Since launching my blog over 5 years ago, there’s been one question I’ve been asked more than any other over and over again: “Which is the best camera to buy for filmmaking?”
This of course is an impossible question to answer from such a broad perspective, since everyone’s needs, budgets, and creative intentions are vastly different. Typically when I’m asked for camera recommendations I’ll throw the question right back at the filmmaker. I’ll ask – What types of projects are you shooting? What specialty features are important to you? Do you plan to operate the camera yourself, or will you have a focus puller? What’s your target budget range? Etc, etc, etc.
More often than not, many indie filmmakers (especially those working on micro-budget productions) have similar needs. They’re looking for something affordable that can deliver beautiful image quality, will be easy to operate in run and gun environments, and won’t draw too much attention. In other words, they need a tool that will make their lives easier when shooting guerrilla style.
So with that in mind, I’ve decided to put together a list of my top 3 cameras for guerrilla filmmaking.
Here we go –
BLACKMAGIC POCKET CAMERA
Who says a camera needs to be brand new to make it on this list? The Pocket Cam from Blackmagic was originally announced 4 years ago, but it’s still as relevant as ever – especially for guerrilla filmmakers. While more recent Blackmagic cameras like the URSA Mini 4.6K or even the Micro Cinema Camera have largely stolen the spotlight, the Pocket Camera has some unique advantages of it’s own that are hard to deny even today.
For one, the image quality off of this camera is absolutely incredible, and it’s color science is amongst the best of any camera on the market under $10,000. But perhaps more importantly for run and gun shooters is the fact that (as the name suggests) this camera has a tiny footprint. It is truly minuscule in size, and it’s physical shape loosely resembles many of today’s DSLRs or point & shoot cameras. This is massively helpful when trying to blend into a crowd and remain inconspicuous while shooting.
It has a Super 16mm sized sensor, which makes it ideal for a single operator who is also pulling their own focus. Less depth of field = less room for error when focus pulling, but at the same time with fast/long lenses the camera is still capable of delivering shallow DOF when you need it to. It also allows for small vintage Super 16mm lenses to be used, which can help keep the overall footprint small too.
All that said, the small S16 sensor means it doesn’t have as strong low light performance as the other cameras on this list… So if you plan to shoot in little to no light, this may not be the camera for you. But if you are mainly shooting daytime footage, or have access to some fast lenses and some minimal lighting for your night scenes, this camera still has you covered.
The biggest drawback of the Pocket Camera (in my opinion) is its limited battery life, but there are a number of easy/DIY battery solutions out there that will allow you to power the camera all day without having to swap the internal batteries every hour, depending on how you shoot. Another consideration for some people is the lack of 4K recording, but quite honestly that is not a deal breaker for me. I shot my latest feature in 4.6K on the URSA Mini 4.6K, and am mastering it to 2K, which is essentially HD, and I have no regrets at all. If we had shot the film in 1080p or 2K it wouldn’t make any difference on the final product. So while 4K is certainly a nice option to have, I wouldn’t by any means say that it’s mandatory for most indie film productions.
I also want to point out that an alternative to the Pocket cam is Blackmagic’s Micro Cinema Camera. But because it lacks a monitor and generally draws more attention in public due to it’s form factor, I still recommend the pocket for most guerrilla shoots.
This list couldn’t be complete without mentioning the Lumix GH5, which is currently one of the most sought after mirrorless cameras for good reason – it is extremely versatile, feature rich, relatively low cost, and delivers gorgeous images. All of these factors naturally make it a contender for just about any type of production, but especially run & gun/guerrilla shoots thanks to speciality features like internal stabilization.
While many cameras today boast internal 5 Axis IS (meaning the sensor will stabilize your image in-camera, even when shooting with non-IS lenses), not all cameras have quite gotten the formula right. Having experimented with the GH5 as well as many other cameras on the market offering IS, there’s no question that the GH5 is at least in the top 3 on the market… And again, this can be crucial for guerrilla style shooting. The smaller you can keep your footprint (by not relying on clunky rigs or other accessories) the better off you are, and useable internal IS goes a long way in achieving that goal.
Even with IS aside, few mirrorless cameras/DSLRs have the technical capabilities of the GH5 in other respects, such as focus peaking, internal Log color space, 400Mbps recording, and much more.
