Here’s my open letter to Nikon pleading with them to develop a product to fill one of the gaps left by Thursday’s RED announcements. Many people were expecting RED to announce a camera to compete directly with the Nikon D90 and Canon 5DmkII movie modes but that didn’t happen (all the RED cameras with Nikon/Canon lens mounts are priced WAY WAY above a Nikon D90 or 5DmkII). I’m under no illusion - I expect this letter will be thrown in the bin but it’s worth a shot; eh?!?

  • To: Nikon-Europe
  • Subject: Proposals for Movie Mode in dSLRs

Dear Nikon,

I have been a long-time user of Nikon camera bodies and lenses. Needless to say, I’m huge fan. I’m a filmmaker and - if I may be so bold - I’d like to propose a few ideas about the movie mode for dSLR cameras. Like many other filmmakers and photographers, I’m very excited by the prospect of having a single camera which can shoot both stills and movies. Such a camera would be revolutionary, especially given that so many employers and clients want photographers to capture both movies and stills on every job. The upcoming recession will put more pressure on photographers to be able to deliver both video and stills as clients attempt to cut costs even further whilst trying to satisfy an audience hungry for rich media. The recession will also put pressure on filmmakers to produce high-quality work on ever tightening budgets.

The D90’s movie mode was an excellent start but, as I’m sure you’re aware, it has some serious limitations which makes it unsuitable for the majority of filmmaking applications. Of course, I realise that the D90 wasn’t trying to be a “pro” movie camera but if Nikon were to release a camera with a “professional” movie mode then it would almost certainly sell incredibly well. The filmmaking community is primed and ready for an affordable movie camera with a large sensor and a Nikon lens mount; there is a huge amount of pent up demand built up by a combination of the 35mm-lens-adapters and also by RED. Filmmakers are falling in love with being able to use quality glass in their filmmaking but many are not entirely satisfied by using 35mm-lens adapters and cannot afford a camera like the RED ONE.

To cut to the chase, I’ll go ahead and list the features which would - in my humble opinion - go a long way towards creating the ideal “pro” movie mode on an digital SLR.. First, the essential features:

  • A DX or FX-sized sensor (ideally FX) with the excellent performance for which Nikon is renowned (low noise, high sensitivity, wide dynamic range, beautiful handling of highlights, generally gorgeous images)
  • Full manual control during movie recording (shutter spead, ISO, aperture and white ballance all need to be controlled independently using dedicated hardware controls. Hunting through menu options to set an essential parameter is too clunky)
  • A sensor which can continue recording indefinitely without overheating
  • A suitably fast frame read-out time to reduce rolling shutter effects to a minimum; the D90’s rolling shutter is probably one of its biggest “deal breakers” as a viable movie mode.
  • A high quality recording scheme which uses a low enough bitrate to be recorded to off-the-shelf storage cards but which is high enough quality to be graded agressively in postproduction. Compressed RAW recording would be excellent (CineformRAW would be a good choice because it is field-proven and it already has a mature post-production workflow but I’m not sure whether or not CineformRAW is currently implemented on a chip). Adobe have grand plans for RAW movie workflows in Premiere Pro and After Effects. Or, if compressed RAW is impossible at this time then please record a lightly & efficiently compressed (h.264 or AVC-intra?) 10- or 12-bit per channel per pixel RGB or YUV (at least 4:2:2) file which captures as much of the sensor’s dynamic range as possible (i.e. doesn’t clip or crush anything). 10-bit logarithmic RGB may be the best option if compressed RAW is not possible as 10-bit log is an efficient way to capture a wide dynamic range and because 10-bit log is well understood by the film postproduction community (10-bit log is frequently used for high quality film scans and for digital cinema cameras like the Panavision Genesis). To create low enough datarates to allow off-the-shelf storage cards to be used, it would be nice if the camera downsampled from the sensor’s full image (using some form of pixel averaging so the beneficial effects of oversampling can be realised; i.e. please do NOT using pixel binning!). I’m not sure if downsampling of the RAW image to produce a smaller RAW file is technically possible; if it is not then perhaps recording a 1920x1080 or 1024x720 frame size using AVC-Intra, H.264 or JPEG2000 using 10-bit log per channel would be better. If downsampling by a non-integer factor is computationally too expensive then it may better to record a non-standard frame size using pixel averaging rather than to use pixel binning (e.g. if the native sensor resolution is - say - 4000x3000 then it may be better to average every block of 4 pixels to record something like 1000x750 rather than to use pixel binning to achieve a standard frame size like 1024x720)
  • Record to a medium which allows long record-times using off-the-shelf media. Several options might be:
    • Record to dual-slot SD or CF cards(ideally set up in such a way as to allow users to record continually by hot-swapping. i.e. camera fills card 1 and then starts recording to card 2; user swaps out card 1 with an empty card; when camera has filled card 2 it starts writing to the empty card in slot 1 etc ad infinitum without stopping the recording).
    • a USB-master function to allow the camera to record to off-the-shelf USB disks
    • a built-in controller and enclosure to allow the use of 2.5” or 1.8” IDE hard drives (or perhaps this enclosure could be made available as an add-on grip)
    • a way to attach the camera to a laptop to record directly to the laptop’s hard disk (e.g. over USB or FireWire)

