Here are a few thoughts from getting to spend a couple months with a powerful if pint-sized cinema camera from one of the industry’s leading brands.
As the world has shifted in so many ways in the last few years, the one that seems to have most affected my business has been the merging of still photography and video. I’ve gone from the vast majority of my business being stills, with only occasional video requests, to a 50/50 model a few years ago, to where I am today where the balance is much closer to 70/30 the other direction with motion requests taking the lead. Many photographers have had to make this shift. Although, I hesitate to call it a shift for me. More like things coming full circle. My artistic career began as a filmmaker. Mainly as a writer and director. Then I studied cinematography in school. That eventually led accidentally to stills. I won’t go into my entire biography here. Suffice to say, my career has always been one of two worlds. And filmmaking is a passion for me rather than a necessary evil.
So the recent trend from clients to demand both still and motion has come as a welcome shift to me personally. The only part of the process that has been less than desirable is the realization that after so many years of spending exorbitant amounts of cash building up my still photo gear arsenal, I realized I had very little in the way of video production equipment. Luckily, I live in a city with as many rental houses as McDonalds, so it’s rare that I can’t get my hands on a piece of equipment if I need it. But, coming from a still world where I’m used to at least owning a baseline amount of equipment to do straightforward shoots on a whim, the urge has always been there to have some fundamental video pieces on hand as well.
Now, I’m sure many of you out there have had similar thoughts. And I’m sure just as many of you have, at some point, found yourself saying the same thing I did. “Sweet Mary, this stuff is expensive!” Not that you can pay for photo gear with spare change. But video gear is on a whole different level.
It’s also far larger and more cumbersome. There are practical reasons for this, which I will address momentarily, but if you are used to creating stills with a small lightweight camera and a prime lens out of a sling bag, then move to video, you might be in for a rude awakening. Sure, you can shoot video with a small footprint. You can make a movie on a phone if that’s what you have on hand. But, as you ascend the ranks and your ambition grows, you will quickly see that, more often than not, getting that “cinematic” image you are after entails a lot more than just buying the latest and greatest mirrorless camera and pressing record. Not that I haven’t done that as well (more on that shortly).
Of course, there’s a reason cinema gear is so expensive. Besides the tech specs involved, cinema gear is built on the concept that it will be rented. So, they are expecting a large component of their marketplace to be rental houses who will purchase the gear, then use the gear to generate income. In short, cinema gear is investment-minded as opposed to being designed to sell for a discount to end users. This isn’t always true, but we’ll get to that as well.
The larger size of most cinema gear is also not accidental. There’s a reason why the end credits to most movies last longer than the movie itself. Whereas still photography is often generated by an individual, most motion projects are the result of a team. It’s entirely possible to make a film by yourself. I’ve done it quite a lot and have the back pain to prove it. But, at their core, movies/commercials/videos are communal art. So, while having a super light and small camera body is a necessity when shooting solo. It is less important when you have a team of people to help you carry that camera, rig that camera, and, most importantly, need to plug into that camera.
All of which leads me to the main topic of today’s article, the RED Komodo. Now, a few caveats before I dig deeper. One, if you’ve ever read one of my “reviews” before, you’ll know that I put very little emphasis on specs and far more emphasis on practicality. The same goes for cinema cameras as still cameras. Pretty much any cinema camera you buy today is going to be a million times better than what they had available to shoot Casablanca. So, if they could make one of the greatest movies of all time with a camera that was a million times less capable than your current cell phone, then using specs as a reason you can’t create great art is a hollow argument. Heck, any camera today is ten times better that what we had available 20 years ago. So, while I will mention the specs, the more useful information is whether this piece of gear fits into your needs and your workflow. So that will be the focus of the writing rather than an in-depth technical review.
Second caveat is that, unlike my usual preference, I won’t have a lot of sample clips to post as part of the article. I used the camera extensively, both in test environments as well as on professional commercial productions. But the jobs on which it was used are not yet released. Thus, including footage here is not possible. And the hours I spent testing the camera on myself and random objects is not quite the peak of prime time television. Luckily, the internet is abounding with RED sample footage. So, if you want to know what it can produce versus the competition, that wouldn’t be hard to find.
