What Video Camera Should You Buy?
If you want to be a writer, all you need is a pencil and paper. If you want to be a painter, you just need a brush and a canvas. Filmmaking, on the other hand, requires a carefully chosen selection of highly technical equipment.
Over the past 10+ years of making films (whether it’s for broadcast TV, or online), I’ve learnt that choosing the right equipment makes the whole process more enjoyable. Investing wisely in your choices now can pay dividends later on.
It’s also easy to get too caught up in the technical details and so in this article I’ll be focusing on the practical considerations to help you make the right choices as quickly as possible. If you’re unsure of any of the technical terms or want to dig deeper, then I’ve created this supplementary article where I cover things like resolution, chroma subsampling, and the difference between bit rate and bit depth.
In this article we’ll cover:
- Identifying what you’ll need with 5 simple questions
- How to choose a tripod
- What lenses you should buy
- Camera categories and price brackets
- Camera showdown
While the technical aspects are all important to understand, first and foremost the equipment is there to enable you to tell your story — and every story is different. With this in mind, lets go over some simple questions to identify what unique requirements there are for you.
5 Important Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Camera
1. Is this equipment going to be a long-term investment for multiple projects or a one-off?
If you’ve got a long term project or regular work lined up, then investing in a camera could pay for itself. However, if you’re unsure of how much work you’ll have or if it’s just a one-off, then you can save a lot of money and hassle by borrowing or hiring. A simple formula for deciding whether to buy is this:
Cost of camera / life cycle (in days)
(Life cycle is the number of days you intend to use or hire the camera out for. For example, if a camera needs to be upgraded every 2 years and you will work 100 days per year, then the life cycle is 200 days).
If a camera costs $10,000 and you predict being able to charge it out for 200 days over two years, then as long as you’re charging it out for at least $50 per day, you’ll make your money back.
If the answer is less than the daily rental cost then it probably makes more sense to buy.
2. What budget do you have available for equipment?
This question goes hand in hand with the first. If you don’t have $10,000 to invest in a camera right now, then renting might be your best option. It may also free up some funds for investing in other areas of production, like crew, cast, props, and so on.
3. Are there are specific delivery requirements?
Whether you need HD or 4K, 8bit or 10bit, or 4:2:2 subsampling will depend on where you plan to deliver your work and whether or not it will be colour graded. Colour grading is the process of adjusting your brightness and colour levels to create a more refined look. It requires a certain amount of image data to manipulate. It also benefits from a higher bit rate and greater dynamic range (see the supplementary technical post for more details).
If you are planning on colour grading then I recommend a 10bit image with at least 35Mbps for HD and 100Mbps for 4K.
If you’re posting your video straight to YouTube, the technical requirements will be significantly less than if it’s being shown on TV or sold to a stock website.
4. Are there any technical and practical requirements?
If you won’t have much control over your lighting then you may want to consider a camera that works better in low light (like the Sony A7S II discussed later in this post).
If you’re going to be doing a lot of work on a stabiliser (gimbal), then a camera with autofocus might enable you to get some challenging shots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without an expensive remote follow focus.
If you’re travelling solo with your equipment, then you may need to limit yourself to what can fit in one or two bags. It can be done — I’ve shot entire documentaries out of a backpack — but it requires diligent planning and organisation.
5. What equipment do you own already?
Lenses and camera bodies from different brands are generally not compatible without the addition of a lens mount. If you already own Canon or Nikon lenses it could make more sense to stick to the same brand or invest in a lens adapter. I personally love the Metabones Speedbooster, that not only enables me to use my Nikon lenses on Canon bodies, but also gives me an extra stop of light (a lens that was previously capable of f2.8 can now operate at f2.0).
These are the questions that make up the decision process I use for every project I undertake. If you have any specific questions about what you need for your project, send me a message in the comments and I’ll get right back to you.
