Interchangeable-Lens Camera Buyer’s Guide

Interchangeable-lens (ICL) cameras come in a wide variety of body styles, image sensor sizes and lens mounts including small camcorders, DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and digital cinema cameras. To help simplify things, rather than looking too deeply into the technical specifications of individual cameras, we'll focus on the key aspects of ICL cameras that directly affect usability and common workflows, then we’ll give examples of cameras organized by sensor type.

Image Sensors: The Heart of Cameras

Size matters, at least where image sensors are concerned. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the richer the color and the less noise will be in the image produced. However, some smaller sensors produce surprising color quality and are paired with processors that help greatly reduce the noise in the images produced.

One universal rule of image sensor size is that the larger the sensor, the easier it will be to produce shallow the depth of field. A shallow depth of field — where the background of an image is out of focus — is sought after by many filmmakers to help draw attention to the subject of the shot. Conversely, many of those who cover live events try to shoot with a deeper depth of field so that more of the environment of a location is visible; this also makes focus easier to maintain.

Image sensor size is not the only factor that affects the depth of field of an image; the focal length and f-stop or t-stop of a lens do so as well. In the end, there really is no right or wrong answer when it comes to depth of field; it's a matter of stylistic choice and ease of shooting considerations.

Crop Factor Confusion

When you hear comparisons of cameras with different sized image sensors, crop factors are often referenced. They say things like, "the GH4 has a 2X crop factor to full frame," which means the GH4 has a sensor that is half the size of the sensor in a full frame digital camera, and the camera’s field of view is narrowed. This is a good source of reference for shooting stills since full frame digital is roughly the same size as 35mm still film, which is still the unofficial standard size for still images.

It’s important to note that the Super 35mm film format, which is the most common size sensor for digital cinema cameras, is smaller than 35mm full frame. Full frame 35mm is closer to the VistaVision format used in films like Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.” APS-C sensors are around the same size as Super 35mm digital cinema sensors.

To add to the confusion, you have the fact that many smaller cameras like the GH4 don’t use the full sensor to record video; it only uses a portion of the sensor which adds to the effective crop factor and can make it harder to compare the size of the image produced to common sizes like Super 35mm, ? inch or ½ inch.

Lenses May Be Your Deciding Factor

A fixed camcorder lens doesn’t always provide the best lens for the shot. Being able to choose the right lens for the job is what draws many of us to use ICL cameras in the first place. It should be no surprise that the type of lenses you can use with a camera could very well be the deciding factor on which camera you buy.

If you’ve already invested in Canon EF or Nikon F mount lenses, it may make sense to go with a camera that can use those lenses and minimize your initial spend. There are lens adapters available to allow you to do things like use an EF mount lens on a Micro Four Thirds mount, but keep in mind, for optimal performance you want to make sure that the lens is designed for an image area that is equal to or larger than your new camera’s image sensor. Using a lens that is built for a format smaller than that of your new camera can result in image imperfections such as vignetting, distortion and chromatic aberrations.

Resolution and Detail

We are in a time of transition, similar to the conversion from SD to HD. The conversion to 4K being the dominant video resolution standard isn’t going to happen overnight. Many distribution platforms are going to transition to 4K on their own timelines. ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard for UHDTV (4K), won’t be finalized until later in 2016; however, online services like Youtube, Sony, Netflix, Amazon and others are already streaming 4K video. You should expect 4K to be the dominate resolution within the next 5 years.

A bonus of 4K now is that with greater resolution comes greater detail. If you shoot in 4K and finish in HD, your images will have greater detail while imperfections like noise and aberrations are often less noticeable than if you had shot in HD. Buying a 4K camera now is not only advantageous for when you will need it in the future; it can also help you shoot better footage now for HD.

Body Style and Production Needs

There are still-photo cameras that can output cinema quality images, and there are cinema cameras that are the size of still-photo cameras. It doesn’t matter what the manufacturer had in mind when they brought a camera to market — whether or not they viewed the model as a still camera, a video camera or a cinema camera. What matters is the kind of images the camera can produce and the ease of use of the camera in your production and post workflow.