So, with all the caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.
I mentioned earlier that one of the biggest barriers to cinema gear is cost and size. For many of my productions, size isn’t really an issue. Again, as I said earlier, production is meant to be a team environment. So, the burden of the larger camera is often, quite literally, shared across the crew. More importantly, because it is a team environment, a larger physical camera body can offer more real estate for the extended team to connect to the camera. Rarely am I shooting completely solo with just a handheld camera and lens, so having a larger camera can actually be a plus. In fact, if I do shoot handheld, a larger size is also a plus because it can help smooth out the footage by producing less of those micro jitters so common when shooting with a flyweight camera package.
With that said, the RED Komodo stakes a somewhat interesting position. It is a purpose-built package with all the ports and connections necessary for a typical professional workflow. Those ports which don’t come natively are all available through various add-ons predesigned to fit the camera within the ecosystem. So, you can make the camera as small or as large as you would like. This makes it very flexible for the end user and provides endless possibilities for customization.
In fact, the form factor of the RED Komodo is probably the first consideration you need to make. The upside? Immediately upon taking it out of the box, you will be struck by how incredibly small this thing is. If you are used to shooting with other cinema cameras, you might look at the small form factor of the RED Komodo and think you’ve purchased a mirrorless camera by mistake. This thing is tiny, yet it packs the same imaging power that RED has been known for in the industry for years.
So that’s a win, right? Well, yes and no. It all depends on how you rig it out. Because the unit I had was a loaner camera, I was not blessed with an entire arsenal of accessories to really set the camera up the way that I wanted it. Thankfully, because the camera is designed to suit industry standards, I had plenty of accessories of my own to get the camera up and running in terms of power and support. But, if I were to own this camera myself, there are definitely a few choices I would make.
If my goal was to keep the camera package as small as possible, I would definitely invest in a pair of onboard batteries. Even if you plan to build up the camera on most occasions, having the option to strip down the camera to its bare essentials yet still keep the power running is incredibly useful. As I didn’t have those batteries (again, it was a loaner), I rigged up my Komodo on rails with a traditional V-mount plate. This meant that, in my own testing, I didn’t get to make full use of the Komodo’s smallest configuration, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
In fact, one thing that I learned with the Komodo, as seems to be the case with every camera I acquire intending to keep it small, is that I kept wanting to build it up into a bigger configuration rather than strip it down. This is 100% personal preference. But, once I add this, that, and the other on production, I seem to prefer a slightly bigger body. Even when I shoot mirrorless cameras, they tend to end up getting Frankenrigged into a final form not far shy of a bigger camera’s starting point. So, if I personally owned the Komodo, I feel confident that it would spend more time rigged up into a large package than stripped down into a smaller package.
Luckily, there are many ways to rig the camera. Originally envisioning that I’d be handholding a lot, I went with the RED designed Outrigger Handle. This screws easily into top of the camera and connects to the data ports on top, giving you the option of triggering the camera via the handle rather than returning to the body itself. In theory, this gives you an ideal way to hold the camera for run and gun operation. I never really found it to be as comfortable as I expected. That, again, is all down to preference. But something about the balance of shooting with the handle based on the rest of my configuration didn’t feel as comfortable as I wanted. Also, the small trigger button on the handle itself wasn’t to my liking (this from someone coming from the still world where my index finger is married to a large comfortable shutter button several hours a day).
So, instead I opted to go with the SmallRig Cage For The Red Komodo. There are a large variety of cages available for the system. But I’ve used SmallRig cages on multiple cameras in the past and they seem to strike the best balance between functionality and value. The cage I had didn’t accommodate the outrigger handle, so I went with the version of the cage with the side handle. I then added on my own top handle and another handle on the opposite side, which gave me multiple ways to get a grip on the Komodo body based on the shot I had in mind. Box cameras like the Komodo are an excellent design for a modular camera system. But, unlike other cameras, they require some thought of how you intend to hold them to get the most out of them. So, if I were to own the camera, I think the cage is the first accessory I would start with.
