The Shape of Your Video Camera

The shapes and sizes of video cameras differ dramatically. Ever wonder why cameras have so many different form factors? In video, it all comes down to useability in a given type of production.

Video cameras may be optimized for specific applications. Most camera components have been miniaturized, allowing cameras to be configured to preference in modules.

Cameras now range in size from large digital cinema cameras outfitted for general purpose cinema-type production to smart phones with excellent built-in video cameras. There are also run-and-gun ENG cameras, studio cameras, 35mm film-style cameras and sub-miniature GoPro action cameras.


Form factor choices are overwhelming. Virtually all of them offer exceptionally good video quality, with 4K resolution being pretty much standard at all price points.

Digital cinema cameras are at the top of camera market chain and each features several key components: video processing circuits, memory card slots, control and menu display, viewfinder and battery. The sensor assembly is connected to a lens mount, usually made of stainless steel.

Depending on the camera model, these key parts may be integrated or separate.

Looking at television cameras over history, they started out very large. The old joke about early RCA color cameras is they were like pushing around a Volkswagen on a camera pedestal. RCA’s TK-41, introduced in 1954, weighed 310 pounds and was nearly five feet in length.

Today’s cameras are so compact that the lens — which is still subject to the laws of physics — is the largest part of the camera system. Another factor that has made cameras more compact is the loss of an attached video recorder.

Sony Betacam

The Betacam, introduced in 1983, had an integrated videotape recorder. That part is no longer needed in the era of flash memory for recording.

All of today’s cameras, regardless of form factor, have gotten smaller and lighter. Some cameras are now so weightless they require accessory rigs for humans to hold them steady. Even many studio cameras, typically the largest models, can be broken down as handheld cameras connected via a cable to a control unit.

Modern digital cinema cameras, in their basic form, are typically cubic in shape and are designed to be outfitted with accessories. These cameras can be configured in many ways including on tripod, shoulder-mounted or on stabilized rigs. With digital cinema cameras, it is all about movement for the camera operator. Remote viewfinders can be configured for specific shots.

ARRI Alexa

For many handheld shooters doing news and documentary production, the digital cinema camera is not optimal. The basic ENG form factor has remained the same for nearly 50 years for a reason. It is self-contained and works very well for shoulder-mount shooting. Attach a battery and a lens and you are ready to shoot.

On the lower priced scale, DSLR-shaped video cameras remain popular. They still, for the most part, resemble their old film counterparts. Batteries now go in the former film compartments. Hand holding a camera at arm’s length to view a rear display is not ideal, but stabilizer technology has taken some of the shakiness out. Rear displays are more articulated for greater flexibility.

Mirrorless camera designs with electronic viewers are now the rule and the form factor has remained popular with small one-man-band video crews. Audio in these cameras is still generally poor and usually requires an outboard double-system recording system.

The evolution of cameras has evolved to meet certain market niches. Occasionally, a model breaks new ground. For example, Sony recently introduced its FR7 Cinema Line camera in a PTZ confirmation. A digital cinema camera, it can capture cinematic, full-frame footage in PTZ form for broadcast use, reality shows, houses of worship and live events.

Sony FR7

This game-changing camera can use interchangeable Sony E-mount lenses and is currently compatible with up to 70 E-mount lenses ranging from 12 to 1200mm. The image sensor provides 15 plus stops of dynamic range and captures up to UHD 4K120 video. It is far beyond the traditional feature set of previous generation PTZ cameras and sets a new standard in camera form factors.

In choosing any video camera, it is more important than ever before to match the right form factor for your style of shooting. If you are a news/documentary shooter, choose an over-the-shoulder video camera. Many of these models are convertible to studio rigs, which makes them a good choice for many studios with mixed projects.

Others may prefer the 35mm style camera, which offers extreme portability. Or, when shooting episodic television shows or feature films, choose a digital cinema camera and embrace its elaborate workflow.

With all video cameras, in addition to form factor, look for these common traits: reliability, resolution, sharpness, high optical zoom range and excellent video in low-light conditions. These are available in all form factors, so choose the one that works best for your shooting style and application.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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