In the history of cinema, there has never been a point in time when there were as many fantastic and affordable camera options as there are today. Back in the film days, there were some staple 16mm cameras such as the Bolex that dominated the market for lower budget cinematic production and when things turned digital, there were cameras like the DVX100 and later the 5D that became must have’s for independent producers, directors and DP’s. But for the first time, possibly ever – there is really no clear cut choice for filmmakers when it comes to purchasing a new camera in this price range. This is both good and bad. The good is that this means camera manufacturers are constantly challenging each other to push out better cameras at more reasonable prices and that allows film makers to truly have a choice. The downside is that with such an abundance of camera options out there, choosing the right camera for your needs can be quite difficult – which is why I wanted put together this list.
Before I get into my camera comparison there are a few things I’d like to note.
First off, the range in cost of some of these cameras is quite large (anywhere from $1300 – $10,000). While for some film makers the cameras on the higher end of the cost bracket may not be affordable, I still wanted to lump them in with the less expensive cameras as the fact is there isn’t always a massive drop in quality and when choosing a camera even on a tight budget, it is still quite relevant to know how it holds up to more expensive cameras.
Also, because there are SO many cameras out there in this price range, I have selected only a handful of the most popular/relevant. The camera you have your eye on may not be on this list, but something similar (and probably in the same lineup) will likely be on this list, so please use this as a reference, do your homework on the camera you have your eye on and make a decision accordingly. The cameras on this list are by no means the only decent options in this price range, however in many cases they are likely to be some of the most widely used.
Canon C100 - $6500
I’ve shot a little bit with this camera and had an overall positive experience with it. The image quality right out of the camera is quite nice, and it retains a lot of the benefits from the C300 in regards to low light performance and a nice grain structure. The fact that it has built in XLR’s and ND’s is a huge plus for many. With that said, it is quite limited in other ways – still only 8 bit, no slow motion option AT ALL, and a heavily compressed codec that shoots only up to 24mbps. This wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me if the camera wasn’t so expensive, but in my opinion it is really overpriced. The C100 is objectively a very nice camera, but at that $6500 it is a bit of a slap in the face that you can’t shoot more than 30fps and are stuck with 8bit 4:2:0. Ultimately I have the same issue with this as the C300 (which I very much like), which is that the price is simply wrong. I would anticipate that this camera would be best suited for documentary film makers and event videographers. I say this because it has a lot of important video camera style features that allow you to run n gun with it, but doesn’t attempt to push boundaries in regards to image quality. While the image coming out of this camera can be beautiful, it really can’t be manipulated much in post as the camera is crippled in many ways.
Sony A99 - $2800
This is one camera that I have not had an opportunity to shoot with, but wanted to include it on this list as it has quite a bit of buzz around it. It is a reasonably priced full frame camera that takes great stills and some really nice video from what I’ve seen so far. It has a 1080/60p mode which is crucial and loads of other video-related features. Unfortunately there are a few options left out that I would have liked to see on the camera (such as a headphone jack), but all in all it is a solid camera. The E mount is fairly adaptable so most Canon, Nikon or even PL mount lenses can be adapted to the camera. In regards to the market for this camera, I would put it in the same category as the 5D. Roughly in the same price bracket, full frame and with excellent stills capabilities. With that said, if you are a shooter that also takes a lot of stills, the 5D will have a leg up in that department, but if you are strictly shooting video – this one is a winner between the two in my opinion.
Canon 5D MKIII - $3500
For those of you that have shot on the Mark II, there is no huge change here in video image quality. One of my biggest letdowns with this camera is the fact that while the image has slightly improved over the Mark II, the difference is marginal. All of the benefits of the Mark II are still here – Great lowlight performance, build quality, name, etc. But I really feel that Canon dropped the ball on this one. I can only assume that they have been focusing more efforts on the C100/300/500 in regards to video and have left the Mark III to be a great stills camera, with a fairly capable video option. I would recommend this camera to users that want to primarily shoot stills, or shoot a 50/50 mix of stills and videos – such as a photo journalist. The image quality in video mode is probably the worst of all of the cameras on this list, so if that is the deciding factor for you, this is not your camera. All in all, it is more than capable of producing some great images (and has a big leg up over many cameras in regards to low-light performance), but is not the best bang for your buck unless you plan to shoot a lot of still photography.
Nikon D800 – $3000
This is another camera that I haven’t had much hands on experience with but have heard really good things about. In terms of what it does for video, this is really the first Nikon camera to shoot video that surpasses the quality of Canon. Nikon had fallen far behind in regards to adding video functionality to their cameras, but seem to have caught up with this one. Like the 5D, I still think this is best suited for shooters that do a lot of still photography as one of the biggest benefits to this camera are the amazing full frame stills that you can take with it. The video option is great, but not necessarily groundbreaking. It is more of a groundbreaker for Nikon than it is for the video market, as there are cheaper cameras that have equal or better video quality to the D800, but it is nice to finally see Nikon step up their game. This is a fantastic option if you are coming from a Nikon background with lots of Nikon lenses and want to make the move into video. It would have been nice to see more video related features added, as I think that really would have pushed this camera past the 5D, but even so the image quality speaks for itself.
