Choosing the Best Camera for Live Production

December 13, 2016

Choosing new cameras for live streaming, broadcasting, IMAG, or other types of live production can be intimidating and confusing. HD, 4K, SDI, HDMI, 1080i, 720p, 59.94, 29.97, genlock, f-stop, what does it mean? Over the last 16 years, I've spent more than 15,000 hours working on live international television broadcasts and productions, and have used hundreds of different broadcast cameras and camcorders. Learn from my experiences to help you get the best camera for your situation.

Resolution and Standards

Resolution and standards are important features when determining what camera you need. With technology moving faster and faster, and formats like UHD and 4K becoming popular, you need to determine what will get you through the next 2, 5, or more years.

Resolution is how many pixels the camera can record and/or output. It is most often listed as horizontal pixels followed by vertical pixels (i.e. 1920x1080 or 1280x720). There are many resolutions to choose from, ranging from SD to 6K (even 8K, if you want to get technical) and many more in-between.

While a video can be a specific resolution, like 1920x1080, it can be in one of a few different frame rates. This is where standards come in. A standard is a combination of resolution and frame rate that has been specified by governing bodies like the NTSC (National Television System Committee) or ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) for approved use in live production. Standards ensure that video equipment is manufactured to specific tolerances so they can work together through the entire pipeline from camera to final destination.

Below is a more detailed list of common resolutions, standards, and keywords you need to understand before moving forward...

Frame Rate

Frame rate is the frequency (rate) at which a television, projector, or monitor displays consecutive images called frames. The term applies equally to video cameras, motion picture cameras, video players, and computer graphics. Frame rate is expressed in frames per second (FPS).

Common frame rates for NTSC/ATSC include 23.976, 29.97, and 59.94.

23.976 is often referred to as 24p. It matches the 24 fps that has been used in almost every movie for the last 100 years. It has a more cinematic look, where the motion and motion blur have a less sharp or precise look. 24p is good for most things, but it is most commonly used for creative, dramatic, and episodic content.

29.97 is often referred to as 30p or 60i. 30p is 29.97 progressive frames per second, and 60i is 29.97 interlaced frames per second. These are the two most common frame rates for television and live production. It is sometimes called the “soap opera” or “news” look, where motion and motion blur are more precise.

59.94 is often referred to as 60p. This frame rate is only possible as progressive frames. This is the smoothest and most precise frame rate of the three. It is a popular standard used for live sports. Due to the faster frame rate, it is able to keep up with fast motion better than other standards. If you watch television networks such as ABC, ESPN, Fox, Fox Sports, and National Geographic, they all broadcast in the 720p60 (720p59.94) standard.

Refresh Rate

Refresh rate is also referred to as “vertical refresh rate” for digital televisions and displays, and “vertical scan rate” for analog televisions and displays. It is the number of times in a second that a display updates its buffer. This is different from, and often confused with, frame rate. Refresh rate includes the repeated drawing of identical frames, while frame rate measures how often a video source can feed an entire frame of video to a display.

Refresh rate and frame rate are particularly important when dealing with multiple cameras, players, recorders, and/or computers in a video switcher or system. Many video switchers will only accept one refresh rate and frame rate at a time. Therefore, it is important to make sure all of your equipment can run at the same refresh rate and frame rate so your system will work properly.

There is also quite a bit of confusion when it comes to refresh rates. In the United States and other NTSC countries (Canada, Mexico, many South American countries, etc.), electricity runs at 60 Hz. However, because analog video had many limitations, especially when adding color, the refresh rate that was standardized for televisions and video players was 59.94 Hz. This method continued into digital video and broadcasting. Many times, a 59.94 Hz refresh rate is referred to as 60 Hz. For example, a standard of 720p60 actually refers to 1280x720 video at 59.94 fps, not 60 fps. This is where one frame of video fills one full buffer (59.94 Hz = 59.94 frames). Yes, it's very confusing and complicated.

The important thing to remember about any video system in the United States (or any other NTSC/ATSC country) is that it must run at 59.94 Hz and not at 60 Hz. If you cannot find a specific listing of 59.94 Hz on a piece of equipment, chances are it won't work properly in your system. This is especially important when sending a video signal from a computer into a video system. Typically, a computer's video signal will run at a refresh rate around 60 Hz, but not at a precise 59.94 Hz. Therefore, converters are needed to get the computer signal to lock onto a more accurate refresh rate to work with other live production equipment and cameras.

