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Camera considerations: resolution, sensor size, & lenses

Chris Osborn
June 3, 2016 by Chris Osborn Alum

Resolution

Resolution refers to the size of the image your camera can record. When thinking about resolution, you need to consider your final deliverable. Where will people watch your videos? Will you be sharing them solely on the web, or are you hoping to submit to festivals for theatrical screenings? For most online-only videos, bigger is not necessarily better.

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p>We’re now living in a 4K world (yay!). But that doesn’t mean cameras recording at lower resolutions are totally obsolete. Many displays cannot even handle 4K, and some consumer-grade cameras that do shoot at 4K sacrifice other elements — namely sensor size, dynamic range, or a desirable recording format. Also, working with 4K can lead to a more intricate post-production process. The bottom line is, do your due diligence when researching your new camera: the pixels themselves aren’t everything!

Digital cinema formats 

Photo credit: By User:Stannered (en:Image:Digital cinema formats.png) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sensor size

Sensors matter majorly when it comes to your camera’s image quality. In layman’s terms, the digital imaging sensor is a chip within a camera body, and it contains millions of light-sensitive spots — all of which detect and record what is seen through the lens. The size of a camera’s sensor determines how much light can be used to create an image. Meaning, the bigger the sensor, the better the image quality, since more information is gathered.

You will usually see that digital cameras advertise their sensor size by comparing it to their analog counterparts. You’ll see things like 16mm, Super 35mm, and sometimes all the way up to 65mm, as in the case of Arri’s premium Alexa 65.


Some DSLR cameras are billed as having full-frame sensors, while others have APS-C sensors. A full-frame sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film (36x24mm). An APS-C sensor is slightly smaller. While full-frame cameras deliver a higher quality image, they are also larger, heavier, and more expensive than other formats, which may not suit all production situations.

Also, as the sensor size increases, the depth of field will decrease at a given aperture, as a larger sensor requires you to get closer to your subject or use a longer focal length to fill the frame. To maintain the same depth of field, you would have use progressively smaller aperture sizes. This shallow depth of field can be desirable, especially to achieve slick background blur for portraiture; but landscape photography requires a larger depth of field that’s more easily captured with the flexible aperture size of compact cameras. So, be mindful of the visual demands of your work, and plan your purchases accordingly!

Lenses

There is so much to learn and discover about lenses ... much more than we can cover in just one post! But here are some of the most helpful tidbits to keep in mind.

The kind of sensor your camera body utilizes will determine what kind of lenses you can use. For example, when a lens that is designed for a full-frame camera is mounted on a model with an APS-C format sensor, the image circle is larger than is needed to cover the smaller sensor, which can crop the image in an undesirable way. So, while a 24mm lens on a full-frame body will shoot exactly at that focal length, the same lens on an APS-C body will shoot a slightly narrower field of view, cropping the image closer to what a 36mm lens would normally shoot on a full-frame camera.

Crop Factor

Photo credit: by Self En:User:Ravedave (Self En:User:Ravedave) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons. In the image above, the red box represents the full-frame sensor view, while the blue shows what an APS-C sensor sees. 

Knowing how lenses mount to the camera body should also factor into your purchasing decision. Cameras used for digital cinematography commonly feature two kinds of lens mounts: Arri’s PL mount or Panavision’s PV mount. More common lens mounts for DSLRs are Canon’s EF mount and Nikon’s F mount. Sony’s E mount is also growing in popularity, alongside their a7 camera line that is sweeping up the DSLR game, as well as the Micro 4/3 mount used by Panasonic and Blackmagic cameras. Lens mounts of competing manufacturers are rarely compatible with one another, so it’s important to keep that on the brain in your search.

Of course, there are lens mount adapters available for rental and purchase, so you’re not totally bound to lenses built for your camera body if you’re seeking to experiment. Let’s say you purchase a Sony a7S II for its high-quality video and low-light capabilities, and a couple of inexpensive E-mount lenses. After a few shoots, you can build up a reel to impress people, enough so so that they give you a little money for your next gig. At that point, you might want to rent an E to PL-mount adapter and work with Arri’s line of cinema lenses, adding production value to your image. 

Identify what your end goal is for video production, and give yourself room to grow! Given that none of these were designed to be mixed and matched, just know that these aren’t necessarily perfect solutions.

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p>Next up: compression, recording formats, and audio

  1. 1.
    Budget. Sensor size. Lenses. Ack! We cover all the bases in this four-part series so you know what to factor in when making a purchase.
  2. Untangle the world of resolution, sensor size, and lenses to better inform your purchasing decision.
  3. 3.
    In which we dig into compression and recording formats, plus the sonic component to video making.
  4. 4.
    We've gone from pre-planning to lenses and beyond, and now, some final tips for making sense of all the things.
    00:24

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