Comparing RED with DSLR Cameras

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the November, 2009, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]

Tony Mendoza’s first line got my attention:

Greetings from Afghanistan,


My name is Tony Mendoza. I’m a soldier currently deployed to Afghanistan and a big fan of your show. I had two questions in regards to the new DSLR cameras shooting HD compared to the RED camera. I’ll try to keep it simple.


From what I understand RED shoots a very high resolution (4K) image. But from what I read so far, some of the new DSLR cameras shooting 1080p capture images at the same frame size as 35mm film.


Question 1: Are the image quality of both the RED and the top of the line DSLR cameras the same or close to? (i.e. to show on a theater screen)


Question 2: The 35mm frame size the DSLR says it shoots, is that equivalent to the 35mm I shot with my mother’s still camera when I was 12 or is it equivalent to a motion picture camera (Arri) or are the film stocks pretty much the same size. Thus the 35mm.

Larry replies: These are two formats that I don’t shoot, so I farmed Tony’s question out to my two resident experts on RED and codecs — Philip Hodgetts and Noah Kadner. Here are their replies.

Philip writes:

The answers to both are somewhat interrelated. I think the answer to 1) is that certainly RED is being used for many motion picture releases (Ché immediately comes to mind) and TV series. The DSLRs are being used occasionally for web series but no movie or TV production other than experimental shots.


RED uses a compressed RAW signal that maintains all the information from the camera. The DSLR compress to highly compressed H.264 “long GOP” (technically its not, but close enough). They cannot be compared for workflow quality. RED puts 4x the pixels in the file and keeps each frame an intact entity.


Neither are yet “equal” to film stocks. In some respects RED is better than film stock – with digital 2K or 4K project much more data ends up on the screen than from film projection, because of the resolution killing inter-neg and inter-pos processes that film goes through (even just for distribution) and because the film is not projected with each frame perfectly aligned (gate weave) even the resolution that is inherent in a single film frame is slightly compromised in viewing by this gate weave.

Noah writes:

1- Not the same. The DSLR cameras definitely shoot gorgeously shallow DOF with those Canon lenses, but the codec employed is far more compressed/lower color and gamma fidelity next to a RED.


2- Depends on the camera. They all shoot at maximum a 1920x1080p frame — less than half of the frame size shot by a RED or the 2K frame typically scanned off a much higher resolution 35mm frame.


But anyway, these are kind of dancing-around-the-issue questions. The real question should be: can I shoot feature quality footage with one of these cameras. With the Canon 5D Mark II or 7D, good lenses, and, of course, good cinematography — sure.

Larry adds: Thanks, Philip and Noah, for your help with this!

UPDATE – Dec. 27, 2009

Anthony Burokas writes:

The two commenters on the COMPARING RED WITH DSLR CAMERAS article provided little insight.


This article here provides incredible depth and says, in essence, DSLR cameras lack the low-pass filter and true resolution to provide even HD images, let-alone real 3-4k resolution. RED does. They both suffer rolling shutter CMOS distortions – covered numerous times on my blog.

Larry replies: Thanks, Anthony, for writing. I am always grateful when readers supply more information. Here’s the link that Anthony referenced:


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