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September 28, 2013 at 9:24 AM #70712blueblade3000Participant
I am in the early planning stages of a documentary film. I’m looking for advice on a camera to purchase. I want the film to look as professional as possible while not breaking the bank. What cameras should I consider at under $1500? How about under $1000? Thanks in advance!
September 29, 2013 at 3:40 PM #208722blueblade3000Participant
Thanks so much! That was very helpful.
September 29, 2013 at 4:23 PM #208718
Hi blueblade – we are fortunate enough to live in an era where there are several very good documentary cameras below $1500, and even below $1000, that can get you started. You'll still need to deal with sound, which is just as important as the image, but let's start with the camera.
At around $1500, I recommend the small-sensor, fixed lens JVC GY-HM70U for $1599. Yes, it's $99 above your $1500 limit, and it won't give you the depth of field control you'd get from a large sensor camera, but it will give you a shoulder mounted 1080/60p camera with a fast power zoom and decent sound all in one package. For documentary/run and gun filmmaking, this will end up saving you money in the long run on shoulder rigs and external recorders.
Here's a great overview of the camera from B&H:
Another option in this price range is a used Canon XA10 for $1597.81 from Amazon Warehouse Deals. This camera has pro mic inputs and dual card recording. It can produce documentary images like these:
At around $1000, I recommend one of two cameras, depending on how what kind of image you want and how much work you want to do in colorizing your film.
The easier camera of the two (even though it will be harder to deal with than a camcorder) is the $1092 (body only) Panasonic GH3. It is a large sensor, interchangeable lens camera with unlimited clip length, tracking autofocus, a headphone jack (like a camcorder) and the form factor of a DSLR. It records at bit rates as high as 72mbps and progressive frame rates as high as 1080/60p. Here is what this camera can do:
The more challenging camera to use is the new $995 (body only) Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. It has more "film like" dynamic range than any other camera in this price range. It also records at the highest bit rate of any camera in this class (220mbps ProRes). On the other hand, it lacks some basics. It cannot format cards in camera (you need a laptop), it has no audio metering and no "time remaining indicator". All the information the camera records burns up a lot of memery and a lot of batteries as well.
That said, here is what this camera can do in the hands of a skilled pro:
Hope this is helpful!
October 8, 2013 at 6:15 PM #208782
I think brunerww gave a well-thought-out answer, but I'd like to toss in one other option–a DSLR. You'll find some pretty good ones in the price range you stated, and they have the advantage of being small, light, and pretty easy to learn. Their biggest disadvantage is in sound–DSLRs do a lousy job of recording sound, and most shooters who use them either record sound separately, or they use a field mixer to improve sound quality.
However you shoot, don't rely on your camera's microphone. Audiences notice sound quality, and even a modest investment in a decent microphone makes a noticeable difference.
October 8, 2013 at 7:27 PM #208784
I use a Panasonic AC130, so I'm a pretty big Panasonic fan. I shoot with my AC130 and with P2s. The GH3 looks like a very cool camera, particularly shooting H.264. I assume it's AVCHD, so it should run forever and get great footage. A camera like that would be great for backcountry shooting, which I can't do now, because my gear's too heavy. Thanks for the recommendation!
October 10, 2013 at 1:50 PM #208798EddieValiantParticipant
A lot of good suggestions here so I'm going to add my .02 worth.
If you're looking to purchase a camera or two, don't overlook eBay. I've purchased four used cameras over the last few years there and had great success and saved a bunch of coin. Most recent purchase: a Canon 5D MKII – for $1100! it has 185,000 shutter activations but I only wanted it for the video. Canon also has a service plan for about $100 that checks out the camera thoroughly. I know of two photogs who routinely send their cameras in for annual checkups.
I purchased two Panasonic AG-HMC150 cameras over a period of several months and in each case, paid far less than the going rate. Many videographers are selling their older camcorders in favor of DSLRs which typically cost a lot more, without a lens.
The trick to using eBay (works for me anyway) is to figure out what you want then search for it. Find some sellers who have the item, and put them on your watch list. See what they end up selling for. Check the seller's reputation, and if he has a 98% or more positive feedback, toss in a bid. Some people hate eBay but I've had a great experience finding decent used equipment at fair prices.
Another route is rentals. Google up camcorder rentals and see who will ship to you. Many online rental houses will do that. If you end up owning a DSLR and want a cinema lens, there's lots of rental houses that will have what you need. Cinema lenses can easily cost two and three times the price of the camera. Many documentarians rent equipment because there can be substantial savings over ownership.
