While we have more options and more technology than ever before; buying a new camera has never been more difficult. It’s not just that there are dozens of cameras to choose from, it’s that each one offers something different, while at the same time sacrificing other desirable features. Before you consider any camera, you need to know about the features and options you’ll require.
Cameras come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and weights. These can generally be divided into three main categories: camcorders, DSLR and mirrorless cameras and cinema cameras.
For most of video history, the camcorder has reigned as the most common camera form factor. These all-inclusive, video-first cameras can be large or small, simple or advanced, but they all share a few commonalities. For one, a camcorder’s lens is fixed in place, meaning you can’t swap it out for another lens if you need a longer or shorter focal length. Luckily, these lenses usually have impressive zoom ranges to compensate.
Another shared trait is the highly accessible camera controls. Camcorders typically have external knobs, buttons and control rings to help you adjust for changing shooting conditions quickly, without having to dive into the camera menu. This along with more robust connectivity options, like XLR audio inputs, make camcorders especially appealing for newsgathers and others shooting in run-and-gun situations.
For our top picks, check out The best camcorders.
With the release of the Canon 5D mark II, video production moved into a new era: the age of the DSLR. Suddenly, these large-sensor, photo-first cameras were capable of recording video, giving cinematographers access to the long sought-after cinematic depth of field at an affordable price point. As time has gone on, DSLRs, or digital single lens reflex cameras, have evolved into smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras, shedding the legacy mirror that was necessary in traditional still cameras that used film. Though this form factor does allow for larger sensors and swapping out lenses for more creative control, mirrorless and DSLR shooters make sacrifices in ergonomics and connectivity. It’s also worth noting that an arcane tax code often means these cameras are limited to a continuous record time of just under 30 minutes. This may change in the future, but for now, that’s another strike against these cameras if you need to document longer events.
For our top picks, check out The best DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
Finally, cinema cameras combine the best from both camcorders and the DSLR/mirrorless form factor. These interchangeable-lens cameras offer larger sensors without trading in ergonomics or connection options — cinema cameras usually offer XLR inputs and HDMI and/or SDI outputs along with easily accessible camera setting controls. They’ll also often offer higher-quality codecs and RAW recording, all in an effort to give editors and colorists more latitude in post-production.
For our top picks, check out The best cinema cameras.
Once you know what form factor suits your work, you’ll need to determine the final resolution that your video needs to be. If a 4K final product isn’t the goal, you might not need 4K recording as a feature. In many places, like here in the United States, we don’t broadcast anything in a higher resolution than HD on TV. Fortunately, shooting in a higher resolution like 4K should deliver a sharper final video when producing for HD delivery. It allows you to crop in and not lose resolution. In the best cases, the added flexibility to crop, zoom or pan a shot without resolution loss is be a big deal. In other situations, it can make shooters lazy, since they know it’s easier to fix problems in post. Higher resolutions also add to the size of the files and the resources needed to work with such footage in post-production.
As technology has progressed, we’re now also starting to see more sensors capable of higher than 4K resolutions, with the newest models offering recording modes of up to 8K. These higher resolutions amplify both the benefits and drawbacks of 4K shooting and will likely be used only in high-end productions, at least for now.
If you’re considering a 4K capable camera, you should be aware that there are two flavors of 4K: UHD and DCI 4K. DCI has 256 more horizontal pixels than UHD. DCI is the cinema standard, whereas UHD is the consumer standard, and the most prolific.
Generally speaking, most cameras are priced based on their sensor size. The smaller the sensor, the more likely that the camera housing will be affordable. This is because the sensor is one of the most expensive parts of a camera.
Sensor size is most apparent in the way it affects the field of view of a shot. Smaller sensors come with a crop factor, which is used to figure a lens’ effective focal length when used with that sensor. The effective focal length of a lens is based on the standard of 35mm photo film. A full frame sensor is considered full-frame because it’s the same size as actual 35mm film. Full frame sensors, therefore, do not have a crop factor. The focal length listed on lenses is based on that 35mm standard, so it will correlate to the actual field of view captured by the lens when paired with a full frame sensor.
Cameras using full frame sensors will generally be more expensive, but there are several other common sensor sizes that you might encounter. The first is Micro Four Thirds. This is one of the smallest sensors offered on interchangeable-lens cameras. Its crop factor is 2x. With that crop, a 24 millimeter (mm) lens will have an effective focal length of 48mm, meaning shooters will have a narrower field of view and will have to back the camera further away from the subject to achieve the same framing.
APS-C & Super 35
The next sensor size to understand is APS-C. It has a 1.6x or 1.5x crop factor depending on the manufacturer. With a 24mm lens, you have an effective focal length of about 38mm when factoring in the crop.
A very similar sensor size to APS-C is Super 35. Super 35 has a crop factor of 1.4x to 1.5x crop, again depending on the manufacturer. A 24mm lens would have an effective focal length of 36mm using a Super 35 sensor. Super 35 is the most common sensor size in high-end digital cinema cameras and emulates Super 35 motion picture film. If you want to achieve the closest possible look to a Hollywood film, this is the sensor size for you.
