Table of Contents:
High End Cameras
Mid-Range and Prosumer Cameras
DSLR Still Cameras That Also Shoot HD Video
Learner Cameras (Consumer Camcorders Capable of Upgrades)
A Word on 3D
HD Camera Shooting Hints
I’ve noticed many people coming to this site looking for camera comparisons. Even if you are only showing your film on the web, I do not recommend shooting in SD (Standard Definition, 640 x 480 pixels of resolution). You should ‘acquire’ in UHD video, 2k HD (2048 × 1536 pixels) or on film (super 16mm or better) You can probably still get away with HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) for several more years, especially if your primary mode of distribution will be online.
Note: Film is now more expensive and film-based workflows are rare and getting rarer. Almost all independent and Hollywood films now shoot with digital cameras.
There are too many possible cameras to list them all, so I’ve narrowed them down to the ones I believe are best suited for making a low-budget film.
Here are my criteria:
- At least 1920×1080 resolution, 23.98p frames per second (1080p) – I now consider this the minimum for a feature film that will be taken seriously by festivals, distributors and the majority of movie audiences. 720p is too soft on big screens and 1080i (interlaced) not as cinematic. Everything has now standardized around 1080p, which means that, if you can afford it, you should consider future-proofing at an even higher resolution: 4k or above.
- Interchangeble lenses – I no longer am recommending getting a cheap camera and an expensive lens adapter. It seems pretty clear that filmmakers want the ability to change lenses built into the camera already. For more background, check out Making the Movie’s Guide to Lenses for DSLR Filmmakers which explains the different types of lens mounts and choices made for independent feature films.
- Tested workflows – This criteria is a bit more subjective, but it encompasses whether I consider the camera experimental when it comes to shooting feature films or not, whether the footage is recorded with enough latitude that it can be manipulated with a color-timing program to achieve more cinematic looks, etc.
For general information about buying a camera, read my column on the Mastering Film website: Which Camera Should I Buy for My Movie? I also recommend reading Ryan E. Walter’s Guide to Putting Together a Digital Camera Package (2012) for a look at the thought process of a d.p. assembling a camera package.
This category is for cameras which are currently used to shoot major commercial films. I have tried to organize them roughly in terms of current popularity.
For d.p.’s accustomed to working with Arri film cameras, the Alexa workflow comes easily, and many popular film camera accessories require no adaptation. As of 2011, it has become a standard among Hollywood productions of all sizes. Martin Scorsese and Bob Richardson chose it for their first foray into HD with Hugo and Lars von Trier used it to shoot Melancholia. The four versions (Alexa, Alexa M, Alexa Plus, Alexa Studio) represent different configurations of the modular system (and different prices). For example, the M separates the camera head from the recording body and the Studio model features a mechanical shutter and optical viewfinder. A firmware update now allows for shooting up to 120fps.
Arri also had success with the D20 and D21 models in its high-end digital camera range, but these look like they are being phased out with the new Alexa line. [Last updated 1/2/13]
RED’s follow-up to the RED One has even more resolution (up to 5k) and high-speed capabilities (300fps at 2k). The next gen “dragon” will allow for even faster frame rates at even higher resolution, and a reported 15+ stops of latitude. Recent Hollywood films shot on the RED Epic include The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,
For most indies, the additional resolution and ability to shoot a high frame rates is probably overkill, but for those who have experience with the RED One, the transition is supposedly quite easy. [Last updated 1/2/13]
The F23 was the first modular camera in Sony’s CineAlta system, a line developed explicitly for movie use. It features wide gamut, 444 color, slow-motion and speed-ramping.
The F35 ups the sensor size to an equivalent of 35mm film, has a PL mount and works with the portable SRW-1 recorder.
