UPDATE: Since posting this article last year, many new DSLRs have been released. I just posted an updated article on The 3 Best DSLRs For Professional Video In 2014 which can be viewed by clicking here!
Many people have asked me “what is the best DSLR for video?”, and although there isn’t a single best DSLR, there are a select few that have made a name for themselves and risen above the massive amount of cameras out there with video capabilities. The purpose of this post of course, is to look at a few of the best options out there today and discuss their strengths.
A lot of the recently released, high quality camcorders like the Canon C100/C300, Sony FS700 and Blackmagic Cinema Camera have taken away the spotlight from DSLRs, at least as far as shooting video goes. This is because in many ways represent a step up in quality from DSLRs and they typically have a form factor that is designed for video as opposed to stills (especially in the case of the Canon C-Line up) which is what many DSLR shooters have been waiting to have for years. Nonetheless, DSLRs are still exceptionally good tools to use and can often provide results that are close to (or in some cases better than) cameras with much higher price tags, and they can often still be the best possible choice for many tasks.
For example, DSLRs are excellent to use for documentaries where accessibility and ease of use can be more important than a slight increase in quality. DSLRs can also provide a certain level of anonymity and allow you to blend into the rest of the world with your little camera, making it really easy to shoot guerilla style. Even Aronofsky used a 7D on Black Swan for the subway scenes.
The other day I had to color grade a project that was shot on a very wide mix of formats, ranging from a RED camera to FS100’s to two DSLR’s (5D MKIII and GH3). What struck me while doing this was although the RED footage was obviously higher resolution, the DSLR material held up really well, especially from the GH3. And because the cameras were white balanced properly and the show was well lit, there was actually a decent amount of flexibility in post that allowed me to add a nice stylized look to the DSLR footage without having it fall apart. Now when I watch back the final product, I almost forget which camera was which entirely, as by the time they are matched and the video is mastered, everything started to look really close.
Where a RED or Alexa or Blackmagic or any other raw camera shines, is in the color grade. You have seemingly endless possibilities. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get very similar results in camera with a DSLR. As long as you don’t starve your camera of light and you get your white balance in the right ballpark, footage off of DSLRs can really still hold up well. The same goes for raw cameras. Just because they’re raw, doesn’t mean you don’t have to light/expose your shots properly – Raw can only save you to a certain degree. And although it’s great to have the flexibility of raw, 9 times out of ten if a project is well shot, you don’t need to push it much in post and your raw material is seldom used to its full potential. Just a bit of contrast and balancing. Seeing the results of this project actually inspired me to take out my GH3 and do some more shooting with it as it’s been in the Pelican case more often than not lately.
So I wrote this top 5 list because I feel in the last year or so, although some great new DSLRs have been released, a lot of these cameras didn’t get the attention they deserved as many of the new camcorders and raw cameras out there have stolen the spotlight.
The cameras below are listed in order of price, and this is not a comparison of these cameras, but rather a general point for information on what I believe to be the 5 best DSLRs for video today. Also, please note that while I’ve limited it to 5 cameras here, there are countless other DSLRs that are excellent tools and just didn’t make this list – mainly because of personal bias.
The other thing to note is that I wanted this list to be well rounded in regards to pricing and features, so that factored in to why some of these cameras made it on the list.
Before we get started here, I also want to mention that I’ll be doing a shootout in the next few months with quite a few different cameras and would love to hear from you on which cameras you’d like included. Please comment below and let me know which cameras from this list you’d like to see (and any that aren’t on the list too). It won’t be limited to just DSLRs.
Here we go:
Panasonic G6 – $749
So technically this is not a DSLR (nor is the GH3 on this list), but I lump them in the same category as they share an almost identical form factor, they are just mirrorless. The G6 is a brand new camera (won’t be in stock for about a month) and one that certainly deserves attention on this list. It’s the latest from Panasonic’s G-series of cameras and really packs a punch considering it’s low price point. The camera is reported to use the same sensor as the Lumix GH2, which is slightly larger than the sensor on the GH3, and anyone coming from shooting on a GH2 knows just how good that sensor actually is.
