Filmmakers are always on the hunt for gear – cameras in particular. But too often, we make our decisions based on specs or hype in the market, and neglect to choose a camera that will truly meet our unique needs.
There has never been a one-size-fits all camera that offers a perfect solution for everyone. If there were such a thing, most camera companies would be out of business.
A lot of the discussion online though, would leave you believing such a camera exists. That there is some kind of holy grail when it comes to camera choice. Clearly that’s never been the case though, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.
An Arri Alexa may be everyone’s dream camera, but the majority of middle of the road productions would be best served with a different tool. New mirrorless cameras like the Fuji XT-3 will serve smaller productions really well, but won’t function as effectively on a full blown movie production. No camera is perfect for every project.
So the best thing you can do when choosing a camera is focus on your needs –
What kind of content do you shoot? Do you work with a team or alone? Does 4K actually matter? Do you already own lots of glass in EF mount?
These kinds of considerations should be your first thoughts before even looking at which cameras are out there. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself lost in a sea of camera specs and YouTube reviews, and may pull the trigger on the wrong camera.
With that in mind, I want to break down a few of the most essential categories that the majority of new cinema and video cameras fall into. I’ll also highlight a few of my favorite cameras in each category, which will help you narrow your choices down and make the right call.
Here we go…
THE JACK OF ALL TRADES
If you’re a freelancer that shoots everything from music videos to corporate spots to narrative productions – you need a Swiss Army Knife of a camera. A tool that can be versatile and roll with the punches no matter what you throw at it.
As I stated above, no camera will be perfect for EVERY shooting situation. But if you need to purchase a single camera to handle a wide variety of productions, definitely consider these options:
All three of these cameras can be incredibly useful on just about any type of production. In particularly because they all work out of the box – unlike DSLRs or mirrorless cameras that require lots of custom rigging and are less adaptable.
Even still, each camera will naturally have its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, while the URSA Mini Pro G2 will deliver a more filmic image than the Canon cameras on this list, it won’t perform nearly as well in low-light. The EVA1 will offer amazing ease of use in the field, but won’t have the ability to shoot RAW internally like the G2…
Depending on your exact needs, you can narrow your choice down further. If you love narrative film but really spend the majority of your time covering events, that should dictate your camera choice. Be honest in your assessment of your own needs, and always choose the tool that will best serve your specific situation. Don’t buy a camera based on what you think you’ll need in the future, buy the tool that will serve you best right now.
HIGH END TV & FILM
Most filmmakers reading this are probably not in the market for a high end cinema camera, but I still want to highlight some here. If nothing else, I hope to show that these cameras are truly in a category of their own.
The vast majority of filmmakers don’t need a high end cinema camera. It won’t bring them more work, it won’t make their work objectively better (only skill can do that), and it definitely won’t be worth the purchase price unless you are using it day in and day out.
That said, for medium to large sized production companies (or freelancers working on higher end gigs), these top-tier cameras are still the ones to beat:
– Arri Alexa
– RED Gemini/Monstro/Helium
– Sony Venice
All of these cameras have their strong points, and each are capable of delivering absolutely stunning images.
Personally, I’m a big fan of Arri. I believe they are the gold standard of digital cinematography and have been ever since Alexas hit the market. Of any high end digital cinema camera, the Alexa is still the camera to beat after all these years. They just have image quality, usability, workflow, and virtually everything else down to a perfect science… But you’re going to pay for it.
I’ve never been a huge fan of RED cameras (even less so now, with all the legal/ethical issues swarming around them), but they do offer a more affordable path into the higher end market, and can’t be ignored. The Sony Venice is an excellent alternative to the Alexa, particularly for those who are not only after gorgeous image quality, but also those who want a larger format sensor.
None of these cameras are optimal for the vast majority of filmmakers though. Not because of quality of course, but due to price point and ease of use. These cameras require more support on set, more crew (sometimes), and a more robust post-production pipeline.
It’s a worthwhile trade for larger scale productions to make, but for anything more modest in size these cameras can be overkill.
NARRATIVE INDIE PRODUCTIONS
If you primarily shoot narrative productions but don’t have the budget for the premium cinema cameras listed above, there are tons of options out there.
For the sake of this post, I’m not going to include any mirrorless/DSLR-style cameras in this category. While they can be excellent tools for some narrative productions, they are not as optimal to shoot with as many of the budget-friendly cinema offerings that have sprung up recently.
Years ago, before Blackmagic and others came along with affordable cinema camera options, we had no choice but to rig up our Canon 5Ds or Panasonic GH cameras. Those were exciting times and certainly paved the way for where we are now, but for most filmmakers today, there are simply better options available.
Unlike in the DSLR days, we no longer have to sacrifice ergonomics or usability for image quality – we can have the best of both worlds. And while hybrid stills/video cameras are still a viable option for filmmakers shooting narrative, cameras like these are often the better choice:
– Panasonic Varicam LT
Yes, I did include Blackmagic twice on this list, as they are simply leading the charge in this department. No other manufacturer is serving the indie film market the way that BMD is, even though they now have some competition from companies like Kinefinity or Z Cam.