In September 2011, Sony announced the F65. Just as the Sony’s F23 was an answer to the Red One, the F65 appears to be an answer to the Red Epic. It goes “up to 8k resolution” but has advantages at lower resolutions through a “supersampling” technology that allows for greater contrast in the details. It also has frame rates up to 120 fps, rolling shutter reduction, RAW output, wide latitude and color gamut. [Last updated 11/8/11]
Here’s where we start to get into cameras that would be in purchase-rather-than-rental range for some lower-budget films, although it can still make financial sense to rent these. And don’t forget to check Craigslist or other sites for people selling off their old kits.
The RED One is the original RED camera. The company was founded by Jim Jannard, the guy who brought us Oakley sunglasses. Jim is a camera nut and wanted to make a super-flexible camera capable of high-end images. There are some technical tradeoffs that RED makes to achieve their quality/price ratio and some filmmakers, like Rian Johnson, prefer other high-end cinema cameras like the Genesis or F23. Since the RED was released, many major motion pictures have been shot with it, including the Stephen Soderbergh-directed Contagion and the David Fincher-directed The Social Network. Plus, it became the camera of choice for quality independent films like The Myth of the American Sleepover. Although it is now superseded by the RED Scarlet and RED Epic camera bodies, rental houses still carry the original and filmmakers are still out there doing great work with them.
For those accustomed to shooting with film cameras, the RED has a large learning curve. It is more a camera embedded inside a computer than a simple mechanical device. There are various firmware “builds,” each with their particular quirks. Having a dedicated tech in addition to the d.p. is recommended. The Red One shoots up to 4k resolution, and uses a PL mount or can be adapted to use B4, Canon EF or Nikon 35mm lenses. [Last updated 30 March 2015]
Officially announced November 2011, the Scarlet-X is like a junior version of the Red Epic. It is capable of a dizzying array of resolutions and frame rates. It provides up to 4k capture, and its cousin, the Scarlet Dragon (using RED’s Dragon sensor) goes up to 5k (in the most useful frame rates). [Last updated 30 March 2015]
Blackmagic made a huge splash in 2012 by announcing a camera body at a truly affordable price that is capable of RAW recording, beating out RED’s Scarlet, which was supposed to cost $3k but didn’t. It is available with EF or passive MFT (Micro Four Thirds) mounts and the sensor records 13 stops of latitude at 2.5k resolution. Purchase of a camera includes Da Vinci Resolve software to color grade the RAW files, which record directly to the built-in SSD. Or record in ProRes422 or Avid DNxHD codecs for super-easy post workflows.
Despite some difficulty in attaching common cinema accessories and in mounting, handling the camera, this has quickly become a favorite of indie filmmakers. At this price, more budget is freed up for other toys. [Last updated 1/2/13]
Canon’s C line of camera bodies are a direct answer to RED’s camera line, providing a modular system for recording cinematic video at various price points. All have the same wide-latitude super-35 CMOS sensor and Digic DV III processor. All of them take Canon EF lenses, and the C300 and C500 have a PL-mount version as well. I’ve personally shot with the C300 and Canon’s CP.2 lenses and was very impressed with how cinematic the results were.
The C100 is the entry level, capable of recording AVCHD only, although it does have HDMI out with TC.
The C300 can record 1920 x 1080 4:2:2 in XF MPEG-2 on board or can capture uncompressed with an external recorder. It still does not do 4k, so you’ll have to shell out the big bucks for the C500 if that’s what you want.