You then need to figure out how you are going to monitor the system. The Komodo comes with a large top LCD which you could, in theory, use as a monitor. And I used it as such in a pinch from time to time. But, it’s far more likely that you are going to want to mount a larger monitor for the system to get a cleaner view for critical focus and composition. One of my favorite things about the camera is that it can actually act as a hotspot and transmit its own wireless image. So, if you are working with a large team and need to transmit the image wirelessly to video village or a focus puller, the camera has the tools to do that internally. This type of functionality could be crucial depending on your workflow.
The lens mount is the Canon RF. So, the lenses from my Canon R5 fit onto the camera easily without an adapter. I also have EF mount cinema lenses which I found myself using most of the time via the EF-RF adapter. The camera came with the basic adapter. But I used the adapter with the built-in ND that I already owned instead. I preferred this because the adapter provided a built-in ND system, something missing from the Komodo body itself.
RED Komodo Versus Mirrorless
So, with all this talk of ergonomics, some users of smaller mirrorless cameras might wonder why they would opt for a RED Komodo instead of sticking with mirrorless. As simple as it may seem at first glance, this is actually a more complicated question than one might think. And the response is not 100% clear cut.
Going back to our original hypothesis, two of the biggest considerations when purchasing cinema gear are size and costs. We addressed the size issue a bit in the previous section. But now we get to the cost. I think it’s fair to say that many mirrorless camera owners who use their gear primarily as video devices hold at least some form of a dream in their head that they could afford a cinema camera instead. It’s a natural progression. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with a mirrorless camera. It just means that it’s simple human nature to want to keep progressing. And, assuming your desired progression is towards a more cinematic experience, you naturally want the most cinematic camera you can get your hands on.
Of course, wanting something and being able to afford something are two entirely different things. And owning a cinema camera is not always an option. I don’t own one. In fact, there’s some doubt about whether it even makes sense to own one at all. I asked my mentor with the American Society of Cinematographers recently whether he thought it made sense to purchase a cinema camera. He is an established working professional with decades of credits and experience not just dreaming about working but actually doing the job day in and day out on major Hollywood productions. His response is that he has never and would never buy a cinema camera. They are, in his estimation, just computers. And investing that much in technology that is going to replace itself in a year’s time was not a sound business decision.
Of course, this is also because he’s an established cinematographer. The productions he’s working for will rent whatever camera he requests. And the cost of the camera itself to productions that size is a pittance compared to everything else. At that level, the cost of renting a camera is an afterthought, rather than a major budgetary consideration. So for a less established DP or camera operator, the calculus could be entirely different.
For someone like myself, who directs and shoots larger campaigns, but also is often commissioned to provide additional motion assets alongside my still campaigns with more budgetary restrictions, the question is a little complicated. Despite how many letters I write to Santa, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that purchasing an Arri Alexa 35 will probably only happen if I win the lottery or somehow marry Oprah Winfrey. Since neither is likely, I’m going to postulate that I’ll be renting my cinema cameras when necessary for the foreseeable future.
But what if there was a high-quality cinema camera available for the same price that I spend to purchase my still cameras that could provide me with an entrée into the cinema world at a number I could afford? Well, that’s where the RED Komodo comes in.
It’s one of my least favorite things about the film industry, but a truism nonetheless. Status matters. Whereas I have never once not gotten a still photography assignment because I didn’t shoot with a particular brand, in the movie world, people are far more brand conscious. Part of this is purely practical. Brands like Arri have been around for decades and have established themselves as the default on film and television production for years. This means that the other departments which support the camera department also use gear and accessories designed to work with the industry standard cameras. So having the same camera system that everyone else uses is sometimes just easier when it comes to integrating yourself into a team framework. Of course, this is Hollywood, so much of it is also purely for show. There is 100% a difference between the image quality of something like an Arri Alexa and a small mirrorless camera. But, depending on which cameras you are comparing, and, most importantly, depending on your particular shooting situation, the difference in the end result is not always so dramatic or even noticeable. Again, I reiterate, this highly depends on your own shooting scenario.
