Over the years I have gone through a lot of cameras. My first semi-professional camera was the infamous DVX100 which I later sold when I needed to upgrade to an HD camera, and the endless cycle of buying and selling cameras continued from there. As I started freelancing as a DP, I quickly realized that in order to do my job well I needed access to multiple cameras, as no single camera would work best for every situation.
I’m often asked by the readers of my blog, “which camera should I buy?”, which is a tough question to answer. So much of it depends on your needs as a filmmaker as well as your budget, but regardless today I am going to share some insight on some of the cameras that I own or use regularly, to help put camera choice in perspective. It’s worth noting that if you are just getting started, you don’t necessarily need more than one camera. There is a lot that can be done with a single camera, especially if you buy one that is versatile, but there is always the option of renting a camera as well if you feel the need to. Below are a few of the cameras I shoot with regularly and what I use them for:
For a long while I didn’t want to touch the Canon C100/C300 cameras with a ten foot pole. They just seemed so overpriced given the specs, but I later came around to them after having the opportunity to shoot with a C300 on a lifestyle show. Both the C100 and C300 are cameras that deliver incredible images that look and feel much more impressive than you would expect based on their spec sheets. I like to use these cameras if I’m shooting in a run and gun situation (lifestyle/reality shooting, event coverage, documentary, etc.), while still maintaining a relatively high production value, as the image is gorgeous and the camera is very easy to shoot with. It is set up like a traditional video camera which makes using it optimal in many situations. It can also work well in a narrative environment, although it wouldn’t be my first choice. Below is a review video I did on the C100 which also compares it to one of the other cameras on this list, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.
The GH4 is an amazingly versatile tool with one of the best images I have ever seen out of a DSLR. It shoots 4K and has just about every video feature you could ask for, and if it just had built in ND filters and a slightly different body, it would render my C100 obsolete. But because of the form factor and the nature of the MFT format, this camera is still a tool that I often end up using on my personal projects or on smaller freelance jobs where I can have my pick of camera. I did a video review on the GH4 that you can watch below, but in a nutshell I think this is an absolutely incredible tool for narrative filmmaking (especially when shooting guerrilla), as a possible B-Cam to a RED Epic or MX, and excellent for documentary work as well.
The trusty old 5D is still a camera that I would consider using from time to time. The image quality is the worst out of all of the cameras on this list, however it can shoot unbelievable stills (one of the best stills cameras on the planet right now), and it is still an industry standard video camera, even though the quality isn’t the absolute best. If I had to shoot a project that I might normally use my GH4 or BMCC for, but that also required stills, I would certainly consider the 5D. That choice would primarily be made based on the necessity of still photos, but with all that said the image quality coming from the MK III is actually still pretty good (all things considered). It may not be the best DSLR for video, but it’s still up there and capable of producing nice images, while also doubling as a fantastic stills camera if your project has those unique requirements. Out of all the cameras on this list, I would choose it last to shoot with in most situations, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad camera – just personal preferance!
Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.5K)
The original Blackmagic Cinema Camera was really such a game changer. I jumped on the bandwagon right away and am still using the original 2.5K version as I prefer the image to both the 4K version as well as the Pocket Camera – even though both of those cameras are great tools as well. In my opinion this camera really should only be used for cinematic work as that is where it really shines, but it has been successfully used in documentary projects as well. Below is a teaser for my short film, shot on the BMCC last year:
I wouldn’t ever consider using the BMCC on a job that required a quick turnaround or a fast pace on set, as it is a camera that demands to be treated like a true cinema camera. Just like a RED or an Alexa, you need to take your time with it, build it out just the way you want it, and be conscious of the amount of data the camera is consuming. For certain freelance jobs (such as music videos or films) I will use the BMCC, but I mainly use it for my personal work as many outside projects require a camera that can be used more quickly and efficiently on set. Or in cases where a project does allow for a more substantial setup time during production/post, there is usually enough budget to use cameras like the following two.
The Red is an excellent camera. I have never purchased one myself as I am not completely sold on RED. They make incredible cameras that are capable of capturing beautiful images, but there are lots of quirks and small issues with them that get under my skin. I particularly don’t like the fact that you need to use so much proprietary RED gear with the EPIC such as the RED MAGS which are extremely costly. Also, many other cameras (such as the BMCC and even the GH4) under the right conditions can produce an image that comes close to RED quality at a much lower price point. Is the RED a better camera? Yes, and it better be for the price! It will produce better images, it can shoot higher frame rates, and it is a more professional tool, but other cameras that are far less expensive do come very close. I will typically rent a RED when needed for a narrative film that requires 4K, slow-motion, and has a proper budget, or a higher budget commercial/music video project with those same requirements.
The Arri Alexa is hands down my favorite camera. The image quality is just perfect, the dynamic range is fantastic, and ergonomically the camera couldn’t be designed better. Unfortunately it has a steep price tag, even to rent, so this is a camera that is reserved for projects that have a substantial budget and can afford the large rental costs associated with this camera. That said, if money is not an issue, this camera would always be my number one choice to shoot a narrative film with as the image is the closest to 35mm film that I’ve ever seen. It’s no surprise that nearly every major Hollywood motion picture that is shot digitally is now shot on the Alexa, with the exception of a handful that are shot on the RED EPIC or other digital cinema cameras. If nothing else, the Alexa is the gold standard to which all other digital cinema cameras should be compared to in my opinion, and the camera that should be used for the highest level digital projects.
Any camera can be extremely powerful in the right hands. Lighting, composition, camera movement, lenses, and other variables all play a much bigger role in the final image than the camera itself. That said, it is still ideal to shoot with the best camera for the job to ensure that all of the legwork put into designing the image is captured in the best way possible. If you can only buy one camera – look at something like the C100 or GH4 as they are tools that can do it all, even if they can’t do everything perfectly. Otherwise, if you have more specific needs, some of the other cameras on this list might be your best bet, even if they are somewhat limited in their applications for other formats.
Be sure to leave a comment if you’re looking for advice on a camera that’s not on this list!
Also, if you’re looking for a quote on my DP rates (with or without gear), be sure to e-mail me any time at email@example.com