How To choose your first video camera?
What camera should I get? What’s the best video camera for beginners? What camera specs do I need for YouTube? What’s the best and cheapest 4k camera?
These are just a few of the questions I get on a daily basis through social media and it can be extremely difficult to answer for various reasons. If you’re reading this hoping I’m going to tell you the best camera to get, unfortunately I’m not going to be doing that. What I can offer you is the ability to figure out what camera would suit your needs as a beginner filmmaker, YouTuber or up and coming content creator.
Let’s be honest, looking for a new camera is a daunting task with thousands to choose from and various price categories. There is definitely no one-model-fits-all unfortunately and It can be hard to figure out which camera would suit your needs. A good place to start is with a list, not a list of cameras but a list of the camera specifications that are vital for you to carry out the tasks you’re hoping to achieve as a filmmaker.
So the first question you need to ask yourself is :
What are you shooting?
- Indie film
- TV Production
- Corporate videos
- Product Demo
- Wedding/event videos
- Educational content
- Real estate
Once you have worked out what type of shooting you will mostly be doing, it will narrow down your choices and you’ll start to understand the product features that are vital for your needs and other features that aren’t as necessary and will be a drain on your wallet.
Here are some features to think about when deciding on a camera.
The size of your camera can play a bigger role than you might think, especially if this is a piece of gear you’re going to have on you often. The most obvious factor of size is scale but don’t forget about the weight. If you are like me and spend a lot of time hiking with your camera up mountains or traveling, having a small compact camera is ideal and means it can easily fit in a backpack with the rest of my gear and room to spare for food and clothes.
If you are planning on balancing your camera on a gimbal, remember these have weight limitations and certain cameras won’t be able to balance correctly if they are too heavy. The draw back would be having to spend more money on a bigger gimbal to handle the weight.
Point and shoot cameras have come a long way over the years and offer a small form factor with various features and a fixed zoom lens that can all fit within your pocket. The introduction of the mirrorless system has also helped DSLR type features now fit into a smaller/lighter body.
Another point to think about with ‘size’ is where you’re planning on filming and what. A smaller camera can be less intimidating for those around you whereas a much bigger camera setup can be a lot more noticeable and change how people act in your surroundings or possibly even require a permit to enter certain public spaces.
Slow motion/Frame rates
Cameras can offer a variety of frame rates and the higher the frame rate the more advanced of a feature this tends to be, therefore increasing the cost slightly. If you’re planning on filming sports or situations that would lend itself to using slow-motion I would suggest finding a camera that can at least shoot up to 50/60fps or ideally a higher 100/120fps. A lot of cameras offer these frame rates at 1080p HD these days but can if you’re wanting these frame rates at 4k it’s gonna cost you more.
If you are not planning on filming any slow-motion and shooting real time content then don’t get caught up in the frame rate options and rather make sure it offers 24/25/30fps.
The bitrate and codecs that different cameras offer can get confusing but I’ll try to simplify it as best as I can. The higher the bitrate the more information is retained within every second of video, the benefits of having a higher bitrate means you are able to manipulate the image more in post production when it comes to colour grading and there are less chances of the image falling apart. The codec is in essence the ‘wrapper’ holding all the information and making the file viewable on playback.
The more expensive cameras tend to have higher bitrates but it all depends on your needs and how much you need to manipulate the image in post production. The majority of reasonable cameras shoot 8bit h.264 with a bitrate of around 50-100mbps and this can be sufficient. This short film of mine was shot at 4k 8bit h.264 150mbps – Bangladesh | Raw Beauty.
If you’re planning on submitting your films for television or a streaming service like Netflix, they can have certain requirements to uphold.
Every camera manufacturer want’s to boast about the resolution size and it is often used to market the camera as a 4k, 6k or even 8k camera these days. Even our smartphones are shooting 4k, although at not as high bitrates as modern video cameras.
There is definitely no need to rush out and get an expensive 8k camera for your first camera, I would suggest rather getting a camera that shoots a really good quality 4k or even 1080p HD images. Remember if you start shooting 8k/6k/4k video you need to make sure your computer can handle it as it is very intensive and could result in you needing to purchase a new editing machine.
The content you produce is more important than the resolution when you’re starting out!
Low light performance
Different cameras do better in low light than others. So you need to ask yourself, realistically how often will you be shooting in dark situations. In a studio environment you can always add more lighting but if you’re a documentary filmmaker shooting in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain with nothing but a headlamp then a camera that handles well in low light would be extremely useful.
Technology is progressing and low light capabilities are always getting better but the bigger the sensor often results in a better low light performance.
I used to get hung up on this feature a lot but after shooting with a Panasonic Gh5 with a small micro 4/3rds sensor I realised I didn’t need a camera that could see in the dark as I actually only shoot in really dark situations 3% of the time. There is always software to help clean the noise in those grainy shots if need be.
If this is a camera you’re going to be using a lot, you want it to be comfortable in hand and made in a way that helps you be efficient as possible. This could be something small that fits in one hand or a camcorder built with a top handle. You could also purchase after market cages and grips to make the camera fit your ergonomic needs.
For me personally, a flip out screen is imperative as it allows me to get different angles a lot quicker and always be able to adjust my screen no matter what position I’m in. If you’re planning on vlogging or doing solo interviews/product reviews, make sure the screen flips in order to see yourself clearly.
