Which Camera Should I Buy?

A lot of people ask me, “Which camera should I buy?” or “Which camera should we rent for production X?” This article should provide a quick overview for shooters just starting out, and producers both. Of course, it depends on your situation, so I’ll provide my own opinion given a few common situations.

Situation 1: I want to spend as little money as possible, but I still want to be able to make stuff that looks great, and I want a camera that’s easy to use.

Skip the Canon t3i, and pick up a Canon 60D. It’s about $850 at the time of this writing. The t3i is $650, but it’s worth the extra $200 for the live histogram in movie mode. Pair it up with Canon’s 17-55 f2.8 zoom lens, and you’ve got a great all-purpose rig for about $2k. The 60D has the same sensor as the much-lauded 7D, in addition to having a live histogram for video, and being much cheaper. If you’re just doing video, this makes the 60D better than the 7D. Of course, for photos, the 7D is much better. The 5D is a bit sharper than the 60D/7D, but at $2k or so for the mark II, and $3500 for the mark III, the 60D gives you much more bang for your buck. The 60D was my main camera for a while starting out, after I traded “up” from the 7D.

The 60D shoots 1920×1080 technically, but really the resolution is more like 1280×720 at best, and that’s being generous. Which makes it great for DVDs, broadcast TV, and web videos, as long as you don’t go full-screen. Projected in a theater, it doesn’t look so hot. If you’re going to shoot a movie, you should really get something with more resolution.

The sensor size on the 60D and 7D is about the same size as super35 film (1.6 crop factor when compared to 35mm still film). So when you put a 24mm lens on it, it’s gonna look the same as if you were to put a 24mm lens on an Arri 435. This is nice for filmmakers.

Update: Sam Eilertsen, t2i shooter and AC/DIT extraordinaire, just informed me that Magic Lantern has released a custom firmware update for the t2i (and I think the t3i), giving it professional features like live histogram and even peaking! This makes them a lot more attractive. If you feel like tackling the Magic Lantern firmware update business (which is miles easier than hacking the firmware on the gh2), you can save a lot of money with those little guys, and the sensor is the same as the 60D and 7D, so they’re a really great buy.

Situation 2: I still want to spend as little money as possible, but I want to be able to shoot a video that looks good on the web at full-screen, burned to blu-ray, or projected in a movie theater. I’m also a DIY kind of person, and I enjoy tinkering.

You can have that, but you’re going to have to make a compromise with usability. For about the same price as a 60D, you can get a Panasonic GH2. It looks pretty good out of the box, but it looks really good when you hack the firmware. It’s a very sharp 1920×1080 resolution image.

The negatives? It’s complicated. Hacking the firmware is a big pain in the ass. You need a PC and a lot of patience. There’s no image stabilization, so hand-held shots can look jittery and bad. It has a little less dynamic range than the Canon, and the colors can get funky. It tends to look great in daylight and tungsten light for me, but I have a hard time color-correcting anything under fluorescent light. It’s a micro 4/3 sensor, which means lenses are more “zoomed-in” (2x crop factor, as opposed to 1.6x), depth of field is wider than on the Canon (which is both good and bad), and it’s harder to find a good wide-angle lens. I recommend the Tokina 11-16 2.8, which is around $700. You’ll want to get the Nikon mount version, and you’ll have to get a Nikon to Micro 4/3 adapter. You can get decent ones cheap on eBay, but if you want one with an aperture ring (which you’ll need if you want to use the Tokina, which doesn’t have a manual aperture ring), you’ll probably want the Novoflex one, which’ll run you about $250. See what I mean about it being complicated?

That said, I still use my GH2 as a b-cam. Once you get used to it, and are aware of its limitations, you can do some pretty great stuff with it. I shot this short film on the gh2. Because I knew its limitations, and because I was working on a set with controlled light, it turned out pretty great:

Situation 3: I’m sold on the DSLR thing, I have some money, and I don’t need something that’s super-sharp at 1920×1080, just something that looks decent.

Go for the Canon 5D MkIII. It offers some big improvements over the 5D MkII, most notably the reduced moire. The full-frame sensor makes it a bit sharper than the 7D/60D, and it makes the Canon 24-105mm f4 L IS lens a fantastic match for it. The depth-of-field is plenty shallow at f4 (at larger apertures, like f2, you start to have issues with the subject going out of focus if they lean forward, which no one likes, not even artsy film-school students), and the image stabilization means you can hand-hold it and it’ll look good. Cost for camera and lens: about $4500.

Situation 4: I don’t mind waiting for the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera.

