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Why DSLRs Are Still Relevant For Filmmaking & How To Choose The Right One

While the DSLR revolution may no longer be what it once was, one thing does remain quite clear – DSLRs and mirrorless cameras still have a very strong foothold in the independent filmmaking world, and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. To some people, this is actually quite surprising as it was largely anticipated that the first wave of large sensor interchangeable lens camcorders (such as the Canon C300 or Sony FS100) signaled the end of an era. But as time has shown us, that’s just not at all how it played out.

DSLRs were initially popular for filmmaking for a few main reasons – price, accessibility, quality, and ease of use. Before the Canon 5D MK II there was virtually no other affordable interchangeable lens camera on the market that could deliver anywhere near the same level of quality… So it’s no wonder why the MK II blew up the way it did, and paved the way for so many other cameras to follow suit.

But now we are in 2017 and there are an abundance of other options out there on the market. For $1000 you can shoot RAW on a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera. The Canon C-Series line up has dropped so much in price that in some cases their cameras (for instance the C100) can be purchased for less than the cost of some DSLRs.

So with all the choice that’s out there now in the cinema camera market, why do some filmmakers keep coming back to DSLRs?

There are many reasons.

Some filmmakers simply prefer the usability of a camera with such a small form factor, especially those that work as a one man band. Others need to have access to a high quality stills camera, so having a camera body that can do both is optimal. Certain DPs might want a DSLR for a specific purpose (crash cam, low light cam, etc.), and the list goes on and on.

The point is, like any other type of camera, DSLRs come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. And while no DSLR or mirrorless will ever have more features or capabilities than a full blown cinema camera, they do offer a lot of advantages over traditional cinema cameras that are hard to ignore.

Personally speaking, the main reason I will continue to shoot on DSLRs on certain projects is their ability to remain inconspicuous. I work on a very wide range of projects – some of which have the budget for large crews, cinema camera packages and support, but many others that have little or no budget and need to be shot guerrilla style. In the case of the latter, there is still to this day no substitute for a DSLR. I have shot guerrilla style on DSLRs dozens of times and literally never once have been hassled by anyone or asked to stop shooting. On the other hand, on multiple occasions I have been shut down when shooting guerrilla style with a larger format/cinema cameras, and have learned the hard way not to test my luck.

While I may know that shooting on an Arri Amira is going to look “better” than a camera like the Lumix GH5 in some ways, I also know that my film will play better if I am able to actually capture more of the footage that I need to tell my story. With filmmaking sometimes you have to make compromises, and if a cinema camera gets in the way of telling a story in the best way possible, then any increase in image quality that it may offer is irrelevant.

On a side note, what I would love to see in the future is a true cinema camera with the form factor of a DSLR. I imagine a camera somewhat along the lines of a Blackmagic Pocket Camera, but housed in a body that looks and functions just like a DSLR or mirrorless camera, allowing it to completely blend in to it’s surroundings. If this hypothetical camera also had built in ND filters and internal stabilization (so no matte box would be needed), it would truly offer a best of both worlds solution. I have my fingers crossed that someone, somewhere is developing something like this right now…

But back to the point – 

The real reason I wrote this article was to answer what is by far the most common question that I get from my readers – Which DSLR should I buy for filmmaking?

Hearing this question over and over made me realize two things:

  1. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are still extremely popular as I am asked about them on a daily basis
  2. The abundance of choice in the market has created a lot of confusion for filmmakers

With that in mind, I want to outline three of the most important considerations to take into account when purchasing a DSLR or mirrorless camera for filmmaking.

My intention here isn’t to list out specific cameras that you should consider (although I did that recently in this post), but rather to shed some light on the decision making process from a more fundamental level.

Let’s jump in…

Sensor Size & Lens Compatibility

For years, filmmakers assumed that they needed to buy a full frame DSLR for video, as bigger was perceived as better when it came to sensor size. While some still feel this way, I personally don’t believe that any one sensor size offers the best choice. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of them, and the key for you as a filmmaker is to decide which sensor size will be best for your specific needs.

If you want a larger than life, pseudo 65mm alternative, you might in fact want to consider a full frame sensor. On the other hand, if you are more of a fan of the Super 16mm look, then a Micro Four Thirds camera might be your best bet. Different sensor sizes offer different looks that may or may not speak to you as an artist, so take your time to really figure out which format suits your needs and aesthetic most appropriately.

If you don’t know where to start, I personally think that APS-C (Super 35mm) sensors are a perfect middle ground and offer a lot of flexibility.

The sensor size of your camera will also of course dictate your lens choices and your ability to adapt lenses to the camera. A full frame camera will give you the least amount of choice, as you’ll only be able to use full frame lenses on the camera. Conversely, a cropped sensor camera (like the Lumix GH5), will give you the option of adapting a tremendous amount of lenses to the camera.

