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Buying Guide: A low(er) budget video/filmmaking camera for $300- $900


We live in good times for image makers/takers, there are tons of options available to us at all levels of budget. The pro end devices will always hold certain premium functions & features, but in this guide we will be looking at some of the better bangs for your buck. Maybe you're just starting out, maybe you're looking to replace your old standard definition equipment, let's take a look at some options!

Buying Used

Some folks are into buying used, some not. I currently own 2 used cameras, and i paid quite a few hundred less than retail for them. Used cameras can be a great value, but they can also be a risk. I like to buy used in person, so i can try the item out before forking over the cash, especially if it's person to person such as craigslist. Amazon is a pretty safe bet for buying used, especially if you buy from a seller that's fulfilled by amazon, don't like the item? Return it. If you go this route, be sure to double check the seller's terms before buying. Amazon also sometimes has open box items which are in near new condition for a decent discount over new, and with a full warranty usually.

DSLR & Mirrorless

The kings of depth of field, interchangeable lens cameras give you the most freedom of lens choice, but are traditionally designed for photo use. In recent years however, a lot of them have been given very powerful video abilities, and their larger sensors allow for better background separation than smaller sensor video camcorders. They typically come with some downsides for video use, such as limited audio abilities, limited or no power zoom lenses, limited live feed/monitoring, some have recording time limits, and various other considerations you should weigh vs traditional camcorders.

The form factor of DSLR/Mirrorless may be a plus or a minus depending on your needs. On one hand, the small size/portability makes them a delight to carry, on the other hand, sometimes you really could use a full size camera with many buttons, dials, switches, inputs, outputs, etc.. All depends on your needs and I switch off between the two regularly.

Panasonic GH2: $350-600

Wins: Tied best 1080 bargain

The GH2 gives you sharp 1080 video and the ability to use a hacked firmware to gain very high bitrates.

Price wise you can grab a GH2 for under 350 used, or 600 new. Keep in mind you'll need at least one lens to get started, but the beauty of the M43 mount is that you can get adapters to use just about any other lens system. Nikon and Canon FD in particular use cheap dummy adapters and have tons of older but still great lenses to  make use of.

Other things to consider: the mic input is an annoying 2.5mm, so you'll need to get an adapter to 3.5mm to match most other microphone systems Also important to note: there is no headphone jack, yet another reason to use a separate mixer/recorder if you need critical audio.

+Sharp 1080
+Versatile lens mount
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+High bitrates through hack
+Optional 
Speed booster adapter  gains 1 stop, helps low light
-2.5mm mic jack
-No headphone jack
-OK/Decent in low light

Panasonic GH3: $500-$900

Very similar to the GH2, but newer of course. You can grab one use for as little as $150 more than a used GH2, and i do recommend it. You’ll gain more codec/bitrate options without the need for hacking, a standard 3.5mm mic port, and a headphone port.

There are many more upgrades over the GH2, including wifi, better screens, better low light, more menu/image options, new battery… it really is a step above the GH2 in just about every way. A big one for some is the full 1080 60p that the GH3 adds. But, the GH2 still does put out a very nice image, if you get one used for really cheap, then it’s very worth it. However, if you can afford a bit more for a GH3, you do well get your money’s worth

+Sharp 1080
+Versatile lens mount
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+High bitrates through hack
+3.5mm mic jack
+Headphone jack
+Optional Speed booster adapter  gains 1 stop, helps low light
-OK/Decent in low light

Panasonic G7: $500-$600

Wins: Best 4K bargain with a larger sensor

Considered a lower line than the GH, it still packs a lot of punch into it, and many have come to call it the poor man's GH4. You still get 4k, though only in 3840, no DCI 4096, but the same 100mbit 4K codec. It lacks the higher bitrate 1080 modes of the GH3 as well as does not have a headphone port.

If 4K is your desire and you have other means of monitoring audio, then the G7 is a very nice option over the GH2/3, and it even comes with a lens! One additional consideration for 4K: because of the sensor resolution, when shooting in 4K mode there will be a slight crop factor, your image will have a narrower field of view than in 1080 mode.

