Cameras for Filmmaking
There are so many new cameras being released by manufacturers that it can be difficult to know which one to buy at any given time. When trying to find the best camera for filmmaking on a budget, I was originally going to post several options broken down by price from $500 – $5,000.
But, I quickly realized that when we are talking about cameras specifically for filmmaking, there are certain features we need, and cameras at the lower prices are often compromised on quality for the benefit of a lower price.
So in this review, I’m looking at the 5 best cameras for filmmaking on a budget of about $3,000 and under.
Best Camera Manufacturers
In this review, I am sticking with cameras from manufacturers who are widely known in the industry. There are a number of new brands that pop up at NAB each year to show their stuff. Some of them have stood the test of time longer than others, but the point is that I want to make sure the cameras I recommend to filmmakers will have easily sourceable accessories from trustworthy online and brick and mortar stores.
There’s nothing worse than prepping for a shoot and realizing you need a certain cable or battery, only to find that the proprietary item is only available to be shipped in 10-14 business days.
So, I’m looking at the best cameras from Panasonic, Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Blackmagic Design.
What Filmmakers Need
If I was to look at cameras for any old reason, this list would likely be quite different. But filmmakers have special needs that aren’t available on just any camera. There are also a few different use cases that I will address, like narrative vs. documentary, each with its own requirements.
Ergonomics is a hugely important factor when choosing a camera that can sometimes be overlooked. It is important to realize the small differences in weight, grips, button placement, shoulder pads, screen adjustment that can make or quite literally break your decision (and your back).
When working on a film, the days can often be 12+ hours. And during that horrendously long day, think about how many hours you’ll be carrying, moving, gripping, and lifting that camera around. I’m getting sore just thinking about it.
Having a comfortable operating position, both gripped out in front of you and shouldered on a rig, is high on my list of important considerations.
There are certain things one should expect when buying a camera for making a movie. Things like the ability to go into a “manual” mode and adjust the white balance, ISO, aperture, frame rate, and shutter angle.
These things are a must, but not all cameras include these options. Many consumer cameras are targeted toward the hobby videographer who is only concerned with capturing fun family moments during a vacation.
Who doesn’t like more? Beyond the standard features that I’m expecting in a camera meant for the big screen are the neat extra features that can make your life so much easier.
Things like autofocus, dual ISO, screen magnification, image stabilization, false colors, and focus peaking are just a few of the options I will be looking for to set a camera apart from the rest.
In this review, I’m only looking at cameras that have the option to shoot in Ultra HD and above. UHD is a near 4K option that many consider to be good enough on the resolution front.
Because 4K has become the standard in delivery to many distributors and OTT platforms, we are leaving out cameras that can only record 1080p, 2K, 3.8K and any other flavor of video that has popped up in the past few years.
Color Gamut and Bit Depth
Because we are talking about budget cameras we can’t be too picky here, but we are going to look for cameras that can shoot some kind of LOG at a minimum of 8-bit color. Shouldn’t be that hard, right?
We are going to skip RAW recording as a positive feature in this roundup because when it comes to working with limited budgets, RAW is not your friend.
In many cases, it requires special recorders and larger media, which means you’ll also need additional storage on your computer. It’s not uncommon for major Hollywood films shooting RAW to use over 200 TB of storage (not including backups). So, we’ll leave that for a different review.
You may be thinking, “I just want a camera, not a bunch of accessories.” But the accessories are totally necessary and you’ll need to think about them when making your decision.
Things like batteries, for example, I will be asking – how many do you need to get through one shooting day, how long do they take to charge, and how much are they?
Lenses are absolutely crucial. With 5 cameras, we are looking at 4 different lens mounts! Each mount type has different lens options as well as adapters, speed boosters, and other fun things.
I will also take into consideration the availability of shoulder mounts, cages, handles, and other accessories that are made specifically for a certain camera.
