Top Ten Most Influential Cameras in the Modern Digital Era 

by | Oct 26, 2020 | Video Equipment Review | 0 comments

Top Ten Most Influential Cameras in the Modern Digital Era 

In 1999, I was 16 years old, and like most teenage boys, I was obsessed with the movie The Matrix. This movie utilized a fascinating filmmaking process called Bullet Time, which involved the stitching together of single-frame images or photo-stills that were shot to film. This technique peaked my interest in camera technology and production methods. I recall the buzz at that time was that Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was to be completely shot on digital video. This was to be the first major motion picture to go all-in with digital technology. I didn’t quite know what that meant. I imagined a movie that was made of chunky pixel blocks that would be slightly better than an 8-bit video game combined with a Windows 95 paint program. So I started doing more research, which at that time meant searching poorly designed 1.0 websites and watching bonus material on DVDs. This sent me down the path that I remain on today: keeping a finger on the pulse of digital imaging technology. Over the last 20 years, this path has run parallel with the rise of the digital image, and I witnessed the dawn of the commercially viable digital cinema camera, and its evolution to today’s 8K high-dynamic range full-frame peak predators

We have seen the age of the digital image take great leaps and bounds forward over the last ten years. Let’s look back at this game-changing technology, and through the lenses of the cameras that played the biggest role. The role of hero. The cameras with the greatest qualities that earned our deepest admiration. The role of our go-to workhorse. The cameras, that no matter what we put them through, would not fail us. And finally, the cameras that pushed the digital imaging evolution more than any other, to what we use today. 

Our camera timeline marks the beginning of the modern digital camera age with cameras that include, but are not limited to, the Sony PD150, the Canon XL1, and of course, the Panasonic DVX100. These standard definition, 3-CCD cameras recorded to Mini DV tape, and were the trusty steeds for owner-operators in the late-90s and early 2000s. My focus in this video is on the camera owner-operator. The Sony F900 (aka the Panavision HDW-900F) was an incredibly influential camera in the very beginning of digital cinematography, but was also incredibly expensive and not feasible for every owner-operator.

The most influential cameras is meant to mean those cameras that have shaped our understanding of what a digital video capture is, what it can be, and those cameras, that served as tectonic shifts, influencing the broad evolution of camera technology. Today, we are excited about the newest and most advanced cameras: the Sony PXW-FX9, the Canon C500 Mark II and C300 Mark III, and the RED 6K Komodo. The following is my list, of the forefathers, to the the new generation, of digital video camera technology.

Number 10: Sony NEX FS-700

Release Date: November 2012

Primary Virtue: Affordable High-Frame Rates

The Sony NEX FS-100 was released in 2011, and was an important camera in it’s own right. It introduced the Super 35mm CMOS Exmor HD sensor, and proved to be a real competitor to the Panasonic AF100. The FS-100, was the brother, to the Sony NEX-FS700. The FS-700 introduced slow-motion, at frame rates of 120, 240, 480, and 960 frames per second, and it was available to all professionals, at a reasonable price point. 

The FS-700 is still in use, and captures 120 or 240 frames per second at Full HD resolution, a pixel ratio of 1920×1080. If one increases the frame rate, the camera sacrifices resolution. Recording at 480 frames per second reduces the resolution to 720×480, and 960 frames per second reduces it to standard definition, a ratio of 640×480. Furthermore, the recording time of these frame rates, known as “bursts”, was limited to 16 seconds at 120 frames per second and 8 seconds at 240 frames per second; however, the camera included a variety of record-trigger options, which were used to time the start of a slow-motion recording-burst. This camera provided access to high-frame-rate recording to an entire generation of shooters. This generation used this camera to prodice music videos, unique product shots, training videos, and even scientific applications. Beyond that, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Number 9: Canon EOS C300

