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Over the past few months there have been so many fantastic DSLR releases that I felt it was about time to write a follow up to my Top 5 DSLRs For Video article. This time around though, I decided to narrow it down even further, and give my picks for the top 3 instead of the top 5, since I really wanted to zero in on the cream of the crop here.
You can capture pretty amazing video with a lot of DSLRs now. Cameras like the Lumix G6, Sony A99, Sony A7R, 7D, Nikon D5300 and many more cameras are extremely capable of fantastic quality and used professionally all the time… Are they the best of the best? Not in my opinion (for video that is), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t produce images that look better than cameras 10 times their price, under the right circumstances and with the right DP behind the lens. So, although I’ve narrowed it down to my top 3 here, I do want to point out that I did so not because other cameras aren’t capable of producing great results, but rather because these few really stand out for one reason or another.
A few thoughts before we get to the list…
What’s surprised me more than the actual innovations in the camera world this year, is how interested so many shooters still are in the DSLR format – even with cameras like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera/Pocket Camera stealing a lot of DSLR thunder in recent years. When the BMCC was released back in 2012, many of us thought that it signalled the beginning of the end for the DSLR video revolution. This felt especially true as more and more shooters adopted the C300 and so many camera manufacturers jumped on board with large sensor interchangeable lens camcorders. But with all that said, two years later the DSLR revolution is still here in full force, and in fact, it might just be stronger than ever. Sure, there are still issues with shooting on DSLRs, and no matter how great they become the form factor and ergonomics will never be the same as a traditional camcorder, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t the best tool for many jobs. Personally speaking, I now own many cameras including the BMCC and C100, but there are many situations where shooting on a DSLR just makes more sense. So while 2012 and 2013 led many of us to believe that video based DSLR shooting was becoming a thing of the past, 2014 is acting like a renaissance year for the DSLR format, and we have the cameras to prove it.
Much like my previous article, I am basing my judgement on the top 3 DSLRs on how they function as all round video tools, and not simply placing them on the list based on image quality alone. For instance, if a DSLR has excellent resolution, but poor ergonomics and audio control, it’s not going to make the cut. After all, many shooters are using their DSLRs as a primary video camera, and if you only have one main camera it better do a lot more than just provide you with a high resolution image. To put things in perspective, my favorite camera (image-wise) is my Blackmagic Cinema Camera, but it is also by far the one that I use least out of any that I own. It just isn’t practical for most situations, as I don’t like having to rig it up every time I go out to shoot something. Yes, I love the images it produces and I deal with the workarounds when it really matters because the quality is that good… But if I only owned one camera, that wouldn’t be the one. The cameras on this list take into account many variables including: overall image quality, resolution, dynamic range, frame rates, audio capability, form factor, sensor quality/size, ease of use, and additional video features.
Without further ado, here is my top 5 list for 2014.
This is probably my favorite camera right now, hands down. Recently I did a video review on this new 4K shooting DSLR from Panasonic and I will re-iterate here that this camera is nothing short of amazing. The Lumix GH lineup has matured beautifully over the years from the groundbreaking, but severely limited GH1, to the hackable and fantastic GH2, to the more physically refined GH3, and finally this year, the GH4 – capable of so much, in such a small package. Take a look at some specs:
- 16.05 MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
- DCI 4K 4096×2160 at 24p
- UHD 4K 3840×2160 at 30p/24p
- Full HD up to 60p
- 96fps Overcrank Mode
- 3.0″ 1,036k-Dot OLED Monitor
- 2,359K-Dot OLED Live View Finder
- Support for 59.94p, 23.98p, 50p, & 24p
- 4:2:2 8-Bit or 10-Bit HDMI Output
- High-Speed 49-Point Autofocus
- Magnesium Alloy, Weather-Sealed Body
Major highlights of this camera include the fact that it can record 4K internally, and shoots up to 96fps at 1080p. For me though, what I really love about this camera are all of the ‘smaller’ video features which can be just as important (if not more important) than 4K and high frame rates. For instance, the focus peaking and zebras alone on this camera make it such a viable production tool, as do many other video features including timecode support, color bars, and much more. I also have a preference for mirrorless cameras when shooting video as they have the ability to utilize practically any lens out there today with the use of cheap adapters, so this camera is truly one of the most universally adaptable 4K cameras that you can buy.
