Consumer vidcams go pro

Gap closes between expensive professional gear and cheaper models

Every week, viewers of “Saturday Night Live” see the cast enjoying the Gotham nightlife. Andy Samberg pours an after-hours shot of sake. Bill Hader wins a latenight game of street chess. And a taxi gives a guided tour of the city. It’s crisp and clean. And it was shot entirely on a consumer-friendly DSLR camera.

As prosumer devices become cheaper, lighter and have more and more technical advances, several pros are bypassing $100,000 cameras from time to time, in favor of products that can be bought off the shelf.

Directors of “Crank: High Voltage” used Canon’s $700 Vixia HF10 camcorder to shoot part of that film. And the title sequence of this season’s “Saturday Night Live” was shot solely with a pair of Canon Digital SLRs — the EOS 5D and 7D, both of which retail for less than $2,500.

“(The 5D and 7D) allow us to do some things I couldn’t have done any other way,” says Alex Buono, director of photography for the “SNL” film unit. “I couldn’t have done it with any of the professional cameras that are on the market. … The 7D absolutely stacks up against any of the high-def cameras that we have here.”

Handheld camcorders are also improving. Canon’s Vixia HF S21, due in April, will have a new “touch and track” feature, letting the user select a subject in frame, and the camera will automatically ensure that person stays in focus as they move.

Features like these are adding up quickly — and represent a threat to professional-level equipment, say some companies.

“You are seeing the gap narrowing,” says Ben Thomas, supervisor of the video marketing division at Canon USA. The new devices are comparatively inexpensive, and users are able to mount them to car hoods, skateboards, etc. for tracking shots, which you wouldn’t do with a $30,000 camera, Thomas says.

Others scoff at the notion that prosumer gear is approaching pro quality, though they acknowledge there needs to be a better definition of pro gear’s advantages.

“I wouldn’t go as far as saying the lines are blurring — because we do what we can to define our professional cameras — but we have to make more effort to do so,” says Joe Facchini, vice president of sales and product management for Panasonic Broadcast and Television Systems.

While Panasonic is deep in the professional equipment field, it also has a strong foothold in the prosumer market. Its HPX 170 and HVX 200 camcorders (which sell in the $5,000 range) are popular with independent filmmakers. Buono used both to shoot last year’s documentary “Bigger Stronger Faster”.

The company also is straddling the fence between pro and prosumer with its 3D Full HD twin-lens camera system introduced at CES. At $21,000, the system will be out of many people’s price range, but will be a more affordable entry to the world of 3D for independent and industrial filmmakers.

“No one’s going to shoot ‘Avatar’ with this camera,” acknowledges Facchini. “But the Discover Channels and the ESPNs are going to be looking for it. With three stations on the way running 3D programming 24/7, there’s going to be a need for new content out there — and it can’t all be features.”

Prosumer gear isn’t a threat to 35mm film cameras, but with compact, inexpensive videocameras shooting at 2K and 4K, they can rival professional digital-capture gear.

Still, Andy Romanoff, executive VP of technical marketing and strategy at pro-camera maker Panavision, doesn’t believe it will ever seriously threaten pro equipment even in high-def.

“There are some things that set pro cameras apart that are very hard to overcome,” he says. “Motion pictures are made in terrible conditions. They’re made in the freezing cold and blazing heat and everything must function perfectly. Our cameras are designed to be a more rugged and reliable specification than any consumer camera ever would be.”

Romanoff also notes that the lens selection of pro cameras is much more extensive, letting filmmakers carry the same color characteristics from lens to lens. Pro equipment offers anamorphic lenses, which are hard, if not impossible, to find in prosumer products. And the quality of the high-definition content using prosumer devices, he says, might look good when the viewing area is small, but it’s probably not something you want on a 50-foot screen.

“Think about prosumer cameras as Chevys,” he says. “Those cars are terrific everyday equipment — but would you put one on a race track? You could go out there and take a run, but boy are you going to get lapped.”