Phone cameras shoot slow-motion and 4K now, professional video cameras are going for less than $2000 and thousands of people are vlogging every day. But with so many options on the market, it’s hard to know where to start. From a filmmaker who has tried and tested dozens of cameras, here are his picks.
Words and Photography by Dominic Gould
There’s a saying that goes “the best camera is the one you’ve got on you”. This is true in that any camera is better than no camera, and we’ve all got to start somewhere. But in the same way you wouldn’t put screws in with a hammer, there are certain cameras you wouldn’t use for certain situations, and others that would excel in those same situations.
Included in this article are cameras that I’ve personally used for a variety of projects; music videos, events, weddings, interviews and other personal projects. Some of these cameras are great for music videos but terrible for weddings, and vice versa. Whether you’re a hobbyist or professional, there’s something on the list for you.
Every camera listed is less than $2500 which, although is the price of a car in some cases, in the world of video cameras, it’s on the lower end of the price spectrum, and roughly what you’ll need to budget to get the tech specs needed for professional quality video.
The tech specs I’ll be comparing are sometimes a little tricky to get your head around so before I dive into the list of cameras, I’ll break down the 7 elements that to me, make an effective video camera for filmmaking on a budget.
Most people don’t watch videos in 4K on YouTube and even less people have screens that support 4K, but I still think it’s important for filmmaking on a budget. The main reason is that it gives you freedom to move your frame around when you’re editing. You can crop in and add zooms or pans that you couldn’t do when you were shooting. This is especially useful for weddings and events where you’re shooting on the fly and don’t have time to set up your shots. As well as interviews or similar situations where you need two angles with one camera by using the same clip but cropped in on different parts of the frame.
Some cameras have in-built stabilisation, making handheld shooting nice and smooth. This is extremely useful for events and weddings where you don’t have the luxury of setting up your shot and how you want to move through the space. Internal stabilisation will take the camera shake out of your footage and allow you to make creative shots with free-flowing movement.
FULL FRAME SENSOR
Some cameras have bigger sensors than others. In general, the bigger the sensor is, the more depth of field you can get with your lens and the better your camera will perform in low light. Full frame sensors are great for environments where you can’t control the lighting yourself, like weddings or live music. You can comfortably crank your ISO to 2000 or more and your footage will still hold up just fine.
LOG PICTURE PROFILE
Log picture profile is a flat, almost grey looking filter that pulls down the bright parts of your shot and brings up the dark parts. This means you retain all the information in your exposure and have more room to play around with your tone and colour when you’re editing. This is something that’s important in pretty much any kind of filmmaking and you should definitely learn how to work it, unless your camera shoots Raw.
Raw recording basically just means your footage isn’t being compressed. This means the files are much bigger but also means you don’t lose any data. Raw footage is much easier to colour grade and just looks better in general. You’ll also be able to change your white balance and ISO when you’re editing, thanks to this you’ll be able to transform your footage in editing to get a specific look without losing any quality.
HIGH FRAME RATE (SLOW MOTION)
With some cameras, when you shoot 50fps or above to do slow-motion shots, it will crop in or downgrade the resolution to 1080p or 720p in some cases. There are some higher end cameras that can shoot slow motion at full resolution without crop but it’s something you’ll have to pay for as most low budget cameras are not equipped to deal with the data-rates and file sizes of shooting full sensor resolution in a high frame rate. Not a deal breaker but if you want high quality slow mo it’s definitely something to consider.
Every camera on this list has autofocus, but some fall short of being effective in a professional scenario. Some cameras will focus back and forth and change the exposure to help get focus and this of course ruins your shot. Cameras with effective AF track smoothly between the subjects you’re centered on and you’ll always find your focus without even thinking about it. This is determined by the way the cameras utilise the sensor to focus automatically and also by how many “AF Points” the particular camera has, as well as the quality of lens you’re using, some have faster AF motors than others. Good AF in my opinion is crucial for events, live music or weddings so if that’s your game it’s gotta be at the top of your priorities.
I made this little table with the cameras I’m talking about and their related specs:
Canon 5D Mark III
Great for: exploring lenses and shooting Raw footage on a budget.
