Why did we buy a ten year old camera that can only record 2k internally in 2021? No ibis, No autofocus, pretty much no usable onboard audio recording, nothing to write home about in low light… Well there’s a lot of Classics on the used market now and they are becoming ever more affordable. In this video I’m going to talk about why I believe this camera – The Arri Alexa Classic, is an awesome purchase for us, but may not be for you. Lets get into it.
Before I talk about the pros and cons of this camera, and what I think you need to weigh up before potentially pulling the trigger on one, I want to talk a bit about my perspective on high quality motion picture capture. I’m going to talk about how and why my views have evolved over time from being someone who would NEVER even consider buying a sub 4k camera. Not even back in 2015.
So I’ve been working in video production for about 12 years, I graduated Uni just before the 5D mkii revolution. We owned two 720p JVC HD111E’s that recorded 720p onto DV tape and when the 5D came out we leapt on it. Finally we owned a camera that enabled us to shoot using interchangeable lenses without an enormous 35mm adaptor on the front. Going from a 1/3rd inch sensor to a full frame one was a hell of a jump. Some years after that we bought a barely used Red Scarlet-MX. A 4k raw shooting beast for the time, we bought it in January 2013. That camera worked flawlessly until we sold it in 2019. I LOVED that camera, but not for the reasons I expected.
You see in 2012 I was convinced that we NEEDED to go 4k, anything less was a waste of money and not FUTURE PROOF. What surprised me when I look at the first shots I quickly grabbed on the Scarlet-MX was that although I really liked it, the jump to 4k wasn’t as big a leap to my eye as I thought it was going to be. Was it sharper than the soft 1080p from the 5D mkii, sure. But it wasn’t quite the difference that I expected to pop out at me and slap me in the face. In fact many would argue skin tones are noticeably better – more true to life on the 5d than the RED MX. What I found made the RED so great was it’s compressed RAW R3d workflow. I could push and pull the images shot on that camera in a way I never could with the 5D due to the severe H.264 compression.
We later bought a Scarlet-w housing RED’s incredible Dragon sensor as a new A cam. That gave us higher frame rates, better color separation, better IR protection, a noticeably wider dynamic range and more resolution, being 5k. The latter of these, the resolution jump, made very little difference to our work, where as the higher frame rates, vastly improved IR protection, improved color separation and color science and highlight latitude made a concrete visible difference in work for our clients. It made out work better and our jobs easier (minus the slower boot time than the Scarlet-MX).
In 2019 the need for cameras that booted up faster, had internal ND’s and decent onboard audio built in led us to move away from RED to Blackmagic Designs Ursa Mini Pro G2 with the Pocket 6k as a companion. Our cheapest ever cinema camera purchase is also the one with the highest resolution.
Advocates of high 4k+ resolution talk about the benefit of punching in on a shot to stabilise or tighten the frame. I agree. I use both of those crutches in post on fast moving corporate and doco style content. I may punch in to cover a cut in an interview or to stabilise a shot that was a bit wonky. Recently we shot a campaign being finished at 1080 in 4.6k. All the interview shots needed float on them, I framed a bit wider and did it in post – keeping the camera locked the whole time… It’s handy for sure. But not a crutch I’m constantly or usually leaning on. And yes I know Fincher stabilises in post and he is amazing I agree.
But for us, when it comes to narrative content, we are shooting the shot we planned. Our framing is composed very deliberately, and we rarely reframe or crop in, in post.
What I’m getting at is that resolution matters, sure – but beyond a certain point it’s diminishing returns. Color science, IR protection, dynamic range even sensor sensitivity have come to sit far higher on my priority list. It’s not the pixel count but the quality of the pixels that counts. Now compared to modern cameras, the sensitivity of the Alexa Classic isn’t anything special at all but we aren’t buying it to be a shoot in the dark camera.
We bought an Alexa Classic to primarily shoot narrative content and corporate interviews on sticks, both of which have been lit and the former of which would generally have an AC assisting. I’d actually been entertaining the idea of purchasing an Amira, but with everything the Ursa G2 does so well for faster paced on the shoulder corporate and commercial work, we couldn’t justify the expense. But knowing Shane and I both coveted the Alexa image, when I found, on reduser of all places, a classic with less than 850 hours on it going for 5kUS with eight memory cards, EF and PL mount and everything we need to shoot – we couldn’t help it.
But for us to make the most of this beautiful tool we’ve incurred some other expenses, and these are a few of the things you need to think about before pulling the pin on a used Alexa purchase.
- No warranty, expect expensive repairs if something goes wrong. Also make sure you are buying from a reputable person.
