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Choosing a camera for filmmaking

Updated 27 October 2016

Panasonic DVX200 camcorderPanasonic HC-V550   Canon EOS 700D

  • SLRs and mirrorless cameras are best for creative filmmaking on a budget
  • iPhones are worth considering for mobile journalism and documentary
  • Pro or semi-pro camcorders are best for news and events
  • iPads are good for schools and education

There are lots of different kinds of cameras you can use for filmmaking. This guide looks at cameras that low-budget filmmakers could afford to buy or hire. (It doesn’t cover top-end pro cameras like the Red and Alexa used for high-end TV and feature films. Hiring one of these for the day costs as much as buying a good DSLR, and it takes an expert operator to use it properly.)

For many people, a DSLR or mirrorless camera gives the best balance between image quality and affordability – whether you’re a beginner or a serious low-budget filmmaker. But if you’re shooting news or events, you might be better off with a camcorder as most of them are easier and quicker to use. And iPhones are becoming increasingly popular with documentary makers, mobile journalists and even feature film makers.

If you can afford one, an interchangeable lens video camera can give you the advantages of a DSLR with better image quality and handling.

For families, schools and educators, you could choose between basic camcorders (which are very easy to use), iPads/iPhones or compact still cameras. Action cameras are great for recording outdoor activities. I’ve written a guide to video cameras for children and teenagers.

If you’re on a really tight budget, I’ve made a list of cameras under $300 (£250)

Should you buy a camcorder, a mirrorless camera or a DSLR?

What else you’ll need


DSLRs and mirrorless cameras

Still cameras with interchangeable lenses are the cheapest way to shoot really good quality video. I think the best all-round camera for low budget filmmakers is the Canon 80D. You could go for the new, mirrorless EOS M5 instead: it’s smaller, slightly cheaper and has an electronic viewfinder. If you’re on a tight budget, go for the Canon T5i/700D or the little mirrorless EOS M3 instead. Another mirrorless option is the Panasonic G7  which has a smaller sensor, but can shoot ultra high definition 4K.

Professionals will want something more solid like the Canon 7d mk II, the full-frame 5d MkIII or the smaller mirrorless Panasonic GH4. The Sony A7s II is also small, very good in low light, and popular with news and documentary shooters. But if you’re planning to spend as much as the 5D or A7S, a Canon C100 interchangeable lens video camera may be a better choice.

More about choosing a DSLR or mirrorless camera

Best for

  • Making creative short films on a tight budget

Consumer camcorders

Under $250/£200


Small camcorders like the Panasonic V180 are easier to film with than iPads or still cameras. They’re good for schools and families. They have reasonable built-in microphones.

Under $300/£250

Mid-range camcorders will have better image quality, and some add features like microphone and headphone sockets.

The Canon HF-R700 is the most affordable camcorder with a microphone socket (if you’re in the US – it’s not sold in Europe).

Under $600/£400


The Panasonic V770 has a microphone and headphone socket, an accessory shoe, and 120fps slow motion.

Under $1200/£1000


Larger camcorders like the 4K Panasonic HC-WXF991 or the HD Canon Vixia G40 include features like microphone and headphone sockets and accessory shoes, and offer more manual controls.

Camcorder pros

  • Some are small and unobtrusive
  • Easier to film with than smartphones or SLRs
  • Easy to handhold
  • Image stabilisation is usually better than DSLRs

Camcorder cons

  • Image and sound quality won’t be as good as prosumer or pro cameras, especially in low light.

Good for

  • Families
  • School students

Prosumer camcorders

The Canon XA30 and similar cameras have better image and sound quality than consumer camcorders.  They give you more creative control and you’ll get better results in low light.

Most prosumer cameras will let you plug in separate microphones and headphones. But they don’t have all the features of a professional video camera.

My review of the Canon XA20

Pros

  • Good image and sound quality
  • Fairly easy to use
  • Better handling than DSLRs

Cons

  • Bigger and more complicated than basic camcorders
  • Image quality may not be as good as system still cameras
  • Image quality may not be accepted by broadcasters

Best for

  • News, documentaries and events on a budget
  • Videos for online use

Professional camcorders

Professional camcorders give you a lot more creative control than basic or prosumer camcorders. Most will let you plug in pro XLR microphones and use dials and buttons rather than menus. This lets you work faster once you’re used to the camera.

Most professional cameras have fairly large sensors for better low light performance. Key features are the ability to record at a high ‘bit rate’ and to record more colour information. These mean that the footage is easier to adjust when you edit, and may meet broadcast quality standards (see below).

The Canon XC10 is the best value camera for starting with events, news and documentary. It has a fairly large one inch sensor and can record broadcast-quality HD, 4K at 305Mb/s, and 12MP stills. It has very good image stabilisation so it’s easy to handhold, it’s good in low light, and it’s fairly compact: it looks more like an SLR than a professional video camera. The controls are a little bit fiddly – it relies a lot on the touchscreen – but that’s partly down to its small size. It doesn’t have XLR audio inputs but its more expensive replacement, the XC15, comes with an XLR adapter included.

The Sony PWX70 is a more traditional alternative. It has a detachable top handle, XLR inputs and an SDI output. Like the XC10 it has a 1″ sensor and shoots broadcast quality HD. It’s ‘4K ready’ but shooting 4K requires an expensive upgrade and the bit rate is a fairly low 100Mb/second.

What is ‘broadcast quality’?

There’s no single definition, but many broadcasters want HD footage shot at a bit rate of at least 50Mb/s, with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling (that’s twice as much colour information as the 4:2:0 you get with many camcorders and SLRs). They also specify a minimum sensor size: 1 inch for a single chip, or 1/2 inch for three-chip cameras. 

