Cameras For Filmmaking

Cameras | By: indie

Choosing a Video Camera for Filmmaking

Are you looking for a video camera buying guide? Would you like me to tell you everything about all the latest models and then advise you on which camera to buy? Well, let me explain to you why this isn’t what you actually want, even though you might think it is. There’s this old saying about fishing.

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.

Well my friends, today I’m going to teach you how to fish.

If I were to write camcorder reviews for every model out there, not only would I be duplicating the stuff that’s already on tons of other websites like epinions and camcorderinfo; keeping the list up to date would be a full-time job in itself, and my camcorder buying guide would become obsolete faster than a flat tire on a unicycle.

There isn’t a magical formula for “the best video camera ever,” because there isn’t one.

I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear, but I think you’ll benefit more from knowing the specifics about what to look for in a camera, rather than me just telling you which model you should like.

The camera you buy has to fit your needs and fall within your price range, right? So instead of me telling you that Camera Brand and Model X is priced at Y dollars and has Z features, I’m going to show you what features are important when it comes to getting a camera for filmmaking.

Then I’m going to tell you what those features mean, how they work, and what effect they could have on the way you use this piece of equipment after you buy it. After all, that’s the important part isn’t it?

Camcorder Buying Guide

Some pretty significant advances in technology have resulted in an almost continuous shift between formats in the consumer grade video camera sector. If you’re interested in what’s happened recently with camera technologies and formats, click to go over to the Video Camera Technology page. If you’d like to read on, let’s take a look at my list of features to keep in mind while shopping for your camera.

Choosing Your Camera

Knowing what I’ve explained above, you should also realize that as with any new technology, the prices of HD cameras are high but are coming down quickly. It may be wise to invest in an HD video camera if you can, but you can achieve fantastic results with a standard definition camera as well.

If you decide to go with HD, realize that your editing workstation and hardware package will need to be robust enough to keep up with a fairly intense processing load. Keep the following features and specifications in mind while you research the cameras available to you.

Color Quality

The image captured by a video camera is determined by two pieces of hardware on the camera itself: the lens, and the charge-coupled device(s), or CCD(s).

A CCD is basically a light sensor. Most consumer video cameras have a single CCD in them, but some higher-end models have up to three. When a camera has only one, this CCD handles all of the light and color information in the entire spectrum. A 3-CCD camera, however, uses one for Red, one for Blue, and one for Green, which results in sharper and more true-to-life color reproduction.

Lenses on consumer camcorders are fairly standard across the board; you’re not going to find a lot of them that come with wide-angle fisheye lenses or anything. Instead look for features such as zoom and focal length to determine the scope of what the camcorder has the ability to capture.

In many cases you can purchase add-on lenses that change the depth of field or the aspect ratio of your picture in some way. But unless you’re after a really stylized video, these shouldn’t be a major consideration on your list.

Image Optimization

Aside from how your camcorder deals with color, the other part of the picture is the way it handles light. The human eye adjusts to different levels of light and darkness when the iris, which controls the muscles surrounding your pupils, expands and contracts those muscles.

When there is more light reflected into your eyes, the iris closes these protective shields around the pupils so that less light reaches them The iris opens up and lets more light in when it’s dark, which is why your eyes can adjust after you’ve been in a dark room for awhile.

The iris on a camera works in a similar way, adjusting to let different amounts of light through the aperture to hit the lens. An appropriately adjusted aperture keeps the camera’s picture clear and level so that it isn’t over- or under-exposed. It works in conjunction with the camera’s shutter speed, or how quickly the camera’s shutter opens and closes each time it records an image.

Another feature to look for is white balance. This is how the device adjusts its color temperature to compensate for different types of lighting. Fluorescent bulbs tend to cast a more blue-ish light while incandescent bulbs are more yellow. An image that has not been white balanced will appear off, as the whites will not be true white and instead have a more blue or yellow tint.

Virtually all consumer video cameras have auto-focus, which coincidentally operates the aperture and white balance functions automatically, as well as setting a standard shutter speed (normally 1/60). This is all fine for most applications, but if you are an advanced user and you prefer to have more control over some of these settings, look for the ability to set each function manually, including white balance.

Inputs and Outputs

Trends in the I/O schemes included on new cameras often follow the most commonly used hardware specs available at any given time. When it comes to outputs, it’s fairly simple: just make sure the camera has a port that matches your computer, and opt for firewire if you’re in standard definition and HDMI for high-def if you can afford it.

Other common outputs (or outputs you might find on your older cameras) include USB, AV/DV, and S-Video. These could all be options for you based on the computer you are using to capture video.

Inputs can be a topic you don’t think twice about, or something that you should look at closely, depending on your needs. The main input you would use would be for an external microphone. This can be an extremely useful feature, as it will allow you to connect a simple shotgun or lapel mic directly to your camera’s audio feed and will eliminate the need for a separate device just for audio recording.

