Three three-letter cameras: EX1, F23, RED

An unfair comparison of three entirely different cameras
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 03.17.08

On March 7th, Tim Blackmore and I visited Videofax, a San Francisco camera rental house. Videofax is unique in the area (as far as I know) in having both a RED ONE digital cinema camera and a Sony F23 HDCAM-SR camcorder. Videofax's Leigh Blicher kindly invited us to come by and take a look, following the DCS RED Event the previous weekend. How could we refuse?

I took along our Sony PMW-EX1, because it provides a good basis of comparison: cameras like the EX1 are readily accessible, so they make a nice reference point; and I'm quite familiar with it (Videofax also has an EX1, but it was out for five weeks as the B camera on an HDW-F900R feature shoot). Besides, what could be more unfair: I'm comparing a $6500 EX1 with a $25,000 RED and a $200,000 F23 (all cameras priced in shooting configurations)! That's quite a price span, and I'm not for a moment assuming you can call these cameras equal. Really, it's like comparing apples, oranges... and pears.

It's unfair in other ways, too. I know the EX1 pretty well by now, but I'd never used the F23 before, and only had a brief exposure to RED last September. We only had a few hours to learn enough about the cameras to shoot a couple of interior test before Videofax's prep area was needed to park their camera truck, back from a gig; and then another hour to grab some quick 'n' dirty outdoor images. So our tests are fragmentary, the cameras weren't fully set up, the charts were sloppily lit, and there are some mismatches in focal lengths and framing.

And RED, of course, is a moving target: it's still under development, both in the camera's firmware and in REDCINE, its "digital film lab" application. The firmware we used is supposed to be superceded soon (on average, there has been a new build every two weeks), so take my findings as a snapshot of an evolving product, not as any sort of final word.

Nonetheless, I think this was a comparison worth doing: if nothing else, we'll see just what the differences are between two Sony 1920x1080 cameras, one costing 30x the other's price, and a non-realtime, 4k Bayer-mask camera from an upstart company that didn't exist three years ago.

I'm not going to rate or rank the cameras, but I will compare images and comment on 'em, and (I hope) show detailed enough results that you can look at them, decide on whether you think my methodology allows any sort of adequate comparison, and make informed judgments on your own as to what the different cameras can do for you. Along the way I'll discuss my post-production process (I've already started with this article about pulling stills from FCP), so that—with any luck—you can avoid some of the pitfalls and surprises I encountered.

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