Release Date: November 2011

Primary Virtue: Native EF Mount Digital Cinema Camera

The hype surrounding the launch of the original Canon C300 was immense. In 2011, we were in the full bloom of the video DSLR shooter revolution, and the Canon C300 represented what would be an epic adaptation by Canon. They masterfully leveraged the success of their video DSLRs into a full line of Digital Cinema Cameras. Canon, before the mid-2000s, was known for building superb lenses, but terrible video cameras. There are now over 90 million Canon L-series EF Mount lenses in the world, a massive advantage for a company looking to make gains in the digital video camera market. Canon transformed itself with the creation of the Canon EOS C300, and it’s Super-35 CMOS sensor. The C300 was the first proper digital cinema camera that could natively mount an EF lens, and the father of the Canon C-series camera line. Prior to the launch of this camera line, you could mount an L-series lens to a video DSLR camera, but that presented challenges. One had to idenitfy an audio work around, an ND solution, as well as a proper shoulder-rig configuration. It was a lot of work to conform a DSLR to shoot in traditional ENG or cinema styles. The Canon C300 solved most of these problems, and an operator could capture the coveted shallow depth-of-field look that was all the rage in 2011. The Canon C300 quickly became the industry standard for HD video capture and is still widely used today. 

Number 8: Red Scarlet-X

Release Date: November 2011

Primary Virtue: Affordable Entry Level RED Digital Cinema Camera

The Red Scarlet, and the Canon C300, launched at the same time. The hype was exciting. I recall the night the Red Scarlet-X became available for pre-order, and seeing crash due to the rush of traffic vying to see the camera’s specs, but more importantly, the price. The Red Scarlet-X represented a notable advancement in the digital cinema camera market. Red has always been at the apex of digital cinema technology progress. The Scarlet had an entry point of less than $20,000. This price, provided 4K resolution to a wide range of owner-operators, a sector of the industry that was quickly growing at that time. It was the perfect camera for the moment, and everyone wanted to get onboard. The Scarlet featured the MYSTERIUM-X 5K sensor and launched the DSMC camera line. Red set the standard for modular, customizable camera configurations that are widely available from every major brand today. Red also leveraged the success of the Red Scarlet to produce paths for new cameras, such as the Epic-X, the Dragon, and then to the current DSMC2 camera family. The Scarlet also offered 120 frames per second, albeit, at a reduced resolution. It was also tons of fun. 

Number 7: Blackmagic Cinema Camera

Release Date: April 2012

Primary Virtue: Inexpensive RAW Video

Sometimes change, although exciting, can also be awkward. It was the spring of 2012. NAB was the launching place for new products, and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera won the show. This camera could record RAW video, a characteristic that Red Digital Cinema made popular, but at an incredibly low price. ($2,995) In a move that would become a Blackmagic Designs signature, they announced the camera, and made it available for pre-order with an expected ship date in July; however, it did not start shipping until January 2013. We pre-ordered the camera on the first day at NAB, and were one of the first to receive the camera. Many people did not receive their shipment until after the NAB event in 2013. A common Blackmagic practice is beta-testing their products on the public. This is common to some extent with every modern camera company, but Blackmagic has been especially egregious. At the time, they did not have the research and development departments of their much larger competitors, so when the Blackmagic Cinema Camera hit the market it was wrought with issues that other cameras did not experience. Hot pixels, stuck pixels, power issues that lead to bricked cameras, and design flaws, including a touchscreen that is also your preview monitor, 1/4” audio inputs, and a built in battery. The camera utilized a modified micro 4/3s sensor with a massive crop factor 2.51, and it’s low-light performance was very poor. However, for all it’s flaws, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera did some thing that no other camera did at the time. It recorded truly, uncompressed RAW video at a 2.5K resolution. It also set a new standard for packing a big punch in a small form factor. The Blacmagic Cinema Camera set a new price floor for the market place, putting downward pressure on its competitors to offer similar features at a competitive price. Red Digital Cinemas’s REDCODE was the industry standard for compressed RAW. RED and Blackmagic pressured the other big three camera makers. Canon, Sony, and Panasonic were forced to adapt and offer similar features was on and the clock to go-to market with a rival product was ticking. Hyping a product launch, followed by a significant delay in getting to market with a buggy product, is still a Blackmagic Designs tendency to this day. 