Color

Anyone that reads this blog regularly knows that color is one of the most important (if not the most important) factor for me when picking out a camera. I’ve felt like this for a long time, but it was really brought to the surface when I purchased the Sony A7S II – A camera that got everything right on paper (and in the lab), but just didn’t deliver the colors that I was looking for when shooting with it on real productions.

For that reason alone, I sold the A7S II within only a few months of purchasing it, as color science is really a make or break factor for me.

That’s not to say that the A7S II isn’t right for some people, or in a broader sense that all of us don’t have our own unique preferences when it comes to the aesthetics that we’re after. But rather, my point is that you should really take into account the color science of any camera that you are considering to buy. Look at test footage online or rent the camera for a day or two and shoot a variety of scenarios. See how it handles skin tones, vibrant colors on landscape shots, or different types of light sources. You might just find that the camera you loved on paper doesn’t have the same soul in a real world shooting environment.

Color has just as much of an effect on the overall quality of your image (from an audience perception standpoint), as dynamic range or resolution. In fact, I would argue that it probably matters even more, which is why I spend so much time creating color grading LUTs, and furthering my knowledge of color science as it applies to both camera/production work, and post-production handling.

Speciality Features

One of the best things about DSLRs today, is that many of them have some truly groundbreaking features that offer advantages not only over other DSLRs, but even over some high end cinema cameras. One prime example of this is image stabilization. It’s pretty remarkable to see the types of handheld shots that are now possible without any sort of rigging, all thanks to high quality internal stabilization. This is not something that can be said about full blown cinema cameras.

Another example is low light ability. Many DSLRs far surpass their cinema camera counterparts with regards to low light sensitivity, so if you need to shoot a ton of material in the dark with minimal lighting, you clearly have options.

With that said, although so many DSLRs in 2017 offer these features (and then some), no camera is going to do it all. There is always going to be some kind of compromise when you make a purchase… One camera might have amazing dynamic range but doesn’t have internal stabilization. Another might be incredible in low light, but doesn’t give you the ability to record a clean feed to an external recorder.

Ultimately, the key when picking a DSLR is identifying the features that are most critical to you and your work, and then finding a camera that delivers on those.

This may sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many filmmakers I know that have bought the wrong camera because they were sold on a feature that they would actually never use in reality. I somewhat fell into that trap with my purchase of the Sony A7S II, as I was sold on it’s low light capabilities (even though I barely ever shoot without light), and neglected the fact that the was severely lacking in the color department – a feature that was far more important to me personally.

So if you take nothing else away from this article, always remember that the first step in choosing the right camera is identifying your unique needs as a filmmaker. Once you know what you want, you’ll be able to filter out all of the noise and zero in on the tool that fits your needs, even if it may not be the most popular camera amongst your peers.

With NAB around the corner, I can only imagine that we’ll have a lot more to talk about on this front very soon – so stay tuned!

For more content like this, be sure to follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!

 

About Author

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!

4 Comments

  • Julie
    May 3, 2017 at 2:48 am

    Thank you for this terrific and thoughtful post. I am often stupefied when people come up to me while I am shooting on my DSLRs and say, you should ditch those and get an X without knowing anything about what I shoot, how I shoot or what my needs are. I’m currently looking into mirrorless because they are lighter and shoot 4K but I am loathe to give up my Canons. It’s nice to hear from a pro that there’s no magic bullet, no matter what camera you use.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 3, 2017 at 4:36 am

      Appreciate it Julie! Glad to hear this resonated with you, and it sounds like you come from the same place as I do when buying a new camera. It’s all about getting the best tool for your needs – whether it’s a DSLR, mirrorless, cinema camera, or otherwise. Too many people seem to buy gear because it’s the latest and greatest new toy, even if it doesn’t really fit their needs…

      Thanks again for the note and hope to see you around the site again soon!

      Reply
  • John
    April 14, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    Noam, it’s so refreshing to have a content provider like you who focuses less on “what to buy,” and more on “what to think about.” Most of us turn to the Internet for answers. The trouble, as you know, is there are too many “answers” and not enough thoughtful objectivity. I recently received my GH5, for example. And the firestorm of opinion and confusion over the camera’s AF capability left viewers wondering who they could really trust. So this is a great big thank you from one follower to one educator. I learn a great deal from your writing, and it’s impacted my decisions and my growth in filmmaking.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 16, 2017 at 2:26 am

      Thanks so much John. I sincerely appreciate the sentiment… Hearing from readers and knowing how the content is helping other filmmakers is a large part of what keeps inspiring me to run this site. Hope to see you back around soon!

      Reply

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