RED Epic vs. ARRI Alexa vs. Canon 7D

RED Epic vs. ARRI Alexa vs. Canon 7D

As we leave 2010 behind, there's no doubt that the digital cinematography race is getting tighter with options across the board. Three major players – RED, ARRI, and Canon – are chasing the trophy. But how do they stack up against each other?

Three of the major players in this game are the RED Epic, the Arri Alexa and the Canon 7D. The Epic offers astounding 5k resolutions, Alexa offers a subtle dynamic range that Roger Deakins thinks is as close to film as anything, and Canon’s DSLRs offer affordability. But how do these cameras stack up against each other when handling light? After all, the art of cinematography is “writing with light.” So, whose pen has the most power?

Resolution

It’s no secret by now that RED Digital Cinema is all about resolution. Their 4K RED One camera trumped HD offerings and now with Epic, the company is offering 5K right out of the gate with that number heading upwards as the tech improves. Epic takes this category hands down without batting an eye at the 7D’s 1080p max resolution. The Arri Alexa, however, is right between the two with a base 2K resolution downsampled from a 3.5K sensor. Over the summer, Jim Jannard published resolution charts shot with both a prototype RED Epic and an Arri Alexa:

Alexa (left) vs. Red Epic (right) in resolution

No surprise to anyone there, RED has always found the pixel count to be an important spec in their cameras. As Jannard stated, “RED believes that resolution matters.”

Dynamic Range

The true test of how a camera handles light is the dynamic range. Film has always had an outstanding range and part of achieving the coveted “film-look” is to capture the same amount of light that celluloid is able to. Arri Alexa was/is touted highly for its ability to handle 13.5 stops of latitude. Similarly, the RED Epic also handles 13.5 stops of light. Along with the resolution charts, Jannard also posted some images highlighting a comparison of the two camera’s range:


These tests are slightly old (from late July) so I am inclined to believe RED has improved their tech a little bit. It wasn’t soon after this test that RED revealed their HDRx feature that boosts the dynamic range of the camera to 18 full stops, but at the cost of a heavy amount of data. This reaction is likely due to Jannard’s admission at the time this chart was revealed: “I’d give a slight advantage to the Alexa.” I believe that Epic and Alexa both capture a generous range of light and much of what will make or break the images of either camera is the color science software.

Where the dynamic range conversation truly gets interesting is between the Alexa and the Canon 7D. The 7D has been heralded because of its affordability, and thus, will “change the game.” Nick Paton, ASC, was not quite as sold on the idea of the DSLR being the camera of the future and shot a latitude test between the Alexa and the 7D earlier this month:

Paton explains:

The purpose of the test being to test the ability of each camera’s images to be manipulated after exposure. I have graded each output to try to get it back to neutral using Gamma and density’s chart. As you can see the Alexa responds very well where as the 7D footage fails in highlight exposure detail and it’s codec compromises it’s ability to be pulled up in the darker regions. It’s interesting and telling and goes part way to explaining the more than substantial price difference.

While the 7D may immediately capture images that are satisfying (everyone loves that creamy shallow depth of field), it allows little to no flexibility in post, as shown by this test.

For those unsure what I mean, flat colorspaces and large dynamic ranges are designed to capture the most detail in both highlights and shadows. Because of this contrast suffers making the image appear flat, but that is why the footage is color corrected. When capturing an image, the more detail that is acquired at first, the more flexibility there is to manipulate that detail during color grading procedures. In short, more detail equals more options.

The Wild West of Digital Cinematography

Resolution and dynamic range are perhaps the two most important (and measurable) specifications of the camera. What can’t be measured, however, is really going to change the game: usability, support, and price. Right now it still feels like digital cinematography is the wild west and 2011 will be an exciting time to see these shootouts take place.