Aspect Ratio

Aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between a video or image's width and height. It is commonly expressed as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. No matter how big or small the image is, the aspect ratio determines the final shape of the frame.

4:3 is the aspect ratio of analog television and older computer monitors. Compared to HDTVs or widescreen monitors, it looks more square.

16:9 is the aspect ratio of HDTV and many newer computer monitors. It is the most common aspect ratio today. Most cameras today shoot in a native 16:9 aspect ratio.

16:10 is an aspect ratio made popular by computer monitors and projectors. It is slightly taller than 16:9, and is not a popular aspect ratio for video. No camera I know of shoots video in this aspect ratio, so scaling or cropping will need to be done to achieve 16:10.

1.90:1 (256:135) is the aspect ratio made popular by the DCI 2K and DCI 4K formats. It is slightly wider than 16:9 and sometimes referred to as 17:9. I will go into more detail about 4K later on in this article.

Interlacing

Interlacing is a technique that creates a single frame of video in two separate passes, drawing every other line of video on each pass. The first pass will draw lines 1, 3, 5, and so on. The next pass will draw frames 2, 4, 6, and so on.

480i and 1080i are interlaced formats. The “i” represents interlacing.

Interlacing started during the introduction of analog television broadcasts and video production. It was used to create a perception of higher resolution (more lines) without increasing the bandwidth of the video signal. When analog television transitioned to HD, interlacing continued and is still commonly used today. For broadcasting, interlacing allows a 1920x1080 resolution to be transmitted without taking more bandwidth than a 1280x720 resolution, which is less than half the amount of pixels. 720p (1280x720 progressive) draws one complete frame 59.94 times per second. 1080i (1920x1080 interlaced) draws one half of a frame 29.97 times per second.

IMPORTANT: Interlaced formats are the most difficult to use properly. Many computers cannot output a true interlaced signal, so converters are often necessary to make all components work together.

Progressive

Progressive scan is where all the lines of each frame are drawn in sequence. It is basically like a series of photographs put in order to make video. This is similar to a reel of film, where each frame is a still image.

480p, 720p, and 1080p are progressive scan formats. The “p” represents progressive.

With digital video, progressive scan formats are the easiest to work with and understand.

Progressive scan video takes twice the amount of bandwidth as the same resolution of interlaced video. This is because only half a frame is drawn at once for interlacing, resulting in half the amount of data.

480i

  • Also referred to as SD, DV, NTSC, or 525/29.97
  • The digital standard closest to analog broadcast television
  • Common standards include 720x480 and 720x486
  • Most common SD (standard definition) format
  • Can be a 4:3 aspect ratio or 16:9, depending on the pixel ratio provided
  • Requires different pixel aspect ratios other than a 1:1 square

480p

  • Progressive scan version of 480i
  • Can be a 4:3 aspect ratio or 16:9, depending on the pixel ratio provided
  • Requires different pixel aspect ratios other than a 1:1 square

720p

  • Also referred to as 720p60 or 720p59.94
  • 1280x720 pixels
  • The smallest HD resolution
  • Can only be in 59.94 frames per second
  • Can only be progressive scan
  • 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

1080i

  • Also referred to as 1080i60, 1080i59.94, or 1080i29.97
  • 1920x1080 pixels
  • Can only be in 29.97 frames per second
  • Can only be interlaced
  • 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

1080p

  • Also referred to as 1080p23.976, 1080p24, 1080p29.97, 1080p30, 1080p59.94, or 1080p60
  • 1920x1080 pixels
  • Can be in 23.976, 29.97, or 59.94 frames per second
  • Can only be progressive scan
  • 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

2K

  • Also referred to as DCI 2K
  • 2048x1080 pixels
  • 2K stands for 2000, which is an estimated number of horizontal pixels
  • Can be in 23.976, 29.97, or 59.94 frames per second
  • Can only be progressive scan
  • 1.90:1 (256:135) aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

2160p

  • Also referred to as UHD (Ultra High Definition)
  • 3840x2160 pixels
  • Can be in 23.976, 29.97, or 59.94 frames per second
  • Can only be progressive scan
  • 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

UHD

  • Same as 2160p

4K

  • Also referred to as DCI 4K
  • 4096x2160 pixels
  • 4K stands for 4000, which is an estimated number of horizontal pixels
  • Can be in 23.976, 29.97, or 59.94 frames per second
  • Can only be progressive scan
  • 1.90:1 (256:135) aspect ratio
  • Square 1:1 pixel aspect ratio

4.6K, 5K, 6K, & 8K

These resolutions have been made popular by cinema-style camera manufacturers like Blackmagic Design and RED. They are not broadcasting standards, so while they are great for film-style production they won't be usable for use in a live production setting.

