Nikon and Canon did it first, but RED Digital Cinema's new modular camera system is a revolutionary vision that breaks ground in combining no-compromise still photography with full-motion video in the same camera.
Nikon's D-90 and Canon's 5D Mark II DSLR still cameras, both introduced this fall, are the first beyond-amateur devices that can take both still images and video. Yet both have severe restrictions that limit their use as fully professional tools. Not so with RED's proposed new DSMC (for Digital Stills and Motion Camera) system.
After a false start at the 2008 NAB Show, RED saw the light and tore up the designs for its next generation of cameras. Now, its new Scarlet professional camera and Epic master professional cameras are the result of a radical transformation that creates a new generation of imaging technology for the needs of emerging multimedia outlets.
Rather than being a DSLR that can be adapted to shoot video, RED's DSMC system allows the user to construct the kind of camera needed from a wide range of modular components including lenses, viewfinders, grips and mounts. The camera's modular "brain" can be made into a still DSLR, a portable video camcorder, a digital cinema camera, or even a super high-power device with a 186x56mm, 28K (28000x9334 pixels) sensor that can be used for IMAX cinema production.
A basic camera brain, or module, starts at $2,500 and can scale up in resolution increments to a device costing $55,000. Each part of the camera system uses the same compression technology—called Redcode Raw. Used at data rates ranging from 42 to 500 Mbps, Redcode allows the recording of visually lossless images at high frame rates and resolutions.
RED modules Even starting at the bottom of RED's line is higher resolution than broadcast HDTV. A 3K resolution (3072x1620 pixels) Scarlet module with a 2/3-inch Mysterium-X sensor with up to a 120 fps shooting rate equipped with a mini-RED/C-mount is expected to be available for $2,500 by next fall. With fixed 8X lens to make a basic working camera, the price is expected to be under $3,750.
The EPIC X package, built on the 30mm x 15mm S35 sensor, will include a CF recording module, I/O module and battery module, bundled in a package that sells for $28,800. Existing RED ONE customers will get a full trade-in price and first deliveries for this package when it's available next summer.
Larger sizes, including the 9K and 28K Epics, are slated for spring of 2010. These are only estimated prices, specs and delivery dates, which RED emphasized, are "subject to drastic changes." (At least they tell the truth!)
Among a wide range of potential users, the lower end of these new RED cameras are designed for photo and video journalists whose jobs are combining into a single image making function. Finally, a single photographer will be able to shoot both stills and video with the same camera package. It's the beginning of the end of the days when camera operators lug around both a still and video camera and their separate accessories.
Of course, this is an emerging new area with no doubt many bumps and changes ahead. But the product roadmaps are now on the table, and it's exciting to watch the first moves forward into this new dimension of camera technology.
Both Nikon and Canon, the two major players in the still photography camp, this fall introduced their first "Live Video" features on pro level cameras. However, as might be expected with first-generation products, the duality of use is not quite there yet for these devices.
With its D90 (about $1,000), Nikon didn't give the camera external audio capability. This failure presents a difficult situation for a working pro. And though Canon's more professional 5D Mark II (about $2,600) accepts external audio, the camera is mostly a still—not a video—camera. Using its SLR design for video is a bit unwieldy, resulting in unstable performance.
For example, the user needs both hands to hold the camera to shoot video—meaning there is no way to give full support to the lens. The camera works well only with relatively wide-angle lenses. Also, Canon does not recommend using autofocus for video—the camera is too slow, and the exposure controls can cause operator confusion.
By going back to basics, however, RED avoided these problems. Breaking the system into modular pieces and allowing the user to essentially design their own camera allows a myriad of configurations. The complete system can be costly, but photographers can use their existing Nikon or Canon lenses.
Christopher Keiser noted on RED's user discussion board that he will purchase a Scarlett brain as soon as it's available.
"Currently I carry a Canon MKIII, 20D and a Panasonic HVX200 on most gigs," Keiser wrote. "What I wouldn't give to be able to carry one body, and a backup brain, and one tripod. I encounter many producer/shooters like myself and I know that they mostly want the same."
This prompted Jarred Land, a cinematographer and founder of Dvxuser, one of the largest online digital movie making communities, to respond: "Christopher gets it."
It was late 1982, when Sony began delivering the first Betacams. This was the revolutionary "camcorder" that transformed the industry by combining separate video cameras and recorders into a single, cordless portable device. That one-piece design—through many generations, formats, and different manufacturers—has lasted about 30 years.
Now comes Jim Jannard, founder of the eyeware and apparel company Oakley Inc. and of RED Digital Camera. A photographer himself and obviously a keen observer of the imaging market, Jannard's RED has come a long way since showing a mock-up of its first camera at NAB in 2006.
With RED's DSMC system, I see the first totally new camera design in almost three decades. It's a movement that may eventually force the still camera worlds of Nikon and Canon to meet the video camera worlds of Sony and Panasonic.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York City. Visit his Web site is at www.frankbeacham.com.