Here’s the list of specs on it:
- 16MP Live MOS Sensor
- Venus Engine Image Processor
- Micro Four Thirds Standard
- Focus Peaking
- 3.0″ 1,036k-dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
- 1,440k-dot OLED Live View Finder
- Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 60 fps
- Built-In Wireless and NFC Connectivity
- 7 fps Shooting at Full Resolution
- Light Speed Autofocus System
Considering that you get all of those features for $749, and the image looks as good as it does, is pretty amazing. What I love about Panasonic is they release affordable, video driven DSLRs. What their DSLRs often lack in the stills department, they make up for in video mode. Not to say the stills are horrible by any means, but I wouldn’t say they are the strong point of this camera or any Panasonic DSLR for that matter. For me, this is a non-issue as I don’t primarily shoot stills, however if you plan on using this as a professional stills camera and the video mode comes second for you, there are better options on this list. If you’re strictly looking at it for video functionality, bang for your buck it’s hard to beat this camera.
The G6 has some really cool and innovative features – some of which even it’s bigger brother the GH3 doesn’t have. For example, this camera has built in focus peaking which is absolutely amazing to have. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a pinch with no external monitor on my GH3 and wished I had focus peaking to help guide me through the shot. That is one of the biggest reasons I love this camera. It also has a 1080/60p mode, which the GH3 does have, but you won’t find in most DSLR’s including the 5D MKIII.
If you’ve never shot with a MFT mount camera before, there are some huge advantages to it, but it does take some getting used to. The biggest advantage is the fact that you can mount just about any lens on the camera because the short flange distance and the fact that it is mirrorless. The sensor size is smaller than APS-C and Full Frame, which many popular lenses are designed for so most popular lenses can be adapted to this sensor size without vignetting. The downside to this, is because of the smaller sensor size (and the 1.86x crop factor that comes along with it), you might need some new glass because a 24mm Full Frame lens on this camera will look closer to a 45mm.
Pros: It’s small, lightweight and inexpensive. Has excellent video quality and a great sensor. Feature rich with 1080/60p recording and focus peaking.
Cons: Mid-size sensor (smaller than APS-C), No headphone jack, build quality and stills quality are both mediocre.
Why it made the list: Incredible feature rich camera at a very low price point.
NIKON D5200 – $796
This is a camera that is very quickly making a name for itself, and one of the cameras I’m most excited to test out in my shootout next month. For ages, Nikon had failed to come out with a decent video mode on any of their cameras. I love Nikons and prefer them for stills over Canon in many circumstances, but they never really seemed to care about implementing a solid video mode until the last year or two. They slowly started to release more impressive video functionality on their DSLRs, and the D800 was the first of their cameras that I used that really had a great video mode. But it wasn’t until the D5200 came out, that I was really impressed, as it became obvious that they were serious about implementing solid video functionality into their cameras.
Take a look at the specs:
- 24.1MP DX CMOS Sensor
- EXPEED 3 Image Processing Engine
- 3.0″ 921k-Dot Vari-Angle LCD Monitor
- 39-Point AF System with 9 Cross-Type
- Full HD Video with Full-Time Servo AF
- Expandable ISO from 100-25600
- 5fps Continuous Shooting Rate
- Scene Recognition System
- Compatible with WU-1a Wireless Adapter
The two big highlights with this camera for me are the low light performance – which is fantastic and amongst the best of any DSLR, and the fact that you can record uncompressed 4:2:2 from the HDMI to an external recorder like the Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle. The stills on this camera are also superb, and it boasts a big APS-C sized 24MP sensor. This is my favorite sensor size as it is the closest to 35mm motion picture film. Full frame is great, especially for low light, but I find more often than not, the depth of field can be too shallow for my taste, and the wides go just a little too far for my liking. It’s a great thing to have for certain shooting scenarios, but to get the closest to motion picture film, APS-C is right in the sweet spot.
There are few downsides to this camera, one of which (like most DSLR’s) is that it doesn’t have a headphone jack. The other downside is that the Nikon mount is one of the least adaptable mounts, meaning that if you want to use PL glass, or any number of other types of lenses, you won’t be able to. Nikon lenses are great, and there are quite a few manufacturers like Zeiss that make excellent Nikon mounted lenses, but depending on your lens collection, many of your lenses may not be useable on this camera. The other issue many people have with this camera is the inability to change aperture in video mode. You have to actually leave the video mode, change aperture and then come back in, which gets the job done, but can be annoying!