  • Hotwood

    You have somthing screwed up with this test.
    Why did the Canon get darker at the high end of over exposer when it should have gone white?
    Do nthe test again and do it right.
    Your testing sucks!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hi Hotwood -

      This was not my test, it was conducted by Nick Paton, ASC whose opinion I would find valuable because of those three letters at the end of his name. I cannot definitively explain why it goes darker at +4 1/2 stops but I have two theories: 1) there is a natural clipping of the digital footage because of the overexposure and the camera responds by cutting out the image. Or (2) Paton said he did the test by over/under exposing the image then attempting to grade the images back to neutral. My guess is that it was so overexposed that when he attempted to grade it, there was no latitude to play with resulting in a pure white image (no grading) or a pure black image (attempt at grading).

      I hope this seems clear and if anyone can illuminate this subject more and better, please chime in…

    • ukdp

      Don’t be so rude and ignorant.
      Nick has spent a considerable amount of time conducting and more importantly SHARING this test. He doesn’t need comments from dunces in return.

    • Baltz

      “…have graded each output to try to get it back to neutral using Gamma…”

      think this explains it quite well… ;)
      the image is totally overexposed and you try to correct it by bringing the gamma down…if you use the gamma-slider to correct an image you affect every part of the image…so the blacks are getting blacker and the highlights will totally blown out, because there was no more information when you recorded the image…

      try this with a greyscale chart in photoshop f.e. and you’ll see what happens…

    • Asdf

      what a jerk

    • Matthew Simmons

      You idiot

  • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

    Hi Hotwood -

    This was not my test, it was conducted by Nick Paton, ASC whose opinion I would find valuable because of those three letters at the end of his name. I cannot definitively explain why it goes darker at +4 1/2 stops but I have two theories: 1) there is a natural clipping of the digital footage because of the overexposure and the camera responds by cutting out the image. Or (2) Paton said he did the test by over/under exposing the image then attempting to grade the images back to neutral. My guess is that it was so overexposed that when he attempted to grade it, there was no latitude to play with resulting in a pure white image (no grading) or a pure black image (attempt at grading).

    I hope this seems clear and if anyone can illuminate this subject more and better, please chime in…

  • http://twitter.com/crewstv Yves Simard

    think its a great test – question the methods; offer a solution or do a test of your own why don’t ya

  • Luke

    What cant be measured, price? Doesn’t make sense to me

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Price as it relates to each person, production etc. For instance, if the budget of a film you are shooting is 10k, then shooting Alexa is much less practical than a DSLR from a financial standpoint. Or how much are people willing to pay for the features or “look” a camera provides? When does a camera become “good enough” because the next one up is too expensive?

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  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/Z7NMQ4HAAR23XZCWYEJPRLRSIM nybe

    Well the difference also (price and quality) is that the Alexa was designed to shoot feature films for large screen, while the 5/7D’s were designed for in the field news gathering straight to a web page/tv monitor.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I don’t even know if 5/7D’s were designed for that necessarily. I think video become a big phenomenon that was more of an add-on feature for Canon in the beginning. But it certainly is true that Alexa was built to have the chops to shoot a feature

  • Mpolking

    Saw a funny video on the Alexa by Inspiration Studios. I’m not sure they think too highly of the 7D. :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WDONiHbq_U

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=671437107 Matthew Bowen

    Great test! Thanks for this, I’ve tried explaining the differences in the blacks and resolution to friends, and now I can show them!
    Oh, and on a personal note, keep doing what you’re doing, this site has been one of the best resources for me lately, as I’ve recently been working with the RED epic quite a bit.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks Matthew. Glad you’ve been enjoying it. Are you an AC? And are you working with RED Epic or RED One?

  • Ben

    These comparisons are fine when you’re talking about taking still (or relatively still) images.  The DSLRs, like the Canon 5/7D all have slower sensors and extreme compression that prohibit them from being used effectively to capture any significant motion.  They often refer to the look as “Jello-effect” and you’ll see why when you try to go handheld on one.  Personally, the Canons are a bargain and great for static shots/VFX plates etc,  if you can afford it, the Alexa has a nice look and is great for TV, otherwise the Red Epic or 35mm would be my only choice for a feature film.

  • http://twitter.com/45surf 45SURF

    Canon 5D Mark ii + Canon HFS200 dedicated camcorder beats the Red Epic hands down, costing 1/10 as much!

