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What to look for when buying a filmmaking camera on a budget

Current recommended cameras to look at are listed to the right of the video

Some other cameras to look at:

NOTE: I don't consider any of these cameras to have "everything" that's preferrable to have, but we're talking low budget here, so browse through them and keep in mind the tutorial to weigh the options with your particular needs/uses.

$700-$1000 range

Canon Vixia HF M500 

Canon Vixia HF G20 

Sony HXR-MC50u 

Panasonic x920 

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 

$300-$600 range

Canon T3i 

Nikon D3300 

Sony NEX-3 

When looking at buying your first or next low budget video camera, the main thing you need to figure out is how much you have to spend. The one thing i want to make sure of is that you're not spending your entire budget on just the camera. Do you need lights? microphones? tripod? etc..? Don't skimp out on other items! Take tripods for example, my rule of thumb is spend at LEAST 20% of your camera cost on a tripod, so if you've got a $2000 camera, spend at least $200 on a tripod, This Ravelli AVTP  is passable and under $200. And any tripod under $100 is likely to be not so great, so make sure you're above that price point at the bare minimum. But let's stay on point here, we're talking about cameras! 

Say your budget is under $1000 for the camera, including a lens of some sort whether it be attached or detachable. The first thing i look for is does it have a focus ring? I refuse to accept any sort of touch screen focus as usable, it needs an actual ring for focusing! 

Next up is audio, and the first thing to do is pretend that it has no built in mic, because any built in mic is, and i'm going to all caps this because it's important: IS NOT SUITABLE FOR PROFESSIONAL USE! You NEED to use external mic options, and to that effect, if you don't want to use a separate sound recorder, you'll need to make sure your camera has an audio input. Now, at this price point you aren't likely to find proper XLR inputs, but that's fine so long as it at least has the 1/8" stereo mini input so you can make use of several mic options such as the onboard TAKSTAR SGC-598 , A Lav mic such as the Audio-Technica ATR-3350 , or get a boom pole and use a shotgun mic which has 1/8" instead of XLR like the Azden SMX-10

Now for buttons, because i love me some buttons, and i hate me some touch screen. Physical buttons are just better, and the litmus test for that line of reasoning is that if you have your eye locked into the viewfinder, with buttons you can feel your way around to get things done. Not so with touch screen! So the more buttons, the better. There are some higher end cameras like the Red Scarlet and Epic, and the Black Magic Cinema Camera which rely heavily on touch screens, but those are very big and well designed touch screens, and hence are much better and out of the price range we're discussing here.

Backing up a second, we need to go over sensors, because that is the heart of the camera. In this price range though, theres only two real choices: very small, or very large. Odd, i know! The reason for this is that DSLR's that now shoot video have created a whole other market: Photography cameras that happen to shoot darn good video. And yes, lots of them are under $1000, but the biggest catch is, they need lenses, which can be very expensive. It depends on your needs, but if you need a camera that can zoom from very wide to very long, then a DSLR may not be ideal for you. But on the other hand if you need the best possible low light ability, as well as shallow depth of field, then DSLRs may be perfect for you. But back to more conventional cameras in this price range, they will mostly be in the 1/3" size, which is fine, but will result in mostly very deep focus, meaning everything will be in focus with the exception for when you zoom in significantly. One thing i stress at this point is that i never buy a camera just based on its specs, i look at sample footage and user reviews. Because even if a camera looks great on paper, if hundreds of people in user reviews around the net say it's terrible, then it's pretty obvious you shouldn't buy it!

Next up is its recording ability. Tape is still around but leaving the arena, so for futureproofing it's best to stick with flash based recording. The one thing i'd stay away from is any camera that uses a built in drive, because if that drive dies, you can't just swap it out and it has to go to the repair shop. So make sure the camera you get uses either SD or CF cards which you can easily swap out, it also makes it easier for downloading footage. I hate having to plug the camera into the computer, card readers are much swifter. And then there's the codec and bitrates, which i've got a whole other quicktip for. Suffice it to say, trust user reviews, not what's on paper. Different cameras can have different codecs and some lower bitrate ones can easily outperform higher bitrate ones if the codec is superior, so don't discount a camera right off the bat if it has a lower bitrate, check the reviews.

   
           
   
Added on 2011-05-13 by
Darren Levine

Darren Levine

Stimulus Video

DP/Videographer, Video/Film Editor
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