Putting Together a Perfect Kit
Let’s imagine you’re going to film an interview-led story with a small 1- or 2-man crew. This is one of the most common scenarios I find myself in and over the course of hundreds, perhaps thousands of interviews, I have a good idea of what’s useful and what isn’t. The most basic shooting kit would be comprised of a camera, lens, microphone, and tripod.
Note: This post contains some affiliate links. They cost you nothing to use but I receive a small commission for the recommendation which means I can keep on writing. I’ll only ever recommend products that I have used and 100% believe in.
First and foremost, I’d recommend investing in at least one good lens. They’re like tires on a car; if you buy a Ferrari with cheap tires, you’re not going to get the most out of it. Think carefully about the type of work you’re going to be doing and decide whether it’s better suited to zoom lenses or primes.
With the advent of DSLR video shooting, we find ourselves using lenses that are designed for stills rather than film. Purpose-made film lenses have smooth all-manual controls, whereas still lenses are intended for the camera to electronically set the aperture and focus.
Film lenses are more effective for manual focus because they usually have greater movement on the barrel for more precise shooting. As well as less manual precision, many still lenses don’t have hard-stops at each end of the focus, meaning the barrel can turn continuously. This causes issues when setting focus marks because the position of the barrel can change when an end point is reached. Having said all this, I’d like to emphasise that film lenses come at a price. If you’re willing to work around their shortcomings, still lenses can get great results without breaking the bank.
One of the main reasons for the great variation in the price of lenses is the ability to achieve a shallow depth of field. The lower the aperture number the lens is capable of, the more expensive the lens is likely to be. For achieving a nice, soft focus background on wider lenses, f/2.8 is the sweet spot because it can offer a great look without being so shallow that it compromises your ability to keep a sharp image. You’ll find f/2.8 to be common with many of the professional Canon L series lenses. Lower apertures, like f/2.0 and f/1.4 give you even more creative freedom but come at a price and are usually limited to fixed focal length lenses.
Zoom lenses are useful for working quickly, particularly on documentaries where you might miss a shot if you were otherwise swapping lenses. They’re also convenient as you won’t need to carry around as much baggage. Look for zoom lenses that can maintain a constant aperture throughout their range (like the Canon 24-105 f/4.0 mentioned earlier). Cheaper ‘variable aperture’ zoom lenses may be able to achieve f/4.0 at the widest point, but on the long end they may close down to f/5.6 or more. This is impractical when shooting and limits your creative options.
Beware of zoom lenses that are not ‘par focal’. When you adjust the zoom you’ll have to set your focus again. This is quite common with cheaper still lenses and can result in soft images because it’s easy to forget.
My favorite budget all round zoom is the Canon 24-105 II. It covers you for wide, mid, and tight shots and has some of the best optical image stabilization for hand held work.
I have used this lens extensively, even on broadcast work with cameras like the Sony FS5/FS7. It’s perfect for lightweight run-and-gun filming and the image stabilization helps compensate for the poor ergonomics of smaller cameras. I consider this lens one of the best pieces of equipment you can invest in for under £1000 / $1000. Find it on Amazon here.
Prime lenses offer a different way of shooting as well as some technical benefits. With less glass and moving parts than zoom lenses, you’ll often find primes are capable of faster apertures, higher quality images (with nicer background blur, for example), and a lower price tag. For these reasons, and whenever time allows, I will take every opportunity to use them.
Prime lenses won’t give you the convenient range of focal lengths that come with zooms, and you’ll need to own multiple primes to be practical on set. I suggest having one for each shot type, for example a wide (16 or 24mm), mid (50mm), and telephoto (85mm+)
Each type of lens has its use depending on the production. If you’ve only ever used zoom lenses, I recommend trying primes for a change. With a zoom lens, it can be all too tempting to turn the barrel and hit record without giving it much thought. Prime lenses, on the other hand, make you stop and consider your shot.
For affordable, fully manual prime lenses designed for film and video, these Samyang’s are exceptional value for money. The four I’ve linked below are in my personal collection. I get most use out of the 50mm because it’s ultra fast (T1.5), produces great images, and is perfect for many interview situations. The 14mm is also a good choice because it’s significantly wider than most zoom lenses (that typically start around 24mm).
