Buying a DSLR can be a daunting task. Different cameras are more suited to different types of shoots. The most expensive DSLR is not necessarily the best camera for the job. Finding the right DSLR for you can be as simple as thinking about the types of videos you want to shoot and finding a camera that best supports those needs.
HD capable DSLRs have many advantages over traditional HD camcorders. A DSLR with lens can weigh less than two pounds whereas most camcorders with removable lenses are much heavier. The larger image sensors in DSLRs offer greater detail, higher dynamic range and less noise than even many high-end camcorders. There are also more lens options for DSLRs than for camcorders. It can take some added accessories and/or a little bit of time to get used to shooting video with a DSLR, but the results are well worth the effort. Let’s look at a few features that define these cameras while also illustrating why they differ from traditional camcorders.
Zoom and Focus
DSLR lenses lack the zoom rocker (controller) typically found on camcorder lenses. It can take some time getting used to twisting a lens ring to zoom. Focus rings on lenses are often small, so using a cinema style follow focus really helps.
DSLRs don’t come with an external microphone, and the on-board mic is usually sub-par for gathering good sound because it’s so close to the camera’s control mechanism. DSLRs share many audio challenges with smaller camcorders. The onboard mics on DSLRs are not very directional like a shotgun mic. Some DSLRs have only an 1/8-inch mic input and lack phantom power needed for professional shotgun mics. Many DSLRs can’t record uncompressed audio which can be a problem if you need to do a lot of filtering or effects in post. A great workaround for this is to record audio to an external recorder and sync the recordings in post.
Many users pair an audio recorder with their DSLR. External audio recorders have manual controls for record and headphone levels which allow you to quickly and easily make adjustments unlike the controls on a DSLR which are in the menu somewhere. If you’re interviewing someone at a party and all you hear is them and not the party going on behind them, it’s going to sound a little funny. With your mic and external recorder picking up clean audio, you still have the on-camera mic that will pick up that person and the party going on behind them. You can mix the two in post so that it sounds clear, yet natural.
The ISO setting on DSLRs is designed to relate exposure of the image sensor with that of film speed. Generally speaking, ISO is like gain on a camcorder – the greater the ISO, the more noise that’s likely to show up in the image, but also, more ISO equals more ability to shoot in low light.
DSLRs are really lightweight and small but the design ergonomics make them hard to keep steady. To help stabilize the camera, you can attach a collapsed monopod to use as a grip or you can attach the camera to a rig that can hold accessories like mics and lights as well. Attaching an LCD viewfinder (eyepiece) can make it easier to see when shooting outdoors, and often will make it easier to shoot from more angles.
No DSLR can record a video clip of greater than 30 minutes in length. Shots can be recorded for more time, but they’ll be broken into multiple clips. If your DSLR has a clean HDMI output (one free of camera data) you can record longer clips to an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja 2.
Choosing the Right Camera for Youimage sensor sizes. DSLRs have image sensors in three sizes: full-frame (roughly 35mm), APS-C (around 25 percent smaller than 35mm) and Micro Four Thirds (around 50 percent smaller than 35mm). The larger the image sensor, the less visible noise there will be in the video it produces; however, the larger image sensors are usually more expensive and have a smaller depth of field.
Depth of field is the measurement of the minimum and maximum distances away from the camera’s subject and still appear in focus. The smaller the depth of field, the less in focus objects in the foreground and background will appear; a larger depth of field has the opposite effect. The larger the image sensor is in a camera, the smaller the depth of field it will have.
If you’re shooting a commercial or a film, a small depth of field will cause your cast to really standout in the frame because the foreground and background will be blurry giving it a very film-like look. This is easy to achieve with a full-frame image sensor but can a bit harder with an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensor. You can increase the focal length (size) of the lens used to decrease the depth of field, but you have to have the camera further away to get the same framing which can be difficult if you’re shooting in a small area.
If you’re shooting a football game, a stage play, or any situation that you don’t have freedom to get closer, a large depth of field will allow you to keep more of the action in focus. The larger depth of field makes it easier to keep your camera in focus as well. Here, a Micro Four Thirds sensor with its larger depth of field would be better. With a full-frame or APS-C sensor, you would have to move the camera closer which might not be possible or force you to decrease the aperture size which will make the image darker if you don’t adjust the ISO (which can make the image noisy).
It's important to remember that the smaller the image sensor, the smaller and lighter the camera. While the differences are minimal in size and weight between DSLRs with full-frame sensors or APS-C sensors, Micro Four Thirds cameras are very small and lightweight.
Micro Four Thirds cameras are technically not DSLRs at all. They don’t have mirrors that drop down to expose the image sensor and take an image, and they don’t have optical viewfinders. But that difference only affects taking stills because the mirror stays down on a DSLR when shooting video and the image being shot is only viewable through the LCD screen.
Full Frame DSLRs
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is the follow up to Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II which was the gold standard for HD-shooting DSLRs. The 5D Mark III features include 22.3-megapixel sensor, 1080p shooting at 30, 25 and 24 fps, variable audio gain control while recording, record times up to 29:59 minutes and a clean and uncompressed HDMI output. The 5D Mark III body has a retail price of $3,500.