Pros: Amazing price point, fantastic in low light, great stills, uncompressed 4:2:2 HDMI output.
Cons: No headphone jack, limited lens selection, need to change aperture from stills mode.
Why it made the list: Uncompressed 4:2:2 and amazing low light ability on an entry level DSLR is almost unheard of.
GH3 – $1,298
A personal favorite of mine as many of you that are regulars on this site will well know. This is a great all round camera with a phenomenal image and packed with loads of features. If the G6 seemed appealing to you, but you might be looking to go one more step up, the GH3 is your best best. Since it is a MFT mount it is highly adaptable to loads of lenses (as described above with the G6) and the image quality is amongst the best of all of the cameras on this list. I recently edited a project that was shot on GH3 and C300, and the GH3 in many scenarios looked just as sharp to my eye in a real world scenario.
It is a very well rounded camera and you’ll see what I mean from the specs below:
- 16.05MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
- 4-CPU Venus Engine
- Micro Four Thirds System
- 3.0″ 614k-Dot Free-Angle OLED Monitor
- 1744k-Dot OLED Live View Finder
- Full HD 1080p Video at 60fps
- 20fps Continuous Shooting
- Built-In Wi-Fi to Link to Smart Devices
- Full-Area Auto Focus System, Pinpoint AF
- Magnesium Alloy, Weather-Sealed Body
While there are a lot of cool innovations on this camera (like wifi remote control), what is most impressive about the camera is the overall image quality. Every time I shoot with it I am more and more impressed. Compared to a 5D for example, the clarity, sharpness and general IQ of the image is much higher. This is largely thanks to the strong 50mbps/72mbps recording modes that the camera shoots in. It’s not a low light king like the 5D or FS700, but it still performs very well in lowlight and is very clean up to ISO 1600. I often will use it as a b-cam for my Blackmagic camera as the BMCC can not shoot 1080/60fps and this can. They also both seem to have a very similar threshold for low light, possibly because the sensor size is quite similar. Outside of other basic, but crucial features that the GH3 has (like the headphone jack and incredibly long lasting battery), the camera is also well built. It is weather sealed and I’ve shot with it in heavy snow and sub 0 temperatures, and it didn’t bat an eye. My older GH2 in that scenario, wouldn’t have functioned at all.
The biggest downsides to this camera are the little things that could have been implemented, but weren’t. Focus peaking is the biggest one for me, especially seeing as how the G6 has it, it’s kind of a tease that we don’t get it on the GH3. Although some are hopeful it will come in a future firmware upgrade. There are other little extras I was hoping for like a 120fps mode in 720p, but that was not something they implemented on the camera unfortunately.
Pros: One of the sharpest images of any DSLR. Great bonus features like wifi control, 1080/60p, amazingly long lasting batter, well built and weather sealed.
Cons: No focus peaking (although it technically should be possible), Sensor crop of 2x (compared to full frame), HDMI out limited to 4:2:0.
Why it made the list: Best all round camera on this list, highly adaptable and amazing overall value.
Canon 5D MKIII – $3,499
The one that started it all – well the MKII that is. While the 5D is no longer the obvious best DSLR for video (unless you are factoring in the new firmware hack), it is still an excellent camera that has improved since the MKII. One thing that I’ll mention before we get to the specific features of this camera, is that one of the greatest things about the 5D is the fact that it is industry standard. Nearly every professional shoot I’ve been on that utilized DSLRs, was running the 5D. It is the tried and tested DSLR that most producers and production companies trust, as they’ve used it before and seen it work time and time again. That is by no means the only reason you should buy this camera, but if you plan to use your DSLR in a professional environment or renting it out, it may very well help to land gigs as the majority of productions looking for DSLRs are requesting 5D’s still to this day.
