That's a Lot of Terabytes!
A brief look into the bitrates and resulting storage costs of sub-$10k cinema cameras available today.
One factor often overlooked when purchasing a camera is its bit rate. What are the data rates for various resolutions and compression methodologies? Are we looking at bits or bytes, can my recording media handle that throughput, and do I have enough storage for data offload? This last question, at least in my experience, was neglected until I had a mound of 2 TB My Passport drives beside my computer.
I tried the labels on the sides with project names. I tried building an Excel sheet for tracking it all down. But, you know what? Having media for projects across 30 drives is an awful experience and I know I’m not alone here in being one’s own problem about data management. It’s an ongoing joke to ask how many hard drives one has in drawers, shelves, and in stacks beside their computer in a kind of “who has the tallest one” chumminess.
Thing is, this data management problem can be fixed by purchasing a RAID storage solution with a lot of storage, and most likely a network attached storage (NAS) one. Before purchasing, though, you’ve got to come to grips with how much storage will be needed over time inside of a system like this. Miss this step and you might be needing to upgrade to a bigger NAS sooner rather than later.
I sat down — adjacent to my stack of drives — and began to think about what I shot this year. In 2023, I did 22 projects and averaged about 180 minutes of total recorded time per project. This total comes out to about 12 TB of data for the year. Easy, right? I just buy a 48 TB NAS and call it a day with enough storage for 3 maybe 4 years? Well, maybe, if I stick to the Canon C70 for the duration of that time and don’t rent. My camera ownership track record in the last two years has not been great — Z Cam S6 to F3 and F55 to C70 to … Blackmagic Design Cube Camera 8K?
Every manufacturer has different compression methodologies and data rates for their cameras. For example, where the C70 maxes out at 51 MB/s (bytes not bits), for 4K DCI in Cinema RAW Light, the Ursa 12k hits 361 MB/s for 12K in 8:1 Blackmagic RAW. That’s a huge difference! On the Ursa, it’s not even possible to record at the highest settings without buying attachments and external drives.
Data rates are all over the place for every manufacturer and sources to find those data rates are also scattered across the Internet. To make things easier for myself, I thought about the resolutions, frame rates, and compressions most commonly used across camera models and arranged it all into a chart.
I’ll typically record at 24 frames per second and will almost always use the maximum amount of coverage on the sensor that I can get — give me that open gate! With compression, I just need enough data to do my normal color grading work, to pull back highlights if lost, or to raise shadows without everything being lost inside a murky gray fog. This generally means I aim for a balance of quality and efficiency, recording at a 5:1 or medium quality setting for B roll and opting for something slightly more compressed if doing interviews. With the C70, on the other hand, I just max that camera out because even at the highest settings it’s still significantly less data than the lowest setting on the Komodo of ELQ, which I think means Extra Low Quality.
After thinking about my typical recording settings, I sourced the average data rates for each camera model, compression, and codec from manuals and trustworthy websites like Newshooter. These links are included at the end of this post.
FYI, B&H Photo Video, as of the date of this post, uses the wrong units for the data rates of the Ursa Mini Pro 12K, leading users to believe that one can record 12K with minimum compression at a lightweight 578 megabits per second, when in reality, the camera punches a hole in your wallet at 578 megabytes per second — that’s over 30 gigabytes per minute.
Finally, I brought in three variables: (1) the average total project length, (2) the number of projects in a year, and (3) the storage cost per terabyte of data. The first two variables for me were, as mentioned, 180 minutes and 22 projects. To calculate cost per terabyte, I looked up the three most popular 12 TB and 20 TB storage drives that would be used in a NAS system and averaged their cost per terabyte, which came out to just over $18/TB — Hey, look, that costs a lot less than the usual $70 2 TB My Passport drive! There are savings in volume, for sure.
So what did I find out? Here’s the table.
Average total length of media in a project: 180 minutes.
Number of projects per year: 22.
Average cost per terabyte in a NAS storage drive: $18.55.*
The C70 is the most efficient camera I’ve used. It’s awesome! Ignoring the fact that you can’t buy storage by the terabyte, this camera costs $215 a year for 12 TB of project data. The FX6 is even more efficient at $139 for the year. The caveat there is that it’s only 10-bit XAVC-I, not a 12-bit raw like the C70. Were you to attach an Atomos Ninja V with a ProRes RAW license and an SDI adapter to the FX6, you would get a 12-bit raw recording (converted from linear 16-bit) out of it. But, ProRes RAW is heavy and would push the FX6 to a much higher cost per year.
Moving on, the F55 comes in third at $252 for the year with the same XAVC-I as the FX6. The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K hops in fourth at $345 per year when exclusively recording at 4K DCI in 5:1 Blackmagic RAW. From there, cost per year rises in Scovilles to $1,517 per year if you’re wild enough to pick up a Blackmagic Design Ursa Pro 12K and exclusively shoot at 12K at 8:1 Blackmagic RAW, which is already fairly compressed. You’d be looking at 82 terabytes per year of data.
Doing this exercise helped me to see how much storage I would really need using the C70 plus a few rental cameras and it opened my eyes to the data rates of other cameras. I knew the BMPCC6K was on the heavier side given the number of offload sessions I’d had to do throughout a production day, but I never actually sat down and thought, “Huh, yeah I guess 1 TB for a day of capture is more than my usual 150 GB on the C70.”
Coming full circle, I settled for a 5-bay NAS that would allow me to store 80 TB of data before having to move on to a new system. This storage size allows me to happily record on the Canon and rent a few heavier data rate cameras for at least three years. By year three, I suspect storage prices will have fallen even more, hard drive sizes to have increased, and new cameras — Come on Blackmagic Design! — to hit the market with more efficient compression methodologies.
If you’re in the market for more storage, putting together a table like this is a great exercise and can save you money down the line.
What cameras and compression do you record at? How much data do you generate per project? How big is your stack of hard drives?
If you enjoyed this post or found value in it, you can buy me a coffee or subscribe below. Thanks!
Thanks for reading Feed the Sensor! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
*Average of IronWolf Pro 12TB, IronWolf Pro 20TB, and WD 20TB Red Pro.