Point and shoots have a fixed lens and so do ‘bridge’ cameras but if you’re really wanting to get the most out of a camera it’s about having various lens options. I’ve spent more money on my lenses than the camera body and that’s how it tends to work these days. Some brands have bigger and heavier lenses while other like Panasonic or Olympus have smaller lenses, keep this in mind if size is a big concern.
It is possible to get different converters that allow you to use different lens mounts but there are also some drawbacks to this as it can effect the lens functionality in certain cases. Your camera body can be replaced but you’re likely to keep a good quality lens for a much longer period of time, good glass doesn’t depreciate like a body would.
This a debate that always get’s filmmakers and photographers fired up but at the end of the day whether it’s a 1inch, micro 4/3rds, crop, super 35 or full frame sensor you can produce beautiful images. The bigger the sensor the more expensive the camera tends to get but the positives of a bigger sensor is better low light and it’s much easier to create beautiful depth of field (blurry background/foreground).
It’s also easier to achieve wider shots as the other sensor options crop in, although this may be of advantage to the cropped sensors for those wanting to get tighter zoomed in shots (wildlife filmmaking) without having to buy an expensive 600mm lens.
I personally have never owned a full frame camera….so if you think it’s vital, it’s not but with the more expensive full frame sensor often means you also get the more expensive pro features on the body.
Do you need good autofocus? It’s amazing that these days we have cameras that we can actually rely on when using autofocus. For the one man band this is an incredible feature we have available these days with impressive accuracy.
The new Sony mirrorless cameras even have eye-tracking which is rather incredible. Canon’s dual-pixel autofocus has been considered the best of late but many other manufacturers are starting to compete. Higher end cinema cameras are mainly manual focus as there is often a dedicated focus puller using manual cine lenses.
I personally have been manual focusing for the last few years but looking forward to using a system with AF soon, specifically for gimbal shots when I can’t pull focus while operating the gimbal.
How important is audio for you? Some cameras have great onboard mics and some have really bad ones, but I would suggest you throw on a shotgun microphone (Rode Video Micro) for better audio but this will bulk up your camera.
Make sure it has an audio input if you are wanting to attach a microphone as well as a hot shoe to insert the mic onto your camera. A higher end camera will have XLR inputs which are bale to capture a higher audio quality from professional microphones.
If you will be conducting interviews make sure it has a headphone port so you can listen and monitor your audio. Ideally there would also be audio meters on the camera’s display to make sure you can monitor your levels. If you want to take audio more seriously and not rely on the cameras pre-amps I would look into some external recorders such as a Zoom H6n.
While many cameras are dedicated to just video, the world of DSLRs and mirroless cameras have allowed us to experience both worlds. If taking photo’s is a big part of what you do or if it’s a service you would like to offer you can try find a camera that lends itself to great still images but also packing in some great video features.
This is where full frame cameras tend to shine as they are often used by full time photographers but include some decent video abilities (Canon 1dx mkiii, Sony A7riv).
Where are you going to be using this camera? Some cameras are built to withstand a monsoon where others leak like a sieve.
Your average cameras are pretty good at being able to take a splash once in a while but if you’re planning on spending a lot of time outdoors and in unpredictable weather then make sure it has sufficient weather sealing and can withstand extreme high and low temps.
Depending on the type of content you are filming, you may require to leave the camera rolling for hours at a time. Whether it be at a wedding during the ceremony or a long corporate interview. Some cameras have record limits and you will need to find one without any if this is a concern.
SD cards, CF cards, SSDs etc, these are all various types of storage but they also have different price tags. If you’re recording data heavy 6k RAW files you’re probably going to need a decent amount of card space so keep that in mind.
Depending on your use case you may need extended external storage and some cameras like the BMPCC 4k/6k have the ability to link a SSD allowing for more storage. Other cameras allow the use of external recorders to be connected via the HDMI port, this doesn’t just give extra storage but other added features such as histogram, waveforms, peaking and also codec options. Some video cameras have a dual card slots which has various benefits such as swapping out one card while the other is still recording or even recording to both as a backup.
If you’re going to be shooting a large amount and unable to have access to a charging station for most of the day, you either need a device with really good battery life or a lot of batteries.
The BMPCC 4k/6k cameras are very impressive but they happen to chew batteries like you won’t believe and while this is fine in a studio environment where you can be constantly charging on the go, it’s not ideal having to monitor your battery use when in the field away from any electricity.
Even if you have 100 batteries to get you through the day, that’s 100 batteries you need to charge that night before you start shooting again the next morning, its admin!
Ohhh budget!! Don’t we wish this was never a concern but I think for most of us it’s going to be the most limiting factor in terms of what features we get our hands on. Decide what your budget is and find a camera with as many of the specs you require to complete your tasks without any issues.
Remember to also think about the other costs that may occur after purchasing a new camera. Will you need a new editing machine? Does the camera fit in your current backpack? Will I need to buy more lenses, batteries, filters etc? It can be a costly affair but when done right you may not have to upgrade for a decent amount of time. I’ve owned my camera body for 3 years now and it’s paid itself off many times over.
There is no perfect camera but the best we can do is figure out the most ideal specifications that will suit our needs, within our budget constraint.
Whatever choice you make, remember the camera isn’t going to make you a world class filmmaker….you have to go out there and make it happen with countless hours of practice, experience and hard work. If you’ve chosen well, your camera will be there to help you every step of the way.
TIP : Once you’ve got your camera you can think about selling your stock footage to cover the initial cost.