From Bridgerton to Resident Evil, Netflix is home to a wide variety of movies and TV shows. But you may also have noticed that, whatever the subject, Netflix dramas often share a characteristic clean and crisp look. Why is that? One reason is the influence of what Netflix calls its “approved camera list.”
This is a bit of a strange concept. After all, musicians don’t have to use Spotify-approved instruments to record albums for the streaming service. So why does Netflix feel the need to create its own list of cameras, and how does it decide which ones make the cut? More importantly, should video cameras that are not on the list be immediately considered useless and obsolete?
With a little help from Netflix, we’ve answered those questions and more in this explainer. The streaming service’s list of cameras is evolving all the time: this week, for example, Netflix added the Sony FX3. This is a significant new entry, because the FX3 is Sony’s smallest and cheapest cinema camera (even if it’s still $3,899 / £4,200 / AU$6,149).
There’s no doubt that Netflix’s ‘Approved Camera List’ contains some of the best camcorders you can buy, but is it the end point for filmmakers looking to buy a camera? Let’s focus on the guidelines to find out.
What is Netflix’s list of approved cameras?
Since 2018, Netflix has published a regularly updated list of approved cameras. (opens in a new tab) that filmmakers must use to shoot “90% of a show’s total running time” on Netflix productions. At the time of writing, that list contains 50 cameras from Arri, Canon, Panasonic, RED, Panavision, Sony, and Blackmagic.
So does this mean that every movie or TV show you watch on Netflix has been shot on one of those cameras? Not quite. The streaming giant confirmed to us that the camera listing is for Netflix productions only; in other words, only the shows you watch that are identified as ‘Netflix Originals’, like Stranger Things, The Crown and Money Heist.
The rest of Netflix’s library was shot with the cameras the directors liked (or, perhaps, could afford). That’s why we’ve seen several movies, like Tangerine and High Flying Bird, show up on the platform despite being shot entirely on iPhones.
There’s no doubt that Netflix’s list of approved cameras leans towards the high-end. But in recent years we’ve seen some interesting compact models added to the guide, including the Canon EOS C70, Panasonic Lumix S1H and more recently the Sony FX3 compact.
They’re not all full-frame cameras – the Panasonic DC-BGH1 ($1,998 / £1,899 / AU$2,999) wins a spot despite having a relatively small Four Thirds sensor. This proves once again that sensor size isn’t everything, even when you’re shooting high-end Netflix shows that are watched by millions.
Why does Netflix have a list of approved cameras?
Just as interesting as Netflix’s list of cameras is the broader question of why it has a list in the first place. After all, while networks and distributors often have technical guidelines for TV shows and movies, they rarely dictate the actual cameras that can be used to make them.
Netflix answered this question (kind of) in a recent video. (opens in a new tab)that’s like a VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ episode for camera nerds. In the video, Kris Prygrocki (Netflix Camera Systems Specialist) says, “One of the biggest priorities for us as a studio is helping our filmmakers do their best work. We want our filmmakers to not only feel empowered, but also encouraged to use the latest and greatest capture technologies available to tell their stories.
Since most filmmakers probably don’t need Netflix to tell them about the latest camera technology, that’s only half the story. The other half is about consistency and strict quality control, which is understandable for Netflix’s own content, even if it outwardly gives the impression of an Apple-style control madness.
After consulting with filmmakers, Netflix has admitted that a high-end cinema camera isn’t always the best tool for the job. As Kris Prygrocki explains: “Because we hold such high standards, it’s hard for specialized systems like a drone, a fixed platform, a pan-tilt-zoom camera, an action camera, and even high-speed cameras to meet our expectations. specs”. These minimum specs include a 4K UHD sensor, 10-bit color depth, and raw recording, which are often beyond budget video cameras.
“Despite some of the shortcomings, these specialty cameras offer many features that our approved cameras don’t,” he adds. “We realize the importance of being able to use them in certain situations when they are absolutely necessary to achieve the creative intent. That’s why in all of our original productions, we provide unapproved camera use allowance if necessary.”
That allocation is only about 10% of the show’s final runtime, or a bit more for non-fiction content. But interestingly, Netflix also provides a list of frequently used unapproved cameras, including the iPhone 12 Pro, GoPro Hero 9 Black, and most of DJI’s own-brand cameras for their drones.
While these much more affordable cameras will likely never make the final approved list, they’ve likely been behind some of the scenes you’ve seen on Netflix.
How does Netflix decide which cameras make the cut?
Netflix has built the video camera equivalent of DxOMark’s smartphone testing labs to determine which models deserve its stamp of approval. According to the streaming giant, it’s about much more than just resolution. “The most common misconception is that the only requirement we have for cameras on our approved list is 4K capture,” explains Kris Prygrocki.
“While capturing at a higher resolution is certainly important for image quality, we know it’s not everything,” he adds in the video. “Other criteria that are just as important to image quality would be dynamic range, color reproduction, noise performance, sensor readout speed, compression, chromatic subsampling, bit depth, etc. “.
To roast the cameras on these, Netflix uses standardized tests like OECF (Optoelectronic Conversion Function) charts, but wants to emphasize that it’s not based on one type of test. Or, in fact, just image quality tests. “We’re not putting these specs together in a vacuum behind closed doors,” says Kris Prygrocki. “All of these requirements are based on years of industry feedback experience. Surprisingly, a lot of the feedback we get doesn’t really relate to image quality,” he adds.
“That’s why during our camera evaluations we also look at things like system stability and reliability. Do you have proper thermal management? Is it going to overheat or to the professional movie set? Are we going to have to deal with image corruption or data loss all the time?” he says.
This explains why some capable little cameras like the Canon EOS R5, which have overheating limitations, don’t make the list, despite being able to shoot impressive 8K video.
Should you only buy a Netflix approved camcorder?
If you are a professional filmmaker who has been commissioned to shoot a Netflix Originals production, then yes. But for the vast majority of people? The answer is no. Netflix’s list of cameras is a fun but incomplete snapshot of the kind of professional video tools out there, with many great options that don’t qualify due to technicalities.
For example, we think the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro is one of the best camcorders you can buy, but it’s not on Netflix’s list due to its lack of a dedicated timecode input. Likewise, there are plenty of great hybrid cameras out there, like the Fujifilm X-T4 and Sony A7 IV, that shoot great video, but just lack the technical chops to be an A-cam on a Netflix set.
Still, something worth looking at, possibly more than the camera list itself, is Netflix’s best practice guidelines. (opens in a new tab). They contain some great tips for maximizing image quality (for example, using the GoPro ProTune Flat profile on your action cameras), which is always a good habit to develop.
And who knows, once your film is complete and you’ve followed all the guidelines, maybe one day you’ll sell it to Netflix, then use the proceeds to buy one of the most expensive cameras on its illustrious ‘approved’ list.