If you search “best cameras for filmmaking in 2021”, you’re likely to get overloaded with camera recommendations, often from blog posts or articles that are sponsored by camera brands.
This post is not sponsored by any brand, and just represents my personal opinion as a narrative filmmaker.
My goal is to help you find the best possible camera for your needs, in this case – one that is highly affordable and under $1000.
There are many great cameras out there that I have not included on this list for a variety of reasons, more often than not because they excel in other areas.
If you’re shooting weddings, documentaries, corporate videos, or anything else in that realm, there are many other cameras outside of those on this list that I might recommend.
But if you’re primarily filmmaking narrative material – shorts, feature films, episodic content, etc. – and need to keep your budget in check, this list is for you.
Below is a breakdown of my top 5 cameras for narrative filmmaking under $1000.
In no particular order:
Like many other filmmakers, I love Fuji because of their incredible color science. It’s what led me to purchase a Fuji X-T2 and later an X-T3, and a large part of why the X-T30 made it to this list.
In many ways, the Fuji X-T30 is like a baby brother to Fuji’s flagship X-T4. They even share the same Super 35mm sensor, making them both capable of producing nearly identical images. There are some notable differences though –
For starters, the X-T30 does not have internal image stabilization like the X-T4, which could be a deal breaker for some. This is not an issue for me personally, as I never use image stabilization when shooting a narrative film, but understandably everyone has their own workflow on set.
The X-T30 also is unable to record in 10 bit like the X-T4, which again may deter some from making the purchase. In my opinion though, the 4K footage from the X-T30 is gorgeous, even in 8 bit, so I wouldn’t discount the camera on that basis alone.
In short: If you love Fuji colors and don’t need internal stabilization or 10 bit recording, this camera is a no-brainer.
The Lumix GH-line has long been a favorite camera among low-budget narrative filmmakers, and the G9 very much follows in those footsteps. Some even call the Lumix G9 a “Mini GH5”, as the two cameras share the same sensor and deliver similar image quality.
Unlike the GH5 which is video dominant, the G9 is designed to be a stills camera first. That means it lacks some of the video features you’ll get on the GH5, like 4:2:2 10 bit internal recording, and a v-log color profile.
That said, the camera is still capable of capturing gorgeous shots. Don’t let the lack of a flat v-log color profile deter you either – Log recording is a nice feature to have, but with a 100Mbps bitrate you would likely get better results baking your contrast into the raw footage. Stretching a highly compressed file through a log to Rec 709 conversion often degrades image quality.
In short: If you want to benefit from all the advantages the Micro Four Thirds format offers (namely lens choice and versatility) and you like the Lumix “look”, the G9 can get you there at a fraction of the cost.
Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera
This camera is by no means new, but it’s still actively being sold and as a personal favorite, I had to include it on the list.
Blackmagic’s Micro Cinema Camera shares the same 16mm sensor as their original Pocket Camera. The main difference between the two cameras though, is the Micro Cinema Camera does not include a monitor.
I suppose the camera was intended to be used primarily on drones or mounted in other tight spaces. But it’s just as capable of functioning as an a-camera on indie production if it’s set up the right way. All you really need is a small cage or stabilizer and an external monitor.
Of all the cameras on this list, the Micro Cinema Camera may deliver the most organic and filmic images of all. In the right hands, it can really look a lot like Super 16mm motion picture film.
The main drawback of this camera (besides needing to accessorize it) is its inability to record in 4K. But even though the camera tops out in 1080p resolution, for most narrative productions that’s perfectly fine. In fact, I intentionally shot and mastered my last feature film in 2K resolution on the Alexa Classic.
The camera is also not particularly easy to work with in the field since it’s so small (and the buttons can be hard to access), but that can always be worked around.
In short: If you love the analog 16mm look and 4K recording is not a deal breaker for you, definitely consider the Micro Cinema Camera. Just be prepared to purchase some extra peripherals to get it working to your liking.
Canon EOS M50 II
Yes, it’s 2021 and I am including a Canon camera on this list. Much like Fuji, the main reason I’m including the M50 II has to do with its fantastic color science.
You can knock Canon for many things, but color science is not one of them. They got it right years ago with the original 5D MKII, and they still have it right today. That’s true of their cinema camera lineup, DSLRs, and even their entry level offerings like the M50 II.
That’s not to say the M50 II is without its faults, but for some filmmakers (namely those working on narrative films), the impact of those faults may be minimal.
One example is the the lack of internal stabilization, which as I said above, is something many filmmakers tend to avoid altogether. Or the intense crop factor when shooting in 4K, which essentially turns the M50 II into a Super 16mm camera. For some this is a huge disadvantage, but for others it is a perk – namely, because they can pair the camera with vintage 16mm glass.
In many ways, this camera doesn’t do a lot well, and it’s certainly not a very versatile camera. But what it does do well, it excels at. And with the right approach both on set and in post-production, you can create some pretty amazing images.
In short: This is a great camera if you love the 16mm look and are a fan of Canon color science. Just don’t expect it to function without some quirks.
The ZCAM E2C is the most modular camera on the list. It’s also the only one that is engineered as a true cinema camera, not only in terms of image quality but also ergonomically.
The body of the camera is very reminiscent of RED’s lineup, which was clearly influential on the design. In many ways you can think of it as a mini RED camera, only more limited in its functionality and feature set.
Even still, the basics are covered. The camera will record up to 4K resolution in 10 bit RAW using its 4/3″ sensor, while supporting ProRes and H265 recording too. It also includes loads of other professional features, like in-camera support for Color Grading LUTs, proxy file recording, log color profiles, and much more.
Like the Micro-Cinema Camera however, the ZCAM E2C is very much a box with a sensor in it. You still need to invest in a monitor, battery solution, and other accessories. But for the right filmmaker, it’s worth the effort.
In short: If you’re looking for the ultimate budget RED camera – this is it. You won’t get all the bells and whistles, but you will get a modular camera built for professional use on set.