Pros

  • Good image and sound quality
  • Lots of creative control
  • Quick to use once you know what you’re doing

Cons

  • Can be big
  • Fairly expensive
  • Take time to learn
  • Images may not be as pleasing or ‘film-like’ as those from cheaper SLRs or mirrorless cameras

Best for

  • News, documentaries, and events such as weddings where you need to be able to set up and make adjustments quickly

Interchangeable lens video cameras

These large sensor cameras have many of the advantages of both pro camcorders and system still cameras. The big sensors and interchangeable lenses make for really good image quality. Most of them also have pro sound features, handle better than DSLRs, and record in formats that stand up better to being manipulated ‘in post’ (at the editing stage) than basic DSLR footage. And they don’t suffer the ‘moiré’ effect which results from shooting video with a sensor designed for high resolution still photography.

Canon C100

The Canon C100 is popular with professionals, and an obvious next step for Canon DSLR users, though it only records 1080p HD.  If you want a Canon cinema camera with 4K recording you’ll need the expensive C300 MkII.

The HD Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is the most affordable camera in this category. The bigger Blackmagic Cinema Camera comes in 2.5k and 4k versions. Both have a very wide dynamic range (they can record scenes with a lot of contrast) and great image quality for the price. But they have drawbacks like very large file sizes, poor handling and audio, and an odd sensor size.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • Lots of creative control
  • Good in low light

Cons

  • Most are big
  • Expensive

Best for

Serious filmmakers, news and documentary filmmakers who can afford them.


Smartphones and tablets

 

You can shoot and edit on iPads and iPhones. With the right accessories they can be really useful. There are more filmmaking accessories and apps available for Apple devices compared to other phones and tablets.

Pros

  • Easy to use
  • Small and portable
  • You can shoot and edit on one device

Cons

  • Sound and image quality won’t be as good as a dedicated video camera, particularly in difficult conditions
  • Tablets are awkward to handhold

Good for

  • Families
  • Schools
  • Researchers, scientists and journalists who need to collect and edit information in the field

Compact still cameras


Lots of compact still cameras can shoot HD video. Cameras like the Panasonic ZS60 (TZ80 in Europe) have a great zoom range and are ideal as take-anywhere travel cameras. But if you’re buying a camera specifically for filmmaking, you’re probably better off getting a camcorder or DSLR.

Pros

  • Small and unobtrusive

Cons

  • Sound quality won’t be great, and you probably can’t connect an external microphone.
  • They’re a bit awkward to use for filmmaking.

Good for

  • Families
  • Photographers
  • Journalists and documentary makers who need a discreet camera

Action cameras


These little cameras are small and tough. You wouldn’t want to use one as your main camera. You can mount them on bikes, helmets, cars, your body, or even animals. Most of them don’t have screens. The more expensive ones let you monitor the image with a wireless monitor or an iPhone or Android app. The best is probably the GoPro HERO4 Black, with its ultrawide lens; the most affordable GoPro is the tiny Hero Session.

If you’re considering an action camera, you should also look at the new DJI Osmo handheld stabilised camera. 

Pros

  • Small, tough, robust

Cons

  • No viewfinder
  • Basic sound

Good for

  • sports and outdoor activities
  • science experiments and product testing
  • news and documentaries

Features to look for

Ease of use
Is the camera comfortable to hold? Are the controls easy to use? Can you change the important settings with buttons and switches, or do you have to use menus? If there’s a touch screen, does it work well? Does the camera have an accessory shoe so you can fit a microphone or a light?

Manual control
Can you set exposure, white balance and sound levels yourself, or are they all automatic? These controls might not matter to you now, but you may need them if you get serious about your filmmaking.

Lens
How far does the camera zoom out (wide angle) and zoom in (telephoto? The wide-angle setting is probably more important as it lets you get close and makes handholding easier. The best way to compare this is find out what the 35mm equivalent is: under 30mm is good, 25mm or less is great. It’s the optical zoom range you should ask about – digital zoom is irrelevant (see bottom).

If the zoom range isn’t very wide, does the manufacturer make wide-angle or telephoto adaptors to fit to the front of the lens?

How close can the camera focus? What’s the widest aperture? (A low number, like f/2 or f/1.7, lets more light in so you can use the camera in dark conditions or get shallow focus effects).

Sound
Is the built-in microphone good? Is there a headphone socket so you can listen to the sound while you film? Can you plug in an separate microphone? (If you want to be able to use pro microphones, you need a camera with three-pin XLR inputs).

Image stabilisation
Image stabilisation can make pictures less shaky. It’s not essential if you’re going to use a tripod or a good camera support, but it’s very useful for shooting handheld.

Sensor size
Larger is sometimes, but not always, better. The bigger sensors in HDSLRs, mirrorless cameras and large sensor video cameras are are usually better in low light, and let you get shallow focus effects. They also let you use smaller apertures without diffraction softening your image. But for news and events shooters, the greater depth of field you get from a small-sensor camera can be useful.

Recording format
Does the camera record in a format that your editing program can handle? Is the format easy to edit with?

Can it record in HD, Full HD (720p), Ultra HD (4K)? Which do you need?  You don’t need 4K if you’re just shooting for the web.

Things to ignore

Special effects. If you want them, add them when you edit the film.

Digital zoom. ‘200x digital zoom’ sounds great, but it’s just a way of electronically blowing up the middle of the image. It makes the picture quality worse, so you shouldn’t use it. Only the optical zoom counts.

Megapixels. This tells you how many million light-capturing pixels there are in the sensor. More megapixels are supposed to be better for big prints, but they don’t make video any better. (Full HD video is only 2 megapixels). More megapixels on a small sensor can actually mean the camera is worse in low light.


 

Equipment for low budget filmmaking