Here’s a quick example. The last project I shot with the Komodo prior to having to return the loaner was a hybrid still and motion shoot I was doing at a warehouse studio in Los Angeles. I was shooting stills with my Nikon Z 9. And the idea was to capture the motion portion of the assignment with the RED Komodo. It was a smaller production. So, unlike the larger productions with support staff, this was going to be a one-man band scenario. This meant that I needed to move fast. Very fast. And would have to cut a few corners along the way to complete the job.
On this particular project, we ended up being behind schedule due to the late arrival of some of the key talent. But we still had a hard out at the location, meaning that I was going to have to lose a section of the video component I had planned to still make it work. There were two elements. An interview section. And a more active lifestyle section. My plan going in was to shoot both with the Komodo. But, because of the delay, I had to change plans. The Z 9 was already rigged for sound because of another piece of the production. So, for pure practicality, I ended up shooting the main footage with the Komodo, but shooting the interviews with the Z 9. It wasn’t intended as a side-by-side comparison. And the shots were not identical. But the lighting situation and subjects were identical. So, it gave me an accidental point of comparison between the two which I could evaluate in post.
Which naturally begs the question. Was the Komodo footage significantly better? Well, not really. Let me clarify. The two cameras shot under identical lighting situations provided very similar results. This is not to say there were no differences. But I’d be lying if I said there were any differences that couldn’t be easily accounted for in post. The footage cut together easily, and I venture to say that absolutely no one in the audience would be taken out of the story because of a shift between the two cameras.
Not that I mean to make this into a comparison between the Z 9 and the Komodo. That just happened to be the camera I was shooting with that day. I also own a Canon R5. During the course of my loaner period, I did do a number of side-by-side comparisons between all three cameras in more “scientific” scenarios. I put scientific into quotes because I am not a lab test guy so don’t want to give you that impression. But I did put the cameras side-by-side in multiple scenarios. Interiors, exteriors, natural light, artificial light. All three can record in a RAW codec. I wanted to see what would happen if I shot them all in the same situations. Would there be a noticeable change in quality?
Well, yes and no. To the naked eye, all three cameras were pretty similar. There were some shifts in color rendition and each was using a native lens (Z mount on the Nikon, RF mount on the Komodo and R5). But, just looking at the footage side-by-side, it was hard to see much difference that couldn’t be easily countered with the flick of a switch inside DaVinci Resolve Studio. One thing I did notice, however, that was in the RED’s favor, is that, according to the scopes, it seemed to possess more dynamic range. Again, this test was less than specific. So feel free to counter that argument in the comment section. But, despite not really looking much different to the naked eye, it did seem that when I put the clips side-by-side in Resolve that the RED footage had a bit more happening in the scopes.
This seemed to show itself during my time with the Komodo as the one thing that impressed me repeatedly was the sheer flexibility of the R3D RAW format. Lots of cameras tout RAW video. In theory, this means a sensor is simply collecting everything there is to collect, and the user has ultimate flexibility in post to adjust settings to taste. That’s an oversimplification, and it’s always a good idea to get it right in camera, but that’s the basic gist. Instead of condensing info, RAW formats give you everything and let you decide. With the RED Komodo footage, I noticed it was supremely easy in DaVinci Resolve Studio to adjust my exposure or other settings after the fact. Obviously, I took care to expose correctly up front. This was made all the easier by RED’s awesome traffic light exposure system, which makes it super easy and super fast to know not only when you are over/underexposing but exactly in which color range you are doing so. This makes it foolproof to ensure that you are getting a workable exposure every time. But, during my testing period, I did several shots which were intentionally over or underexposed by as many as 3 to 4 stops and I seemed to be able to recover an acceptable image without a significant penalty. Again, there is absolutely no reason for me to be that far off on exposure in the real world. But, doing these tests did give me a lot of confidence once I took the camera out on set. Especially in scenes with extreme contrast that might be difficult to contain with one exposure.