Unlike cinema cameras and DSLR/mirrorless cameras, fixed-lens camcorders typically have sensors that range in size from 1/3 inch up to Micro Four Thirds. These smaller image sensors tend to have more noise in the images they produce. A 1-inch or a Micro Four Thirds sensor will typically produce an image with less noise than the much smaller 1/3 inch sensor typically seen in phones. However, image processing comes into play here as well. Smartphone cameras have image processors that often reduce image noise, but this can also adversely affect the color, contrast and detail of the image. The more powerful image processors of higher-end cameras provide more accurate and consistent image quality.
Besides crop factor, sensor size also impacts the appearance of the depth of field of an image.
Besides crop factor, sensor size also impacts the appearance of the depth of field of an image. Depth of field, or the distance from the closest object to the camera in focus to the furthest object from the camera in focus, is influenced by the image sensor, the aperture and the focal length of the lens. The wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field. The larger the image sensor and larger the focal length of the lens, the shallower the depth of field will appear. A shallow depth of field is desirable when you want your subject to stand out from a background that is in soft focus. It’s also generally considered to have a more cinematic look. A larger depth of field is more desirable for shooting rapid action where maintaining focus on a subject is challenging.
Here are some common sensor sizes you may encounter, with some traditional film measurements for comparison:
- 35mm Full Frame: 36 x 24mm
- Super 35 Motion Picture Film: 24.89 x 18.66mm
- APS-C: 23.6 x 15.6mm
- Micro Four Thirds (M4/3): 17.3 x 13mm
- One inch: 13.2 x 8.8mm
- Super 16 Motion Picture Film: 12.52 x 7.41mm
- 2/3 inch: 8.8 x 6.6mm
- 1/2 inch: 6.4 X 4.8mm
- 1/2.5 inch: 5.76 x 4.29mm
- 1/3 inch: 4.8 x 3.6mm
Bitrate: File Size, Image Quality and Efficiency
One important feature that’s not often advertised is bitrate. Bitrate is best described as the amount of data in every second of video — it determines the size of the files the camera creates. Low bitrate usually means a high amount of compression. This means you’ll get artifacting or tearing when there is lots of movement in your shot. Shoot with a high bitrate when you don’t need it and your files will be larger than they need to be.
Bit depth is sometimes confused with bitrate, but they are not the same thing. Bit depth is expressed as 8-bit or 10-bit — sometimes higher on professional cinema cameras. A camera capable of recording at a higher bit-depth will be able to reproduce more colors leading to fewer issues with color banding and more flexibility in post production
Chroma subsampling involves the compression of color information. It’s expressed as a ratio of the pixel width of a sampling region compared to the number of pixels sampled from each row in that sampling region. When the chroma information is reduced due to chroma subsampling, dynamic color grading can reveal digital artifacts in footage. That’s why a camera supporting codecs with 4:4:4 chroma subsampling are more desirable than those using 4:2:2 or 4:2:0, which store less color information.
Dynamic Range, HDR and Log Shooting
The dynamic range of a camera determines how well it can capture details in both dark and light sections of the same image. A camera with a small dynamic range will force you to compromise in your exposure when shooting in mixed light intensity, while cameras with a larger dynamic range will give you more latitude. High-end cameras offer as much as 15 or more stops of dynamic range. The result is a more cinematic image that comes closer to the capabilities of film.
To get the most dynamic range from a given sensor, it’s now common for professional and prosumer cameras to offer a logarithmic picture profile, usually abbreviated to log. Log shooting uses a logarithmic curve, rather than a linear curve, to calculate exposure values. This allows for a larger number of gradations in some areas of the spectrum. Log captures more of these gradations and lets you assign what they’ll be in post using lookup tables, or LUTs. The end result is a more flexible image with more dynamic range.
Log shooting uses a logarithmic curve, rather than a linear curve, to calculate exposure values.
An extension of this desire to capture more detail in shadows and highlights is High Dynamic Range (HDR), a feature we expect to see more frequently as new cameras are released. Shooting in HDR results in a brighter overall image with more details in both the shadows and the highlights. There are a few different standards, including HDR10, Dolby Vision and Hybrid Log Gamma, or HLG. HLG is probably the format you’ll encounter most often since, unlike other formats, viewing it does not require an HDR enabled monitor.
Low Light Performance
Low light performance is also something video producers should be aware of when choosing a camera. Because video shooters are usually locked into a single shutter speed and limited to the maximum aperture of their lens, ISO is one of the few controls we have to compensate for poor lighting. However, with each increase in ISO, the analog signal from the sensor must be amplified, introducing more noise into the picture. At a high enough ISO, the noise in the image will become too distracting, making the image unsuitable for professional use. At that point, the only solution is to add more light to your scene — which is not always possible, depending on the situation.
If you’re concerned about low light performance, look for a camera with a large ISO range and seek out test footage showing how the camera performs in a variety of shooting situations. One way camera manufacturers attempt to mitigate the effects of boosting ISO is with Dual Native ISO technology. The native ISO of a camera is the highest ISO a camera can shoot at before the signal must be amplified. Dual Native ISO uses two circuits set at different sensitivities to reduce noise at higher ISOs without sacrificing quality at lower ISO levels.