Most cinema cameras lack the type of physical buttons and dials to control the camera that many camcorders have, but many cinema cameras have frame rates and low compression options not found in most camcorders. Many cameras that lack physical controls have touch screens and mobile apps that can be used for camera operation. Ultimately, these control options have more to do with personal comfort and quickness of operation as far as determining what will work best for you.

The size and weight of a camera can also be very important. A cinema camera rig can easily weigh in at over 20 lbs and be very bulky, limiting you to using very large camera support — tripods, sliders, drones, etc. — that can be lots more expensive and almost impossible to use in tight spaces.

The Compression Question

Nearly all digital cameras are capable of recording video with some type of compression. Some can record uncompressed video, although this leads to very large files. The type and amount of compression you’ll want a camera to record in will depend on your image quality needs and post production capabilities. Generally speaking, the lower the amount of compression, the greater the image quality.

The level of video file compression is usually referenced by a bitrate like 25 Megabits per second (25Mbps). So a camera that records at 50Mbps is less likely to have image quality loss due to compression than one that records at 25Mbps when using the same codec. However, keep in mind that just because the camera can produce video files that are raw or uncompressed, it won’t necessarily increase the quality of the images the camera’s sensor can produce.

Don’t forget about post.

Now that nearly all post work is digital, the file format a camera shoots in can greatly affect the time and cost of post. It’s very important that you ensure that you can support the post-production needs of the files produced by the camera you choose. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure that any camera you use will fit into your post-production workflow or that you can build a new post workflow around it.

Some Cameras to Consider

This is a short list of cameras worth taking a look at organized by image sensor size. With digital image sensors, size tends to vary slightly between camera models, so two different cameras that both list as having Super 35 sized image sensors may not match in size exactly.

Super 16

There are a few digital cameras that use a sensor similar in size to the Super 16 film format. Since the format is about half the size of Super 35, it will take a lens about twice the focal length at the same f-stop to get the same depth of field. A shallow depth of field isn’t impossible, but it may be a bit more challenging to achieve.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Sensor: Super 16, Lens Mount: Micro Four Thirds (MFT), Retail Price: $1,000

The BMPCC is one of the smallest cinema cameras available; it’s about the size of a point and shoot camera. The drawback to its size is a small battery which translates to a short battery life. You may find that you need an external battery. Additionally, images shot in low light can be noisy. On the plus side, you get footage recorded up to 1920 x 1080 30 fps in CinemaDNG raw to affordable SD cards, and a MFT lens mount allows you to use a multitude of lightweight affordable lenses.

Panasonic  Lumix G7
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Micro Four Thirds

Smaller than Super 35 and a little larger than Super 16mm, Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensors are large enough to allow for a shallow depth of field with larger focal length lenses but help keep the size and weight of the camera down. MFT is both the name of a sensor format and a lens mount.

Olympus PEN E-PL6 with M. Zuiko Digital 14 x 42mm Lens

Sensor: MFT, Lens Mount: MFT, Retail Price: $300

One of the most affordable ICL options around, the PL6 records up to 1920 x 1080 30 fps at 20Mbps in H.264 as well as stills in raw and JPEG. The camera uses affordable MFT lenses and SD me dia cards and weighs less than 12 oz. Of the features of the PL6, the one that stands out the most is the image stabilization (IS) built into the camera body so you have IS even when using manual lenses.

Panasonic  Lumix G7
Olympus PEN E-PL6

Panasonic Lumix G7 with Lumix 14 x 42mm Lens

Sensor: MFT, Lens Mount: MFT, Retail Price: $800

4K on a budget but with a lot more features than you’d expect, the G7 is small camera packed full of dials and user programmable buttons. It can record video up to UHD (3840 x 2160) 30 fps at 100Mbps in H.264 and stills in 4592 x 3448 resolution in raw and JPEG. The G7 does crop the sensor when recording in 4K, giving you an image capture area about half the size of Super 35 but still larger than Super 16. The G7 weights less than 1.2 lbs. with the kit lens.