Number 6: Sony EX1 

Release Date: November 2008

Primary Virtue: Versatile HD camera

I love this camera. It was the best camera of the pre-DSLR era, and then it’s little brother, the EX1R was born. The EX1R’s body design was nearly flawless, it was packed wiht great functionality, and of any Sony camera I ever used, it had the simplest user menu, and a perfect hardware configuration. It’s 1/2″ TrueHD sensor produces a great image. It includes a super, easy-to-use interval recording feature, and records frame rates up to 60 frames per second. The only downside to the EX1R was that it recorded to Sony’s proprietary SxS media; however, the addition of SxS to SD card adapters some years later, made this our go-to camera for many years. The Sony EX1R was the logical conclusion of cameras like the Sony PD150, Canon XL1, and Panasonic DVX100. The market disruption caused by video DSLRs, made the Sony EX1R a less desirable camera to the masses, but it still has a devoted user base to this day. The Sony EX1R is the only camera on this list, that is still in our rental inventory as of this recording. 

Number 5: Panasonic AF100

Release Date: December 2010

Primary Virtue: Mounting Photo and Cinema Lenses to a Video Camera

If you wanted to use a photo-style lens on a proper video camera, prior to the Panasonic AF100, then you needed a Letus Extreme 35mm Adapter. That’s right kids. People used to shoot with this monstrosity. The Panasonic AF100 was launched at the perfect time. It was the first of its kind to market after the video DSLR craze. Panasonic road that wave by adding a micro 4/3s mount to a real video camera. This development introduced the shallow-depth-of-field look in a real video camera body that included on-camera XLR ports, and built-in ND filters. The micro 4/3s mount was also easily adaptable to a wide variety of lens mount types, including PL and EF mounts. Attaching a PL mount adapter to this camera, made it possible to use PL lenses, and construct cinema-style camera rigs, and that brought a level of shooting performance to a camera not previously seen at this low a price point. The Panasonic AF100 is often forgotten as we look back on the history of digital video cameras, but  the success of this camera, helped us to build our rental business in the early 2010s. The Panasonic AF100 was a mainstay in the middle-market for many years, and it also resolved a great image.

Number 4: Panasonic HVX200

Release Date: December 2005

Primary Virtue: Solid State Digital Media

I recall the days when you could go to the corner pharmacy store and purchase Mini DV tapes for your next shoot! Digital solid state media was not readily available to the masses around this time. The Panasonic HVX200 changed that. For the first time, one could record video solid state media, called a P2 Card, and in high definition! The original P2 cards were the ancestors to all the digital media that we use today: SD, CF, CFAST, and beyond. This camera was the Plymouth rock of our rental operations. HVX200s, and for that matter P2 cards, were always working. The image was good for a prosumer camera of that day. The menu was simple, the ergonomics were ok, but Panasonic was first to market. The twilight of digitizing your tapes could be seen, soon to be a relic, replaced by dragging and dropping digital files; however, the HVX200 could still shoot to tape. It was the perfect camera to transition from an old process to a new process. There was one immediate problem though: it was difficult to find a card reader to transfer the digital files from the P2 Cards to a workstation; however, Panasonic eventually came out with a USB card reader. The HPX170 was released shortly after the HVX200. It was essentially the same camera, but included no tape deck. I will be the first one to say that the Panasonic HVX200 is not the sexiest camera on this list, but it is definitely one of the most influential. It was ubiquitous, and could be found on most video production sets for about eight years, which has proven to be a long run in the digital camera age. The Panasonic HVX200 primed the owner-operator-market with a high level of performance at an affordable price, paving the way for the middle-market cameras that we all know and love today.