Though good low light performance is certainly desirable, unless you’re planning a lot of shooting in a dark or in uncontrolled environments, there are definitely other factors that should have more influence on your purchasing decision.
Frame Rate Options
The term overcrank refers to the ability to shoot more frames per second in order to slow down footage for slow motion. If you want to achieve glass-smooth slow motion, be sure to check what max frame rate the camera offers. The more frames per second it shoots, the slower the footage will look when played back at normal frame rates. Everything faster than 60 frames per second is considered good for cinematic slow-mo. Some cameras offer the ability to conform faster frame rates in camera. This gives you the ability to playback your slow-motion footage within the camera without needing post-processing to see the slow motion effect. Other cameras need their footage to be digitally interpreted to a lower frame rate in the edit suite, which tends to be hit or miss.
Additionally, often, not all frame rates are available in every resolution. Make sure you know your final delivery resolution so you can make sure you’ll be able to shoot in the frame rate you want at the resolution you require.
The type of monitoring a camera has can affect your ability to see your shot good enough to get proper exposure and focus. Find out if the LCD screen has any articulation. If so, will it fit your type of shooting? If you vlog or shoot selfies, being able to see yourself while shooting is a must. Choose a monitor that flips out and rotates 180 degrees. Some monitors are highly reflective, so you might require a tilting screen to be able to suppress any unwanted glare.
Outside of the monitor connected to the camera, you might need to use an external monitor. It’s best to know if the camera has an HDMI or SDI output, and if so, what size it is.
Shot Assist Tools and Extras
Some cameras include nice extras like image stabilization, autofocus and shot assist tools. These features will be more or less important depending on your shooting style and existing gear.
In-body image stabilization is good for times when you’ll be shooting hand-held or even with a minimal rig. Usually, you’ll find either 3-axis or 5-axis systems rated in stops of shake reduction. Look for cameras that advertise optical image stabilization or sensor stabilization — not digital stabilization, which will degrade the quality of the image.
Autofocus is another feature that will be more valuable to some than to others. Because focus is so critical to a video’s perceived image quality, we usually recommend pulling focus manually. Sometimes, though, autofocus is just easier or more effective. Each manufacturer has a slightly different naming convention for their autofocus systems, but in general, they will all be some version of phase detection (faster), contrast detection (more accurate) or a combination of the two in the case of hybrid systems. Look for cameras with faster autofocus systems and more focus points if you think you’ll want to use autofocus frequently.
Shot assist tools like focus peaking, zebras stripes and waveform monitors are useful for any video producer, though some will get used more than others and none are strictly necessary to achieve the shot you’re going after. Still, these tools do make it much easier to get proper exposure and focus. So, cameras with these features should be considered more strongly than cameras without them. These tools are also built into most external monitors, so that’s an option to consider as well.
If you want professional quality video, you need good audio. Look for what types of audio inputs a camera has. Does it have XLR or eighth-inch inputs? How many audio inputs does it have?
To properly monitor your audio, an independent headphone jack is essential. Some cameras offer only a combined audio-in/headphone-out jack — similar to what’s probably on your phone. This makes monitoring live audio impossible. Cameras under $1,000 dollars tend to only offer a combined jack.
Gear and Workflow Considerations
The last thing you must consider is the equipment you already have. Is the equipment you already have compatible with what you are looking to buy? Don’t forget all of the accessories that are required to get the best shot. Accessories like cables, lenses, tripods, batteries and media can get expensive. Don’t be the person that buys a new camera but can’t use it because they don’t have all of the additional products you need to operate it.
At first glance, a small cinema camera or mirrorless camera may look like the most compact option. However, while the camera bodies are small, you have to add to it to create a usable rig; your little camera can become large and heavy rather quickly. With a professional fixed lens camcorder, your camera’s lens and accessories are already included in a compact, lightweight package. You don’t have the bulk of an interchangeable lens mount, and you don’t have to carry extra lenses. Features like viewfinders, LCD screens, zoom controllers and XLR audio ports are usually built-in. All of this leads to a camera rig that is smaller and lighter than its mirrorless counterparts.
If your camera is heavier than five pounds, make sure your tripod and other support can handle the weight. This will allow you to operate the support as it was designed. Many different support systems will not function or will improperly function if they are over-weighted. Tripods capable of holding heavy cameras tend to come with big price tags.
Time to Choose
It is extremely hard not to get caught up pursuing every camera announced during the latest camera craze. However, if you’re always chasing the best and latest you will never learn to make better videos. The perfect camera for you is the one you can afford and know how to use. Any camera can be used to tell a story. Sure, a RED will probably look slightly better and you may not have to work as hard to get the image where you want it. But if you are solid in your trade and know how to tell a story, that does not matter. We are slaves to the story, not our cameras.
Now that you know how to choose a camera that fits the type of work you do, check out our picks for best DSLR and mirrorless cameras, best camcorders and best cinema cameras.