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Which camera should I buy?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

This is one of the most common questions asked by new filmmakers, but fortunately the answer is by in large quite simple: it doesn't really matter.

Having an expensive camera does not suddenly make you a better filmmaker, so instead of blowing large amounts of cash on expensive kit, you should ideally be concentrating on making as many films as you can instead. Experience will make you a better filmmaker and ultimately, if your film is engaging and well made, it will find an audience, regardless of which camera you used to shoot it. The as you build experience, you can start to look at choosing formats which suit your budget.

That said, when buying any type of camera for use in filmmaking, there are a couple of givens. Firstly, you should only buy cameras that have a full set of manual controls. That means, manual focus, manual exposure, manual shutter speed, and ideally manual digital 'ISO' settings. Very low-end consumer cameras may be cheap, but they are designed for hassle-free shooting of holidays and weddings. For filmmaking, you need to have control.

The other main consideration is the camera to computer interface. As a filmmaker, you're going to want to edit, so you'll need to get your footage onto your computer one way or another. Whether this is done via USB, Firewire, SD card, or another method, you need to choose a camera which has an interface that works with your editing system. And remember that USB 1.0 and 2.0 can be painfully slow for transferring large video files (USB 3.0 or later is recommended).

These days, most people are interested in shooting HD in some way shape or form and most entry-level cameras (and also DSLRs like the Canon 5D) shoot in a format called AVC/HD. This has the advantage of being compatible with the current versions popular editing software such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, and provides a pretty decent quality. That said, remember the ultimate picture quality is affected by a range of factors beyond the camera itself (particularly, lighting, lenses, DOP skill etc).

There are also still plenty of MiniDV cameras around, and indeed you may be able to pick up a prosumer version for a song compared to a newer HD camera. Prosumer MiniDV cameras, like a Canon XL1 or Sony VX1000, cost $3,000 - $5,000 when new, but will probably go for well under $1,000 these days. These cameras may actually give you a better picture quality than some of the low-end AVC/HD cameras. HDV is also a consideration, however as the format was quickly superseded by file-based HD cameras, there aren't that many models out there and they remain in the $1,000 - $2,000 range second hand.

And don't forget, if you absolutely positively must have a pro camera - consider renting it! You can test it out and learn all about it over a weekend . And then when you're ready to shoot, just book it for the days you need.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 15-Jun-2021


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: Just a cowboy courtesy. I hope it helps.
Jason @  |  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.