Why Are We So Obsessed with Camera Specs

Why Are We So Obsessed with Camera Specs?

It happens everytime a new camera is released. The film vs. digital debate gets dragged out of the mud it's been trampled into and is subject to another beating. After that runs its course, a more nuanced debate starts happening: one digital system vs. another digital system.

You can break it down in a variety of ways:

  • Resolution vs. Dynamic Range
  • Sensor size vs. Pixel size
  • ARRI Alexa vs. RED Epic
  • RED Scarlet vs. Sony F3
  • DSLR vs. Micro 4/3

And so on and so forth…

But no matter how you slice it, these arguments often whittle down to a spec-sheet face-off: “How many stops of dynamic range does your camera have?” “1080 HD is dead, 4K is the future!” “It’s not about resolution, but pixel density.”

These debates rage on and on and they aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.

Yet I still constantly wonder — why are we so obsessed with camera specs?

There’s no doubt that different cameras produce different visuals. I’ve worked with enough cameras and on enough sets to know that an ARRI Alexa does not look the same as a Canon 7D. Nor does a T3i look anything like 35mm film.

But why do we feel the need to constantly push spec sheets against each other and go row-by-row ticking check marks next to the “winners”?

Why do pixel-peepers take a microscopic eye to the resolution of a sensor? Why do dynamic range enthusiasts throw parties at the idea of an extra 1/3 stop possible in a new sensor?

The short answer is because — on some level — it matters. Minute differences in technology add up over time and enable us to achieve a greater quality in the video medium. Just look at the difference between HD cameras now and Mini DV 10 years ago.

But the long answer, I’m afraid, is a bit more complex. It’s not as simple as maybe you and I had hoped. It speaks both to human nature and to the cameras themselves.

The Ease of Camera Comparison

Electronics are measured by their specifications, often improved over their latest version, and if measured within a controlled standard, open themselves up to comparison.

And people love comparisons.

Well, we like easy comparisons. When we have to make a choice, we want to be able to definitively choose “yes” or “no” without all the complexities that most choices come with.

Maybe. It depends. If you happen to… These are all responses that make a choice harder.

On specs alone, comparing cameras is black and white — Camera X has more resolution than Camera Y; one has support for still lenses, the other doesn’t; one shoots 120 fps, the other 60 fps.

With the raw numbers and a list of pros and cons, it’s easy to tally up and decide a technical winner.

We see this happen so often with camera tests — always aptly titled “Camera X vs. Camera Y,” as if it’s a highlander death match where there can be “only one.”

Which camera has better dynamic range? It’s there on the spec sheet.

Which camera has better resolution? It’s there on the spec sheet.

Which camera can record longer? It’s there on the spec sheet.

All of this is easy to find out. It’s measurable. It can be compared. It leads us to naturally line the cameras up next to each other and have shootouts because, when pitted against each other purely on specs, there’s usually an objective winner.

But you can never definitively and objectively declare any camera a true winner unless you’re dealing with extremes — and even then it isn’t fool proof.

As an example, I would say most people won’t argue that an iPhone is better than an ARRI Alexa. Unless we’re talking about price (Tick one in the iPhone column for price).

But comparing versatility for the image? Point, Alexa!

So who wins?

Which do you value more — price or image flexibility? Or, more appropriately, which can you afford to value more? What happens is you weight specs differently according to your preferences.

You prefer a lighter camera to a more powerful one? Tick.

You want more resolution over dynamic range? Tick.

You like a camera that can shoot high-speed? Tick.

Comparing the Alexa to an iPhone is, of course, an absurd example, but it illustrates both the ease of comparing cameras as well as the importance that context brings to the table. Can you afford the Alexa? Is high-speed a necessity for your project? Does dynamic range benefit your story?

It’s these slippery questions that are umbrella’d under the one question always asked at the end of these camera tests: Which camera is best (for your project)?

A Lack of Context for Camera Tests

Without the context or circumstances a production provides, comparing cameras is simple.