+Sharp 1080 & 4K
+Versatile lens mount
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+3.5mm mic input
+100mbit 4K codec
+Optional 
Speed booster adapter  gains 1 stop, helps low light
-No high bitrates in 1080
-FOV gets cropped in 4K
-No headphone jack
-OK/Decent in low light

Sony a6000 $350-$400

Wins: Best in Low light, Tied for 1080 bargain.

This is an overall great stills camera that performs very well with video as well. It’s hard to beat at its price range, and there are really good deals on lens bundles as well. Some folks wouldn’t put its video quality quite on par with the GH3, but it’s not that far off. It’s main issue? No mic input. But if you have a separate audio system or can use the bluetooth option below, an advantage this camera has over the rest on this list is the low light performance, it's easily the best here.

However! there’s a neat little bluetooth mic system that costs around $175  that works through the A6000’s hot shoe. I personally own the non-shoe version of this mic, and can attest to its usefulness. Beware though, it is certainly not a pro system like the sennheiser G2/G3 series. For blogging/personal projects though, it can be used to great effect.

+Sharp 1080
+Versatile lens mount
+Tilting screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+Optional 
Speed booster adapter  gains 1 stop, helps low light
+Hot/Data shoe for use with bluetooth wireless mic
+Very good in low light
-No mic input
-No headphone jack

Bridge Cameras: FZ300, FZ1000, RX10

I group these together because they are all fixed lens, DSLR style cameras. Fixed lens means its not removable, which is less desirable for some people because you can't use fast prime lenses, but you get the benefit of a sealed system which is optimized to the sensor. In some cases you can also get a usable power video zoom shot. The main consideration to keep in mind is that you're stuck with what it is, so you'll want to be sure the lens range and performance will satisfy your needs.

You may be thinking that the following cameras are terrible in low light because they have much smaller than DSLR size sensors, and you would be half right. While larger sensors typically perform better in low light, it really depends on just how low you expect to go, and in many cases these cameras do pretty darn well.

Panazonic Fz300 $600

Speaking of sensors, The Fz300 has the smallest sensor, but still puts out a very nice image in all but poor lighting. It also has the longest zoom of the bunch. Did I mention it does 4k? Yea it does 4k! And it has a big help from the lens which is a constant f2.8 throughout the entire zoom range. If you were to try and find an 600mm lens for a full frame DSLR in f2.8, you would scare your wallet far far away.

One bit of an advantage the FZ300 has over its bigger brothers the FZ1000 and the G7, is that it doesn't suffer from the same crop factor in 4K mode, 1080 and 4K will give you the same field of view in the same modes.

+Sharp 1080 & 4K
+25-600mm equivalent lens, constant f2.8
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+Same nice 100mbit 4K codec
+Wider field of view in 4K than FZ1000
-Smaller sensor/Limited depth of field control
-No headphone jack
-OK/Decent in low light

Sony RX10 $600-$900

This little fella packs a 1" sensor, which is just enough to give you some decent bokeh/background blur/separation/low depth of field. It helps that the 24-200mm equivalent lens is a constant f2.8. My only gripe with it when i owned it was that the screen was just a tilt, and didn't have a full swivel. Another downside for some would be that it is 1080 only. The newer RX10 mark 2 does 4k, but is out of this price range

+Sharp 1080
+24-400mm equivalent lens, constant f2.8
+Tilting screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+Headphone jack
+3.5mm Mic input
+Weather resistant
+3 stop ND filter
-OK/Decent in low light

Panasonic Fz1000 $550-$750

Wins: Best bargain 4K with a long zoom

For all intensive purposes, you can think of this as a panasonic version of the Rx10, but with of course some differences. Sensor is the same size and resolution, but it also shoots 4K. It also has a full swivel screen, and a larger set of picture profile options over the RX10. Another big difference over the RX10: 25-400mm equivalent lens, but has a variable f2.8-4.0 aperture.