Here is the official list of specs:
- 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
Much of what I can say about the 5D has been said many times by many others over the years. It has a very nice image, although relatively soft compared to other DSLRs, it is very good in low light or no light scenarios and the colors off of the camera are very pleasing. In fact, although I typically prefer to shoot GH3 over 5D, the biggest benefit of 5D footage to me, is the colors straight off of the card are a bit more pleasing to my eye. The other great thing about the 5D is that it is an amazing stills camera. Arguably the best on this list outside of the next camera (the 1DC). It’s also very well built and there are loads of accessories for it since it is the most widely used of any of the cameras on this list.
The curveball with the 5D is the recent release of a new custom firmware by Magic Lantern. This firmware effectively allows you to shoot raw video on the MKIII, which is a massive breakthrough and something that has never been possible on a DSLR. The firmware is still being developed and is not completely stable yet, but in the coming months we are bound to see more and more Magic Lantern 5D’s on the market as the new firmware becomes stable. The biggest issue with shooting raw on the MKIII though, is the recording media that you need (which is extremely expensive as you need very fast cards. The other big issue is the raw workflow – It records to DNG files (not Cinema DNG), so you can’t bring that into DaVinci or FCP X or Premiere, or any NLE for that matter and just start working with it. It needs to be transcoded just like RED footage. For me personally, I wouldn’t mind doing this as the added quality in the image is well worth it. You get much more dynamic range, even better low light performance and an overall sharper and better image. That said, if you shoot events, corporate material or documentaries, you’ll likely never want to use this firmware, unless it is for the odd beauty shot here or there.
Pros: Industry standard, great stills, excellent lowlight, raw capable, headphone jack.
Cons: On the expensive side, no 60p in 1080 mode, relatively soft video even in 1080p, no articulating screen.
Why it made the list: Industry standard camera that keeps improving with new raw capabilities.
Canon 1DC – $11,999
This is a camera that I can not wait to test out in my shootout next month. It is the first DSLR to offer 4K video which is an amazing feature to have, although the 4K is still recording in 8bit not 10bit as I would have hoped. The camera is of course the most expensive on this list, and in my opinion way overpriced, although the image quality is the best of any DSLR on this list. The reason I say it is overpriced is simply because Canon also sells an identical camera (the 1DX) that is literally the same in almost every way, but its firmware doesn’t have a video mode. That camera is almost half the price of the 1DC at $6,799. Granted, I’m sure Canon didn’t want to take away from the sales of the C300 and other C-series cameras by offering a 4K alternative at $6,800, but it is still a bit of a slap in the face. Especially considering for $11,999 you could have a 1DX for stills and 4k Blackmagic Production Camera. The pricing just doesn’t make sense.
Regardless though, the specs speak for themselves:
- 18.1Mp CMOS Sensor
- 4K Cinematic Quality Video
- 1920 x 1080 Full HD Video
- Dual DIGIC 5+ Image Processors
- 3.2″ LCD Screen
- Eye-Level Pentaprism Viewfinder
- Dual CF Card Recording Media
- Canon EF Lens Mount
- Magnesium Alloy Body
- 61-Point High Density Auto Focus
Clearly the most impressive spec on the list is the ability to shoot 4K, which again is not available on any other DSLR. If 4K is a must for you and you like the ergonomics of a DSLR body for the type of shooting that you do, than this is your camera. The strange thing about the price point of the 1DC is that while it is the only 4K DSLR available, once you get into this price range there are several options for 4K cameras that will cost you less than this (Blackmagic production camera, Red Scarlet, Red one, etc.). So this may appeal to a very niche market – one that needs 4K but also needs the stealth form factor of a DSLR (although the body is still quite large). Documentary film makers and indie filmmakers looking to shoot guerilla style, may be the most helped by this camera, but unfortunately the price tag is very limiting. The other group this will appeal to are of course photographers, as this is one of the best DSLRs out there as far as still images go. So if you plan on shooting loads of stills professionally in addition to video, this camera is a great choice. If the price point was lower this is definitely a camera I would consider for myself, but the single reason I won’t buy it is because of the cost. I don’t have a problem paying for a camera of this price if I know that I get what I pay for, but knowing this has been marked up as much as it has, makes me not want to buy it. That is one of the reasons I support Panasonic so much. They take the opposite approach, packing in huge features to their cameras with much lower prices.
Pros: Amazing image (best on the list), 4K, incredible stills, very well built.
