At CineGear this year, I had a short discussion with Matthew Duclos of Duclos Lenses. We both sort of agreed that the push to full frame cinema cameras was in some respects more about selling new sets of gear and lenses rather than any argument about quality. We also sort of laughed about the extra burden placed on the poor focus pullers of the world with full frame depth of field! You only need to look at the Super 35mm RED Weapon 8K Helium camera to know that the move isn’t required to achieve more surface area for photon gathering, or more resolution. It’s very good in low light, and though RED has been pushing 4K for a decade now, it’s only recently that studios are finishing their films in 4K, so an 8K originating format should last us for a good long while. You can make an argument about the art side of the equation and that there is a certain look that comes from shooting at 65mm or larger, and it’s a very valid argument, but I’d like to focus on the technical need aspects. I argued to Matthew that curved sensors were going to lead to a revolution in lens design. He wasn’t convinced.
90% of people upgrade their only camera every two years when they get a new phone. Phone cameras have decimated the point & shoot market, leaving the higher end market as the only place where manufacturers can eek out a profit. As I argued here, I feel that the manufacturer with the best technology (Sony) is going to win the bulk of the higher end market. It will take a while to overcome the inertia of tradition and bias, but eventually, it will happen. But what about the very high end: the medium format world? Here, higher resolution has been the main incentive coaxing photographers to upgrade. Like the DSLR market though, even that is reaching a point of diminishing returns. The medium format world is a little different in that there are complete cameras, but there are also imaging backs that detach from the camera and lens assembly. Sony has entered this world supplying what is arguably the best current sensor technology to Phase One. But you know that they want to bring their own complete product to the fore. How to differentiate themselves? As with their A9 camera, by bringing technology to bear that no one else can: a curved sensor and line of lenses designed for it. When all the light is being focused at the same distance, lenses should get smaller, vignetting issues and corner sharpness should improve, and since the photons have a “straight shot” at each sensor bucket, I would imagine light gathering ability and colour performance will improve. And what type of sensor can best take advantage of these benefits? Larger sensors. Sony announced at NAB that a cinema camera with a full frame sensor is coming. Will it too have a curved sensor and special lenses? Will rental houses buy the camera if they have to buy yet another set of lenses after just equipping themselves for “flat sensor” full frame cameras?
After hammering Nikon in my A9 article above about how they don’t have the technological chops to compete with Sony, there’s the possibility that they are about to make their great step in modernization by finally unveiling a serious mirrorless camera….with a full frame curved sensor. Is Nikon about to abandon their legacy users in one great leap forward? Maybe. Again, a curved sensor would require all new lenses, meaning money for a struggling company. Was I wrong in saying Nikon can’t keep up? Maybe. Did they design the rumoured sensor? I don’t know, maybe they are sourcing it from another manufacturer. Who? Could it be……Sony? A lot of conjecture with no actual facts, but interesting times ahead.
When George Lucas went digital for the prequels, he said something to the effect of, “Film is at the apex of its development, it will never get significantly better than it is now. Digital will only get better.” Prescient. Pretty hard to make a cinema camera that uses curved film! Having said that, “The Force Awakens” was shot on film. Remember the art side of the equation?