Picking the right video camera can be a scary and agonizing process. (Though it can be made less so if you check out our post Choosing a Video Camera). The last thing you want to do is spend your money on the wrong camera and find yourself caught in a cold, stale relationship with a machine you don’t even care for, looking jealously at other filmmakers who seem to love their cameras, and wondering to yourself what might have been…
While there are too many different camera models on the market to break down every single option you have, by narrowing your choice down to what type of camera to use, you can make your life a whole lot easier.
Types of Cameras
Cameras You (Probably) Won’t Pick
Before we get into the three main camera options to consider, let’s state upfront that there are two types of camera we won’t be talking about here.
Film Cameras: The days of needing film to get a professional-looking image are long behind us. Film is expensive, complicated, and cumbersome. While many big-time directors still prefer to use it for aesthetic reasons, film likely will not be your starting place for your first projects.
High-End Digital Cameras: Here we’re talking about the sorts of digital cameras frequently used for big budget Hollywood movies, things like the ARRI Alexa or the RED Weapon. Put simply, if you need to consult this guide, best to get a bit of experience under your belt before trying to use a camera that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now, to be clear: Just because we’re taking the most expensive options out of consideration does not mean we’ve given up on creating a good-looking image. All three types of cameras below have been used to make professional, successful, feature-length films.
Above: Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro as seen on https://www.blackmagicdesign.com/
These are digital cameras designed specifically for shooting things in motion and not for still photography. They’re made by companies like Blackmagic, Canon, and Sony.
These cameras are designed to capture moving images so they tend to have large sensors, can often shoot in 4K or better, and have the greatest flexibility for adjusting your image in post-production (color grading, visual effects, or even a lot of re-sizing).
These cameras are usually a good deal bigger and heavier than the other options. Furthermore, they are expensive and usually cost between $3 and $6 thousand.
- Blackmagic URSA mini pro ($5,995)
- Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera ($1,295)
- Sony FX6 ($5,998)
- Canon EOS C200 ($5,499, the C300 is more expensive; the C100 is less so)
Mirrorless Cameras and DSLRs
Above: Sony Alpha 7 III as seen on https://electronics.sony.com
While “Mirrorless” and “DSLRs” are two different types of camera, we’re going to include them in the same section since they tend to have similar capabilities and prices. While they’re built with still photography in mind, YouTube is filled with instances of people using these cameras to make astounding moving images. For most budding filmmakers, one of these will be their first camera.
These are a good deal cheaper and more lightweight than the cinema cameras we just talked about. This is ideal for a filmmaker on the move or with minimal crew or time.
While certainly less expensive than the cinema cameras, these aren’t exactly cheap. A top-notch DSLR or mirrorless camera can cost in the $1 to $3 thousand dollar range. Additionally, while these cameras can make gorgeous images, you tend to have far less flexibility with those images in post-production (due to encoding format) and can occasionally find yourself dealing with issues like moiré (a weird “glitch-y” pattern that sometimes appears around certain textures).
- FujiFilm X-T4 ($1,709.95)
- Sony A7 iii ($2,000)
- Panasonic Lumix X5 ($1,697.99)
- Canon EOS Rebel SL3 ($648)
- CanonEOS 5D Mark IV ($2,579)
- Nikon D850 ($2,474)
Above: The FiLMiC Pro App in action as seen on https://www.filmicpro.com/
Wait! Hold on! Before you run away screaming that “wanting my videos to look better than phone footage is the reason I came here in the first place,” hear us out.
We’re not talking about whipping out your phone and pushing record on the built-in camera app. Here, we’re talking about the FiLMiC Pro app ($14.99 + an additional $6.99 for the “cinematographer’s kit”) which allows you to take control of the aspects of your phone’s camera that are usually locked on “auto.” With this app, you’ll be able to make adjustments to things like white balance, frame rate, shutter speed, ISO, and focus just like you would on any other digital camera.
Clearly, this is by far the least expensive option. Rather than spending your whole kit budget on a camera, you can supplement your phone with external lenses (check out Moment lenses), quality microphones, and maybe even a gimbal.
While the cameras get better with every new model, these devices still have limitations stemming from the fact that they are designed first and foremost to work as mobile phones rather than as movie cameras. Accordingly, the sensor is relatively small and the aperture is fixed.
We’ll leave you with this. At the end of the day, what camera was used on a project is never as important as who was behind that camera. When digital cameras were just hitting the scene, directors like Michael Mann and Danny Boyle broke new ground by filming entire big-budget movies with them. Today the images in those movies may look “low quality” to modern viewers, but they are still great films. The same is true of modern films shot on iPhones by directors like Sean Baker and Steven Soderbergh. You can tell the camera is cheap, but a good movie is a good movie. So yes, we know picking a camera can be an agonizing process…but remember, it’s what you do with that camera that counts!