But context brings so much to the table.

And that’s why you’ll find many stumble when it comes time to recommend which camera wins: “well if you have the budget,” “if you’re shooting low light,” or “depending on your lens collection,” are all caveats that undermine the tests to a large degree.

Because if what you’re comparing is a $5,000 camera vs. a $10,000 one, and budget does matter to me, then of course I’ll go with the cheaper one regardless of the features. On the other hand, if you have an unlimited budget, you start to shop a la carte for features.

Even then, picking features is dependent on context. For example, a short film that takes place entirely in daytime exteriors has no need for great low-light capabilities.

It’s much easier to remove all circumstantial elements of camera choice and put up a side-by-side video and declare a winner.

What most of these camera tests or comparisons lack is exactly the opposite — a true sense of real world comparison — because it’s harder to reconcile.

(Zacuto’s recently released Great Camera Shootout does seek to rectify this. But even then, it doesn’t come without its detractors — like Jim Jannard of RED or Art Adams of Pro Video Coalition — who have cried fowl about the methodology.)

Admittedly, camera tests can serve their purpose for cinematographers researching the qualities of a camera, but I can’t help but feel they’re all misleading.

It’s unfair to say one camera is better than another without the context it’s being used in.

An ARRI Alexa, for instance, is no better than a Canon 5D if the cinematographer excels with lighting for the DSLR and doesn’t understand the Alexa as well.

Nor is a C300 necessarily faster to use than a RED One when operated by a camera assistant who stumbles around the Canon menu system.

For camera tests to be truly useful for cinematographers, the scenarios of the test have to be closely aligned with their potential use of it or be done by the cinematographers themselves.

Those cinematographers who fail to incorporate context into their evaluation of a camera risk making a choice based entirely on specs without any idea of the consequences of that choice.

The Digital Cinema Marketing Machine

In some cases, specs supersede context because the cinematographers are irresponsibly beholden to the script of a hefty marketing machine fed by the digital cinema camera manufacturers.

As a marketer, you want to show a customer two things about your product: features and benefits.

Features are tangible facts about the product. Things like a car has 237 horsepower, a camera has one HDMI port, or an oven can heat to 500 degrees. These are measurable attributes and they are important to consumers.

Even more important are the intangible benefits which answer the consumers’ question: “How will this product make my life better?”

To use our oven example above, a benefit might be:

“Our oven gets hotter so you can cook faster.”

But what makes great marketing immeasurably unstoppable is when advertisers successfully blend features and benefits into one statement:

“Our oven heats to over 500 degrees so you can cook faster and have dinner ready on time.”

Combining features and benefits makes a powerful cocktail of influence in a consumers’ mind.

But it has the dangerous effect (when successful) of closely tying benefits to the features of the products. It implies that without the feature, you aren’t able to experience the benefit.

This is exactly what marketers want.

A hotter oven can help you get dinner ready on time, but it doesn’t guarantee it nor is it the only option. Instead, you could just start cooking earlier. But oven manufacturers want you to believe a better oven will solve your late dinner problem — as long as you have the cash to pay for one.

This is a tactic all major digital cinema manufacturers are guilty of exploiting.

Read enough press releases and product announcements and you begin to see an emerging pattern.

The digital cinema camera manufacturers are writing the script of the conversation. And that conversation centers around the specs those camera makers declare themselves best at regardless of its importance.

Suddenly, the idea that 5K is the future isn’t just a marketing tag line — it’s an undeniable inevitability.

These camera manufacturers are doing their job  – moving product — but the effect it has is to spoon feed the spec hungry community justification for their nit-picky analyses of the cameras.

To the camera makers, the market is a game of domination. There is only one choice for a camera and — surprise! — the right choice is theirs because it contains these few key features which can make your movie look better and more professional.

And the evangelicals of these camera systems spread the gospel liberally.

