Budget Filmmaking: A Camera Buying Guide for Beginners

Whether you’re dipping your toes in to filmmaking or you have a few projects under your belt, you’ve probably asked, “What am I going to film with?” If you’re in a production class you have access to some quality cameras, but what about when you’re not in a production class? Should you get a DSLR or invest in a camcorder? Is Canon or Nikon better? And what the heck is a DSLM!? I’ve used a wide range of cameras and have spent more time studying them than I’ve spent studying for my finals. There is always something new to learn about cameras–there is way too much information to wrap up in one place, but I’ve done my best to provide a brief over-view with all the pros and cons of what I see as the best entry level cameras.

DSLR or Camcorder?

 First of all, what’s the difference? With a camcorder, what you see is what you get—camcorders have pretty much everything you need built in and ready to go but you’re stuck with whatever comes on it. There’s no changing lenses and customizing with attachments is limited. Not to mention size–camcorders are pretty hefty cameras so you won’t want to add much to them. On the other hand, DSLRs are much smaller, lighter and far more customizable. The downside? You will have to customize and add attachments to a DSLR. DSLRs are also great for photography. At the end of the day I’d only recommend a camcorder for someone who is serious about filmmaking, wants the basics at his or her fingertips and won’t mind being restricted to the limitations of not being able to better customize shots. If not, a DSLR is the way to go. You will be forced to learn more about cameras, play with unlimited styles of lenses and always have the option to pursue photography should you decide that filmmaking isn’t your thing.

Sony HXR-NX100 - BHPhotoVideo.com

Camcorder: Good for all-in-one, convenient settings, more bang for you buck. Bad for customization and upgrading.

Canon 80D - BHPhotoVideo.com

DSLR: Good for customization, upgrading, photography, options. Bad for simplicity, convenient settings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about DSLM?

It’s simple–M stands for mirrorless. What does it mean for you? Mirrorless cameras are smaller, more compact and lighter than their mirrored counterparts. Mirrorless is a newer technology and is increasingly being considered the future of interchangeable lens cameras. I wouldn’t recommend  starting off with a DSLM for filmmaking simply because it would be rather overwhelming, but check out TechRadar’s handy guide for the differences between DSLRs and DSLMs.

Canon or Nikon?… or Sony?

For the sake of avoiding a pointless debate that is completely dependent on preference I’ll focus on how your first camera will be an investment later on and how they stand up to each other. Nikon and Canon both make amazing cameras that are all relatively equal to each other with small differences. Stressing over if a Nikon D5300 or a Canon T5i is better is relatively pointless. Even though they are both great beginner cameras, neither of them are exceptional cameras, but both have their benefits to start with. As you look into the prosumer and even professional cameras you’ll see that Canon and Nikon eventually diverge–Nikon claiming stronger still photography with nothing catering to the video realm and Canon providing cinema cameras all the way up the line. If you want to stick to one company the whole time, Canon is definitely the way to go. If you want to invest in lenses (primarily manual, which is ideal for filmmaking) and switch brands later then Nikon is the way to go. Nikon has kept the same lens mount since their early 35mm film SLRs, which means you can buy vintage Nikon lenses (which are famous for their quality) on eBay for affordable prices to build up your collection (great thing about manual lenses is they’re easy to adapt to other cameras unlike your pricier auto focus lenses). And what about Sony? Well, Sony is a completely different animal. Their a7s ii has come to generally be considered the god camera of independent filmmaking, but at a $3k price point, it’s no beginner camera. Sony’s are great, but they aren’t for everyone.

Consumer Level:

Good for beginners and up,  Canon's great lens selection, upgrading to other Canons, articulating touch screen, basic filmmaking, Canon's broad filmmaking ecosystem. Bad for slow motion (tops out at 30 frames per second in full HD), not as good stills capability, advanced filmmaking, APS-C image sensor limits lens compatibility if later upgrading to a full-frame camera.

Good for beginners and up, Canon’s great lens selection, upgrading to other Canons, articulating touch screen, basic filmmaking, Canon’s broad filmmaking ecosystem.
Bad for slow motion (tops out at 30 frames per second in full HD), not as good stills capability, advanced filmmaking, APS-C image sensor limits lens compatibility if later upgrading to a full-frame camera.

Good for stills, sharper image quality, native access to affordable old and new Nikkor lenses, 60fps in full HD, built-in WiFi, basic filmmaking. Bad for Nikon's lack of film ecosystem, no possible professional Nikon video camera to upgrade to, aggravating menu system for filmmakers.

Good for beginners and up, stills, sharper image quality, native access to affordable old and new Nikkor lenses, 60fps in full HD, built-in WiFi, basic filmmaking.
Bad for Nikon’s lack of film ecosystem, no possible professional Nikon video camera to upgrade to, aggravating menu system for filmmakers, non-articulating screen, APS-C (Nikon DX) lenses won’t be usable on full-frame camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upgrade:

Watch: Canon 80D vs. Sony a6300

Good for beginners and up, articulating touch screen, auto focus, head phone and mic jack, native access to Canon lenses. Bad for no 4k, slow motion (tops out at 60fps in full HD), dynamic image customization (no picture profiles), more expensive with less features than the a6300.

Good for beginners and up, articulating touch screen, auto focus, head phone and mic jack, native access to Canon lenses.
Bad for no 4k, slow motion (tops out at 60fps in full HD), dynamic image customization (no picture profiles), more expensive with less features than the a6300.

Good for knowledgeable filmmakers, high-quality 4k video capture, image customization, slow motion (120fps in full HD), image profiles for more dynamic images, small and lightweight, weather resistant, adapting manual lenses, auto-focus, competitive price. Bad for beginners, native lens selection (Sony lenses are expensive), rolling shutter in 4k (quick pans create jello effect while shooting in 4k), tilting (not articulating) screen, no headphone jack.

Good for knowledgeable filmmakers, high-quality 4k video capture, image customization, slow motion (120fps in full HD), image profiles for more dynamic images, small and lightweight, weather resistant, adapting manual lenses, auto-focus, competitive price.
Bad for beginners, native lens selection (Sony lenses are expensive), rolling shutter in 4k (quick pans create jello effect while shooting in 4k), tilting (not articulating) screen, no headphone jack.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion:

I started with a Nikon and many years (and a few lenses) later upgraded to a Sony and use a handy variable ND filter lens adaptor. Sony is definitely catering to the independent filmmaker with their a6300, a7s ii and even the fs5 and fs7, which are a little too much for a regular use camera even for the most avid of filmmakers–great to rent if needed though. Camera technology is constantly changing but lenses stay the same. Buy the affordable camera that works best for you and build a collection of lenses and accessories that will be compatible with more advanced cameras should you go to upgrade or rent one. As a filmmaker who has never owned a Canon but has shot on a few and all the trials and tribulations I have been through, I recommend the average filmmaker to start with a Canon. You will find more support and convenience in the early stages of the filmmaking world with a Canon in your hand. You can rent cameras to try different ones out from Aperturent.com.

Have questions or personal recommendations for a beginner camera? Post it in the comment section below.

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