RED Epic Dragon review: First camera to break the 100-point DxOMark sensor score barrier!

By Kevin Carter - Monday March 03 2014

Sensor Review
Introduction | Overall score: Epic Dragon takes first place (101 points) | Dynamic range and color depth: First place in both categories (14.8Ev, 26.5 Bits) | Low Light ISO: 10th place (ISO 2745) | Nikon D800 vs Red Epic Dragon | Specification | In Depth Analysis | Conclusion

Announced four years ago and launched a year later as a ‘DSLR killer’, the RED Epic camera attracted a raft of media attention for its ability to capture raw footage, along with its highly modular design. The system’s modularity extended to lens mounts, and not just the common Arri PL mount that’s popular with filmmakers. RED was taking on the new breed of Canon and Nikon HDSLRs by offering Nikon F and Canon EF mount options (the latter being fully electronic, allowing data exchange and aperture coupling). Better still, the mounts, like the rest of the accessories, require no special tools and can be swapped out using a hex-key. Apart from the choice that entails there’s the convenience of using a lens’ native mount, not to mention the potential to save both time and money on costly lens conversions. As well as the F ad EF mount options, RED also offers a Leica M mount for the Epic.

Enter the Dragon

Fast-forward four years and the latest Epic model appears outwardly unchanged but features a new ‘Dragon’ sensor, replacing the 13.8-Mpix ‘Mysterium-X’ sensor from 2011. That highly-rated model was capable of recording in raw from 1 to 300 fps at between 2 and 5K, and in variety of aspect ratios. But that was then. This new sensor is a 19-Mpix, 30.7 x 15.8mm Bayer pattern 16-bit CMOS sensor, and is capable of a variety of resolutions including 6K video (6144 x 3160 pixels) capture. 

Like the earlier Mysterium-X based model, the Epic Dragon records REDCODE RAW (.r3d), a compressed RAW format that is variable in compression ratio.  It begins at 3:1 and goes as high as 18:1 for lower data consumption and ultra-high frame rates. Frame rates vary from 1 to 300 fps, depending on resolution. However, the vaunted 6K video option is only available between 1 and 85 fps.

Naturally, all this capability comes with a big ticket. The Epic Dragon body is available direct from the firm at $29,000, while the body with side RedMag SSD and lens mount (as above) starts at $31,200.

Existing Epic-M owners can upgrade to the new Dragon sensor and Asics from $9,500.

DxOMark sensor testing protocol

For the tests, the camera was set to full 6k resolution at 23.98 fps, 16 bit and RC 5:1 compression.

A shutter angle (exposure time) equivalent to 1/50th sec was used.  As the camera was supplied with an EF mount, we adopted a Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 L USM during the tests (though the procedures are not reliant on the lens used). It’s also worth noting that the Dragon’s native sensitivity is ISO 250 and measured at 104, while all other sensitivities were obtained by digital gain.

The camera records REDCODE RAW that must be processed though REDCINE-X, a free application available on the RED website. Currently, RED does not give direct access to the bayer pattern data, so we cannot include this sensor analysis and score in our official DxO Mark ranking.

Given that the Dragon’s CMOS sensor technology isn’t vastly different from the physically larger full-frame models tested, it’s surprising to see the Epic Dragon’s score so high. While every effort was made to ensure the Epic Dragon adhered to our rigid testing protocols and that the results passed all the tests we performed, it’s clear the scores reflect a significantly different approach to image acquisition.