The Pocket 6K in particular is an absolute beast. It’s not as ergonomically sound as the URSA Mini Pro, but it can be rigged up far more easily than most DSLRs and offers ridiculous quality for the price. Even though none of us really need 6K, it’s pretty incredible to have the ability to capture that much resolution, dynamic range, and overall image quality in a body that costs less than many traditional stills cameras.
For those with a bigger budget, the URSA Mini Pro G2 is obviously the next logical step up. In particular thanks to its manual controls on the body, built in ND filters and ability to be configured for shoulder-mounted shooting without any third party rigs.
I had to include the Panasonic Varicam LT on this too, as it’s one of the most exciting cameras out there today. It delivers absolutely gorgeous images and provides the stability and reliability you would expect from a brand that has been making professional video cameras for decades. It’s the most expensive tool of the bunch, but well worth it – especially for owner operators who rent their cameras out, as it’s less common and therefore more in demand as a rental.
When it comes to shooting documentary content, there’s a whole host of other considerations that come into play. While narrative is all about production value and ease of use on set, documentary work is all about having maximum ability to capture anything that’s thrown at you at a moment’s notice.
Variables like low-light sensitivity, portability and camera size play a huge role. Every documentary filmmaker is going to have different needs, so I couldn’t possibly list every viable option out there. But these three can offer a great starting point:
– Sony FS5
I sometimes give Sony a hard time about their color science, but there’s no debating they pack their cameras full of incredible functionality. Naturally, this is why two of the three slots on my list are taken up by Sony cameras.
The FS5 would be my personal choice given its build and feature set (specifically built in ND filters), but the A7 cameras have their own advantages – notably full frame capabilities and a smaller body size. Documentary filmmakers often need smaller cameras for traveling, shooting inconspicuously or to capture interviews without intimidating their subjects. The A7 lineup definitely delivers on all fronts, making it optimal for documentary shooters.
The GH5S of course does much of the same, but with better color science and a smaller sensor. Personally, as someone obsessed with color, I would lean towards the GH5S, but for anyone wanting a full frame look and even better low light ability, the Sony cameras are still hard to beat.
CORPORATE, WEDDING & EVENT COVERAGE
Many filmmakers make the bulk of their living shooting corporate, event or wedding projects. It’s been that way for ages and continues to be the case even today.
If you fall into this category, you should certainly be considering these options:
The Fuji is the only hybrid camera on this list, but I had to include it based on color science alone. For projects where color is important – notably wedding videos – there is arguably no better option out there.
It can be extremely challenging to correct skin tone issues in post, and with high volume/quick turnaround projects, it’s always best to be able to capture the best possible quality in-camera. That’s where the Fuji shines.
Unfortunately, it’s still a mirrorless camera and isn’t as easy to run and gun with as the other cameras on this list. So for filmmakers who require a better out-of-the-box solution, The C100 II or EVA1 are the way to go.
Both cameras have great ergonomics and are easy to shoot with, even under challenging circumstances where little setup time is available. The C100 II gets a bad rap for having fewer features on paper (and lackluster specs), but the images it delivers should speak for themselves. As I always try to drive home, specs on paper don’t tell the whole story… So don’t discount Canon just yet!
I want to touch on one last category, which I would call the starter camera. These cameras offer some of the best entry points for filmmakers who are just getting their feet wet, and want to keep their budgets in check while still purchasing a capable tool.
If that sounds like you, consider these options:
These cameras range in price from $450 – $1300 but offer quality that was reserved only for far more expensive cameras just a few years ago.
The BM Pocket 4K is going to be best for the aspiring DP or auteur who is shooting a lot of narrative and commercial content. For the price, it’s absolutely impossible to beat, and is an amazing camera not only for beginners but also for more advanced shooters. It has the best image quality of any camera on this list, and thanks to its MFT mount, it can be paired with affordable lens options from so many different manufacturers.
The Fuji XT-30 is another great alternative. With a price-tag of under $1000, this camera punches well above it’s weight, and includes many of the same features and color science as its bigger brother, the X-T3.
And then of course there is the Sony A6000. This camera is a few years old now, but still hugely popular among budding filmmakers. It may suffer from those well-known Sony color issues, but with a price tag of under $450, it’s hard to argue with considering its impressive specs and versatility.
The cameras I listed above definitely do not represent an exhaustive list. There are so many other options out there that should be considered too, depending on which category you and your work fall into. These are just some of my personal highlights.
The most important takeaway should be the importance of choosing a camera based on what you actually need for your work. Don’t listen to what anyone else says, and definitely don’t buy a camera simply because it’s popular at the moment.
Take a long hard look at where you’re at in your career, what type of projects you shoot, what your logistical needs are, and let that narrow down your focus. For most filmmakers, there are probably only 2 or 3 choices that are truly going to be a great fit for their needs, so don’t waste time worrying about gear that won’t ultimately serve you.
And don’t forget about the used market either. Older cameras like the original BM Pocket Camera or the Lumix GH2 are still viable options all these years later. If you need to save some $$ and want more bang for your buck, eBay is your best friend.
If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments below! Would love to hear what your favorite camera to shoot on is, and which cameras you might recommend for each category.
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!