    A Canon-based 9shooter system (with the Canon 5D Mark ii & HFS200) costs less than 1/10 cost of the RED EPIC and can be hand-held, as it is far lighter and smaller. The 9shooter also carries the advantages of redundancy and both dedicated stabilization for stills and dynamic stabilization for video, and one can use standard Canon lenses. In a showdown, the <$5,000 9shooter system would beat the $58,000+ EPIC RED hands down. And just you wait until the 9shooter with a Canon 5D Mark III & Mark IV!
    http://blog.9shooter.com/2011/06/canon-based-nine-shooter-9shooter-4500.html

    In a showdown, the 9shooter beats the EPIC RED hands down.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Depends on the showdown, depends on the purpose and it depends on a lot of other factors. In certain areas — especially price — DSLR’s will trump professional systems. But for my craft of camera assisting, I would much rather work with a RED Epic.

      Maintaining and shooting with DSLR’s is a hassle, is cumbersome, and makes it extremely hard to pull focus on. Every time I get a phone call for a shoot, I pray that it’s on something that isn’t a DSLR.

      • Anonymous

        I pray for that too, my friend! It makes me cry a little on the inside if I hear “We’ll be shooting on the 5D/7D”

        Great cameras for what they are, but a pain in the ass in a proper production environment.

    • KJ

      I’m not sure most people would have any need for this 9shooter system you mention, I know I don’t. I’ve played with a  Canon HFS200 (because I had the chance to) and I may use it for behind the scenes video, but not for capturing my main video for sure. Well maybe a low-profile event where no money is involved. The video quality is pretty good for what it is, but it doesn’t have nearly enough features to make a film with.
      Unfortunately being a student means working on 7D shoot after 7D shoot. They really have changed my filming world, but I wouldn’t use them if money wasn’t such a major issue. Of course at a school with over 1,000 students fighting for 10 highly protected EX-3′s (that, or PD-150′s. Seriously.) people have to make do. As far as I can tell there is no good way to have an external lcd on the camera, or even just the one on the back, and a monitor for a video village running at the same time. If anyone knows any tricks, I’d surely like to know. But you know how students can be, they think they can direct, DP, and operate a camera at the same time and still have Tarantino quality zombie movies. And, you know, without script supervisors, because only so many people can stand by a tiny screen and be able to see what’s going on.

      • Anonymous

        Hey KJ,

        Perhaps one of the cheapest options might be to invest in a small on-board LCD monitor, like the Marshall 5″ (I’ve got one and can attest that it works amazingly with these cams), or the SmallHD, or whatever else you can find. That at least will give you a bit of a bigger image to look at, as well as (usually) being much sharper!

        To get into setting up a video village rig can get a tad more complicated, depending on your budget… for instance, the last gig I worked on with the 5D, I rigged the camera to have its output go to an HDMI splitter, where I took one feed to my Marshall 5″ for the operator (usually DP or myself), and ran the other feed to an HDMI to SDI converter, which then ran out to a 17″ Panasonic broadcast monitor. All held together on a shoulder rig with lots of gaffer tape & bongo ties ;) You could go even cheaper with just an HDMI splitter to a small monitor and a
        get a small TV that can take 480p (if you’re doing 5D) or 1080 (for
        7D).

        The problem with with my example rig was powering it… had to run power to it all the time to have the splitter & converter running. There are external solutions for power for all this gack that I’ve been
        meaning to look into.. JAG35 has some cool battery options.

        Nowadays I’d consider buying one of these, renting it to production, and calling it a day! http://www.lcdracks.com/racks/orchid-series/OR-XDI.php

        Anywho, I may just be rambling now… hope if you read this (since it’s 2 months after your post), that it helps!

        Cheers,

        -Jer

        • http://twitter.com/DSLRista Ruben Fernandez

          Tell that to Shane Hurlbut and Edward Burns, among others.

          • HumanGobo

            I’m not even sure what part of my comment you’re making that snide remark to.

            Obviously things have changed since this over-a-year-old post, which was referring to a job from over two years ago, and it is much easier to run a video village setup.