Determine Your Final Output

Before choosing a camera, the first thing you must do is determine what your final output will be and understand the limitations and specifications involved with each one. Is your final output mainly going to be web video, television broadcasting, archival, internal distribution, or IMAG?

Web Video (YouTube, Vimeo, and live streaming)

Live streaming and posting archived videos on the web is the most common form of video distribution today. It is the simplest to do and often costs much less than television broadcasting. Since YouTube and Facebook have both launched live streaming capabilities, it is now easier than ever to reach your audience in real-time.

Video hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo can pretty much accept any kind of resolution or format, so your limitations are not as important for them. The most common formats used for those sites are 720p, 1080i, and 1080p.

For live streaming, resolutions and formats are more important. While you can technically stream very high resolutions, not everyone will be able to watch it at full resolution. Also, depending on what live streaming service you use, they may have limitations on resolutions and/or frame rates. Be sure to check the recommended settings for your streaming provider.

Remember, many people watch live streaming videos on their smartphones, tablets, or in small windows on their desktops. The most common formats for live streaming are 720p (Facebook is limited to 720p right now) and 1080p.

Television Broadcasts

The only acceptable formats for the majority of television stations are 480i, 720p, or 1080i. You will need to check with the network or station to get a detailed description of the format required.

Internal Distribution (CCTV or similar)

Distributing video internally through close-circuit televisions or other forms of routing are similar to television broadcasting standards. You need to send a standard video signal that is compatible with the televisions, monitors, or displays you are using. Most HDTVs, HD monitors, and HD displays will accept 480i, 720p, 1080i, and possibly 1080p. Be sure to check the specifications on your model(s) to be sure they accept the standard you wish to use.

IMAG

IMAG (short for “image magnification”) is where live camera shots are shown on projectors or displays in the same room they are being used in. As with internal distribution, you need to send a standard video signal that is compatible with the projectors, televisions, monitors, or displays you are using. Many projectors, HDTVs, HD monitors, and HD displays made in the last 5 years will accept 480i, 720p, 1080i, and possibly 1080p. Be sure to check the specifications on your model(s) to be sure they accept the standard you wish to use.

Video Outputs

When sending a camera feed to a recorder, or running multiple cameras into a video switcher/mixer, it is important to use the proper cables and standards mentioned above. This insures everything works together reliably. Most camcorders under $2,000 only come with HDMI outputs. HDMI outputs are fine as long as you understand their limitations, mainly having to do with cable length and resolution. To find out why HDMI can be an issue when running cables longer than 15', check out my detailed post about it called Stop Using HDMI. If your camera is going to be further than 15' from your switcher, router, recorder, or any other type of destination, I only recommend using SDI cables.

If your budget does not allow for a camera with a SDI output, but you still need to run video from your camera further than 15', there are still options. The best way is still to use SDI, but you will need to convert the camera's HDMI output to and from SDI to do so. As long as the camera outputs a standard like 720p, 1080i, or 1080p, then you can get by with inexpensive HDMI to SDI and SDI to HDMI converters like the Mini Converters from Blackmagic Design. To do this properly, you run a short HDMI cable (typically 6' or less is recommended) into a HDMI to SDI converter, then run a long RG6 cable (specified for SDI signal transmission) to your destination, finally you use a SDI to HDMI converter to get the signal back to HDMI (again, using a HDMI cable of 6' or less if possible).

