- SLRs and mirrorless cameras are great for the ‘film look’
- Camcorders are easier to use, and better for news and events
- Cinema cameras combine the best features of both
Should you get a camcorder, a DSLR, a mirrorless camera – or something else – for low budget filmmaking? The choice isn’t a clear-cut as it was a few years ago: DSLRs are getting better, and you can now get camcorders with DSLR-like features.
What’s the difference?
A camcorder is designed specifically for shooting video. Most of them have built-in zoom lenses and tilt-and-swivel screens. More expensive pro camcorders have good built-in microphones and professional XLR audio inputs. They aren’t great for still photography.
A DSLR (digital SLR) is mainly designed for still photography. It takes interchangeable lenses. A mirror reflects the image up to the viewfinder, and flips up – blacking out the eyepiece – when you take a photo. So when you shoot video with it, you have to use ‘Live View’ on the main screen instead.
A mirrorless camera is like an SLR – you can swap lenses – but it doesn’t have a mirror. You view the image on the main live view screen, or an electronic eye-level viewfinder if it has one. They’re usually smaller and lighter than DSLRs.
Why would you shoot video on a camera designed for stills?
Most camcorders have quite small sensors and fixed zoom lenses. These small sensors aren’t great in low light, which can give SLRs – which have much bigger sensors – a big advantage.
Big sensors also have much shallower depth of field: so at the same aperture, less of the shot is in focus. That looks more ‘cinematic’ (like cinema films rather than video). You can make the most of it by fitting wide aperture prime (non-zooming) lenses. You can even ‘pull focus’, changing the focus from one part of the image to another as you film.
If DSLR video looks so great, why doesn’t everybody do it?
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras aren’t cheap. You can get a Canon, Sony or Panasonic HD camcorder for less than $250 (£200); you’ll need to spend around $400 (£300) for the cheapest new video-capable SLR.
Many SLRs and mirrorless cameras don’t have headphone sockets, and some can’t record good audio even with a separate microphone. So you may need to use a separate audio recorder.
Judging focus on a live view screen can be slow. You may need to magnify the image with a separate viewfinder or ‘loupe’.
If you’re trying to hold focus on moving subjects, shallow depth of field can be a nuisance rather than an advantage. SLRs usually have great, fast autofocus for stills, but ‘live view’ autofocus – with the mirror up – can be much slower.
Handling and stabilisation
These cameras can be awkward to hold steadily and to move smoothly for video shots. You may need a tripod, a monopod, or a special rig. Most camcorders have good image stabilisation so they’re easier to use handheld.
SLR sensors are designed to shoot high-resolution stills. Most current ones have at least 18 megapixels, but you only need two for HD video. So some cameras, such as lower-priced or older Canons, just record video from some rows of pixels (line-skipping). This can cause distracting interference patterns called moiré or aliasing.
Most SLR video isn’t recorded from the whole sensor at once: instead, it scans down the sensor. This can cause ‘rolling shutter’ distortion when you move the camera sideways or use it handheld.
Size and complexity
SLRs – and to a lesser extent mirrorless cameras – are bigger than equivalent camcorders, and you usually need accessories to get good results. But with camcorders, you can just pick them up and start shooting. Many have such good image stabilisation that you don’t really need a tripod.
It’s getting better
SLR and mirrorless makers – particularly Panasonic – have started taking video as a serious feature rather than just an add-on. Panasonic’s GH5 mirrorless camera has a whole raft of pro video features including an optional XLR audio module. The much more affordable Panasonic G85/G80 has excellent image stabilisation, and the Canon 80D and mirrorless EOS-M5 have fast video autofocus. On the camcorder front, Canon’s XC15 looks like an SLR but shoots broadcast quality video.
Who should use SLRs?
I use SLRs, mirrorless cameras, camcorders and an iPhone. I love the shallow focus and the great quality images I can get from the SLR, but when I’m shooting events I find a semi-professional camcorder much easier and quicker to use. (Often, I’ll put the camcorder on a tripod for a ‘master shot’ and use the SLR for closeups.)
SLRs and mirrorless cameras are best if you’re interested in getting that film-like image quality. So I recommend them for film students and ultra low-budget filmmakers. And they are definitely the ones to get if you want to shoot high-quality stills as well as video.
For events and news, good camcorders are better. Audio is easier and they’re easier to pick up and start shooting. And by the time you’ve stopped down the lens on an SLR to give you enough depth of field for a fast-moving scene, there sometimes isn’t that much difference in low light performance. Some pro and semi-pro camcorders like the Canon XC10 have large one-inch sensors, which are good for low-light shooting and give scope for some creativity with depth of field.
What else could I use?
If you’re on a really tight budget, you could pimp your phone: a current iPhone with a good filming app, an add-on microphone and a case or pistol grip can shoot good video and attracts less attention than bigger cameras. iPhones are popular with mobile journalists and documentary makers.
Another portable option is the DJI Osmo Pocket, a tiny stabilised 4K camera which uses your smartphone as the monitor.
Best of both worlds?
If you want to combine the advantages of camcorders and SLRs, Canon’s professional Cinema EOS cameras like the C100 have large Super 35mm sensors and take interchangeable lenses, but they’re much faster to use for filmmaking and have better video and sound quality. You can pick up a used C100 for a similar price to a high-end mirrorless camera.
If you want to record in high quality professional formats that are easy to colour correct and ‘grade’, BlackMagic’s Cinema Cameras are good value. The Pocket Cinema Camera 4K can record RAW and ProRes 4K files at up to 60fps.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.