A New Generation of 4K Cameras Debuts at Affordable Prices

June 27, 2014

By Ibarionex Perello

This year has been an exciting one for photographers with several announcements of new cameras that offer 4K resolution at more affordable prices. Though some cameras were not yet shipping at the time of this writing, manufacturers promise to make 4K recording more accessible to an increasing number of photographers.

Despite the fact that there are a limited number of 4K-resolution television screens to showcase this Ultra-HD format, it still provides ample advantages for filmmakers, not least of which is the ability to crop into the footage and pull out HD-quality video with little sacrifice in tonality and color fidelity.

The marketing of these 4K cameras often targets budget-minded narrative, documentary or commercial filmmakers, but there is a lot to like and desire for event and wedding videographers, too.
Each of these models is very different and offers its own unique advantages. It would be unfair to look at these as direct competitors to each other; they are very distinct models with features geared for particular types of filmmakers.

Modeled closely after the A7 and A7R full-frame cameras (check out our hands-on preview of both models), Sony’s new A7S could be seen as a smaller full-frame alternative to the groundbreaking Canon 5D Mark III. The camera provides only 12 megapixels of resolution, but its larger pixels promise improved high ISO performance as well as exceptional dynamic range.

Some may lament the low overall pixel count, but it’s important to remember that unlike its similarly named siblings, this is a camera that is promoted for its unique video capability rather than its pixel count for photos. Regardless, there is no doubt that this camera can and will likely deliver quality image files, especially under low light conditions. Though the A7S still utilizes the AVCHD codec for recording standard HD-quality footage to a memory card, the camera now includes Sony’s XAVCS codec, which supports 4K resolution with color depth of 8 bits, 10 bits and 12 bits. But unlike standard HD, 4K video is outputted and must be saved to an external device such as the Atomos Ninja ( While some may consider this a disadvantage, it is a necessary step to accommodate the larger file sizes. Sony touts the camera for its ability to take advantage of the full width of its full-frame sensor, which results in less loss of tonal and color data when the files are reduced and compressed to lower resolutions.

The camera supports Sony’s current line of E-mount lenses, which are somewhat limited in number. Thankfully there are adapters that can accommodate other brands and lens types, including Canon and Zeiss cinema optics.

Price: $2,499

Though AJA may not be a familiar name to many photographers, that could soon change with the company’s intriguing new CION 4K camera. The starting price of the camera might seem high, but it’s important to remember that photographers are often spending as much—if not more—for the various accessories needed to make an HD-DSLR a viable video-capture device. The CION is a core device that is meant for heavy-duty video production, using non-proprietary interfaces and accessories, which makes upgrading from a previous system that much more attractive.

The camera is built around a 4K, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor that promises to deliver 12 stops of dynamic range. It also includes an electronic global shutter, which eliminates the problem of rolling shutter that is common with shutter-based sensors. Capable of recording 4K, 2K and HD, the camera records using all Apple ProRes formats, making for a seamless workflow into your favorite video-editing application. It also supports RAW data transfer at a rate of 120fps via its built-in Thunderbolt connection. The files are recorded to AJA’s Drive Paks, which currently hold 256GB to 512GB of footage. The SSD drives are mounted in a compact but rugged enclosure for security and reliability.

The camera utilizes a standard PL-mount, making it compatible with a wide selection of cinema lenses. The user interface and key function button are conveniently located on the left-hand side of the device, making it easy to make adjustments even when working solo or with a minimal crew.

Price: $8,995

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 is another mirrorless camera that takes its physical cues from its predecessors: compact system cameras that have a reputation for delivering amazing video quality. This latest model from Panasonic takes it a step up with its inclusion of 4K recording, which can be stored either to a high-speed SD card or an external device. Even though the GH4 is designed around a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor, the new 16-megapixel chip has already garnered praise for its improved dynamic range and low-light performance. It may not achieve the shallow depth of field popular among full-frame shooters, but the camera’s ability to deliver beautiful color, even under challenging lighting conditions, continues to improve.

The 4K capability of the camera comes in two forms. The first provides for 4:2:0 8-bit outputs directly to a high-speed memory card. A data rate of 100mbs at 24 or 30fps provides for speedy data transmission. The camera’s updated software algorithms promise to do this with little to no noticeable data loss. Though the lower bit-rate makes it more of a challenge to grade tone and color in post production, the camera’s new gradation curve feature allows for image tweaking for those times when the footage taken straight from the camera needs to be distributed immediately.

Taking advantage of the higher quality 4:2:2 10-bit data stream requires the use of the Lumix YAGH Interface unit ($1,999.99), which helps to accommodate an external recording device for all that uncompressed 4K footage. Similar to an extended battery grip, the unit also provides XLR monaural 2ch terminals for mic inputs. It also provides audio-level display monitoring and control for precision recording of audio and video, plus it features 3G-SDI video output terminal for time code when the camera is used in-studio or in a multi-camera setup.

Price: $1,699.99

Blackmagic Design made quite a stir when it released its Pocket Cinema Camera, an incredibly compact Super 16 digital film camera, capable of delivering Cinema DNG Raw and Apple ProRes recordings from a device with an ultra-small form factor. This, along with Blackmagic’s Cinema Camera, provided a step up from an HD-DSLR, with the modularity needed to efficiently create a personalized video-capture device.

This year, the Blackmagic URSA is the company’s first full-size camera built around a 4K sensor that’s designed to deliver a generous 12-stop dynamic range. The modular camera design is taken to a level not found with an HD-DSLR in that it can be removed and upgraded easily as new sensors become available. The standout feature of the Blackmagic URSA is its 10-inch HD screen, making it easy for a director to monitor the live recording directly. The unit’s touchscreen makes it easy for the cameraperson to adjust key features and controls. 

The opposite side of the camera features secondary displays that can be used by an audio engineer to monitor audio levels or provide ample workspace for a focus puller. Files are recorded to CFast memory cards that are currently available at capacities of up to 128GB. Though they are more expensive than other media, they also offer great reliability and fast data transfer speeds. One of the biggest advantages that this form factor provides is easier heat dissipation as compared to cameras with smaller form factors. The URSA includes a liquid cooling system as well as a silent fan to maintain a constant working temperature.

Coming out in July, the camera will be available in two different versions to accommodate either an EF or a PL lens mount.

Price: $5,995 (EF), $6,495 (PL)

See this story in the digital edition.