          • http://twitter.com/DSLRista Ruben Fernandez

            So sorry Gobo, I did not mean your comment, I meant to comment a remark that said it;s time to get rid of HDSLRs and think of proper cameras. when I commented it just linked on your comment. My bad man, sorry!

          • HumanGobo

            lol, that makes sense then :) all good bud!

            Totally agree with you. So many shows I work on still employ use of a 5D and/or 7D, though since they’re for-broadast shows, we’re only allowed to use them for like 3% of the content. They can definitely come in quite handy! They’re amazing for getting in those nooks & crannies we can’t fit our C300s into on the current show I’m on, or for that 3rd stationary angle they can cut in with the rest.

            Really, these DSLRs will only evolve into better cameras! (Though I still prefer to use mine for stills ;)

          • http://twitter.com/DSLRista Ruben Fernandez

            I totally agree. I think we have reached a level where its much more in the hands of the guy/girl behind the camera. I’ve seen absolutely wonderful stuff shot on 60Ds and really apalling alexa rushes. Depends on the operator. I recently shot a completely greenscreen gig with the 5D Mark III and from what the comp artists told me, the ALL-I codec keyed like a charm. here it is…https://vimeo.com/49270513

          • http://twitter.com/DSLRista Ruben Fernandez

            Speaking of video village, my current HDSLR set up is as follows. mini HDMI to SmallHD DP4 for the DP or operator. HDMI from the DP4 to a Marshall battery powered splitter with to outs, one for a DP6 which I use to direct and have it handheld close to the camera with a 6 feet cable, and a long HDMI to an LCD for the clients. If it gets too wild (ManCam setup), we just don’t hook up the video assist and rerun individual takes for the client to choose from.

    • Vincent

      I don’t care for an Digital Video format cameras anyway, although cheaper to shoot a feature with by far. They really need to get rid of the H.264 format on the Canons. You only get a few actual frames and the rest is predicted off that… only good for deliver on web or bluray etc. Don’t tell me about converting to an edit friendly format, you’re converted information that’s already been compressed and lacks much information, esp. if you want to intergrate high-end effects! Every DSLR short or feature i’ve seen looks like POST production curve happy bastards gone wild with their box of Crayolas…  CMOS sensors and that shutter roll really can’t deliver; not yet anyway, esp. on tracks, follows and pans… that’s why i love the S 16mm or 35mm FILM format cameras; like an Arriflex SR3 ;) FILM is FILM! And nothing beats the color and bw of the classics…

      • Sam-jacob

        Amen.
        Film is film.

        If my opinion DID in fact matter, I would say “Don’t focus on having digital camera look like film, but more so like our EYES”
        At least raise the standards.. otherwise, might as well use film.. (if you have the $$)

      • nate

        I recently shot part of my graduation film on the ARRI SR3, on 16mm, and it the footage is gonna rock, shot on the SR2 earlier this year, and the footage was stunning, crisp, and gritty, nothing like film, nothing. These happy go lucky feature film wanabies with their DSLR’s need to learn to shoot on proper cameras, this is when you really appreciate what the hell filmmakers go through, carrying a freaking crane on your shoulder, trying to make a movie with a Film camera and proper lenses, as supposed to the hard work they put in with DSLR’s which takes them 1/4 of the time, and these guys say price is what beets quality….whatever dudes. And with film you need to work twice as hard to pump in enough light, take light readings, focus crazy, wonder how money people so-called proffesionals even care. (No it looks good on my 7D, lets send it for broadcast). please, whatever…wait until you try to grade, the crap out of that footage, or apply some hectic VFX, you’ll cry.

        • http://twitter.com/DSLRista Ruben Fernandez

          well I have to disagree Nate. Just shot this last month and I don’t think it sucks at all, hectic VFX and all https://vimeo.com/49270513

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  • Sam-jacob

    80% of all TV shows use the ARRI
    Then some shows are actually shot on film 35mm, 65mm, and RED, thanks to Panavision rentals.

    ^ Pro

    there’s a difference.

    v Pro. Consumer.

