If you’ve ever Googled “What’s the best video camera?” then you’ll know that there are hundreds of different answers to this question. Even if you qualify your search with “For Beginners” or “On a Budget” there are still so many conflicting opinions out there that you’ll often end up more confused than where you started.
So let’s make it a bit easier shall we? What is the best camera?
As with any choice, picking the right camera is all about weighing the pros and cons for your specific circumstances. Ultimately, a camera is a tool. Depending on what you’re trying to create, you might be suited to a different tool than another artist.
So while we can’t tell you which camera is the best, we can point you towards some considerations to keep in mind when deciding which camera is the best for you.
For many DIY filmmakers this is the limiting factor. Even if you can’t pick a camera based solely on cost, you can certainly narrow it down to a few options that fall in your price range.
However, it’s worth remembering that the camera itself will not be your only expense. You’ll have to consider what other equipment you need to create your film. Trust us, a film shot with a mid-range camera with great lighting and sound is going to seem a heck of a lot more professional than a film shot on a high-end camera with minimal lighting and bad audio.
What makes any tool “good” will differ depending on what you need that tool to do. Are you planning to film yourself sitting at a desk five feet from the lens? Or are you hoping to film cheetahs chasing down antelopes under a bright African sun?
Below are some practical considerations that go hand in hand with what you’re going to shoot.
Firstly, transporting a heavy camera is logistically trickier than having something tiny you can put in your backpack. If you’re planning to shoot deep in nature or out in public—or if you want to move between locations quickly—then a lighter camera may be the pick for you.
Camera size becomes even more important during the actual shooting process. Tiny cameras are far easier to place in unexpected locations or perform complicated movements with. However, there’s a trade-off, because small cameras will also capture the imperfections in your movement more readily. A tiny shake of your hands will barely register on a large camera but could read like an earthquake on an iPhone.
If you’re going to shoot for short bursts of time while staying predominately inside, then battery life isn’t a huge concern for you. On the other hand, if you’re planning to shoot for long periods of time in the outdoors away from electrical outlets, then you need either a bigger battery or multiple batteries.
“I have no idea what I’m going to shoot with this!”
First off, it’s okay to have this answer.
There are two kinds of people who will read this post: Those that have something specific in mind that they want to film and those who are excited to film things in general. If you fall into the first camp, you may have an easier time selecting your camera as you can decide what sorts of features and capabilities are most important for your project. Do you need a zoom lens? How about the ability to shoot in low light settings? You already know the answers to these questions.
However, if you fall into the second camp, it can be a bit harder to make your dream-camera checklist. Our advice? Consider getting something inexpensive and all-purpose that will allow you to experiment with different visual styles cheaply. After all, the camera that is top-of-the-line right now is going to be woefully out of date in two years’ time. So if you’re just excited to film anything, then take your time to master an introductory camera.
Perhaps one of the most boring aspects of modern digital filmmaking is also one of the most important. What format you’re going to shoot in– and what formats your camera is even capable of shooting in– will have far-reaching implications like:
- How much storage space do you need?
- What does your post-production workflow look like?
- Where is this project going to end up? Is it heading to Instagram or will it be projected on a massive screen?
As with so many artistic endeavors, this is all about finding the intersection between practicality and quality. While your initial inclination might be to shoot in the “best” format possible, higher quality footage takes up more storage space, is more difficult to edit with, and often has to be compressed anyway to be uploaded to the internet .
Here’s some things you should keep in mind when looking at a camera’s tech specs:
The resolution of your footage refers to the number of pixels in each frame. Higher resolution means better-quality images, but it also means bigger files which are difficult to store and play back. For the most part, you’re going to shoot your footage in one of the following three resolutions:
- 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels)
- 2K (2560 x 1440 pixels)
- 4K (3840 x 2160).
If you shoot in anything lower than that, the image will look noticeably inferior on a modern screen. Likewise, most screens can’t show anything in a higher resolution than 4K anyway so no need to use 8K or 12K unless you have a specific reason to do so.
Compression is the process of encoding a video file so that the file takes up less space. This will make the file more manageable, but will also lessen the quality of your image. At some point during your filmmaking process, your file will be compressed. It’s unavoidable! The questions you have to consider are how many times will it happen and how much will be lost.
Raw footage, aka “source footage,” is the unprocessed video as it was captured by your camera. These files (if your camera is even capable of giving you them) are going to be EXTREMELY large, difficult to open on your computer, and look pretty bad (at least at first). For instance, the colors in your raw footage won’t look good right out of the box, but there will be so much color data stored in the file that you’ll be able to have maximum flexibility when color grading later.
For many filmmakers, their gut reaction is to want to shoot raw, but often this isn’t actually the most logical course of action. Remember, you’re going to have to compress the footage at some point for delivery. Unless you have a specific reason to need raw footage, why not shoot in a high-quality compressed format right from the start to make your whole post-production process easier?
Video Format: Codec
A codec is what is used to compress and decompress your video file for both playback and storage. There are two main subcategories. First, you have lossless codecs which keep all the information from the source file. However, you’ll more often be dealing with lossy codecs which will help make your file smaller but you will lose some of the original image quality.
Some of the most common codecs you’ll see are H.264, H.265, and ProRes.
Video Format: Container
This is just what it sounds like: it’s what your video is put inside to hold – or, ahem, contain – all the file information including audio (which will have its own codec) and additional information such as metadata or subtitles. When you see saved files and extensions, they usually refer to the container. (Note: each container is only compatible with certain codecs so these two must be considered together).
Some common container examples are MP4, MOV, and AVI.
This is the process of converting your video files from one format to another. This can be done for a number of reasons from the ease of editing to preparing your project for delivery. Note that when footage is transcoded into a lossy format, quality is lost.
Buying a camera is always a daunting task so hopefully this post helped ease some of the stress and gave you some useful things to ponder. Consider what your financial constraints are, what you logistically want to do with your camera, and what you want to do with your footage once you’ve shot it. The intersection of these categories will tell you which camera is right for you.
If you feel ready to pick out a camera of your own, head on over to our post outlining the different types of cameras.