The C500 does 4k RAW recording at 10bit for up to 60p or 2k RAW at 12bit for up to 60p. Frame rates can even go up to 120p at 2k resolution. You will need to buy/rent an external recording device for this, though, since the built-in recorder can’t handle that much data. [Last updated 1/2/13]
MSRP: < $10,000 ? This Chinese-made 2K camera became available for pre-order as of December 2012. Already there is some nice test footage available that shows the capabilities of the camera, which has a whole set of controls that can be manipulated via an iPad app. The camera can be ordered with an Canon EF mount. [Last updated 1/2/13] MORE: No Film School update
MSRP: $16,000 body only; $23,000 kit
Announced in November 2010, the PMW-F3 has a Super 35mm-sized sensor, accepts PL-mount lenses and can record at 1080/23.98p, as well as slow motion up to 720/60p. If you don’t want to record XDCam — and many filmmakers won’t because of the compression and color space (4:2:0) — you can go out 4:4:4 10bit via dual HD-SDI to an external recorder (if I read this right). I also like the ability to put sound in directly via XLR, which will streamline sound workflows for many indie projects. [Last updated 11/22/11]
MORE: Sony Website
MSRP: $7790 and $6500
The PMW-EX1R supersedes the EX1 with an improved hand grip and some other features, that indie filmmakers might not need — do your research. They both have the same 3 x 1/2″ CMOS chips as the EX3, shoot progressive up to 1920 by 1080 and offer variable frame rates (1-60fps at 720p). They record to SxS memory cards or there’s an SDI with timecode out. Originally when released this only went out 1080i not 1080p. I cannot determine if firmware updates have fixed this. Overall, this is a more compact, ‘run and gun’ version of the EX3 (see above). [Last updated 11/8/11]
MORE: Adam Wilt’s PVC review
MSRP: $4,699 from B&H
With dual-XLR inputs, and uncompressed video out via HDMI, this is one great bang for the buck for an indie who knows how to do a little configuring.
This has a micro-four-thirds sensor — smaller than the sensor in the popular Canon DSLRs (see below) but it is designed expressly for video, which gives it some advantages over them. The workflow seems to be pretty straightforward and I’m guessing it will be easy for filmmakers who already grew up with Panasonic’s popular DVX100 and HVX200 cameras to make the transition. It was used to shoot the indie film Know How in conjunction with a nanoFlash recorder and some old Nikkor lenses. [Last updated 21 May 2013]
SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, which is the basic type of pro stills camera, the one where you look through the viewfinder, and thanks to a mirror contraption (the ‘single lens reflex’), you can see what the lens is seeing — right until you pull the shutter and the mirror lifts. When these went digital — the D in DSLR — it became a no-brainer to add video capability. Recently, the video quality and manual features on some of these DSLR’s has gotten to the point that indie filmmakers have begun using them to great effect.
The advantages are: cheaper lenses and great depth-of-field and everything else that comes from nice photo lenses, bigger sensors than many HD video cameras meaning more light and color info. People who are already familiar with shooting stills find it easy to make the transition. The disadvantages — rolling shutters that create a “jello cam” effect when there are fast pans or handheld motion, heavy compression of image, lack or poor implementation of some video-centric features, such as sync sound.
The 5D has a larger sensor size than the 7D and T3i. There are small but nice improvements for video shooters in the mark 3 from the mark 2, especially in the ability to set levels on audio recording, improved handling of moire, aliasing and low-light ISO noise. Filmmakers will have to weigh the cost differential, which may be even wider if you are considering buying used.
The HDMI out has burn-in on it; hopefully this will be fixed with a firmware update. Issues with rolling shutter and sharpness remain. Pro D.P.s recommend doing sharpening in post, in any case, rather than using the camera’s sharpening algos.
For the 5D cameras Zeiss’s CP.2 line is available in the EF mount, as are new Canon CN-E zooms, so excellent cinema-friendly lenses are available if you have dough to buy or rent. LAST UPDATED 17 April 2013
The 7D was the first Canon DSLR to shoot 23.98 progressive — the same speed as standard film projection. Other flavors can certainly be used, especially if you’re going straight to the web and not into a feature film-type workflow. This camera has the same chip as the cheaper T2i, but has an option for HDMI out (useful for attaching an external LCD monitor) and is much more rugged. If you are going to be shooting in adverse conditions, I recommend ponying up the extra cash, as my T2i felt fragile, for example, when I used it in the desert heat and dust.