The Canon 5D Mark III is the underdog on this list although I still thought it deserved a mention. I used it on the Citrus Daze music video shown below as it was my first music video and I was working on a tiny budget but I still wanted to be able to manipulate colour.
This camera is unique amongst the list as there is an online plugin that turns this camera into something that Canon never intended. You can download a plugin online called Magic Lantern that gives the camera Raw recording. Canon equipped the sensor with Raw capabilities but don’t let people use it (probably so they can keep selling their $10,000 cinema cameras…) but a third party software company called Magic Lantern found a way to hack the camera sensor to allow it. Canon obviously aren’t too happy about it so they won’t repair your camera if something goes wrong once you’ve added the plugin but I personally think it’s definitely worth doing, it’ll take the video quality to a level beyond that of every DLSR on the market and will give you a professional look on a budget.
On this list the Canon 5D Mark III is the oldest, cheapest, and on paper seems like a poor choice for filmmaking. It doesn’t shoot 4K, doesn’t have internal stabilisation and doesn’t have log picture profile. What it does have though is a ridiculous amount of lens options. Pretty much every professional video lens made in the last decade has come out in Canon’s EF mount. This means that, in my opinion, this camera is the perfect starter camera to learn about lenses, which is crucial when getting into filmmaking. Being able to play with lots of lenses will help you develop your style and find your voice as a filmmaker. A perfect lens to start with is the Canon 24-105mm f4 L series, it’s sharp as hell and covers pretty much everything you’ll need to shoot.
Pocket sized, affordable, lots of internal tech and great for vlogging.
The Sony A6500 is a Mirrorless APS-C camera. There are a few things that make the A6500 stand out. For one, it’s tiny. Without a lens on, it fits in a jacket pocket. But don’t let the size fool you, the small size makes it a great option if you’re putting your camera on a gimbal or stabiliser. It also packs a huge punch when it comes to software. It shoots 4K so you’re able to crop in and reframe when editing, it can shoot 120fps slow motion (5x slower), it has internal stabilisation so it’s easy to shoot handheld, it has a log picture profile which makes it easier to colour grade and it has good autofocus if you’re shooting on the fly. With all of these combined, I think it makes a perfect camera for vlogging or travel/lifestyle videos.
“Without a lens on, it fits in a jacket pocket.”
The downside to the camera is the sensor size, having an APS-C sized sensor, it struggles to provide clean footage above 1600 ISO. So I wouldn’t recommend this camera for filming weddings or events as you’ll often have to go to 2500 or 3200 ISO to make up for the lack of light. This camera can be purchased for under $1000 brand new, although be wary that Sony lenses are on the pricier side, I’d recommend getting a good third party zoom like the sigma 18-35mm Art lens with a lens adapter if you’re on a budget.
There are a few other manufacturers that make APS-C mirrorless cameras at the same price range like the Fujifilm X-T2 or Canon M5 and although they’re great cameras, the Sony A6500 has everything these cameras have combined plus more.
The do-it-all events camera and low light extraordinaire.
Stepping back into the world of full frame cameras, we have the Sony A7III. This camera takes all the great software from cameras like the A6500 and puts them behind a full frame sensor with incredible low light ability. The Sony A7III and A7SII can shoot at ISO 3200 without generating any grain or noise and even up to 6400/12800 with just the tiniest bit. The A7III shoots 4K at normal speed, 120fps in 1080p, it has log picture profile options, it has super quick AF – one of the quickest out there and it has in built stabilisation. And all of these features are in a camera body that’s small enough to put on almost any gimbal on the market.
It’s a little on the pricey side as you’re paying for great photography features in the same package (Eye locking AF, updated sensor, 10fps continuous shooting) but a new body can be purchased for under $2000. It’s close to a perfect camera for weddings, events and live music thanks to the autofocus speed and low light ability.
Canon EOS R
Long battery life, great colours and the best autofocus out there make this camera great for documentary filmmaking.