Panasonic  Lumix G7
Panasonic Lumix G7

Panasonic Lumix GH4

Sensor: MFT, Lens Mount: MFT, Retail Price: $1,500

Beyond a doubt, the GH4 is the most powerful camera for shooting video for its size and weighs just over a pound. It has features that rival many cinema cameras. It can record DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) 24 fps or UHD 30 fps at 100Mbps in H.264 as well as raw and JPEG stills. Even with the sensor crop in video similar to the G7, the GH4 has become one of the most popular 4K cameras in the industry.

Panasonic Lumix GH4

Super 35 / APS-C

APS-C sensors on still cameras tend to be very close to the same size as Super 35 digital cinema cameras.

Canon EOS Rebel T6i

Sensor: APS-C, Lens Mount: Canon EF, Retail Price: $750

The T6i is a powerful entry level DSLR and has a video quality comparable to the 7D Mark II. It can record video at 1920 x 1080 30 fps at 28.8Mbps and stills in raw and JPEG. The camera is compatible with all EF and EF-S lens from Canon as well as other manufacturers; the EF mount offers more options than nearly any other lens mount.

Canon Rebel T6i

Samsung NX500 with 16 – 50mm Lens

Sensor: APS-C,  Lens Mount: Samsung NX, Retail Price $800

While the NX500 is a very affordable owption for shooting 4K, it does have some limitations. The camera has no audio input jack, so you’ll need to record secondary audio. If you’re recording DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) or UHD (3840 x 2160), the camera crops the Super 35 sized 6480 x 4320 sensor, and you end with an image area just a bit larger than Super 16. The Samsung NX lens mount is currently only supported by a limited number of lenses. The NX500 records DCI 4K 24fps and UHD 30 fps up to 70Mbps in H.265 codec, which offers a significant improvement in image quality over H.264.

Samsung NX500

Sony a6300

Sensor: APS-C,  Lens Mount: Sony E-mount, Retail Price $1,000

The a6300 is a tiny ICL camera weighing just over 14 oz. It can record up to 3840 x 2160 30 fps and 1920 x 1080 120 fps, both at  at 100Mbps. The a6300 also touts what Sony claims is the world’s fastest autofocus with the ability to lock focus in 0.05 seconds. The camera can be purchased as a kit with a Sony 16-50mm lens for $1,150.

Sony a6300

Samsung NX1

Sensor: APS-C,  Lens Mount: Samsung NX, Retail Price $1,500

The NX1 shares the video capabilities of the NX500 but without the sensor cropping. The larger, more expensive model does offer a metal body, microphone jack and more manual controls.

Samsung NX1

JVC GY-LS300 firmware version 2.03

Sensor: Super 35, Lens Mount: MFT, Retail Price $4,400

The GY-LS300 is an ICL camcorder with some impressive features. It can record DCI 4K 24 fps or UHD 30 fps at 70 or 150Mbps in H.264. It has XLR, HDMI and SDI ports as well as built-in ND filters. You can even live stream video in HD to Ustream or YouTube while recording to SD cards.


Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K EF

Sensor: Super 35, Lens Mount: EF, Retail Price $5,000

The URSA Mini blends traditional camcorder type controls with cinema camera features. The camera offers a wide array of resolution and codec options for recording video. The URSA Mini 4.6K can, at it’s highest settings, record 4608 x 2596 60 fps at 250Mbps in ProRes 4444 XQ or Lossless CinemaDNG to CFast cards. The camera is also available with a PL lens mount for the 4.6K, or in 4K EF and PL models.

Blackmagic URSA Mini

Canon EOS C100 Mark II

Sensor: Super 35, Lens Mount: EF, Retail Price $5,500

As with the other EOS cinema cameras in Canon’s line, the C100 combines a camcorder type body and feature set with a Super 35 sized image sensor. The C100 Mark II can record 1920 x 1080 60 fps at 35Mbps using the H.264 codec. The C100 Mark II has an impressive new autofocus system and is compatible with EF and EF-S lenses.

