4K for $1k

Flea 3 4K camera brain

Above: ‘Micro Epic’. The 4K Flea 3 brain with Sony sensor

Machine vision company Point Grey have been getting some attention for their new 4K camera which retails at just $945. For those who want to build their own cinema camera, this is a solution which provides both the ‘brain’ and software necessary to do so. The camera is also usable out of the box tethered to a PC, delivering 4K video via a 5Gbit USB 3.0 port which can then be recorded in 16bit raw format to an SSD.

The camera uses a Sony sensor and takes Super 16mm movie lenses such as the very nice Kern Switar 26mm F1.1 with a c-mount (and the rather less nice CCTV style stuff too).

The Flea 3 is essentially a ‘super webcam’. It has no onboard battery or recording capability, no screen, no menus, no record button even. It is just the sensor in a picture making box.

The capture side is done via a USB 3.0 connection on a Windows capable laptop or PC. FlyCapture is the software provided with the camera – this also includes an SDK for programmers to write custom capture software. It would be interesting for someone to write capture software for the tiny $25 Raspberry Pi micro computer and integrate that circuit with the sensor box in one unit to create a digital cinema camera. I’m not dreaming or speculating here – to do so would be perfectly practical with the required knowledge.

Until someone does that, the camera is still perfectly usable with the default machine vision FlyCapture software – but you’d need to have a small laptop as part of your rig to provide a screen, control menus and recording capability.

Here are the key specs of the camera.

  • 4096 x 2160 4K at 21fps
  • Sony IMX121 CMOS sensor, 1/2.5″
  • C-mount lens mount
  • 16bit raw
  • YUV 422 and 444
  • 8bit RGB (in camera colour processing and automatic white balance)
  • Gain 0-24db
  • USB 3.0
  • USB powered, no battery
  • Windows or Linux with FlyCapture control & recording software

Of course for under $1000 there are significant drawbacks to the camera. The sensor is compact camera sized. The frame rate is 3 fps under the cinema standard of 24p. This is surprisingly noticeable (anyone remember the jerky 500D’s video mode at 20fps?) and it will be no low light king, although it does do 24db gain. (Without knowing the native sensitivity it is hard to know what that is in ISO but I’d suspect 24db = ISO 3200).

In future industrial imaging technology like this could provide the basis for the next digital cinema start-up.

But if you want to build your own cinema camera or would like to experiment with a tethered 4K rig it represents something of a bargain. Point Grey also offer a monochrome camera with a larger sensor and global shutter to avoid skew when shooting fast moving machinery – but no 4K.

Check out the cameras here

UPDATE: I am told the camera does do 24fps if a small crop is applied to the active resolution window. At roughly 3.5k 24fps should be possible. Please contact Point Grey for more info on this at their site, linked to above.