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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.