The Panasonic GH5s is a DSLR that boasts DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) at up to 10 bit 4:2:2. It records to widely available SD cards with decent record times of 30 minutes per 64GB at the max codec.
The dual native ISO of 400 and 2500 make it a contender in the low-light division, with a max ISO of 204,800 in an “extended ISO” mode.
One thing Panasonic has become known for is variable frame rates (thus the VariCam line of broadcast and cinema cameras), and the GH5s does not disappoint with frame rate options up to 60 fps in 4K and up to 240 fps in full HD.
The GH5s has one of the best battery life specs out of the bunch. You could get through a whole day of shooting with just two (maybe 3 for safety) batteries!
At only 1.45 pounds with the addition of a flip-out and reversible screen, the camera is one of the easiest to operate from a variety of heights and angles.
The lack of built-in stabilization that was available on the GH5 means you may have to do some stabilization in post if you are going for silky smooth moves.
And, the autofocus abilities of the camera are limited and difficult to dial in.
The GH5s includes focus peaking and scopes such as a Histogram, Waveform, and Vectorscope for judging exposure but does not include false color (which is my favorite way to judge exposure).
Full-sized HDMI out expands your ability to view the image with an external monitor using a readily available cable that almost everyone has these days.
The active micro 4/3 lens mount has limited options available for native mount cinema lenses, but the Meike cinema prime lenses and the Fujinon cinema zoom lenses that have recently come out are a promising look into the future. Plus, the ability to adapt to a PL mount opens up many possibilities with this camera and a variety of professional cinema lenses.
One benefit of the GH5s is that it is exactly the same form factor as the GH5, which means that all of the cages, top handles, and shoulder mounts made specifically for the GH5 work perfectly with the GH5s.
Audio with the GH5s is pretty standard. There’s a built-in microphone that is good enough to capture reference audio, and you have to adjust the levels in the menu. But, one plus is that Panasonic has developed an optional audio interface that mounts to the hot-shoe adapter at the top of the camera and provides two XLR inputs and manual knobs to adjust levels.
When shooting documentary style or one-man-band type of projects, having an audio interface like this can be a life-saver.
I once tried to shoot a run-and-gun doc style video for a paying client on a Canon 7D with an external Zoom recorder tied to my belt loop. (This was early on in my days of shooting video, so don’t judge me too much.) Having to press record on both the camera and audio recorder while dealing with batteries running out, adjusting levels, and not being able to see for sure that the thing was actually recording made for some, lets say fun?, yeah fun issues.
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, or as I’ll be calling the BMPCC4K from now on (jeez what a long name), shoots DCI 4K (4096 x2160) images in Blackmagic RAW or ProRes 422 codecs (including HQ, LT, and Proxy).
The BMPCC4K features dual native ISO of 400 and 3200 with a max ISO of 26,500, which is somewhat limited compared to other options at the top end.
In terms of frame rates, the camera can do 60 fps in 4K and up to 120 fps in full HD. 120 frames per second is plenty to do some great slow-motion shots for your films, despite not quite hitting the 240 fps benchmark of the GH5s.
An area where the BMPCC4K really shines is in the media and recording options. The camera records to CFast 2.0 and SD UHS-II cards when recording 4K and RAW internally and can record an impressive 2-hours of RAW footage on one 256GB SD UHS-II card. But the added trick of utilizing USB-C to record to external SSDs is something not seen in any of the other camera options listed here.
The monitor on the back of the camera is a massive 5-inch touchscreen with a histogram, focus peaking, audio levels, and frame lines. The biggest drawback to the monitor is that it is static – no flip-screen here – which means for applications where you use a shoulder mount or are at extreme angles you will find an external monitor necessary.
The addition of a full-sized HDMI out connector is a plus. Thank goodness camera manufacturers are starting to go this direction instead of using the more flimsy, harder to find mini and micro flavors.
As for audio, this is one of the only cameras in this form factor that includes an XLR connection with 48v phantom power built-in. But, it’s a mini-XLR so a breakout cable will likely be necessary and the controls are done through the touch screen, so the audio adjustment functionality is still as limited as all the other options in my opinion. There’s also a 3.5mm microphone and headphone jack.