- The cameras a beast. It’s built like a tank, which is quite reassuring. Weighing 13.9 pounds or 6.3kgs for the body alone your current sticks may not be enough. Our Sachtler FSB 8 on a Flowtech 75 maxes out at 9kgs. Put an EVF, monitor, mattebox and wireless follow focus on there and we’d be struggling. So we’ve forked out for a refurbished Vinten Vision 100mm Fluid head and carbon Fibre sticks with a 20kg weight limit. I don’t mind spending money on tripods because they can be serviced and last a long time. These go for 6k US and we bought it refurbished with sticks for a little over 2k US.
We also bought an Ergorig for handheld shooting and we’ll have a separate review for that coming soon. To be fair the Ergorig isn’t JUST for this camera, we’ve been looking out for a camera back support system that allowed us to still navigate doorways for some time, but the Alexa certainly was the instigator of the purchase.
- Having relied mainly on internal ND’s of the G2, we just have Tiffen screw on ND’s that we pair with a good Hoya IRUV filter on the 6k and XT3 for branded content. Not really going to cut it for the narrative work we’re planning so we ordered 3 NISI IR ND filters in 2, 4 and 7 stops.
- If we want to record 2.8k arri raw we need to buy a Convergent Design Gemini or Odyssey 7Q or 7Q+, all of which are discontinued – necessitating another used purchase. This is probably an inevitable purchase at some point in which case perhaps we should just bite the bullet and buy one now but we’ll just stick with the beautiful downsampled prores 2k for the time being. That is a bit of a con for sure, no internal raw on this model – it was only 5 grand. But when I did my braw vs prores tests, I’ll link to that video below, proresHQ held up amazingly well to rigorous grading. Better than expected in all but the most extreme of errors which was by putting my tint and white balance as far out as possible and trying to correct. Not something that typically goes unnoticed on a shoot.
EDIT: We’ve since bought one of these and the image is AMAZING.
- The Classic or EV doesn’t have a 4:3 mode for anamorphic shooting. It’s a 16:9 camera, the 2.8k is 2880×1620, not the 2880×2160 of later models. Now although we think anamorphic is cool, a great choice for some projects – both Shane and I actually prefer spherical lenses. It just draws less attention to itself which we like, that’s a subjective thing. But yeah, no anamorphic mode could be a deal breaker for you, but it isn’t for us.
- Because we’re still using the Ursa G2 all the time, we needed some extra rosette arms to shoot off the shoulder and a arri standard dovetail plate to put it on sticks, both of which we bought from smallrig.
- No decent onboard audio recording.
- Chews through batteries like Jaws chewed through Quint.
So I guess the biggest CON is the associated hidden expenses you need to really use this camera fully. You may already have all of these bases covered, in which case. AWESOME! But if you’ve been shooting on lightweight cameras, or cameras with internal ND’s – chances are you’ve got some additional expenses coming your way.
The pros are much more simple.
- This sensor CAN shoot spectacular images due to it’s industry leading color reproduction and wide useable dynamic range.
- With the high speed license, which we have, it can shoot 120fps 1080p.
- ProResHQ and ProRes 4444 internally.
- The body itself is affordable now, ours was cheaper than a Canon C70.
- Although we couldn’t as a business justify the expense of an Amira today, we purchased this Alexa also as a future BCAM to an Amira or Mini both of which we expect the prices to come down on when Arri’s super 35 4k camera starts hitting shelves. Though I wouldn’t anticipate that purchase by us for another one or two years.
Time will tell if we’ve made a good decision here. There’s definitely an element of “we just really want one” even if a c300mkiii, FX9 or FX6 make more business sense as they are far better all rounders and single operator cameras. But our Blackmagic and Fuji cameras are currently fulfilling our corporate content needs really well. (Eventually we’ll jump on a camera with IBIS for super fast and light handheld shooting, maybe an A7sIII is in our future but I digress). We got an Alexa for Narrative work, primarily our own original short films which is a big focus for us over the next couple of years. The Alexa is not for shooting branded content. I say that now anyway, it’ll probably work its way more and more into our corporate work.
The point is, we didn’t buy a used Alexa to be our do everything camera. It’s not that, it’s too heavy, burns through too many batteries too quickly, doesn’t have internal ND’s or decent onboard audio recording. If I had to choose between this and our Ursa G2 as our only camera, I’d take the Ursa G2 because it’s faster to work with for a single operator in a wide variety of situations. If you are purchasing one A camera that you need for a variety of shooting styles and conditions, this absolutely isn’t it. It’s designed to be used with a crew.
If you, like I was, are eyeing off Alexa classics online as the prices continue to fall… I absolutely wouldn’t get this if it was going to be your only camera unless your focus is almost purely on narrative cinematography… but if it’s to be one of a mix of cameras that you use for different projects and shooting scenarios and want to bring that ALEV-III magic to your more planned work – narrative films, music videos and long form interviews. Well then, Ten years after the Alexa hit the market, the color science of this camera blows my mind.
It’s a sensational tool, that when used as intended with a crew… well it’s reputation and work history speaks for itself and we can’t wait to shoot our first short on it soon.