Blackmagic Digital Cinema Camera - $3000
From a cost to performance standpoint, this camera is hard to beat. The fact that it shoots 2.5K RAW with 13 stops of DR at this price point is unbelievable. It is personally my favorite camera on the list for many reasons, but most importantly is image quality. This is by far the most filmic image out of any of the cameras on this list. It is also the second highest in resolution next to the Scarlet. And while the scarlet has more resolution, the BMCC has more DR and a more cinematic, filmic quality to it. I also love the simple design and stripped down menus. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that there is no Bolex or DVX100 right now that is the go-to camera for independent film makers. I believe that the BMCC will become that camera – that is, if it ever gets released properly! The biggest downsides to the camera are that the MFT version is passive (meaning you can only use manual glass) and the sensor size means on the EF version you have a limited choice in lensing options in the fast/wide category. It also only shoots up to 30p, but possibly down the line we might get higher frame rates with a firmware update. Not sure if this is possible though. Another benefit is that while it does require peripherals (like the scarlet), the options are much more cost effective for this camera as it shoots to SSD’s and doesn’t use proprietary hardware like RED.
Red Scarlet - $10,000
The scarlet is a great camera in many ways. It shoots 4K which is the highest resolution of any camera on this list which immediately puts it in a category of it’s own, and it’s upgradable to a dragon sensor down the line which should allow it to shoot 5K. The raw acquisition in redcode r3d is now widely accepted and there are workflows established with all major NLE’s, which makes it one of the easier to deal with in post out of any RAW camera. Overall, the image quality on this camera is superb and it offers longevity, reliability and a name that is attractive to producers and directors in the industry. It’s downsides are mainly cost and usability. The $10,000 price tag doesn’t cover recording media, extra batteries, support gear, etc. All of which you despearately need to make this camera shootable and all of which is extremely expensive. So while this camera itself falls into the up to $10,000 mark for this list, it is really more like $15,000 or more to make it useable. It also requires some set up time as most cinema cameras do, which makes it slightly less appealing for documentary film makers to do a lot of run n gun shooting.
GH3 - $1300
I am a bit biased towards this camera as I’ve done a ton of shooting on my GH2 and as my previous article states, this is a nice step up from that camera in almost every way. What I love about this camera is that you get all of the features listed above at a price point that is far lower than many of it’s competitors. For example in comparison to the 5D MK III, there are very few (if any) situations where I would choose to shoot on a MK III over this camera, yet it is nearly 1/3 of the price. A very good camera for the money, and with the Wi-Fi options, definitely one that will have some future proofing in regards to functionality. For some, the largest downside of the camera is that it does not shoot full frame, so if you are coming from a 5D or similar, and don’t want to invest in some new lenses, it will be hard to achieve the same look you are used to on the larger sensor. With that said though, if you’re willing to invest in one or two fast wide lenses on this camera (such as the SLR Magic 12mm 1.6 or 17.5mm Voigtlander 0.95), than you can easily achieve a full frame-esque look, with great low light performance and a razor thin depth of field.
Sony FS700 – $8,000
While I’ve never been a huge Sony fan, the FS700 is certainly the camera that could change my mind. This camera delivers some incredible features at a reasonable price point. In many ways this may be the best all round camera on this list for the fact that it has nearly all of the major features you would expect on a cinema camera, while also including many video camera features such as ND filters. For those that plan on shooting a lot of slow motion, this camera is a no brainer. In fact in some modes it can shoot up to 960fps! I also like the fact that down the line you can upgrade the camera to shoot in 4K, so it is somewhat future proofed (although that will be quite costly and may be cheaper by then to just buy a new 4K camera). I think this camera would be best suited for shooters that have a wide variety of work as it seems capable of handling broadcast, documentary, film and more – And it does this by providing such a wide range of features. With that said, if you are strictly purchasing a camera as a digital cinema tool, there are benefits in going with the BMCC (Cost, DR, DaVinci, etc.), or the RED (industry standards, 4K out of the box), not to mention both of these cameras shoot RAW.
If you are in a low price bracket (under $3,000), I would say the best options are the GH3 and Blackmagic camera. Deciding between the two is a toss up in regards to what features are more important to you. The fact that the GH3 can shoot in 1080/60p is a big plus, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the sheer quality, resolution and DR from the BMCC will blow it out of the water. Even so, the GH3 should hold up nicely to just about any camera on this list and surpass many of the cameras at a higher price point, while also providing added features. The other cameras in this price range such as the 5D MK III or D800 are nowhere near the BMCC quality, and not even at the quality level of the GH3, so for that reason I would advise against these options UNLESS you plan on doing a lot of stills with them, in which case you may want to make your decision (between the Nikon or Canon) based on the lenses you own.
On the higher end of the cost bracket, the two cameras to really consider are the FS700 and the RED Scarlet – The C100 is out of the question for me as the price is a bit ridiculous for what it does. The FS700 will likely be more suitable for those that want an all round camera to use in almost any type of shooting environment and want to invest less into peripherals. Whereas the Scarlet will be better suited for strictly cinema-style production where resolution and build trump added features like build in ND’s.
If I had to pick a single camera on this list it would be the BMCC – even if cost was not a factor. Keep in mind, I mainly shoot narrative projects and when I do documentary stuff it is largely planned. The fact that the camera costs $3000, puts out such a beautiful image and comes with Resolve and Ultrascope makes it the clear winner for me. My favorite camera in existence today is the Arri Alexa and this camera is a pretty close match to it at a tiny fraction of the cost. With the money saved by purchasing a BMCC over let’s say a C100 or Scarlet, more money can be spent on lenses, lighting and other support gear that in some scenarios will go a very long way in added production value to the final product.
As I stated at the beginning of this post though, there are now almost infinite options when it comes to cameras, and while some are stronger than others they are all capable of producing some incredible images in the right hands, and no one camera is the best choice for every type of shooter.
Please contact me at any time with work inquiries, ideas for the site, and general feedback: