What makes a professional camera...professional?

Some of my clients have very specific needs in terms of video quality and technical specifications, but more often than not a client will leave it up to me to pick the best camera for the job and budget.

Many people wonder what the difference is between a professional video camera and a handheld camera sold in Best Buy for a few hundred dollars.  All cameras shoot HD right?

What makes a professional camera any better?

The short answer to this question is DATA.  Professional video or cinema cameras are picking up and recording much, much more data than a consumer camera.  Even if the resolution of the cameras is the same (1920 x 1080), the amount of colors a camera can record, and how frequently it records those colors, makes a huge difference.

For a really basic example let’s pretend I put you in the middle of a lush garden and asked you to paint two pictures.  For the first painting I let you have any paint color you could imagine, but for the second painting I gave you 12 colors and told you not to blend any paints .  Now, your personal painting skills aside, most people would agree that the first painting is going to be a more realistic and accurate portrayal of the scene in front of you.  That’s not to say that very interesting results can’t be had with limitations, but every project is different and requires different tools.

What is a camera?

Very basically a camera is simply a box that holds a photosensitive surface.  That surface used to be film, now it is some form of sensor.  The sensor is really the most important aspect of the camera, and everything else about the camera is designed around it.  Lenses are extremely important because they focus the light onto the sensor, and the backend of the camera (the processor and codec) is also important because it takes the information from the sensor and turns it into a watchable video, but it’s the sensor itself that will largely determine the quality of the video a camera can achieve.

Sensor Sizes

This is a very popular image circulating around the web amongst videographers like myself.

By Sensor_sizes_overlaid.svg: Moxfyre derivative work: Autopilot (Sensor_sizes_overlaid.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sensor_sizes_overlaid.svg: Moxfyre derivative work: Autopilot (Sensor_sizes_overlaid.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The size of each rectangle represents the size of the sensor in the camera.  Sensors are obviously very complicated bits of technology, they are comprised of photosites that gather light information and convert it to electrical information for the processor to turn into a video using an appropriate codec.  But in very general terms the bigger the sensor the better the image quality.  Most consumer cameras have sensors smaller than the smallest square on this chart, whereas professional camera sensors start at the Four Thirds mark.

Codecs

So now we know the camera is collecting light and turning it into an electrical signal to make a video, but what is a professional camera doing differently than a consumer camera?  This is really where the data comes in.

You may have heard or seen terms like MPEG-4, h.264, AVCHD, or ProRes.  These are video codecs, which simply mean they are different ways of taking raw data and turning it into a video file we can watch.  Audio codecs are also very prevalent and may be more familiar to you, we’ve all used an MP3 at some point in our lives!

The codec is also key to determining the quality of video the camera records.  The sensor’s job is to pick up light information, the codec’s job is to pick which parts of that information it wants to keep and put in the video.  This may sound a little confusing, and it kind of is, but in practice it’s actually very simple.  Here’s an easy example to explain what a codec does…

Right now I am sitting at my desk, and when I look up I see a wall of exposed brick.  Imagine I were to cut a small hole in a piece of white paper and place that paper on the wall.  Through the hole I’d see a specific color, let’s call it Orange.  In real life that color is very nuanced and specific, depending on who you talked to they might call the color Burnt Orange, Vermilion, Orange-Red, or Tangerine.  So we have already hit the first step that a codec is taking, the sensor has picked up color information, and the codec is calling it a specific color.  Now, that color in the middle of my white paper also changes depending on the time of day.  At sunrise the Orange color is a different shade than at 1PM, when full sunlight streams in the window and hits the wall directly.  The codec also has to determine not only the color, but the luminance (basically brightness) of the color.

So now we can think of codecs in terms of compression and limitation, because that is the main difference between how we as an audience see the quality of a video.  Better codecs report more colors, can see a high ranger of brightness in the colors, and notice subtle differences between colors.

The Short, and Simplified, Answer!

What separates a consumer camera from a professional one is the sensor size and a robust codec.  Combined, the sensor and codec generate an accurate, detailed depiction of the scene in front of the lens.