In fact, I’d say that the main advantage of the Komodo isn’t the size, but the sensor and the R3D codec. It gives you a great image with significant latitude to push and pull in post without breaking down. And, returning to our earlier discussion, because the industry is very used to working with R3D files, it could potentially give you a much smoother post workflow as you progress from initial capture through the final color grade. Unlike a hybrid mirrorless camera, this is a camera laser-focused on the video side of the ledger. So, the advantages that come with that are worth their weight in gold.
Is The RED Komodo Right For You?
So, does that mean that the RED Komodo is the right tool for every job? Well, no. In fact, following my time with the camera, I was left with as many questions as I had answers. Answered definitively were questions about image quality and flexibility. The Komodo is an excellent camera if you want to provide high-quality images to high end productions with maximum latitude that conform to industry standard ways of working. The camera’s small size was less of a benefit to me, given my tendency to rig up cameras, but having the option is a godsend. Given the lower price tag and the less objective industry perception realities I mentioned earlier, the Komodo is a great value for someone looking to get into the RED ecosystem without spending ten times as much for a comparable cinema system.
Are you going to purchase this camera and instantly be transformed into Janusz Kaminski overnight? No. That takes talent and training, not just a credit card. Is it possible to generate a very similar image with a mirrorless camera under similar circumstances? Yes, if you know what you’re doing and have a certain level of control over your environment.
And, actually, it is this paradigm that I think raises the most questions. If you already are shopping for a cinema camera but don’t have a great budget to work with, this camera is a no-brainer. And, if you view it as a return on investment (which you should), the cost proposition for the camera works.
But because of the small size, about the same as some mirrorless cameras, and the costs, also about the same as some mirrorless cameras, it begs comparison to those cameras as well. From a pure filmmaking point of view, the Komodo probably comes out on top. But what if you do hybrid work or shoot video as a one-man band? The example earlier where I ended up being forced to shoot half of the job on the Z 9 is a basic example. In tests, the Komodo seemed to have slightly more dynamic range. But in usage, the image quality was similar and the Z 9 was faster in operation. So for something like that, where the final result was only ever going to play online and on social, which is the better value?
And what about focusing options? While I did focus the Komodo manually, it has a limited autofocus option. For a cinema camera, the autofocus on the Komodo is actually pretty darn good. It’s not going to really track a rapidly moving subject. But, if you are shooting an interview or something else relatively stationary, it does a good job. Much better than more expensive cinema cameras without the same feature. But, of course, it’s nothing compared to the autofocus capabilities of most mirrorless cameras. “So what,” you might say. True filmmakers use manual focus. And this is often the case. As I said, I was manually focusing the Komodo myself. But, it’s nice to know you have the option. And because something like the Komodo or a high end mirrorless camera are the same price, it begs the question of which is the better tool for your particular use case.
I think that if you work in a major production environment where you will be supported by a crew and your workflow needs to pass muster with multiple departments, something like the Komodo makes perfect sense. I think that if your final film will be ending up on movie screens, the Komodo makes a lot of sense. I think if you want to get into the cinema camera world but don’t have the budget for a larger system, the camera makes a lot of sense.
When doesn’t it make sense? I think if you are a one-man band running and gunning for YouTube or social media, there are probably more cost-effective options that will give you a similar result. If you are just shooting to capture “content,” there are faster and more efficient ways to do so. The Komodo is for more structured storytellers. For filmmakers who have a specific vision in mind, have the crew to pull it off, and just need a cost-effective tool to make it a reality.
- Image quality
- Dynamic range
- Size and flexibility
- Traffic lights exposure system
- Built-in Wi-Fi monitoring
- R3D files
- Brand recognition
- Industry compatibility
- Build quality
- Still developing autofocus
- No built-in variable NDs
- Require some rigging
As you can see from the list above, the pros of the RED Komodo far outweigh any cons. It’s a terrific camera system capable of performing on virtually any set. The only question you will have to answer for yourself is whether it is the perfect system for your particular workflow. Cameras don’t make us better filmmakers. They enable us to show the talent that we already have. And with the RED Komodo, you have a tool with very few limitations.