Cons: Way overpriced, 8 bit codec (for this price you should get 10bit at least), no articulating screen.
Why it made the list: The first and only 4K DSLR on the market, and the best image quality on the list.
UPDATE! By popular demand, I have added a camera that almost made the list initially:
Sony A99- $2,798
This fantastic camera almost made my initial list, but in the interest of keeping a Top 5 list (not a top 6!), I decided not to include this as it’s direct competitor, the 5D MKIII, had the benefit of being industry standard which gave it an edge. With that said, I have had loads of e-mails regarding this camera asking for it to be added to the list and have decided that it absolutely warranted an update to this post. So the 6th spot officially goes to the Sony A99! It truly is a terrific camera by Sony that offers superb image quality (in both video and stills), a full frame sensor, 1080/60p mode and loads more. While the price isn’t as low as a GH3, which boasts similar specs, this will be preferable for many users that need a full frame camera, but are looking for something more more feature rich than anything from Canon’s lineup.
Check out the impressive spec list:
- 24.3MP full frame CMOS Exmor sensor
- Translucent mirror technology
- ISO range: 100-25,600 (ISO-low 50 is also available)
- 102 points AF system
- 3″ tiltable 921k dots LCD screen
- Full HD video recording at 1920×1080/60p
- Auto HDR capability
- HDMI output
- Built-in stereo mic
- Headphone Jack
- Selective noise reduction
- Two memory slots: SD and SD+MS
The Sony A99 really has everything that you could ask for in a DSLR. The three most important functions for many shooters are of course the full frame sensor, 1080/60p and a headphone jack. I would assume that one of the only reasons this camera hasn’t completely stolen the spotlight from Canon’s 5D, is likely because of the price point. Sitting right around the same price as the 5D, most DSLR shooters are likely to go with the more familiar brand as it has become standardized to some degree. However, I would bet if the A99 was priced just slightly lower than it is, more Canon shooters would jump ship as the decision at that point would be a no brainer. If you are considering a 5D and do not plan on using it with the hack, I would definitely recommend taking a good look at the A99 before hand. In my opinion it is the better of the two cameras.
The downsides to this camera are pretty few and far between. The biggest complaint that most users have is that the battery life is quite short, which for me would not be a deal breaker. While I have been spoiled by the insanely long battery life from my GH3, I will always choose image quality over convenience so this should not be a huge issue to work around. The other problem is that the autofocus performance is less than ideal, however for most DSLR shooters, autofocus isn’t a major factor as they are often being used on a rig with follow focus, for more heavily planned shots.
Pros: Full Frame, Great in Low Light, beautiful stills, 1080/60p.
Cons: A bit on the pricy side if you are primarily using it for video, poor battery life, sub par auto focus.
Why it made the list: A viable competitor to the 5D MKIII and added by popular demand!
So who would use each camera?
All 6 of these cameras are excellent tools in their own way. I think most users will be torn between the 5D MK III and the GH3, as they both offer proven quality at a reasonable price. And deciding between those two really is a matter of how important stills are to you, and what kind of lenses you want to shoot on. Others like the G6 and D5200 will likely develop small niches for themselves, much like the GH1 and GH2 did years ago. These are great cameras but for one reason or another, such as the small form factor or brand name, these aren’t likely to become household name cameras like the 5D is. Regardless though, for someone shooting primarily their own content, and not worried about getting hired because they own a specific piece of gear, these two are great choices – especially the Nikon (if you don’t mind using mainly Nikon lenses). The A99 offers a fantastic alternative to the 5D, especially if you don’t need to shoot raw and need full frame slow motion. And the 1DC will be by far the least used because it is so costly, but may end up being a favorite for photo journalists that shoot video, rental houses as a cheap 4K option, and indie film makers looking for a stealth form factor with a high quality image.
As I mentioned on the top of this post, there are many, many more cameras that are close to as good as these, or in some respects better. There is no right or wrong camera, it is simply a matter of finding the one that suits your needs and budget and will get your story told. And it really isn’t about the camera in the end, it’s about what you do with it. More on that in my previous article – The Importance Of Story
For those of you looking to take the next step and develop your craft even further, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR.
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!