Canon EOS C100 Mark II

Red Raven

Sensor: Super 35, Lens Mount: EF, Retail Price $5,950

The Raven is a brand new camera from RED. It’s a fully modular cinema camera weighing only 3.5lbs and designed for use on mid-sized drones and run-and-gun handheld rigs. The Raven will record up to 4.5K (4608 × 2160) 120 fps at 15:1 REDCODE. The list price is for the camera brain (body), memory module and AC adapter. A full rig, depending on what you need, will run anywhere from approximately $9,000 to $14,000. While this may seem expensive, compared to the Arri Alexa Mini with a kit priced around $45,000, the Raven is a bargain.

Red Raven

Full Frame 35mm

The digital Full Frame 35mm format was designed to match the 35mm still film format so that a lens like a 50mm with the aperture set to f/4 would have the same field of view and depth of field in both formats. When using the same lens and aperture setting in the Super 35 format, the view angle would be narrower and the depth of field smaller.    

Nikon D750

Sensor: Full Frame 35mm, Lens Mount: Nikon F, Retail Price $2,300

If you want that full frame/VistaVision look on a budget, this may be the camera for you. The D750 offers the flexibility of shooting in full frame or cropped to APS-C size for video and stills. It records video up to 1920 x 1080 60 fps at 24Mbps in H.264 as well as stills in raw and JPEG. The Nikon F lens mount allows use of a wide variety of current and older lenses.

Nikon D750

Canon 5D Mark III

Sensor: Full Frame 35mm, Lens Mount: EF, Retail Price $2,800

The 5D DSLRs have long been favorites of video shooters. This latest model can record up to 1920 x 1080 30 fps at 91Mbps in H.264 as well as stills in raw and JPEG to CF or SD cards. The 5D Mark III has many features to aid in video shooting including timecode, 64 step audio gain adjustment and headphone and mic jacks.

Canon 5D Mark III

Sony a7S II

Sensor: Full Frame 35mm, Lens Mount: Sony E-mount, Retail Price $3,000

The a7S II is simply the best camera for low-light video. It can record UHD 30 fps at 100Mbps in H.264 as well as JPEG and raw stills to Memory Stick Duo or SD cards. The camera body weighs just over 20 oz. and features Steadyshot image stabilization.

Sony a7S II

Pentax K-1

Sensor: Full Frame, Lens Mount: Pentax K-mount, Retail Price $1,800

The K-1 is the first full frame camera from Pentax, and first impressions have so far been mostly positive. The Pentax K-1 shoots video in 1920×1080 at 30 fps in MPEG AVCHD. It has a microphone input and a headphone jack. It has a 5-axis image stabilization that is rated up to 5 stops.

Pentax K1

Investing In Your Future

A new challenge has risen for filmmakers on a budget. For most of us, it is cheaper to buy cameras than to always rent. Instead of choosing gear for the format and look of images that it can create in support of a single production, we are now looking at how the gear can be used for multiple productions over several years.

Don’t look for the best camera on the market; look for the one you think will best fit the work you do. Consider how the different factors like image sensor size, lens mount, compression and body size effect a camera’s usability. Then, think of the demands of your productions and what type of camera body you’d be happy operating.

Don’t be afraid to rent! Finding the right camera for your projects isn’t always easy. Some of the models are very similar in usability and images produced. It can often be helpful to rent a camera or two to help you decide. Virtually any model of cinema camera can be found at a rental house, and some are now carrying a large variety of less expensive ICL cameras. The small cost of a rental can often outweigh a large amount of post purchase regret.

After looking at a few models that meet your needs, you’ll be well on your way to finding your new camera.

Manufacturer Listings

Blackmagic Design
RED Digital Cinema

Odin Lindblom is an award-winning editor and cinematographer whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.

Odin Lindblom
Odin Lindblom
Odin Lindblom is a director, cinematographer and award-winning editor whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.

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