The images that this camera produces are absolutely stunning. I would argue that of all the cameras on this list, the GH4 will produce the best image, which is extremely impressive considering it also offers a more extensive feature set than the others. There have been some tests done with the GH4 and RED MX camera, and the GH4 is actually significantly sharper and more detailed than the RED footage. As I stated in my video review as well, the image from the GH4 reminds me a lot of the RED MX in terms of overall resolution, quality and dynamic range (which is pretty good, maybe 11.5 – 12 stops). The only downside about this camera for many shooters coming from a 5D or other full frame camera is the fact that the crop factor of the MFT format can take some getting used to. It is a 2x crop in 1080 mode, but as soon as you switch over to 4K mode you actually get a 2.3 x crop, which will be nearly identical to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. That said, I don’t find the crop to be a major issue at all since there is an abundance of fast, wide glass available for the MFT format, and there is always the option of picking up a MetaBones Speed Booster. Keep in mind though, that you will want fast glass with this camera as it isn’t the best in low-light situations. It’s useable, and better than the GH2/GH3, but the worst of the three cameras on this list in that regard.
Pros: 4K internally, 96fps at 1080p, plenty of video features, small form factor, relatively low cost.
Cons: Crop sensor (which increases to a slightly larger crop at 4K), less accessories available for it than many competitors since the MFT format hasn’t been adopted to the same extent as Canon/Nikon, not great in low light.
Why It Made The List: It’s the most affordable 4K DSLR on the market today and was clearly designed with the video shooter in mind, boasting numerous video features that aren’t found on other DSLRs.
When Sony released their A7 and A7R last year, many of us were really eager to get our hands on those cameras (particularly the A7R) and try them out for video. After all, both cameras offered a full-frame sensor in a tiny, mirrorless body, which in many ways created a best of both worlds situation for video. Although I don’t always feel the full frame look is necessary, there are times when it is the best format to shoot with – especially when you can get a full frame look in a body that is so compact. Unfortunately though, the A7 and A7R didn’t deliver great results as far as their video capability. The actual quality wasn’t terrible, but also wasn’t great considering the fact that the cameras suffered from a lot of moire/aliasing and recorded to a highly compressed AVCHD codec. Thankfully though, the A7S was announced only months later and makes up for many of the shortcomings of it’s predecessors (and then some) by offering the following features:
- 12.2MP Full-Frame Exmor CMOS Sensor
- BIONZ X Image Processor
- Gapless On-Chip Lens Design
- 3.0″ 921.6k-Dot Tilting LCD Monitor
- XGA 2.36M-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
- Full HD Recording in XAVC S
- 4:2:2 UHD 4K Output via HDMI
- Full Pixel Read-Out, S-Log2 Gamma
- Expandable Sensitivity: ISO 50-409600
- Fast Intelligent 25-Point AF System
The two things that initially caught my attention with this camera were the 4K capability and the fact that it has a 12MP sensor. The camera only records 4K externally to a separate device (right now the best option is the upcoming Shogun from Atomos, which was designed for this camera), but it also records a very clean 1080p image internally. The reason the 12MP sensor is such a plus, is that it will undoubtably be more suitable for video than many higher megapixel sensors on other competing full frame DSLRs that need to use line skipping and other methods to pull an HD image from a large sensor. A 12MP full frame sensor is an absolute beast when it comes to 4K video, not only because of the fact that it avoids line skipping, but more importantly because of the size of the actual pixels, which are much larger and therefore will provide much better low light sensitivity.
This camera is not available to purchase yet, but I did have a chance to play around with one extensively at NAB, and was really impressed by the camera itself, the form factor, and of course the image quality. I was also pretty blown away to realize that this camera can shoot at up to 409,600 ISO which is the highest of any DSLR/DSLM on the market today. The biggest downside with this camera right now is the fact that it can’t record 4K internally. The whole point of having a mirrorless camera in my opinion is to keep things small, and when you need to attach a monitor that is twice the size of the camera just to get a 4K video file, it sort of defeats the purpose of having a small camera in the first place. That said however, the on board 1080p is sure to produce some excellent results, and at this point in time 4K is really still more of a luxury than a necessity.
Pros: Full frame, 4K capable, low megapixel count, excellent low light ability, small form factor.
Cons: 4K is only available with an external recorder, 12MP sensor makes it less ideal for stills (if you need it to double as a stills cam), rolling shutter will likely be as bad as the A7/A7R.
Why It Made The List: This is truly a progressive camera that packs a huge amount of power into a small body. Mirrorless full frame video in a camera this small with the ability to output 4K via HDMI is hard to argue with.