Canon’s EOS 6D features a 20.2-megapixel full-frame image sensor. It shares much of the same video functionality as the 5D Mark III such as frame rates, live manual audio control and maximum record time. The EOS 6D does lack a clean HDMI out, but it does have built in Wi-Fi and GPS not found on the 5D Mark III. The EOS 6D has a list price of $2,000 making it a very cost-effective option for a full-frame DSLR.
The Nikon D800 has an impressive 36.3-megapixel sensor that can take stills or video in FX format (35mm full-frame) or DX format (APS-C). The D800 features 1080p shooting at 30 and 24 fps, audio peaking display, headphone jack for audio monitoring, linear PCM audio, a clean HDMI output, and both CF and SD card slots. MSRP for the D800 is $3,000.
Nikon’s D600 can take stills and video in FX and DX formats with its 24.3-megapixel sensor. It has the comparable video features of the D800 as listed above, but trades the CF card slot for a second, and has a retail price of $2,100.
The 18-megapixel sensor of the Canon EOS 7D still offers excellent performance even though now it is a few years old. The EOS 7D's features include 1080p recording at 30, 25 and 24 fps, manual audio control and a magnesium alloy body that is durable and resistant to water and dust. The EOS 7D retails for $1,500.
The EOS Rebel T5i shares the same 18-megapixel sensor with the EOS 7D. Its 1080p frame rates of 30, 25 and 24 are supported as well as manual audio adjustment. Maximum record time is 29:59 minutes. The Rebel T5i has features like Touch AF and Movie Servo AF for continuous focus tracking in video mode that the EOS 7D lacks. Perhaps one of the most useful features of the Rebel T5i is its camcorder-like fold out LCD screen. It does lack a clean HDMI out, but at $900 the Rebel T5i is an impressive camera.
Canon Rebel T3i
The Rebel EOS T3i shares many of the same features as the Rebel T5i as it was released beforehand with a Rebel EOS T4i. These older models can be found at a discount and might fit your budget better while still providing quality video.
Nikon’s D5200 has a 24.1-megapixel DX sensor. It's features include 1080p shooting at 30, 25 and 24 fps, uncompressed audio recording, a maximum record time of 29:59 minutes, a fold out LCD monitor and Mini HDMI output. The D5200 retails for $800 in black but can also be purchased with a lens kits in red or bronze body colors.
A 24-megapixel sensor drives Nikon’s entry level D3200 DSLR. It does have uncompressed audio recording and 1080p shooting at 30, 25 and 24 fps. Maximum video record time is 20 minutes. The D3200 comes in red or black and with a starting lens for $700.
The K-30 has a 16.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, and Pentax boasts that the body is fully water resistant. It has on-camera image stabilization, eliminating the need for lenses with image stability which makes older, fully manual lenses easier to shoot with. The Pentax K-30 records 1080p at 30 fps and retails for $700.
Micro Four Thirds DSLRs
Panasonic LUMIX GH3
The LUMIX DMC-GH3 has a 16-megapixel image sensor and produces astounding video quality that rivals even some full-frame DSLRs. The GH3 features include 1080p recording at 60, 30 and 24 fps, autofocus in video mode, timecode, mic input, Wi-Fi, 3-inch fold-out OLED, and a recordable time of 240 minutes. All of this and more are crammed into a body that’s suprisingly small at 5.2-inches wide, 3.7-inches tall and 3.2-inches thick. With a retail price of $1,300, it’s easy to see why the GH3 is so popular.
Olympus OM-D E-M5
The OM-D E-M5 has a 16.3-megapixel sensor housed in a metal body. It records 1080i at 60 fps and has built-in image stabilization. The E-M5 is small at 4.8-inches wide, 3.5-inches high and 1.7-inches thick. The 3-inch LCD screen covers almost the whole back of the camera. The E-M5 has a magnesium-alloy and aluminum build with a Supersonic Wave Filter system to reduce dust on the sensor, and costs $1,000 for the body alone.
For the Rig
Unlike traditional camcorders, most DSLRs don’t come with a lens, so in order to shoot anything, you need to add that to your price considerations. Many DSLR makers offer camera kits with one or two lenses and a camera body at a discount. The lenses are good quality and allow you to customize your camera for the needs of your shoots, but it can be limiting. Often, the more experienced shooter will invest in special lenses for specific needs. There’s a huge variety of lenses available for DSLRs not just from the camera manufacturers but from other lens makers like Carl Zeiss, Sigma, Tokina, and others. With that, pros and enthusiasts experiment with various filters for these special lenses. To learn about lens filters, see our associated feature, Lens Filter Buyer’s Guide.
Whether you need that film look of a full-frame sensor, the large depth of field and small size of a Micro Four Thirds sensor, or the flexibility and affordability of an APS-C sensor, there’s a DSLR built for what you shoot.
Odin Lindblom is a director, cinematographer and award-winning editor whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.