The type of lenses you choose will depend on the work you plan to do and, of course, your budget. Although zoom lenses are convenient, prime lenses encourage you to think more carefully about each shot.
A great practical exercise is to try shooting a few sequences with just one lens. The 50mm is a good place to start. You’ll learn a lot more about focal lengths, depth of field, and camera positioning than if you just get into the habit of twisting the barrel of a zoom and hitting record.
If you’re purchasing one prime lens at a time, I suggest going with this order:
1. The Samyang 50mm is right in middle of the range, making it one of the most versatile lens choices.
2. The Samyang 24mm is the most useful for wide shots, without being so wide that it creates distortion or an unnatural field of view. If you want to be bold then you might have more fun with the Samyang 14mm.
3. The Samyang 85mm is a great lens optically and also a excellent addition to the previous two.
If you want to stick to just 3 lenses and have a bit of added flexibility, then you could swap the 85mm for a Canon 70-200 or Tamron 70-20. Although the latest models go for $2000+, the earlier versions provide everything you need for video without the addition of advanced stabilisation. Unlike the 24-105, the stabilisation on the 70-200 lenses is fairly obsolete and hand held work is near impossible. For this, a tripod becomes essential.
A tripod is one of the first and most important tools when it comes to differentiating between amateur and professional video. The thought of ‘home video’ brings about memories of shaky hand held footage where no thought was given to stabilising the shots. As a result of being forced to sit through grandma’s holiday videos, our minds are trained to associate that handheld look with amateur, impromptu, on-the-fly recordings of ‘real life’. Although this effect certainly has its uses, it’s possible to elevate your production values and create a more refined look with the use of the humble tripod.
Here are 5 key points to remember when choosing a tripod:
1. Use fluid heads
Avoid using a stills tripod, as their heads are not designed for smooth movements and their legs are not as sturdy. Good video tripods have fluid chambers in their heads that add damping and resistance to your moves, giving a much smoother result. Professional video tripods offer a range of resistance settings (usually 10+ for each axis) while entry-level tripods will have considerably less. The greater the number of adjustments the tripod head offers, the more control you’ll have for precision shots.
2. Find the right counterbalance
Pay attention to the recommended ‘load weight’, as the counterbalance spring will need to be the right strength. This prevents the camera from moving on its own accord when you let go. Instead of having to fight the weight of the camera, a good fluid head creates a perfect balance regardless of its position. As a rule of thumb, the heavier the camera you’re using, the larger and more expensive the tripod that’s required. Weigh your camera rig with all its accessories attached and look for a tripod that will carry it comfortably.
3. Choose the material carefully
Tripod legs are usually made of either aluminium or carbon fiber, with the latter being lighter and more expensive. If you’re moving around a lot, particularly when flying, it’s pays to have a lighter tripod.
4. Legs sections make life easier
Most tripods will have 1, 2 or 3 leg sections with quick release clips at each point. I find that single-stage tripods are most useful for setting up quickly, whereas 2 and 3 stage tripods take longer but pack up smaller. The material and number of stages that you choose will depend on how important weight is to you, how small it needs to pack up, and your budget.
5. Ground or mid-level spreader
Many video tripods come fitted with either a ground or mid-level spreader. These add a little extra stability by connecting all three legs in the middle and prevent any one leg from sliding out underneath you. Mid level spreaders are regarded as better for uneven terrain, whereas ground spreaders often allow the legs to extend a little wider. Ground spreaders are also easier to setup quickly because you can stand on them while adjusting the leg height.
Some of the best high end tripods can be found in Sachtler. For semi-professional video tripods, Manfrotto is a great option.
The Manfrotto 501 video tripod on the left is far more stable and better at fluid movements than the stills tripod on the right.
Now you have an overview of what to look for when it comes to lenses and tripods, lets explore cameras. In the next section, we’ll look at some of the best cameras on the market in each price bracket and how they compare.