The camera uses the popular Canon LP-E6 batteries, which is great, but unfortunately many users report just a 30-40 minute run-time per battery. Luckily, there is a DC power port – a simple addition that would be welcome on all of these cameras instead of the “dummy battery” solution. It should also be noted that the USB-C port can be used to power the camera via USB battery packs and Blackmagic also sells a battery grip for extended battery life.
The active micro 4/3 mount on the BMPCC4K allows for the use of most lenses through the use of adapters. This means you can use Canon and Sony lenses or even PL mount cinema lenses. Native MFT mount cinema lenses are harder to come by, but companies like Meike are releasing some new compact primes. Rokinon Xeen lenses have a MFT option and Fujinon just released a great cine zoom with a native MFT mount.
As for accessories, Blackmagic cameras have been a smash hit with indie filmmakers since their first camera in 2012 so severely disrupted the industry. Because of this, accessory manufacturers such as Tilta, Shape, and Zacuto have made dedicated rigs for the BPCC4K.
Lastly, one great bonus of all Blackmagic cameras is the included Davinci Resolve Studio license that allows you to edit, grade, mix, and do effects for your projects.
The Sony A7iii is the latest in Sony’s Alpha line of DSLRs, made famous by the A7s for its incredible low-light performance.
The A7iii is a full-frame mirrorless digital camera that records h.264 UHD (3840 x2160) internally at up to 30p and Full HD up to 120 fps. Externally, the camera is able to record 8-bit 4:2:2 in UHD up to 30p and Full HD up to 60p.
Unlike the previous two cameras, the A7iii doesn’t utilize a dual-native ISO approach, and instead uses an extended ISO from 50-204,800 with minimal noise through 51,200 ISO.
The 3-inch touchscreen monitor tilts up and down to help with low and high angles but doesn’t flip out to view when on a shoulder mount.
The hybrid auto-focus system of the A7iii is impressive and could prove to be quite handy when utilizing a gimbal during walk-and-talk shots. Speaking of gimbals, the Sony camera has an internal image stabilization system that smooths out some of the bumps that may throw off a gimbal shot. Unfortunately, the stabilization still pales in comparison to the original GH5 system. But, at least it has some kind of stabilization, unlike the GH5s and BMPCC4K.
Sony cameras utilize the S-Log2 and S-Log 3 color gamut curves, which is the same Log profile as their larger F5 and F55 cinema cameras.
The camera records on dual SD UHS-II cards which means that media is pretty readily available.
Users report about 3-hours of battery life per battery with Sony’s new NP-FZ100 batteries that report 2.2x the battery life of their previous models. That means you could get away with just 4 batteries during a long feature film shoot day. Not the best, but not the worst.
There is a micro-HDMI connector on the side for external monitoring or recording. I prefer full-sized HDMI since they are more readily available, even at a Walgreens if you need one in a pinch.
As for audio, there’s a built-in microphone that is good enough for reference audio and a 3.5mm stereo mic input and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Canon 5D Mark II made huge waves in the industry by providing a viable camera for independent filmmakers to produce beautiful images with it’s large sensor, interchangeable fast lenses, 24fps, full HD glory.
Canon has been making gradual improvements on the camera and is now onto the 4th version in the 5D lineup.
The camera boasts a full frame sensor that shoots DCI 4K (4096 x2160) internally in 4:2:2 8-bit color at up to 30 fps and Full HD at up to 60 fps. When it comes to slow motion, the camera can record up to 120 fps, but, disappointingly, only in 720p. The Mark II provides the option to record on CF Cards or SD cards internally, which adds some versatility when selecting media.
The camera comes equipped with Canon Log (C-Log) which provides 12-stops of dynamic range.
The ISO range starts at 100-32,000 but can be expanded to an impressive 50-102,400.
