Considering Upgrading? Is It Four Times Better?

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The release of the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III has HDSLR filmmakers poring over specs, trying to decide if this release is something incredible, or something disappointing. For $3,500, is it worth the leap from the Mark II? (It should be noted that the Mark II remains in the Canon line and the price of a body has dropped to about $2,000.)

Canon has announced the 5D Mark III camera. But is it four times better than the 5D Mark II?

It harkens back to a piece I saw a while back about the “four-times-better rule.”

In a Creative Planet post, Stefan Sargent argued quite convincingly that in this era of new technology hitting the market almost daily, the wise time to upgrade is when the new piece of equipment is four times better than what it’s replacing. As he emphatically puts it, “An upgrade can’t be just twice as good; it’s got to be four times better.”

One example he gives is the question of whether to replace his Sony V1s with Sony EX1s.

I needed to upgrade from SD to HD. Buying the two HVR-V1s was a no brainer. And yes, they were four times better than the PD150/PDX10 combo.

What happens? After a year, Sony brings out the PMW-EX1. I’m very pissed. At least with Apple, you know that next year there’s going to be a new iPhone, but that it’s not an $8,000 upgrade.

I look at the EX-1 specs. The data rate is up to 35Mb/s compared to my V1s’ 25Mb/s. That’s not four times! The chip is bigger, but not four times bigger. Nowhere is anything four times better. I contact my camera guru, Adam Wilt. He says, “In most real-world situations they’re very hard to tell apart.

One of the primary reasons to exercise caution is the fact that the business of filmmaking is based on two factors: cost and revenue. When it comes to cost, the entry level for documentary filmmaking has been lowering. Does spending more cash on equipment create a commensurate rise in the quality of the film? Then, does that measurable rise in video quality have a measurable effect on your story? Or is the audience really not as worried about that as you?

Who noticed that the Ross Brothers’ breakout success 45365 was made on SD, the Danfung Dennis-directed Academy Award nominee Hell And Back Again used a 5D Mark II, or that the 2010 Oscar nominee Restrepo was HDV?

Back in the day, I worked at newspapers where pros looked at equipment very pragmatically. The best photographers often had cameras seemingly held together with duct tape, while the interns came in with the latest gear. I remember going on an assignment with Bob Jackson, the photographer who won a Pulitzer for his photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, and of asking him what kind of camera he’d used for the picture.

“A Nikon,” he said.

“Where do you keep it?” I said.

“In my camera bag,” he said, as if I was an idiot. It was a 40-year-old Nikon S2 rangefinder. “It still works fine.” To him, it was simply a tool.

Digital technology may not allow for a camera to have the longevity of Bob’s Nikon. Be careful about chasing technological tail unless it’s a substantial improvement over what you already have.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.
  • Daniel Epstein

    Problem with deciding whether something is 4 times better is the math can be logarithmic not linear on some of these things. Sensor size is very trick that way.

  • David Robertson

    I’m still successfully making “movies” with my good old Sony Digital 8 … missing from my equipment is a stand-alone Dig 8 VCR … eventually will need this, that is when the camera finally quits. Archiving … no problem … the original tapes are holding up well. Of course the ‘copies’ are stored in a hard drive for editing purposes. FYI, my “old” Sharp Hi-8 remains a ‘standby’ and sometime useful as a second camera, using my Sony as a digital link to the computer … furthermore, Final Cut Express works real well as a ‘cutting’ medium. Yes, I’d love more ‘bells ‘n whistles’ … but what the heck…. still hanging on, but still hankering for the days when I used to ‘sync dailies’ when working on those very first films of yore……!!

  • Tom Roston

    Nice move!