Ask any RED fan why they choose the Epic and they’ll list in their top three reasons “Resolution.” What’s Jim Jannard’s reason for choosing RED?

Jim Jannard on Resolution in a REDUser.net Post

Screenshot of Jim Jannard talking about resolution on RED’s official forums

Ask any Alexa fan why they like ARRI’s camera and they’ll list in their top three reasons its “film-like qualities.” How do you think ARRI chooses to position the Alexa as a camera?

ARRI Alexa Webpage Screenshot

Screenshot taken from the ARRI Alexa’s webpage emphasizing its film-like qualities

Even Kodak usurps the conversation from time to time to talk about 35mm film. Its campaign, “Film Matters,” is largely based on nostalgia and a sense of underdog superiority — both concepts embraced by film proponents.

Screenshot taken from the Kodak "Film Matters" website

Screenshot taken from the Kodak “Film Matters” website

Maybe it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog where our filmmaking community drives the conversation, but I don’t think so. There’s too much money in the system for a natural, grassroots effort like that.

Instead, the advertisements, the conferences, the announcements, the press releases, the timed leaks — they’re all playing to our thirst for specs by pairing them with benefits — pushing us into thinking that maybe if we get that camera, our film will finally look good.

Convincing us that we can finally, for once, have dinner ready on time.

So, Why Are We So Obsessed with Camera Specs?

Just like there is no “right” camera, there is no “right” answer to why we, as a filmmaking community, seem to be obsessed with camera specs.

Some will argue that it’s just a portion of the filmmaking community that cares while most do not. They call that segment fanboys and pixel-peepers.

But using those names dilutes what is a growing trend amongst a new generation of filmmakers.

And what seems to drive their obsession of camera specs is a combination of the ease in comparison, the simplicity of direct competition, and the false sense of dominance or “king of the hill” mentality trumpeted by the digital cinema camera makers marketing departments.

The result is a growing number of filmmakers (or “filmmakers” — your preference) who place an increasing amount of importance on the measurable aspects of a camera’s technology. And in doing so, they place less importance on the resulting image stripped of its statistical significance.

In short, those obsessed with camera specs — and we as a filmmaking community — obsess over them because it’s simple, easy, and the market has lead us down the path.

But it’s a dangerous path to travel towards because, as I discussed above, we have no context with which to guide us. We are venturing into the woods without a map. When we reach a fork in the road, we pick the path that looks the nicest (or the camera that shoots the “best”), but it doesn’t necessarily take us where we want to go.

As a community, when it comes to camera specs, we are in many regards, lost.

With each new digital cinema camera that releases onto the market, it’s becoming harder and harder to reconcile our choices for camera systems. We are still wandering those woods without our maps hoping that the path we choose is the right one.

But choosing a camera doesn’t have to depend so heavily on camera specs.

Choosing the “Right” Camera for Your Project

Choosing a camera is, in many ways, like casting an actor. The right choice of camera can elevate the visuals in the same way the right actor can transform a character from two-dimensional to multi-faceted. Choose right and a lot of the legwork is done for you.

Choose wrong and, well, it’s not always the end of the world. But there is a loss of potential.

Tom Hanks is very talented and is great actor, but is he great for every role? Objectively, it’s easy to say Hanks is a better actor than, say, Brad Pitt because he has won more Oscars.  But does that mean he would’ve been better as Tyler Durden in Fight Club?

The answer — for those of you on the fence — is no.

(I’m sure he would’ve been fine though. I mean, it’s Tom Hanks!)

But that doesn’t mean now that Brad Pitt is a better actor than Hanks. They can co-exist, each in their respective talent pools, with different skills to offer directors.

Just because a camera looks better on paper doesn’t mean it applies that spec bump in production. Just like an actor who’s great in one movie doesn’t guarantee they’ll be great in another.

Take, for instance, a regular consumer using a camera phone versus using a DSLR on full manual mode. Without any instructions, which do you think they will take better pictures with?