Because of the large selection of Canon mount lenses, both photography and cinema style, the Canon has many options to extend the low-light capabilities with really fast lenses.
Canon also makes a large line of lenses with built-in image stabilization that make for some better handheld footage.
Dual-pixel autofocus has been popular in the Canon C-line of camcorders, and is included in this version of the Canon 5D. This feature has proven invaluable for gimbal work when shooting with a wireless follow focus setup is not in the cards.
There is a built-in microphone suitable for scratch audio, and a 3.5mm microphone jack and 3.5mm headphone jack. The audio controls are in the menu, making an external recorder a requirement in most professional situations.
The monitor system on the Canon DSLRs has always been sub-par. With just a 3.2” touchscreen, no flip screen and no monitoring features that many consider to be standard – things like focus peaking, and advanced scopes are not available without a third party addon that voids the warranty when installed – this is one of the weakest monitors of the bunch.
The camera uses the popular Canon LP-E6N batteries that offer decent battery life, though some users have experienced poor battery life when first using the camera that then returns to normal after breaking in the camera and batteries.
Canon has included a mini-HDMI connection on the side of the camera that makes external monitoring and recording possible. I prefer full-sized HDMI on my cameras due to the availability of them at local stores in every city.
Nikon remains to be one of the top camera companies in the photography space, but has failed to penetrate the video market like the rest of the manufacturers.
The D850 records 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) at up to 30p in either full-frame or crop modes and Full HD at up to 120 fps. The camera records internally on QXD cards or UHS-II SD cards.
The camera has a tilting touchscreen monitor and offers a few video monitoring functions such as focus peaking and zebras to judge exposure.
There is a mini-HDMI connection available to utilize an external monitor. We already know my thoughts about mini vs standard HDMI, but at least it has the option.
For audio, the camera includes a built-in microphone to capture reference audio and a 3.5mm microphone jack with no physical audio adjustment available on the camera. This means for most scenarios, an external recorder is necessary. You are able to monitor the audio via a 3.5mm headphone jack on the side of the camera as well.
In terms of power, the camera utilizes EN-EL15a batteries for approximately 70 minutes of video recording time with no DC power options available other than a dummy battery situation.
The camera body itself is a somewhat heavy 4.24 pounds, and because the monitor only tilts vs flipping out, the ergonomics of utilizing the camera on a shoulder rig is limited and will likely require an external viewfinder or monitor.
This was a pretty difficult choice, and at the end of the day, you have to choose the camera that’s best for you. I always recommend going to a store or renting a camera first to get your hands on the thing before you make your final decision.
After looking through all the specs on paper and having used most of these cameras in the wild, my pick is the Panasonic GH5s.
It packs a lot of features into that little package, and the people at Panasonic clearly listened to user issues from previous models.
The addition of the flip-out reversible screen is a lifesaver when operating the camera at different heights and angles. Plus, the touch screen features can be a useful time saver instead of scrolling through menus with a wheel.
The dual ISO feature boosts your usable low-light-level, and in my opinion, the noise on the GH5s looks a little more organic than other cameras.
And one really big added bonus is the optional audio interface that can mount to the camera and provide two XLR inputs with physical knobs to adjust levels. That is HUGE! Not only for documentary production, but also for independent narrative filmmakers who may not have dedicated audio for all shoot days.
Some may see the micro 4/3 lens mount as a negative because no, there aren’t as many options available as say a Canon mount camera. But, the great thing about micro 4/3 is its adaptability. You can put PL mount lenses on a micro 4/3 camera! That opens you up to so many professional lens options, should you want to buy or rent a set of real cinema primes.
That being said, there are a few micro 4/3 cine lens companies coming out with lenses as we speak that I think will make the GH5s an absolute beast in the native mount.
Lastly, the footage that the camera produces and the high quality of the V-Log color gamut allows for a truly professional end product that can match and intercut with Alexas, VariCams, and REDs.
What is your pick? Let me know in the comments below.