There are also different variations of SDI that you may need to know about. Here are the most common forms of SDI:

SD-SDI

  • Data rates up to 360 Mbit/s
  • Can carry 480i

ED-SDI

  • Data rates up to 540 Mbit/s
  • Can carry 480p

HD-SDI

  • Data rates up to 1.485 Gbit/s
  • Can carry 720p or 1080i

Dual Link HD-SDI

  • Requires 2 cables and 2 inputs/outputs
  • Data rates up to 2.970 Gbit/s
  • Can carry standards up to 1080p60

3G-SDI

  • More common than Dual Link HD-SDI
  • Data rates up to 2.970 Gbit/s
  • Can carry standards up to 1080p60

6G-SDI

  • Data rates up to 6 Gbit/s
  • Can carry standards up to 2160p30

12G-SDI

  • Data rates up to 12 Gbit/s
  • Can carry standards up to 2160p60

Sensor Size

For many years, broadcast cameras pretty much came with one sensor size, 2/3" (measured diagonally). This size offered a good balance of image quality and low light performance while keeping control of depth of field. Once digital cameras came along, other sizes of sensors and sensor types began to show up, ranging from 1/3" all the way up to 4/3" or more. The size of the camera's sensor can affect many things like focal length and depth of field, but at it's most basic level, the most important thing is how big each pixel on the sensor is.

A 2/3" sensor with 1920x1080 pixels has much larger pixels than a sensor of the same size with 3840x2160 pixels. In fact, the pixels are 4X larger on the 1920x1080 sensor. In many cases, that is a big deal when it comes to the quality of image and sensitivity to light.

Now, a larger sensor does not always mean the camera is better. However, it is a good detail to keep in mind when comparing cameras in certain price ranges. Quite often, a camera with a 2/3" sensor is going to perform better than a camera with a 1/2" sensor, and so on. Also, a camera with fewer pixels on the same size sensor will generally perform better than a camera with more pixels crammed into the same amount of sensor space.

Removable & Fixed Lenses

At a certain price point, usually around $6,000 USD and up, cameras designed for live video will begin to have removable lenses. The most common broadcast lens is the B4 (bayonet mount) lens. These lenses almost always have a built-in servo motor that allows smooth control of the zoom, and manual rings for iris and focus control.

For most camcorders and video cameras under $6,000 USD, the lens is built into the camera body, which is also referred to as a fixed lens. These lenses operate in a similar way to B4 lenses, but sometimes lack features like manual iris and/or focus rings.

Focal Length & Optical Zoom

The focal length is a form of measurement for lenses that tells us the angle of view. The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view and the higher the magnification. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view and the lower the magnification.

Optical zoom is the physical zoom range of the lens, it tells you how much the focal length changes from its widest setting to its narrowest setting. For example, if a lens has a focal length of 8mm at its widest setting, with a 10X optical zoom it will be 80mm when zoomed all the way in.

A general rule of thumb for optical zoom is to have 1X of optical zoom for every 4-6' you are from your subject.

As a general rule, a 10X optical zoom will get you a medium closeup (elbows up) shot from about 40' away. a 20X optical zoom will get the same shot from about 80' away.

Digital Zoom

Stay away from digital zoom if at all possible. Digital zoom is a feature that zooms in on the final video, reducing quality greatly. A 2X digital zoom will only use 1/4 of the image area, leaving you a blocky or degraded image.

Fixed vs Variable Aperture

One feature of many zoom lenses that most people (including myself) find annoying is what's called "variable aperture". This is where an aperture/iris that is set to wide open (the lowest number) gradually increases as the lens zooms in, resulting in the zoomed in image being darker than the zoomed out image. An example of a variable aperture is one listed as f3.5-f5.6. If the camera is zoomed out all the way and the iris is set to f3.5, then by the time the camera is zoomed in all the way, the iris will be f5.6.

Variable aperture is especially important for situations that involve low light (indoors, concerts, churches, etc.) or where the camera will do a lot of zooming in/out live. While many camcorders with built-in lenses have a variable aperture, it is often something you must live with given your budget or other requirements. However, it is something that is good to know when you wonder why the image gets darker when you zoom in or brighter when you zoom out.

Stabilization

Many cameras now come with built-in image stabilization, or sometimes called OIS, IS, and a few other acronyms. While image stabilization can be quite handy when shooting video or photos handheld, it can often be a distraction or hindrance for live video cameras. When you want to follow a person on a stage and image stabilization is on, you will often get odd image shift or jumps when the camera stops moving or reverses directions. In general, image stabilization is not recommended for live video production unless the camera is being used handheld.

There are more preferred ways to stabilize a camera for live production...