All these years later and the 5D is still one the most (if not, the most) used DSLR for video on the market, which in itself scores points for the camera in making it one of the most viable tools for DSLR video production today. As I mentioned at the top of this article, there are so many variables to consider when creating a list like this, and while the 5D might not have the best overall image quality in video mode, it makes up for that in so many other ways. The fact that it is so widely used and adopted is a huge advantage for shooters looking to invest in this camera. The amount of accessories, rigs, and other gear that is available for the 5D (at low cost) is more than just about any other camera on the market, simply because of the quantity of 5Ds that are being used across the globe. It’s also great for shooters to be able to use a camera that producers and production companies are familiar with, as I can tell you from personal experience to this day 90% of the time I am on a professional set and a DSLR is requested for the production, they ask for a 5D. With all that said, this camera would not have made the cut this year if it wasn’t able to shoot RAW by using the Magic Lantern firmware. That ability (coupled with everything else I mentioned) is the reason this camera made the list. After all, here are it’s specs (including capabilities with the ML hack):
- 22.3MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
- 3.2″ Clear View High Resolution LCD
- DIGIC 5+ Image Processor
- 61-Point High Density AF
- Full HD 1080/30p and 720/60p Formats
- Built-In HDR and Multiple Exposure Modes
- Extended ISO Range (50-102400)
- Up to 6.0 FPS Continuous Mode
- Dual CF and SD Memory Card Slots
- Durable Magnesium-Alloy Construction
- Ability to shoot RAW
- Focus Peaking
- Additional Manual Audio Control
- Built In Intervalometer
This camera really is a workhorse. Sure, you could buy a camera for a fraction of the cost of a 5D (a lumix G6 for instance) that will give you sharper, higher quality video right out of the box with additional features, but the 5D has so much going for it, especially with the ML firmware installed. Using Magic Lantern makes the 5D one of the only DSLRs that is as feature rich as the Lumix GH4, with built in peaking, zebras, and much more, not to mention the camera can shoot RAW! I posted an article a while back titled the 5D RAW Hack & Why I Don’t Care, and the essence of the article was that there are so many other RAW capable, affordable cameras out there today that were designed to actually shoot RAW, that I don’t always see the benefit in using RAW on a 5D, especially when it was first released and I was concerned about stability issues. That said, just because I don’t use it on professional shoots, doesn’t mean that others don’t want to, and the fact that you at least have the option on this camera is great (whether it’s practical or not is a different story given the workarounds in post).
There are of course some negatives to the camera as well. The fact that there is no 1080/60p mode is a huge downside for me, considering the 720/60p mode is really soft. The price tag is also fairly high, compared to the other two cameras on this list, since you are essentially paying for one of the best stills cameras in the world today, and you may or may not even need to use it for still photography.
Pros: Full frame, RAW capable, industry standard brand/model, incredible still photos.
Cons: Shooting RAW means hacking the camera, using expensive cards, and lots of workarounds in post to edit the footage. No 1080/60p mode, and 720/60p is very soft. More expensive than other cameras with better IQ.
Why It Made The List: The camera is still the number one most requested DSLR to have on set, which makes it an extremely valuable tool regardless of shortcomings in it’s image quality. RAW capability though Magic Lantern makes this camera one of the most affordable RAW cameras in the world, and will be ideal for specific types of shooting environments.
Which Camera Is Best For You?
First off, as I mentioned at the top of this article, there are loads of DSLRs on the market right now that are capable of producing incredible results, and that are not on this list. Don’t feel like you need to go out and buy a new camera if you already have a great camera body that is working for you and making you money. That said though, if you are ready for a new camera and want to get a tool with longevity that will hopefully not be outdated by this time next year, the 3 on this list are your best best.
The GH4 is the best tool for you if you already come from a Micro Four Thirds background (and have lots of MFT ready glass) or you need to record 4K internally. I see the GH4 as the ultimate documentary/video journalism camera as the stealth form factor will allow you to shoot with it in just about any situation without drawing attention to yourself, all the while capturing beautiful 4K video. It is also great for narrative films on a budget that want a great all round production camera that is not only 4K capable, but can also record at up to 96fps for slow motion sequences.
The A7S falls largely into the same category as the GH4 in my opinion, since the body and size of the cameras are similar. Again, this would be a great tool for documentary work as it can be really stealth given the size of the body, and in some situations (namely, extreme low light) this camera will allow you to capture images that no other camera on this list (or off this list for that matter) will be able to. Deciding between this camera and the GH4, really comes down to three factors – Whether you already have full frame lenses that can work with this camera, if you prefer the full frame look, and whether or not you need to record 4K internally.
The 5D MKIII is a tried and true camera that is a guaranteed workhorse and a fantastic all-rounder. If you have no interest in shooting 4K in the near future, and want to have a camera that producers are familiar with, this camera is the one for you. At least for the time being, the 5D will be the most requested camera on set, and is trusted across the board by DPs, producers, and other creative professionals – not because it is the best, but because it is the camera that they have used and can trust. The 5D is a very different animal than the other two cameras on this list, and in order to make it truly function as a great video camera you really do need to hack it with Magic Lantern. That said, it is truly a well rounded product and is especially good if you also plan on also shooting stills with it.
As the year progresses I will be sure to update or add to this list if any new releases shake things up in the camera world. As of now, we have seen the vast majority of new DSLRs for 2014 already released at NAB, but there are certainly some cameras that have been rumoured (such as the 7D MKII) which may give us even more to talk about.
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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!