How to Buy an Interchangeable Lens Camera

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 usually omitting a standard feature. It is confusing and dizzying, at best. 

Video Transcript

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 usually omitting a standard feature. It is confusing and dizzying, at best. This buyer's guide is designed to steer you through this storm of indecision toward a camera that will fit your budget and needs the best. There is no perfect camera. There is no silver bullet. No matter what you buy, you’re making a sacrifice. No camera will make-up for a lack of skill, knowledge or practice — that includes any camera from the one on your smartphone to a 30,000-dollar movie camera. Before you even consider a camera, you need to know about the features and options you require. There are many questions to address. The goal is to dismiss unnecessary features and functions. This forces you to think deeply in order to recognise the values that you place on each of your specific needs. To start, you need to know what the final resolution of your video or film needs to be. If a 4K final product isn’t needed, you might not need it 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 will be a big deal. In other situations, it can make shooters lazy, since they know it’s easier to fix problems in post. If you’re considering 4K, 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 it’s going to be affordable. This is because the sensor is one of the most expensive parts of a camera. The sensor size is important because it affects the field of view of a shot by cropping the lens’ focal length. That crop is a number that you’ll use to find out your effective focal length. The effective focal length of a lens is based on the standard of 35mm photo film. A fullframe sensor is considered full-frame because it’s the same size as 35mm film, and is therefore considered to have no crop factor. The field of view listed on lenses is based on that 35mm standard and will be the actual viewing angle of the lens. Consider the different 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 lens will have an effective focal length of 48mm, meaning shooters will have a narrowed field of view and have to back the camera further away from its subject. 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 24 millimeter lens, you have an effective focal length of about 38 millimeters when factoring in the crop. A very similar sensor size to APSC 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. Don’t concern yourself too much with what each crop factor offers. Focus more on whether your work and the lenses you use are compatible with the crop factor. For example, imagine you’re shooting an interview with your subject in a medium shot. You’re in a small room and shooting with a Micro Four Thirds camera. If you’re using a 50 millimeter lens, you’ll struggle to be able to get the shot. That’s because the effective focal length of that lens is 100 millimeters when the crop is factored in. You’ll have to back the camera so far up you may not be able to get everything in the shot. The term overcrank refers to the ability to shoot more frames per second in order to slow it down for slow motion. You should know the max framerate the camera offers if you want to achieve glass-smooth slow motion. The more frames per second it shoots, the slower the footage is when played back at more normal frame rates. Everything faster than 60 frames per second is considered good. Some cameras offer the ability to conform faster frame rates in camera. This gives you the ability to playback with in the camera in slow mo. Where other cameras need their footage to be digitally interpreted to a lower frame rate in post production, which tends to be hit or miss. Additionally, often not all frame rates are available in every resolution. Make sure you know what your final delivery resolution needs to be. This information will let you know if you will be able to shoot in the frame rate you want. 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. When shooting from a fast moving object you’ll get artifacting or tearing when there is lots of movement and it will look bad. 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. It refers to the amount of color information captured. The more bit depth, the more color data it can capture. Lens mount is also important. This is typically tied to the sensor size. The larger the sensor, the larger the glass in the lens needs to be. The lens needs to be able to cover the whole sensor with light. That’s why a full-frame lens can work with an adapter on a smaller sensor, but a small sensor lens will not work on a full-frame camera regardless of the adapter, because it won't cast enough light to cover the whole sensor. If you already have a lens collection, consider lens-mount compatibility before you end up having to put your old lenses on Craigslist. The type of 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, so 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 unwanted glare. Outside of the monitor connected to the camera, you might need to use an external monitor. Its best to know if the camera has an HDMI output, and if so, what size it is. If you want professional quality video, you need good audio. Look for what kinds of audio input type 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 tend to only offer a combined jack. There’s a wide range of weights an interchangeable lens camera can be. Smaller mirrorless cameras tend to be lightweight and don’t require a heavy duty tripod. However, if your camera is heavier than five pounds, making sure your tripod and other supports can handle the weight will be key. This will allows 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. The last thing you must consider is the equipment you already have. Is the equipment you already have compatable 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. Now that you know how to choose an interchangeable lens camera, here are our recommendations broken into three price ranges. It should be obvious that the more money you spend, the greater your expectations should be. If you have Spielbergian dreams but a meager budget, you’ll need to change your expectations. It is extremely hard not to get caught up pursuing every camera announced during the latest camera craze. If you’re always chasing the best and latest you will never learn to make better video. The perfect camera for you is the one you can afford and know how to use. Every camera on this list can be used to tell stories in a spectacular way. 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.