Number 3: Arri Alexa

Release Date: April 2010

Primary Virtue: Arriflex Digital Cinema Camera

One cannot make a list about digital cameras with out putting the Arri Alexa on it. I will admit that it’s original price point does put it a bit out of range for most owner-operators, but the influence it has had on all modern cameras is unmistakable. Even the second-hand and third-hand buyers of the used camera market will attest to the Arri Alexa’s high level of performance, ten years after it’s initial release. Arri specialized in and produced the industry standard film cameras before the Arri Alexa. It was Arri’s first attempt at a digital cinema camera, and it set the bar for what a digital camera could be. Cinematographers, over the past 100 years, pioneered and developed the beautiful image qualities of film. The Arri Alexa was built to maintain these qualities in a digital form, and was renown for it’s highlight roll-off, and latitude, which was previously only possible on film. It is also an absolute tank, which makes it super durable. Even “the Deak” (Roger Deakins) proclaimed that film was dead after using the Arri Alexa and I quote, “This camera has brought us to a point where digital is simply better”. End quote. Need I say more?

Number 2: RED ONE

Release Date: August 2007

Primary Virtue: 4K Digital Cinema Camera

In the arms race that is the digital cinema camera market, the RED One was undoubtedly the atomic bomb that not only rocked the camera market, but also shaped what it would become for the foreseeable future. In what is now legend, at NAB 2006, RED unveiled a shiny aluminum prototype, and took $1,000 deposits for the RED ONE. It was a 4K resolution digital cinema camera. A shockwave burst through the film and video production world. The digital cinema camera came to market, and it would be within reach of the owner-operator. The ripple effects of this camera can still be felt in the digital cinema world to this day. The RED ONE captured 120 frames per second at 2K resolution and 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. Its Mysterium sensor utilized a proprietary RAW format called Redcode which also revolutionized digital imaging. Redcode gave cinematographers access to RAW sensor images. RED forced a camera arms race, and by 2010, every major camera manufacturer was revamping their arsenal. Canon, Sony, and Panasonic all have products that compete with RED in the cinema camera market today. RED created a market, in which a company like Blackmagic Designs, could participate. The drop of the RED ONE, shifted the industry toward affordable, digital cinema cameras. It likely would have happened eventually, but it would not have happened the way it did, unless RED engineered and dropped the RED ONE, inspiring the likes of Canon and Sony to develop their own armaments.

Number 1: Canon 5D Mark II

Release Date: November 2008

Primary Virtue: Inexpensive Shallow-Depth-of-Field HD Video.

The Canon 5D Mark II, as you might have guessed, sits at the top of this list as the most influential camera of the digital age. Filmmakers, cinematographers, and image-makers have always desired the look of a shallow-depth-of-field, and before the Canon 5D Mark II, in order to achieve it, they had to shoot with a film camera or use a monstrous lens adaptation solution. The 5D mark II achieved this look, with relatively good low light performance for the time, at an amazingly low price point. So the story goes, Vincent Laforet got his hands on a Canon 5D Mark II, and was astounded at what Canon created. Canon added a video function to their DSLR. They thought it would be a useful tool for photojournalists that needed to shoot video on the fly. What Mr Laforet quickly discovered was that the Canon 5D Mark II allowed you to pick up a camera and start shooting video      with filmic look right out of the box with all of your still photo gear and photo lenses wide open which allowed a new generation of cinematographer to manipulate the depth of field like the decades of filmmakers that came before them. The Canon 5D Mark II quickly became a part of everyone’s production package and rocked the photo/video world and lead to a masterful parlay and decade of successful line of digital cinema cameras that are still an industry standard to this day. Not only did the Canon 5D start the push for the market to develop cameras that could create a more cinematic look, it also started the race for better lowlight and eventually better dynamic range performance that we reap the benefits of today with or go-to cameras and even the camera in our phones.

This is our list of the most influential cameras of the digital age. Did we leave out your favorite? Leave a comment and tell us about your favorite camera of the last 20 years. 

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