Choosing a Camera
With great advances in technology, equipment costs are constantly dropping. You can pick up a camera that records full HD for under £500. In fact, many new smartphones can record 4K video. Resolution isn’t everything, though, and it’s often a case of you get what you pay for.
A lot of DSLR cameras (originally created for taking still images) now record high quality HD and 4K video. Apart from taking stills, the main differences between a DSLR and a dedicated video camera are the accessories, ease of use, and ergonomics. While a DSLR may be cheaper, you’ll have to add accessories like an audio mixer (for capturing high quality sound) and a larger monitor (so you can check your subject is in focus).
In addition to image quality, a more expensive camera will have extra features to make your work easier. These include audio inputs for higher quality microphones, ND filters for controlling light, and ergonomics to improve handling.
To show you how camera features increase with price, I’ve put together this table using some of the most popular options within each price bracket.
|Camera Model||Canon Rebel T2i||Panasonic GH5||Sony FS5||Sony FS7|
|HD 35Mbps 4:2:2||–||X||X||X|
|Filmic Picture Profiles||–||X||X||X|
|XLR Audio Inputs||–||–||X||X|
|Inbuilt ND Filters||–||–||X||X|
Now you’ve seen how the price affects the features, you should be able to identify which category is right for you (or your current project).
Note: I will only ever recommend equipment that I’ve tried and tested in the field (and I’m a fan of renting camera bodies and owning everything else, so that’s a lot of camera’s over the years). The list here represents what I consider to be the most practical choices, taking into account ease of use, flexibility, cost, and image quality.
For those wanting to take home videos and do the occasional YouTube upload, a basic DSLR will serve as a convenient, light, and affordable tool. There are, of course, all-in-one compact cameras with fixed lenses that also shoot high quality video. However, since you’re reading this, I assume you want more control and the opportunity to develop your video skills.
Pick – The Canon Rebel T2i (AKA 550D) has been out for many years but still stands strong. Conveniently, it’s one of the most affordable HD DSLRs on the market. You won’t get any advanced features, but you’ll have access to the basics and everything you need to take good-looking images.
(Manufacturer discontinued but still available online. It’s possible to find this for <£200 second hand).
Not too dissimilar to the hobbyist, a Vlogging camera needs to be practical, lightweight, and affordable. In recent years manufacturers have started adding flip-screens that make it easier to record yourself while on the move.
Pick – The Canon EOS 77D has some of the modern features you’d expect to see on more expensive DSLR’s but at a fraction of the cost. There’s a rotating touch screen, dual pixel auto-focus, and image stabilisation, making it ideal for getting shots quickly that are sharp and stable. You won’t get 4K resolution with this model but for Vlogging it’s not a necessity and most online video is watched in HD.
Price: Body only £699
Semi-professional and Travel Videos
Getting nice-looking images on the move, combining basic interviews, and taking beautiful landscape and wildlife shots is a lot to ask from one camera. Fortunately, there’s a camera that can handle all of these tasks.
Pick – The Panasonic GH5 is extremely compact but still packs a 4K punch. Unlike its cheaper predecessor (the GH4), it has impressive internal image stabilisation and high bit rate recording, which is even accepted by most broadcasters. It’s capable of 4K 400Mbps 10-bit 4:2:2 internally (see supplementary post for explanation), a new milestone for cameras of this size. One of my favourite features is the ability to record 4K at 60fps, giving you the option to slow it down in post. All this extra data also means you’ll have a lot more scope to play with if colour grading.
Its micro-four-thirds sensor will result in a 2x crop factor in 4K mode, so you may want to consider buying micro-four thirds lenses, especially at the wider end. If you already have full frame lenses and don’t want to invest in micro-four-thirds glass, then another option is the Metabones Speedbooster XL 0.64x, which will reduce that crop factor to 1.3x (at a cost of around £600).