Features which are not essential but which would be very nice are:

  • 24, 25 and 30fps frame rate options (even higher frame rates would be lovely). If only 1 frame rate is possible then - as you know - 24p is the way to go because it can be converted to both 25fps (PAL) and 30fps (NTSC) without too much trouble. If only 2 frame rates are possible then perhaps 24p and 25p would be the best options because 24p can be quite elegantly converted to 30p whilst the conversion from 24 to 25p requires either artefact-prone interpolation or tedious time stretching of the audio.
  • Enable AutoFocus (and face recognition?) during movie mode (this is by no means essential; many filmmakers are used to manual focussing as long as the monitoring setup is good enough to judge focus.) AF during movie mode would be an awesome option. Shooting one-man-band documentary-style on an 85mm at f1.8 with an FX-sized sensor would make incredible images but focussing would be a major issue. In many cases, the camera can probably make better focusing decisions than the operator; especially if the operator can tell the camera where in the frame to focus (possibly using a touch-screen?) and if the camera could then use object recognition and AF-servo technology to follow the object as it moves through the frame.
  • An S/PDIF digital audio input so the camera can be used to record high-quality audio (from a separate audio recorder like the Edirol R-44) without having to go to the expense of designing and building decent audio pre-amps and analogue-to-digital converters.
  • Line-level audio inputs to allow the camera to be used with audio mixers
  • An HD-SDI output to allow the camera to be connected to HD video monitors, tape decks and other I/O boxes.
  • The HDMI (and HD-SDI?) outputs need to be derived from the full-sensor resolution using pixel averaging, not pixel-binning. It would also be excellent if the outputs can also be set to “clean” (i.e. without any menu options super-imposed)
  • A way to load look-up-tables into the camera to allow “looks” to be defined and applied (non-destructively) to the image so the HD-SDI output can be given a “look” even when viewing the monitor on set.
  • A “pre-record” mode where the camera is continuously recording a rolling 5 second’s worth of footage and when the operator hits the “record” button, the camera saves the previous 5 seconds and starts recording continuously. This would be very useful for nature documentary work, for example.

As you may be aware, Thursday 13th November saw the announcement of a new line up of movie/stills cameras from RED. This announcement contains some amazing cameras but I (and others) feel that they have missed a big segment of the market; a segment which could possibly be filled by Nikon and which could earn Nikon many, many more sales. In my humble opinion, Nikon is uniquely placed to dominate the market for professional movie cameras with DX or FX sized sensors priced at under £4000. Nikon has an excellent reputation; Nikon doesn’t have an existing video-camera portfolio to protect; many filmmakers (currently using 35mm-adapters) are already building large arsenals of Nikon glass and, of course, Nikon makes excellent cameras!

Please, please, PLEASE consider making a camera with a “pro” movie mode. An affordable (less than £4000???) movie camera which records to a high quality codec with full manual control using an FX-sized sensor, Nikon glass and off-the-shelf recording media would send phenomenal shockwaves throughout the industry and I’m sure would garner huge sales.

Warmest regards,
Jack Kelly
Filmmaker, London