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Which camera should I buy?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

Back in the day, it was a struggle for indie filmmakers to get their hands on a camera that was both suitable for their needs and affordably priced. Today, we are spoilt for choice. Whether it's a GoPro, DSLR, prosumer camera, or even a smart phone, getting your hands on something to shoot with has never been easier. So what camera should you choose? The short answer is, it largely doesn't matter.

If you're starting out in filmmaking, rushing out a blowing a wad of cash on a professional camera rig isn't likely to be the best option. Having the most expensive or latest camera won't instantly make your films better. So much of that is affected by your experience as a filmmaker and other factors such as lighting, composition, and the overall skills of your DOP. Concentrate on making as many films as you can. And as you get better you can start to see areas where upgrading your camera will truly add value. Ultimately, if your film is engaging and well-made, it will find an audience, regardless of what camera you used to shoot it.

Manual Control

When choosing a camera for use in filmmaking, arguably the single most important factor is manual control. By that we mean manually controlling the focus, the shutter speed, aperture, and ideally, the digital ISO settings. Very low-end consumer cameras are cheap, but they are designed for hassle-free shooting of holidays and social media posts. For filmmaking, you need control.

Output Workflow

The second consideration is how you intend to get your footage from the camera into your editing workflow. Whether this is done via SD card, USB, Firewire, or another method, it's important to choose a camera which is compatible with your planned post set-up. For example, if you choose a camera which shoots on SD cards, having a fast SD card reader for your computer is a good idea. Likewise, if you're relying on a cable, make sure you have the necessary ports available. It's also worth remembering that older USB standards (e.g. 1.0 and 2.x) are painfully slow when transferring large files. If you’re choosing a USB route, make sure both the camera and your system support at least the USB 3.0 standard.

Shooting Formats

These days, most filmmakers will be interested in shooting in an HD format. Technically anything from 720p upwards falls into this category. But for filmmakers, you are likely to be looking at the 1080p resolution (1920x1080 pixels). Most modern entry-level HD cameras, including DSLRs and smart phones, allow shooting at this resolution, and result in files compressed in a format called AVC/HD (h.264 encoding).

1080p is usually more than enough for newer filmmakers. 4K cameras have become more affordable in recent years, but 4K doesn't automatically mean the quality is better. The frame size is larger, typically 3840x2160 pixels (that in itself is a minefield), but the subjective quality of those pixels is affected by the same factors as any other camera. And camera costs aside, 4K footage requires considerably more powerful hardware in post-production, thereby increasing the expense.

Old Skool

Another option to consider is whether an older format camera, like MiniDV or HDV, might be suitable for your needs. These formats use a tape-based workflow, but are digital, making it easy to transfer footage to your computer for editing. And you can often pick up these cameras second hand for a song. Prosumer MiniDV workhorses, like the Canon XL1 or Sony VX1000, used to cost $3,000-$5,000 when new. You can now find them for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay. Other pro cameras, such as the Sony HVR-A1E and HVR-Z1E, often go for under $500. Both shoot HDV (1440x1080 pixels) and benefit from far superior electronics and optics compared to many low-end AVC/HD cameras.

Rentals

Lastly, a good way to get experience with a more expensive pro camera is to rent one! Without the massive expense and commitment of buying one, you can take it for a test spin, learn about how it works, and how it fits into your workflow. When it comes time to shoot, you can just book it for the days you need.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 24-Feb-2022

Comments

Older Comments

Frank Atlas  |  12-Feb-2010
This thread inspired me to write a blog post about how to ask and answer this question. It grew into a broader filmmaking camera primer, in which I explained features and suggested some affordable cameras. It's followed by other key free video/filmmaking/digital creative resources from around the web, for the budding director: http://burninglens.vox.com/library/post/a-fistful-of-cameras---how-to-choose-your-shooter.html Just a cowboy courtesy. I hope it helps.
Jason @ www.filmmakingstuff.com  |  29-Oct-2009
With so many changes in technology (especially since the time this article was first written) -- Unless you plan on working camera in-between movie projects or you plan on producing movies each weekend... it seems not-so-economical to actually purchase a camera. Many of my DP friends own their own camera package and lighting kits. It is much more cost effective to hire these folks for their day rate, plus equipment. Of course, if you're just getting started (as many of you are) then perhaps another route would be to practice your craft on smaller, less expensive cameras. These days, you can shoot HD for next to nothing and the footage looks great.
Paul Gooch  |  15-Dec-2008
I appreciate the advice by the original poster, that it does't matter what video camera you buy initially because your results probably won't be very good. I was also interested in the comment by a poster that Super 8 is ok if you're just starting out in filmmaking. I'm a newbie filmmaker, although I'm also a professional photographer, and I bought a VHS video camera to get started. Sure, it's primitive, but it was cheap and because it's a pro VHS camera with plenty of manual controls hopefully it will help me get used to being creative with a video camera.
Paddy  |  02-Aug-2005
Why buy a camera? It'll bite hard into your production budget, and assuming you don't wish to just take holiday footage, you'll be able to rent very respecatble kit for very little. This applies to video as well as film kit. You'll probably need to hire lights etc anyway, adding the camera adds little to your budget and leaves you more cash to afford lighting etc Try your local community film centre/unit - often, if you take one of their weekend courses (pick something that interests you) you can rent kit for minimal amounts. For instance, I can rent a DVCAM (or mini-DV) camera and lighting kit for £25 and £15 a day respectively, including decent Sennheiser mics and all cables, 2 batteries, etc. £80 for a weekend with far better quality and results than I could buy for even £1000, adding it all up!
john o'brien  |  11-May-2005
This FAQ is a little outdated. Right now, I think the Panasonic AG-DVX100A or the Canon XL2 would be more appropiate choices for a 3CCD cam for that price range. The added 24P feature when combined with good lighting and any additional post-production gives the "film-look" that so many low budget producers require.
Kay O. Sweaver  |  21-Dec-2004
I wouldn't say that you "should" be looking for digital, that's only one option. I started on super 8 and I must say it gave me far more appreciation for good cinematography, processing, lighting, etc. than video ever could. 16mm similarly is a great place to get your feet wet and there are literally hundreds of cheap cameras out there as production houses and schools upgrade to new equipment. I could easily make a feature length film on super 8 and transfer to video for the same price it would cost just to buy a 3CCD MiniDV. It really depends on where it is you intend to go, what you want to learn, etc.