clients. Also, the hack voids the Canon warranty.

Canon has actually been putting a lot of effort in improving the autofocus in their cameras, but that is of little benefit to filmmakers.

Let’s also note that the Canon 5D Mark III is the most expensive of the cameras. The following are the current prices at B&H Photo Video (body-only)
Canon 5D Mark III $3,099.00
Panasonic GH4 $1,697.99
Sony α7S $2,498.00

With Canon having so much going for them, it is surprising to see the company fall somewhat behind Sony and Panasonic. Their DSLRs are, I think, still the best for photographers. But when it comes to filmmakers, they definitely do not have the market to themselves.

Perhaps Canon is resting on their laurels. I’ve heard anecdotes from a few people who spoke with Canon representatives at the 2014 NAB Show. What they heard was not encouraging to Canon fans. The reps seemed totally unaware of how much their competitors had advanced and felt that they had the lead in DSLRs. They also suggested that those interested in great video technology should look to Canon’s (very expensive) Cinema line cameras instead.

Hopefully not everybody at Canon thinks that. Hopefully, they realize what made their DSLRs so successful in the recent years. Hopefully, Canon has not forgotten about filmmakers.

13 thoughts on “Is Canon Forgetting Indie Filmmakers?”

  1. Unfortunately, I think Canon’s assessment on their position is clouded by the sales of their cameras to photographers rather than videographers. Unless their feedback indicates who is buying for what, they will not know. And, until Sony in particular makes the user interface actually properly usable, this situation will continue. If Sony ever made a camera as usable as a Canon, and marketed it as such, Canon would be in serious trouble. We, as consumers, don’t want that – competition is what drives innovation and lower cost.

  2. After I tried the Panasonic G6 I switched from Canon (a 70D, but I used often also a 5D mkIII) do this cheap mirrorless. Then, when GH4 was out, I add it to my arsenal and I use both.
    The funny thing is I can use some great Canon FD lenses with a simple bayonet adapter (no lenses inside), while with Canon bodies was not possible easily 🙂
    I’m so happy with quality, battery life, peaking, slow motion, codec, sharpness etc…

  3. Thank u sir, canon are expensive they should……. I m using Fuzifilm s8500 …… Thank very very helpful now I would go for panasosic budget matters. Gh4

  4. By far the GH4 for price usability and the picture you get from the 4K video is the best deal in a nutshell on the market right now. Canon needs to realize that. Andddddd that more ppl seem to be interested in taking video, than photos first of all, and that cameras like the GH4 are really going to open the door to cheaper more affordable cameras that have ‘hollywood’ quality picture to them. What Canon doesn’t understand with their elitist behaviour, is that they are simply ousting anyone without the ‘canon appropriate budget’ and shooing away a HUGE clientele base because they simply can’t afford the Canon line of equipment. So what happens? People go elsewhere…. and find something just as good if not BETTER in everyway. If Canon was smart, they’d immediately release one or two affordable 4K cameras, (even if the market still hasn’t been totally accepted just yet) and a line of lenses for those cameras, and prove that they are ‘the best’ instead of just claiming to be. Both Oppenheimer and Picasso said ‘you’re only as good as your last work’ and I truly believe that. While the 5DMKIII was amazing…it’s now outdated, and so is every other canon camera except the cine line. But who the heck wants to pay $5k when you can get the SAME if not BETTER results for a fraction of the price from quite frankly, a better-marketed company like Panasonic or Sony.

  5. Nice article but unfortunately you forgot to mention Nikon. The D800 actually came out slightly ahead of the 5DIII in video features and low light performance (and is a brilliant 36MP still camera) but the D810 improves on it further. Canon really is dead last now in the video DSLR market.

  6. I think a company like Canon surely has very good market analysts and like every major player on the market the most important thing is making money and after that even more money.

    So maybe the 5D Mark III is still selling more than enough units (based on past praise) since many “normal people” don’t research online the whole day. Plus if you only compare Canon & Nikon (since many people dismiss Panasonic consumer products as toys from the start) then I guess Canon is still OK.

    Also when I look at the number of people who bought a Nikon 1 then I start to believe that lots of people base their buying decision purely on nice TV commercials and store flyers.

    I also heard that some Canon sales rep assumes the 5D Mark IV (whenever that thing comes out) will also not feature 4k video since there is “not enough demand” by consumers yet. People serious about video (aka pros / not consumers) should pay premium and invest in the Canon pro cameras. So why sabotage their own pro line when you can still squeeze out some more cash?

    Of course it’s rediculous (at least to movie enthusiasts) but I guess there are not that many consumers out there who are dead serious about 4k movie recording. For private youtube channels and corporate web sites, regular DSLR video is more than good enough. Most people won’t even view videos in 1080p on corporate web sites. The “average joe’s” internet connection probably won’t even play anyting above 1080p smoothly.

    My best guess is: Canon is milking the dying cow as long as possible before it drops dead.
    As soon as it really hurts their numbers they will come out with some super-awesome new camera and a few month later no one will remember their 4k-delay-tactics anymore.

  7. Well I always carried Canon and loved the camera line but Canon made a grave mistake and simply handed over their throne without any fight to Sony and Panasonic . In NAB 2014 I had a chat with their Sales executive and to my surprise the errogance and ignorance just baffled me , to my question on 4k support and higher frame rate he basically said “No we don’t have any plans to support such features at 5D levels” , I realized then and there that their days are over. Upon return sold all my Canon gear and invested all on Sony A7s , I love this camera, amazing!
    Canon will join the likes of huge corporations that lost their hard earned leadership and kingdom like Motorola did simply based on wrong strategies! In this game playing catch up is costly cause when they come up with something to beat GH4 and A7s , those companies are already looking at their next improved products and all you need to win in this market is a 6 months gap in products to destroy your competition .
    Why do I know this? I’ve been a corporate marketing executive for over 30 years for some of the largest corporations in the world and seen huge companies fall to their knees based on few wrong decisions. I sure hope Canon wakes up!

  8. hey,
    i am looking forward to buy the GH4, but i am not sure if should buy the a7s or the GH4. i wanna buy the Atoms Showgun anyway, so is than the better choice to buy the a7s or still the GH4?

  9. Thank you sir. Am in Ghana, west Africa. I just completed film school and serving at my school as a teaching assistant. I’ve been using my canon rebel t3i for three years. Now am done with school and facing the professional world, I’ve always thought of getting a professional camera which of course will be a Mark III. But the question that always pop in my Brain is “where on earth will I get 120, 000GHS equivalent to $3000 from?” I remember I walked to a local micro finance company to ask what requires of me to get a loan of 120,000 GHS. The manager said unless I bring a car as a collateral. Really….?? Well, I do not blame him though cos technically, 120,000 GHS can buy a 2 bedroom flat here in Ghana. But hey now thanks to you I know I can get an even better professional video camera at half the price of the Mark III. So yes by fall of December 2015, I will be standing with the Panasonic GH4 in my palms.

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