For the 7D camera, Zeiss’s CP.2 line is available in the EF mount, as are new Canon CN-E zooms, so good cinema-friendly lenses are available. [Last updated 3/27/12]
Canon has designed their C100-500 line more expressly for cinematic shooting, but this pricey DSLR version is capable of 4k for cheaper than the C500. 4k video records in Motion JPEG, regular HD video in H.264. There is a clean HDMI out for grabbing a less-compressed 1080p HD feed (still 8bit 4:2:2). Vincent Laforet used this to shoot the Movi demo. [Last Updated 4/6/13]
I own a T2i at the moment — so you get sense of my budget. I got it when it came out because the initial tests showed that the images created by the 7D were identical to those created by the T2i. The 7D does allow some better ISO customization and has HDMI out, but neither of those were dealbreakers. T3i is not much of a change from the T2i, just adding a swiveling display.
So far, this camera is working great, and I feel like a got a steal with the much lower price — but I do recommend with any DSLR package: budget for the accessories that will turn it into a cinema rig. [Last updated 12/31/12]
T2i vs. 7d shootout
If you want your film to have the best possible chances, I am recommending 24p cameras with at least 1920 x 1080 resolution. But you can learn filmmaking on cameras of nearly any quality. Below are some cameras that do not meet my criteria, but might meet the budget you have, and have been used to make feature films before with great success in the days before 1080p was de minimus.
I had to move this out of the DSLR section since a commenter reminds me it is technically an EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) camera. Still, it operates much like a DSLR. While it lacks some of the features and lenses of the Canons, there’s a good chance you could find a used one with a whole digital-shooters kit already put together for a song cheaper.
UPDATE 10/6/10: A GH2 has been announced and pre-orders are available at Amazon: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 16.05 MP Live MOS Interchangeable Lens Camera with 3-inch Free-Angle Touch Screen LCD and 14-42mm Hybrid Lens (Black)
The compact-body version of the XL-H1, much has been made of the Genlock, TC and HD-SDI jacks on this camera. Jammable timecode is something that people who shoot sync-sound will appreciate. [Last updated 11/8/11]
The specs for the Canon Vixia HV30 are nearly identical to the HV20. The main upgrade is the ability to shoot 30p or 30 progressive frames per second which should help with certain kinds of for-web work. (Like the HV20, it can also shoot 24p or 60i.) Other upgrades include making the zoom button bigger, making the LCD screen resistant to solarizing and making it possible to attach a particular battery pack called the BP-2L24H.
The Canon HV20 excited a lot of budget-conscious filmmakers because, with accessories like a Kona card for direct capture of the HDMI out and a lens adapter, it can produce amazingly high-end images. If you’re willing to do some hacking, this might be the camera for you. [Last updated 10/9/10]
I shot and edited a film in two weeks using the LX3, which was so stealthy that we were never spotted the whole time we shot in public. True, it only goes up to 720p and to attach lenses I had to do some modifications, but I was only ever planning to distribute the film on the web.
The LX5 has similar specs (only does 720p) but now compresses in AVCHD Lite codec, which should mean a better image (theoretically). [Last updated 11/8/11]
A Word on 3D
Shooting in 3D increases the complexity of the shoot enormously, and is not for the faint of heart. As of November 2011, 3D camera rigs for indies are still very experimental. Still, it is worth considering because it will help future-proof your film.
I’m bullish on 3D. Along with 4k+ TVs & playback, it is the inevitable next development for consumers who have finished upgrading to HD. The biggest Hollywood movies are now almost uniformly coming out in 3D and I expect that to filter down — just as color and sound did when they were introduced to movies.
For more, read the extensive post with my thoughts on 3D For Indies.
A hint on avoiding headaches in post: Know your post-production workflow before you shoot, so that you can organize the footage appropriately while you shoot. Having files or tapes in HDV vs. DVCProHD vs. HDCam vs. HDCam-SR vs. AVCHD vs. XDCAM vs. .dpx makes a huge difference!
A hint on making the decision between two similar cameras: Flip a coin. It doesn’t matter that much. Other considerations like lighting, acting, production design and a d.p. who knows how to use the camera will affect your film much more. Mark Stolaroff of No Budget Film School is very eloquent on this topic.
If you have experiences with these HD cameras, share them in the comments below. Please send any corrections or additions to makingthemovie AT-SIGN gmail DOT com.