The Canon EOS R is Canon’s first move into full frame mirrorless territory, a genre that Sony absolutely dominated up until 2019. The EOS R beats out the Sony A7III in a few aspects but falls behind in others. Canon have always boasted the best “in-camera colours” and after using both the EOS R and the A7III I wholeheartedly agree. Without colour grading footage from the Sony it looks a bit lifeless whereas the Canon footage pops off the screen without any adjustments. If you’re shooting log, which both cameras have, then that’s nothing to worry about. Another great thing about this camera is the autofocus, it’s the fastest and most accurate I’ve ever used. If you’re a point-and-shoot kind of filmmaker, this autofocus will make your life a whole lot easier. The battery life on the EOS R is great too, it takes the same batteries as the 5D III so they’re easy to come across and super cheap.
If interviews or documentary work is your lane, then the EOS R is a great camera. The battery life paired with the autofocus and great natural colours makes it the perfect camera to go out and shoot without any worries.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the Canon mirrorless world though, there are a few dark clouds. If you’re shooting in 4K on this camera it crops in your field of view by about 1.7 times. This means your 24mm lens is now a 40mm lens, which is super annoying. When I owned this camera I only ever shot in 1080p which was a little frustrating at times but not nearly as much as a huge crop that kills your wide angle lenses. On top of this crop, the camera only shoots 100fps slow motion in 720p, so if you want slow-mo you’re losing quality.
And if you thought Sony lenses were expensive, the EOS R came out with a brand new lens mount named RF, which only has a few lenses out so far and they cost an arm and a leg each. I highly recommend getting the Canon adapter to use the older EF lenses instead.
Blackmagic Pocket 4K
The cinematic game-changer, the most high-end look you’ll be able to achieve with less than $2000.
Now we’re up to the camera I currently own, the one they’ve all been leading up to. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (bit of a mouthful I know, let’s just call it the BM4K). This camera stands out from the rest as it is a cinema camera, not a DSLR or Mirrorless. This camera is in no way at all designed to take photos, it’s designed specifically for filmmaking on a budget. It records Raw video, which is completely uncompressed unlike the other cameras on this list (apart from the 5D III with Magic Lantern) and will give you the ability to colour grade like crazy without losing quality and adjust your white balance, ISO and contrast in raw controls when you’re editing so you don’t lose quality like you would just altering the exposure in regular colouring. Another reason why I think this camera is the best camera for filmmaking on a budget is the menu system. It’s super simple, has everything you need laid out exactly where you’d expect it to be and is really quick to change settings.
The BM4K can shoot 50fps in 4K, making it the only camera that can shoot 4K slow-motion, and it can shoot up to 100fps in 1080p. It has all the exposure and focus assist features you could possibly imagine too, making it super easy to get your shots ready.
“The BM4K for me is the perfect camera for music videos, short films or commercials.”
One downside to this camera is that it has a micro four thirds sensor, which is smaller than that of the APS-C sensor in the Sony A6500. This means that if you put a 24mm lens on, it will become a 45 which is a bit ridiculous. This can all be avoided however with a speedbooster lens adapter. This is a lens mount converter with a piece of glass inside which amplifies the light coming through the lens, which reduces the crop of the camera to about 1.2/1.3 and also gives you an extra stop of light on your aperture which can be handy. This of course means you have to spend some extra cash on the speedbooster, which will set you back between $300-600.
The BM4K also chews through batteries like there’s no tomorrow, I have 9 batteries for it and will charge them constantly throughout the day when shooting. This is something to consider for you if you shoot weddings or interviews where a battery could die at a crucial moment like exchanging vows or something like that.
The BM4K for me is the perfect camera for music videos, short films or commercials thanks to the control of colour and the look you can achieve with a camera that goes for under $1300 brand new.
TO SUM UP
Ultimately there is no perfect camera. Like I said at the start, the best camera is the camera that works for you. For me, one year ago it was the EOS R as I was mostly doing events and live music, whereas now for me it’s the BM4K as I’m mostly doing music videos. If I was a wedding filmmaker, I’d be choosing the Sony A7III and Sony A6500 without question. If I was just starting out and experimenting, I’d choose the 5D Mark III thanks to the cheap raw recording and lens options. You have to consider what type of filmmaking you are doing most and what camera will be the most effective for you.