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.