For your average consumer, I would venture to guess the camera phone.

My point is that power doesn’t necessarily equate to perfection in filmmaking.

And applying specs to the emotional core of a story is useless. Is there any gauge for how many stops of dynamic range a horror film should have? Is a romantic comedy enhanced if it has 4K resolution? Does the audience get to know your character better when crop factors are involved?

You choose what works for your budget, your skills, and your story.

Obsess Over Your Own Tests. Make Your Own Choice.

Camera tests are necessary for many cinematographers, directors, or producers, but their preferences and context is likely different from yours. It may be a small difference or a big difference.

But the fact is the only true way to form an opinion is to shoot and research your own tests.

So while it’s fun and interesting and at times necessary to delve into camera research, it suffers from tunnel vision and the inability to incorporate context.

Because the funny thing about context is that, even if you do take it into account when reviewing a camera, it’s rarely useful to anyone else. There’s just too many factors.

As Roger Deakins says, “The choice of a camera system is no different than the choice of a lens set, a camera position or where to put a lamp.”

Or, in other words, stop obsessing over the specs of a camera — no matter why you do so — because it’s a choice with so many variables and possibilities there is no right answer.

Which, of course, also means there is no wrong answer either.

  • John Hess

    I wouldn’t call those spec obsessed people filmmakers. In my experience -the more obsessive they are about the camera’s specs, the less likely they are of actually ever making a film.

    It’s all about fear. So many fanboys use the tech as an excuse for failing. “I can’t make a movie until I have XXX camera”

    Whatever –

    • http://twitter.com/brendanbmo Brendan Morgan

      Agreed.

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

      I agree with your idea about fear, John. Camera specs are easy excuses for claiming all sorts of things: oh my movie doesnt look great because it wasnt shot with these lenses, etc.

      A movie is a movie no matter what camera it’s shot with. And a filmmaker isn’t a filmmaker when they spend all day obsessing over sensor size.

  • Matthew Taggart

    I also agree. . . Most people I know who discuss camera specs, never shoot a thing. Get a good story, and a good dp, and I promise it will be fun to watch, even if it’s filmed on a VHS camera from 1989.

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

      Yep! A great movie will elevate itself about any format. Though, just to play devil’s advocate, you do have to work harder to impress an audience if you’re working with less than ideal tools.

      • brett mayfield

        “less than ideal tools” is completely contextual, as you stated in your original post. The “ideal tools” for for Peter Jackson are far different from Harmony Korine’s (when considering his feature work).
        And you have to work hard to impress whether youre using “ideal tools” or not. The camera doesnt make the movie, as we all know, but can be a useful tool, but the audience isnt always looking for Prometheus-like effects. Story often carries an audience much further or connect to the audience more than visuals.

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

          Sure. Definitely. I agree 100%. My “less than ideal tools” argument extends mostly to extremes, as in your VHS example. You have to work harder and have a much better story to impress an audience these days if you were to shoot on VHS. My point is that though story can transcend visual quality, if the quality is particularly noticeable in a bad way, the story has to lift the film that much higher.

    • antoine serviette

      Funny, because VHS aesthetic is coming back, at least in the more indie/art film scene. Its very in vogue, to raid a goodwill and find an 80′s camcorder and then go make a film with it

  • rangott

    Theres one important thing that red fanboys always ignore and that is showing of your film. Most cinemas are 2k, pretty much every consumer screen is 1920×1080, and bluray is limited to that too, So it makes more sense to shoot for that end results especially if the alexa or F3 gives nicer skin tones or better latitude or is just generally easier to work with. I understand the whole shooting for future proofing but thats not important for most small budget films to be honest. As you say the right tool for the right job. I have easy access to a scarlet so its often the right tool since its free.

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

      “I have easy access to a scarlet so its often the right tool since its free.”

      That’s a great statement I wish more people would read. Sometimes the “right” tool isn’t the perfect tool, it’s just the most convenient or practical.