October 10, 2013 at 3:02 PM #208802
January 2, 2014 at 9:12 AM #209471jsachandaMember
blueblade3000, I came across this post and it's a couple months old, so first, can you update us on your decision. I am always curious about this kind of camera question. Since you are asking for advice on cameras, I will have to assume your experience is limited. Also, you did not mention the reason for asking for camera advice. I think the advice posted above is excellent and and you won't go wrong with any choice. What I wanted to contribute to this post is the importance of non-camera factors and what they mean to a good production. Particularly important is a good story. Following is a clip of a documentary shot with an iphone 4s. Using a good soundtrack and some basic editing, the production is actually quite good. I would propose that you probably own adequate equipment to produce a very good film. Don't overlook the basics and control your costs, at least until you have developed a solid porfolio.
January 2, 2014 at 3:27 PM #209474
I'd second that. Learn how to think in shots, and learn some basic editing aesthetics (like eyeline, cutting on the action, and so on) to assemble your shots into a narrative. I shot a great backpacking film using a Canon point-and-shoot. What made the film great was the story I found in my footage. I could have shot it on a cell phone, and it would have been just as good.
January 3, 2014 at 4:15 PM #209481eager to learnParticipant
Thank you all for your much appreciatted thoughts and experiences.
I'm leaning toward a DSLR based on price. They can be had at Costco for $750-$1,100.
I'm trying to decide among 3. The Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR -vs-
Canon EOS Rebel SL1 -vs- Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR.
There are so many specs to consider it's a daunting task trying to choose the right camera.
None will shoot for more than 35 minutes depending I guess on the size of the SD memory card (e.g. 64GB) but I just will not have the money for a camcorder.
I guess I'll just have to ask my subjects to be brief or succinct!
If anyone has any experience with any of these cameras I'd appreciate you sharing your experience.
October 8, 2013 at 7:11 PM #208783
Folks are shooting great documentaries with DSLRs – but I suggested the Panasonic GH3 DSLM over any of the DSLRs because of their 30 minute maximum clip length limitation.
Doc shooters sometimes need to capture long interviews or events in their entirety. Some DSLRs quit after 12 minutes, some quit after 20 – some last until 30. None can match the hours long clip length of the GH3 or a camcorder.
December 22, 2013 at 11:45 PM #209420Clay StevensParticipant
I'd also like to recommend DSLR for documentary.
October 9, 2013 at 6:08 AM #208787
Glad to be helpful. The GH3 records Quicktime (.MOV) at up to 72mbps as well as AVCHD (.MTS) at up to 28mbps.
It also shoots MP4 at up to 28mbps. Its codec and bit rate flexibility was one of the reasons I bought it. Most cameras are one-trick ponies when it comes to codec selection.
If you plan to buy one in the near future, now is a good time. They are back on sale for $998 at Amazon as of this post.
October 11, 2013 at 1:17 PM #208817eager to learnParticipant
This has been a very insightful and helpful discussion – the kind of I’ve been searching for a long time. The nitty-gritty of it!
I’m heading toward my first shoot and if I might summarize the points so I’m clear about the advantages/disadvantages of the camera choices?
A DSLR is small, light, and easy to learn. Disadvantages are lousy sound and short clip length.
But, if you’re shooting short scenes (e.g. feature film, short film, etc.) and you have access to a boom mic then a DSLR may be a good choice?
I’m presuming the costs for a DSLR are the same as for a small-sensor, fixed lens like the JVC GY-HM70U for $1599?
I did notice over the summer a Canon EOS 60D 18 MP DSLR 18-200 with an 8 GB card at Costco for $999 but I don’t know how long the maximum clip length is for that camera.
However, if you do not have access to a boom mic and need good sound and also need to shoot long scenes then the JVC GY-HM70U for $1599 is a better camera option for you.
Do I have that correct?
Next… let’s forage into the wild and wooly world of rigging. Who likes Zacuto?! Are there go-to places to find the best prices for rigging? Are there less expensive alternatives to Zacuto?
Thanks so much. Really appreciated.
January 8, 2014 at 4:29 AM #209496
Hi eager to learn – your interview subjects can ramble on for as long as they like if you get a Panasonic G6 with the 14-42mm kit lens for less than $700. This camera records for hours continuously.
Here is what this camera can do:
With the Panasonic G6, you will spend less than you would on one of those Costco bundles – and you'll get a better camera, with no silly Canon 30 minute clip length limit.
Hope this is helpful!
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