The first method is to use a good tripod and fluid head combination. A good tripod and fluid head will cost $1,000. A great tripod and fluid head can cost thousands of dollars. The further away the camera is from the subject, and/or the heavier the camera, the better your tripod and fluid head need to be. If you pay attention to major broadcasts, you will notice that the tripods and heads are large. This allows for a stable shot and smooth movements.

The second method is the weight of the camera itself. A lighter camera, like a small camcorder, will be more prone to vibrations and shaking compared to a larger and heavier camera. It's simple physics, basically.

Zoom & Focus Control

If you need a camera that will do a lot of zooming and focusing, then you will need to also get separate zoom and focus controls. This allows the camera operator to run the zoom and focus from the handles on the fluid head instead of reaching up and touching the camera. This keeps the operator from accidentally hitting other settings on the camera, causing the camera to shake or get bumped, and is easier to make smooth movements with.

The most common type of zoom and focus control on smaller camcorders is a standard called LANC. LANC (Logic Application Control Bus System or Local Application Control Bus System), also known as Control-L is a hardware and software protocol that provides cameras and other accessories to communicate. While it can control many different things, one of its most common uses is with zoom/focus/iris controllers.

If you need zoom and focus control, then make sure the camera you get has a proper LANC or LANC compatible port. For cameras with B4 (bayonet mount) lenses, LANC will not work. You will need separate zoom and focus controls that are compatible with your lens brand (Canon, Fujinon, etc.).

Monitoring

While many camcorders and video cameras have built-in monitors, most of them are not large enough for running a camera in a live setting. Many times, the camera operator is sitting too far away to see details on a small screen. This is where a proper monitor is needed to help the camera operator get proper framing and focus.

For a manned camera that is on a tripod, a minimum screen size needed is 5 inches, but a 7 inch monitor is recommended. You can usually mount these monitors on top of the camera (a 1/4-20 threaded mount is available on many cameras) or to an arm attached to the arms of the fluid head.

One thing to look for in a monitor is a feature called focus peaking or focus assist. This feature creates a bright outline on sharp edges of the video, telling you what is in focus. These outlines do not show up in regular video, they are only intended to help the camera operator assure they have sharp focus

If your camera only has one video output and you need to run the camera into a switcher or recorder, you will need to find a way to split the video signal to get it to the monitor and to any other destination. Be careful when splitting HDMI video signals, you are likely to have problems if you do. This is another reason why SDI is recommended.

Some cameras and camcorders will have a HDMI and SDI output. Many times they will allow you to use both simultaneously for monitoring and output to a switcher or recorder. Be sure to check the user manuals to make sure that setting is possible.

What About 4K or UHD? Do I Need It?

I get this question and see it asked all the time. It's fun to have the coolest gear and to be able to see every detail on someone's face, but the question you must ask is “Does it help tell my story better than HD?” In most instances, the answer is no.

Here's the most important thing to remember with 4K video: 4K and UHD are 4 TIMES the size of 1080p video. If you take 4 separate 1080p frames and put them in a 2x2 grid, you get a 4K or UHD frame. This means everything you do, from video signals, to recording, to monitors, to editing, to processing power, to storage, MUST be 4X larger or faster than if your system was 1080p.

Also keep in mind how most people will consume your content. If you are live streaming, distributing video internally, or doing IMAG, the chances are extremely small that anybody will be able to tell a difference in HD and 4K. With more and more content being consumed on phones and tablets, the higher resolution often doesn't even make it to the end user.

Please understand me, though. I shoot a lot of video in 4K or UHD. However, very rarely do I edit or deliver a full 4K resolution. But with 4K footage, I can essentially zoom in 200% during editing and still have a pristine 1080p video. This comes in really handy for pre-produced content like interviews and studio shoots. For live production, though, it makes very little sense right now. In 5 years, that will definitely change. But for now, I don't recommend 4K for live productions unless your budget is more than $50,000 and you have the need for the extra resolution.

The Bottom Line

Remember at the beginning of this post where I said choosing a new camera can be intimidating and confusing? Well, I wasn't kidding! 4,000+ words later and I've just scratched the surface, I could easily write 10,000 more. Hopefully the information here will at least put you on the right path to finding that perfect camera for your needs. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to send me a message. I am happy to help.

To find out what cameras I recommend, list of my favorite cameras for live production.