I have owned both the RX10 and FZ1000, loved them both, but if i had to choose, i would take the FZ1000 because i value the higher resolution 4K and the longer reach of the lens, and the full swivel screen. Also note that the FZ1000 suffers from the same little bit of cropping when shooting in 4K as the G7 does.

+Sharp 1080 & 4K
+25-400mm equivalent lens, f2.8-f4
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+3.5mm mic input
+100mbit 4k codec

-FOV gets cropped in 4K
-
No headphone Jack
-OK/Decent in low light

Camcorders

Depending on your wants/needs, a more traditional camcorder might be the better bet. They typically offer more video oriented form factor and features, and usually can record for much longer than DSLRS. The tradeoff in this price range is typically much smaller sensor sizes, but you do gain long power zoom lenses. Keep an eye on for models which have a lens ring for focus and other adjustments, which i much prefer over buttons and touch screen controls.

Canon G20 $575-$675

Wins: Best overall 1080 with zoom lens

Like its predecessor, the G20 pushes some great images into a consumerish price/body. It has a newer model, the G30, but that’s out of our price range. It has a 10x optical zoom lens, with a max aperture of f1.8-2.8.

Being the second gen of its line, the G20 is an overall improvement over the really nice start of the G10, the image quality is what i would call “solid”. I would take something like this over several DSLRs such as the canon t4i and older, because those canons have a softer image due to line skipping. Keep in mind though, you won’t get anywhere near the shallow depth of field on the G20. If you really want to get some background blur, use the longer end of the 10x zoom.

If you did find a bit more cash in your budget, the newer G30 packs in a 20x optical zoom lens, and overall refines the line in many ways newer monitors, higher bitrate options, etc.. I’ve seen it go used for as low as $600, but is more frequently just above the $1000 mark.

+Sharp 1080
+Smooth power zoom lens
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+Headphone jack
+Integrated lens cap
+3.5mm mic jack
-OK/Decent in low light

Sony AX33 $700-$850

+Sharp 1080 & 4K
+Smooth power zoom lens
+Full swivel screen
+Electronic Viewfinder
+Headphone jack
+3.5mm mic jack
-OK/Decent in low light

This little fella packs plenty into its small frame, it’s a 4K camcorder with B.O.S.S. image stabilization. Suffice it to say, if you have shakey hands, BOSS will be a livesaver, it is a very powerful shake reducer/remover. If you’re familiar with DSLR lens’s built in stabilization, imagine something a good bit better, and that’s what BOSS is. It’s as good as image stabilization gets before stepping up to a full steadicam or gimbal.

Lens wise you get a decent 10x zoom which has a variable aperture of f1.8-3.8. Don’t expect to get much shallow depth of field with this or any other camcorder in this price range. Performance overall may not be quite up to the G20, but if you definitely want 4K, then there’s not much of a choice.

Bonus Round!

Here is another option for you, that if you can find used for under $1000 might just be your ideal camera:

Sony VG30 - As low as $700

This little cam is a bit of a frankenstein, it is as if they took a camcorder and chopped off the front. The idea here is that it packs in a DSLR sized sensor into a camcorder body. Seemed like a great idea, but it didn’t really take off.

However, the performance is overall good, and you can get some inexpensive lenses to start. Much like the GH2/3, the sony mount is very versatile and you can adapt old inexpensive nikon and canon lenses to it. Then later on you can add sony’s 18-200mm power zoom lens if that suits your needs.

As interesting of a camera as it is, keep in mind it doesn’t perform quite as well overall as the A6000. Two very different form factors.

Don't Forget!

Video & Filmmaking is more about just the camera. Sure it helps to have a fantastic camera, but a lot more goes into making a quality video. Be sure to leave some budget for audio, tripod, & lighting at the very least. A good place to go from here would be the low budget lighting guide .

   
           
   
Added on 2015-12-18 by
Darren Levine

Darren Levine

Stimulus Video

DP/Videographer, Video/Film Editor
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