    Then you have people that can’t afford to rent Film Cameras 17k a week, so they purchase a 7D, or 5D… It looks great for what you purchase… But it’s still obviously lacking in latitude/dynamic range, colors, ect. These were primary still cameras.. not to mention the cameras export in MOV. not raw.

    But, I own a 5D, so I’m not putting it down or anything.
    Just giving the facts.

    Because you all know this, (god, I hope you do)

    • Kefrengc

      Loosies a feature film made it with a canon 5D

      • nate

        There are many feature films shot on both 550D, and 7D, no big news there. A South African company made an excellent action-horror- thriller, called, Night Drive. Was very well executed…still its not film, and the Dynamic Range do lack, doesn’t matter if you upscale footage to another format, with colour spaces and info that was never recorded. As an editor, and colourist, this is important to me, throw away, the Canon’s and start shooting with proper cameras people, even Sony and Panasonic has loads of options available that are not DSLR’s. There things are not made for video.

  • Kefrengc

    Loosies a feature film made it with a canon 5D

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  • https://vimeo.com/rubenfernandez Ruben Fernandez

    One thing I found out recently is that the internal light meter of the 7D underexposes 1 full stop to 2 thirds of a stop, when compared to the information given by a handheld light meter and the false colors of an EVF (namely the Small HD DP4). The light meter and the false color IRE readings on the DP4 matched, while the internal meter´s  “proper exposure”, that is, dead center on the 7D’s internal display was of and underexposed by two thirds to  a full stop. We tested two 7Ds just to make sure it wasn’t a problem with a particular camera, and also tripled checked and compared the scopes on DaVinci Resolve Lite, Apple Color, Final Cut Pro X and Adobe After Effects for good measure. Also got a 5 stop dynamic range (meaning really registering detail from the darkest to the brightest) out of the 7D. That came as a surprise for me, thought it was broader.

  • lens

    well it all depends on who is behind the camera and behind the computer monitor been creative on the editing cuz as you may know the 7d canon was use in the ADVENGER movie and not the ARRI i mean yes is a great camera but with the right lens and gear with the 7D some people can get realllllyyyyy close to the arri and red

    • xxbluejay21

      They shot little bits of the action sequences and did testing with the DSLR’s. Most of the movie was shot with the Alexa.

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    This may be an unfair assessment on my part because I’ve had limited exposure to the Arri Alexa and what I have to say may be the DP’s fault rather than the camera itself, but one of the more recent projects I’ve done used the camera and under low light was exceeding grainy. It would be great to be on another project where the result was excellent so I’d have a real-world comparison, but based on the performance between the Alexa and the Sony F3 on this particular project, the F3 fared better.

  • xxbluejay21

    This comparison is kind of stupid. The Alexa, in the various tests I’ve done and others have done, has 1.5-3 stops more dynamic range than the RED. In fact, the usable DR of the RED is only about 10 stops, whereas the Alexa’s is 13 stops. Saying they have the same DR is absolutely blasphemy.

  • Anderson William

    You all are comparing an $80,000 camera to one that comes in under $2,000!?!? It’s a ridiculous argument. Of course the Alexa is better. However, the 7D and 5D have opened up a door for talented filmmakers to get noticed as such. They can then raise some real money or get hired onto projects that use top cameras/lenses. The real comparing should just be between the Red and Arri..

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      On the surface, you’re right. The comparison should be more direct, but this comparison is less about a direct winner. It’s sort of like putting an economy car against a luxury car. Of course the luxury car is better, but the interesting facet of the comparison is how close they can be sometimes.

      • Anderson William

        Exactly, they can both get you where you’re going. Put a Nascar driver in a $20,000 car and he’ll impress you. Put a regular Joe in a race car and he’ll suck. I see this at festivals all the time right now…some stuff shot on 7D’s that looks way better than something shot on Alexa.

        • Dawit

          You’re right Anderson. I’d love to be a race car driver….so when I’m shooting with my 7D, I try to get the best I can out of it.

  • truthsayer

    4K, 5K BOLLOCKS this is all what I call PAW pixels across width. Proper academic measurement
    shows half is the reality.