Semi Professional and Travel Videos: Option 2
The two main downfalls of the Panasonic GH5 are the poor low light performance, and high 2x crop factor. If these are deal breakers for you, then there’s an alternative.
The Sony Alpha A7s II mirror-less camera is really the first of its kind. It has a full frame sensor that’s capable of stunning 4K and exceptional low light performance. With usable ISO’s exceeding 40,000 you could technically light a scene with a match.
It can record 4K 4:2:0 8-bit video (this is where the Panasonic GH5 has an advantage with better internal recording) but it’s just enough to do some minimal colour correction in post. You can however output to an external recorder like the Atamos Shogun via HDMI with 8-bit 4:2:2 for an extra lift.
Overall this camera really blew me away when I first got my hands on it. The added flexibility that comes from the incredible low light performance makes shooting a pleasure, even with its shortcomings like the fiddly form factor. Working on travel videos or documentaries where you often don’t have much control over lighting usually means sacrificing your aperture and shutter speed. With the A7s II you could be shooting a landscape at night at f.11 and then adjust your ISO for the correct exposure. I put all of this to the test in a documentary I made in North Korea for National Geographic that you can watch here.
Price: Body only £1700
Amazon Link – Camera
Corporate Video Maker
When you’re looking to get paid for your work, then you need to walk the walk. Poor exposure, soft focus, or missing a shot entirely just isn’t an option. This is where you start needing more control with features like peaking, zebra, and audio leveling.
Pick – The Sony FS5 has become a staple B-camera for many large productions. It has nearly all the features you’d expect from a high end camera in a convenient package that’s easy to use.
Weighing in a 1.76lbs, it’s ideal for use on gimbal systems and fits nicely in a regular sized backpack. It will shoot up to 960fps (in burst mode) and offers 14 stops of dynamic range. One of my favourite features that sets it apart from any DSLR is the addition of variable neutral density (ND) filters. In practice this means you can dial in the ND smoothly without having to disrupt the shot (no exposure jumps that come with changing aperture and no need to stop the shot and screw a filter on). This camera is not only ideal for run-and-gun shooting, but I’ve also used it as a B-camera on big productions and an A-camera on corporate shoots.
Price: Body only <£5000
Amazon link – Camera
The word professional covers a lot of ground. It must be a camera that has all the features listed above and more, such as waveform and time-code.
Pick- The Sony FS7 is the older brother of the FS5 and has become the go-to choice for documentaries — and even some feature films — because of its outstanding value for money. Netflix has even added it to its list of approved cameras.
Some of the advantages over its younger brother include: full cinematic 4K (instead of UHD), 60fps (instead of 30fps), four audio channels (instead of two), and 3D LUTS which enable you to apply a ‘look’ to the viewfinder and/or actual recordings. It’s quite a bit heavier than the FS5 (9.9lbs instead of 1.76lbs) but comes with an improved extendable hand grip that makes shoulder mounting a bit more intuitive.
Price: Body only <£7000
Amazon link – camera
So Which Camera Should You Buy?
Of course, there are lots of other options out there, but these cameras stand tall in their respective categories. I’ve seen every one of them produce outstanding images when used correctly.
To me, the GH5 represents the best value for money when it comes to personal use. It’s a great camera that can fit into any travel bag, so you’ll never have an excuse to miss a shot. It also produces extremely high-quality images that give you lots of room to play with in post, and it has minimal technical issues, like rolling shutter. If I’m working on a big production, then I can afford to rent a more expensive camera and use the GH5 as a B-camera. Win win.
Even if budget weren’t an issue, there would still be times when the more compact GH5 (or even a GoPro) would be a better choice than an FS7. For many professionals, the limited audio inputs and tiny monitors often become deal breakers. At the end of the day, it comes down to your preferences, budget, and unique requirements of the production you’re working on.
I hope you found this useful. Of course it’s not possible to cover every scenario in one post but I’ll be happy to answer any specific queries in the comments below. I’ll keep on updating this topic so be sure to subscribe and you’ll be the first to hear. Thanks for reading.