Good for you; you’ll probably be able to get it soon. It should be a great camera. RAW is amazing to work with. You’ll probably want to pair it with the Canon 17-55mm 2.8 variable prime lens. 17mm on a 2x crop factor sensor is like a 22mm lens on super35 sensor (or 34mm on a full-frame stills camera), which isn’t too bad for a wide, but you’ll probably want to pick up a Tokina 11-16 for real wide-angle shots. I recommend getting the Nikon mount with a Novoflex adapter, even though the BDCC is EF mount, b/c the Novoflex adapter gets you the manual aperture ring, which lets you a) ride the iris, and b) fade out in-camera.

Any of the above options will get you going, and when you’ve got some experience under your belt, and you’re comfortable with your camera’s limitations, you can produce some great stuff with it. But if you’re a working professional, you need a professional tool. If you hire me to DP your shoot, we’ll be using one of these guys:

Canon C300:
This is what I have. $16k, or rent at $400/day.
The C300 is the DSLR killer. It’s as convenient and easy-to-use as a 5D or 7D, but WAY sharper, 2-3 more stops of dynamic range, and only a little bit bigger. The only reason to use the 5D — other than cost — is the full-frame sensor for razor-thin depth of field. And personally, I think razor-thin depth of field is useless for 99% of motion work.
Pros: This is the most versatile and cheapest professional camera. It’s small and light, about the size of a Hasselblad. It gives you a fantastically sharp (a little sharper than the GH2) 1920×1080 image. Canon claims 12 stops of dynamic range, though my tests show more like 11. Which is still 2 more than the best DSLR. A $150 battery is small and lasts 3 hours, and you can get 80 minutes of footage on a 32 gig CF card. If offers a host of professional features, like dual xlr audio inputs with phantom power, peaking and magnification for focusing on the fly (magnification works while recording!), a live rgb parade waveform that makes a histogram look like a child’s toy, and 2 CF card slots for either relay recording, or recording to both at once for an instant backup.
Cons: You have to scale down to 1280×720 to do slow-motion, and you only get 60fps at this resolution. There’s a weird green fringing when you blow out a highlight. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s there. Hopefully, these will be addressed in a future firmware update.
The SNL film unit uses the C300 all the time now, it’s the B-cam for HBO’s Game of Thrones (with an Alexa as the A-cam), and it’s even replacing the Alexa for lower-budget productions.

Canon C100, C500: No opinion, as they aren’t out yet.

Sony F3:
About $14k. Rents for $375/day
The Sony F3 is a tight competitor to the C300. At around $14k with S-Log (which you need), plus an MTF adapter for Nikon glass, it’s about the same price, but it’s also almost as large and unwieldy as a Red One. It has better tonal quality and dynamic range than the C300, but not by much. At $375/day, it’s a much cheaper alternative to the Alexa for lower-budget productions.
Pros: Gorgeous image, at least 12 stops of dynamic range. Versatile.
Cons: “Only” 1920×1080. Large.

Red One MX, Red Scarlet, Red Epic:
$20k – $60k, depending on exact camera and options. Rent for $800-$950/day
A number of top films have been shot RED, including The Social Network and The Hobbit, so if you don’t like the results, you’re doing something wrong.
Pros: Red cameras are made for cinema. They all shoot an image that’s at least 4000 pixels wide (4k), sometimes more. The effective resolution is about 3.3k or so, which is still 1.3k more than standard HD (1920). At the top end, the Epic gives you all kinds of slow-motion options. The framerate isn’t anywhere near what’s possible with a Phantom camera, but the lower dynamic range of the Phantom is a big limitation. Red cameras clock in at 13.5 stops of dynamic range, which can be pushed to 16 with the HDRx option. In my opinion, this matches what the human eye sees. RAW is incredibly flexible to work with in post. Redcine-X let you non-destructively change things like white balance, exposure, contrast, and grain. You can drop raw Red files directly in Premiere and play them well at 2k without a super-fancy computer.
Cons: Red Cameras are made for cinema. Their small batteries are $450 and last 20-30 minutes. Their Red bricks last much longer, but they’re the size of bricks. File sizes are huge. Accessories are expensive. They’re overkill for small jobs. If you get a lot of small jobs with fast turnarounds, you want the C300. If you’re shooting features with large crews and budgets, and need the best quality image you can possibly get, you want Red.

Arri Alexa:
$60k. Rents for $1200/day
The Arri Alexa is basically a film camera in digital format. If you’re used to shooting 35mm film and don’t want to have to think about it, just go with the Alexa.
Pros: The Alexa just looks amazing. At about 3k, it has less resolution than a Red camera, but most films are currently projected at 2k, so that’s not a big deal. It’s shot movies like The Avengers, so if you don’t like its results, you’re doing something wrong.
Cons: Expensive. Large.

There are other cameras out there that are worth considering, like the f65, af100, ex3, etc. But these are in my mind, the big ones to be aware of.