Like any camera, it’s not perfect in every respect and in particular it’s color science still leaves a bit to be desired (although it’s certainly above average even in that department). But for filmmakers that need a true all round camera for maximum versalitily under run and gun scenarios, the Lumix GH5 could be the right camera for the job.
You can cherry pick just about any one single feature of the GH5 – such as it’s low light capabilities or it’s dynamic range – and could likely point to a competing camera that can outperform it in any given area. But what those competitors don’t do is deliver it all in one package, or at least not as well as the GH5 does… Again, it is a true all rounder.
Even it’s sensor size (Micro Four Thirds) offers shooters a happy medium between Super 16mm and Super 35mm. It is still highly adaptable to so many different lenses thanks to it’s mirrorless mount and small-ish sensor, but it’s also capable of producing really shallow depth of field and pretty solid low light performance, especially when paired with a Metabones Speed Booster. And of course, as a small DSLR-style camera, the Lumix GH5 will blend in easily when shooting in almost any environment.
I’ve ragged on Sony quite a bit on this blog over the years – mainly due to their lackluster color science (sorry Sony!) – but there is no denying that they are doing a wonderful job of pushing the technical boundaries of what is possible on consumer and prosumer level cinema cameras. Sony and Panasonic seem to have a similar philosophy in that regard, as they both wholly understand the value of versatility in today’s filmmaking landscape.
Many of Sony’s most popular cameras, such as their FS7 or their A7 line, are clearly designed with this ideology in mind… But in my opinion, the often overlooked FS5 is especially well suited for the guerrilla filmmaker for a number of reasons –
The first of which is the camera’s ergonomics. DSLRs or mirrorless cameras such as the A7S have been all the rage over the past few years, but even with features like internal stabilization they can still be tricky to operate in a run and gun scenario. The FS5 on the other hand is far easier to shoot with from an ergonomic standpoint, and allows director/DPs to change settings more easily, have more control over their camera movement, and shoot for longer periods of time without a rig, all thanks to the camera’s design.
The same argument could be made for Sony’s FS7, but again because this list is all about guerrilla filmmaking, I am favoring the FS5 based on its small footprint. It is substantially smaller than it’s bigger brother, but includes many of the same features, and in some cases even beats out it’s much more expensive counterpart.
While the FS7 trumps the FS5 in certain respects – 4K capture vs. UHD on the FS5, higher bit rate recording, etc. – it is also a larger, heavier, and more expensive, but has nearly identical image quality. So for guerrilla shooters that want an all in one package that can truly do it all, but don’t want to work with a system as large or costly as the FS7, the FS5 is an excellent alternative.
The FS5 is still a bigger camera than the other two on this list, but it doesn’t require any accessories, so when it’s paired with a small lens and used stripped down it can blend in almost as easily as the GH5 or Pocket Camera. After all, this is still a prosumer level camera that you can buy off the shelf, and it wouldn’t be unheard of to catch a tourist with deep pockets walking around with one on vacation.
It’s also worth pointing out that the larger sensor (Super 35) on the FS5 makes it optimal for shallow DOF and a more traditional 35mm cinematic look, not to mention it is incredibly good in low light. At the same time, the biggest drawback of the FS5 is it’s color science. Of the 3 cameras on this list, in my opinion it has the poorest color science, so if you are mainly shooting narrative and are picky when it comes to your color palettes and skin tomes, that may be something to consider. But if thats a non-issue for you, or if you do a lot of documentary work, it’s a tough camera to beat.
Oddly enough, the cameras that I personally shoot on most frequently are not on this list. Not because they aren’t also great tools, but simply because they don’t necessarily fit the bill of the perfect run and gun camera. For instance, I absolutely love my Fuji X-T2 and will happily use it for guerrilla shoots, but it doesn’t have internal IS and some of the other filmmaker-friendly bells and whistles that make these other cameras optimal for run and gun.
Similarly, I shoot a ton of my URSA Mini 4.6K as well, but compared to the FS5 it is a larger camera, isn’t as good in low light, and seems to draw more attention from onlookers. But this all goes to show the bigger point of this article: No one camera does it all.
If you are fortunate enough to have multiple cameras, you can pick whichever tool you need for any given situation. And in that respect, you don’t need a swiss-army knife of a camera that can do it all. But if you’re shooting a lot of guerrilla material and need a tool that will have your back in a variety of unpredictable scenarios, the 3 on this list are all great options in their own right.
What are your thoughts? Let me know if you agree/disagree with my top 3 in the comments!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!