  • antoine serviette

    its mostly the consumeristic culture that we live in. everybody is conditioned to want the latest thing and to never be satisfied.

    just pick the right tool for the right job.

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

      I wouldn’t argue with that!

  • http://www.facebook.com/peuchoa Paulo Eduardo Uchoa

    I think in the digital world it seems about finding out which camera is “The Perfect Camera”. This camera can do and shoot everything! No need to waste time on inferior models.
    Then they can take this “Perfect Camera” and have it compete with film, in the hopes of finally trying to prove that film is dead (Which it is not).

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

      No camera — film or digital — will ever be perfect. Because by the time we get a camera that we would now consider perfect, it will miss whatever features of the future that we’ll all want.

  • Di-Di

    Hey Evan, this is off-topic, but are you in South Africa? When last have you been down here? Heard some good things about you from crew down here.

    Di

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

      Hey Di — Nope. Never even been to the continent. Glad to hear I have goodwill down there though ;)

  • Oren Soffer

    Another excellent post, Evan. A great read, thank you. I think that it is important to remember, though, that at the end of the day, there ARE differences between cameras, and it is important for cinematographers as well as AC’s to understand them. I think Art Adams makes some very good points about the Zacuto shootout – that it does not offer the proper information or conclusions for prospective camera users – what a test like that should do is emphasize the advantages AND disadvantages of certain cameras both in the finished product and on set.

    That said, it is clear that there is no “right” or “wrong” camera. I never understand RED fanatics because I don’t understand loyalty to a single camera. Different cameras are good for different situations, and for different reasons, both technical and creative. For example, nowadays, with so many creative tools at our disposal, it seems obvious to say that a fly-on-the-wall documentary can just as well be shot on a 4/3 prosumer camera or even a consumer camcorder, even if other cameras would seem to be objectively “better.” Conversely, 35mm might have the right “texture” and “look” for a film, even if it is cheaper to shoot digitally (although on big features that is rarely the case, despite what one would think – but that’s another story).

    At the end of the day, yes – comparing specs for cameras is pointless because if you have a good story and a talented DP, the camera you shoot on for the most part won’t make a difference (although like you said, Evan, there are clear differences between a 7D and an Alexa, for example). And while I think that COMPARING one camera to another based on “tests” or “specs” is completely ridiculous, I do believe that different jobs, different technical situations and different stories often demand different and specific tools – and yes, sometimes the best tool IS the one that you have the easiest access to.

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

      Hey Oren — I agree with everything you said. Because of that, I have nothing more to add :P

  • Kiane

    Just a note: “Why do pixel-pushers take a microscopic eye to the resolution of a sensor?”
    I think you mean the term “pixel-peepers”; pixel-pushers work in graphic design, right?

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

      I think it’s an either/or situation, but I changed it because pixel-peepers probably is more accurate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CheeseggProductions Kevin Stiller

    YES YES YES YES! I love this article.

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

      Thanks Kevin! It’s a bit of tough love for the camera geeks

  • cbifilms

    On thing you didn’t really mention is that this is not entirely new. Before digital, the arguments were mostly about film stocks instead of cameras, and the discussion was about dynamic range, resolution and handling of highlights and skin tones. The conversation hasn’t changed really, just the technology has. Film was quite a bit simpler because there were fewer choices, though.

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

      Fewer choices and the technology didn’t move at nearly the same pace. It’s true there’s always been this type of back and forth, but it seems heightened now that the market has grown larger and more voices are contributing to the conversation. Good point, though.

  • Lauren

    I love that you wrote this. So much camera “information” out there seems so biased, based on what specs are important to someone, that it’s hard to actually feel like you’re making an informed choice. It’s easy to get caught up in the data of it all.

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

      Thanks for the comment Lauren. Agreed that it depends a lot on who is administering the tests or evaluating them. If you can find someone whom you agree with and trust, then it’s useful, but otherwise, how can you be sure your goals for a camera align with theirs?