If you choose to go that route, know that it’s pretty rare to find a camera with an external mic jack. For whatever reason, manufacturers have stopped making as many models with this feature as they used to.

Bang For Your Buck

Read reviews written by other consumers. Especially in the world of electronics, reading reviews will give you a better idea of how a camera performs than any promotional brochure ever could. People who have chosen to buy camcorders and have been using them for awhile will have useful information to share with you.

But be conscious of the fact that many negative reviews are written by people who, for one reason or another, ended up with a faulty product and got so angry they decided to fault an otherwise good brand or model.

I’ve also seen technical specs that people would use for camcorder buying listed incorrectly, even on their own manufacturers’ websites! The most important thing is to know what you’re looking for when you set out to buy a camcorder, which hopefully this article has helped you with.

One Final Tip

If you can’t afford to buy a camcorder that’s on the prosumer or high-end side, one way to achieve good quality that you may not have thought of, is to look into buying a digital SLR instead. An SLR is the kind of camera you’d see a professional photographer carrying around. These were mainly used for snapping still photos in the past, but now many digital versions of these cameras have the capability to record full-frame, high-definition video in exquisite quality that meets or exceeds that of many digital camcorders.

The benefit of having one of these at your disposal is that, as I mentioned above, these cameras generally allow you to manually control most of the visual and light settings that a photographer or high-end filmmaker would. In essence, the quality of these cameras is such that each frame looks like a high-resolution photo taken by a professional! You can affix any zoom lens you could buy for a photography camera and achieve great depth of field and color reproduction, too.

There are new models coming out all the time, but most digital SLR cameras on the consumer market today are perfect, relatively low-cost options for filmmaking.


Comment from kris evan
Time: February 11, 2011, 8:16 pm

affordable hd cameras like the canon xa10 for indie filmmaking are really making guerilla film making accessable to everyone, and raising the bench mark at the same time, some great points here on selecting the right camera for your filmmaking needs, thanks

Comment from Iqra
Time: July 30, 2011, 11:02 am

hi, this might come as a completely stupid question..But you mentioned in the final tip that having a DSLR camera is a cheaper substitute of buying the high end camcorders..But could you explain the difference between the two in terms of the result?

Comment from indie
Time: August 16, 2011, 2:15 pm

kris – Very true, and I appreciate the comment. Thanks!

Iqra – In many cases, a decent DSLR is going to provide even better results than a comparably-priced camcorder. Think of it this way: if you were to take a still frame from a video you recorded on your average consumer-grade camcorder and compare that to a photograph you took on a digital SLR, which one do you think would look better? Probably the photo from the SLR, right? Well, the quality of the lens and the ability of that camera to capture a high-quality still image is replicated over and over while it captures video. Think of each frame of a video captured this way as being comparable in quality to a still photograph. Then add the ability of most SLR cameras to do manual focus, white balance, aperture and ISO settings, and you have not only a much more easily customizable setup, but also the potential for much better imagery as a result.

Comment from Quinn
Time: November 12, 2011, 6:32 pm

First off, I appreciate this website and all your information. I’m trying to become a filmmaker on top of class and work and often times feel flustered and don’t know where to start and this website has laid things out in such a way that is acting as sort of a blueprint and pace model for me. However! It seems that you are saying in alot of cases DSLR’s are going to give you more bang for your buck, though they are not be all end all? I’m going to invest in one – i’d like to know your thoughts on the editing aspect. I’ve heard that DSLR video quality takes a hit when edited as opposed to camcorder – any truth? thanks so much!

Comment from steB
Time: December 17, 2011, 5:54 pm

hi thanks for the advice. using an SLR, the fact they are made for taking pictures. what is the sound quailty like on most SLR’s?

Comment from jade
Time: January 3, 2012, 6:50 pm

DSLR cameras do shoot good quality footage, but if shooting in HD, that is a lot of memory, meaning you have to purchase a lot of memory. Better of still just purchasing a camcorder.

Comment from Andy Martinez
Time: January 8, 2012, 8:42 pm

Awesome website, I am exploring different camera techniques and this site is very helpful.

Comment from Sree Vempaty
Time: February 6, 2012, 2:42 am

[Sree] – Thanks for your post. Quite useful.
I am planning to start film making career. However, i would like to buy a good HD camera. Which should be usefule for atleast next 10 Years.

Saying that, could you please answer my following question.
1) What are the best three brands that you suggest us.

Comment from Sree Vempaty
Time: February 6, 2012, 2:47 am

[Sree] – Just to make my above question clear.
I am not askinf for models. But kinda trying to understand what are the best three companies out in market with Success and Professional Users Satisfaction

Comment from Jeff
Time: February 26, 2012, 4:43 am

Woulld the SLR not lag though? Or would lag be a problem with similar priced camcorders as well?

Comment from Zeinab
Time: March 16, 2012, 1:49 pm

Can you please suggest a few video cameras/DSLR. I am quite lost as which to buy and I really don’t want to make the wrong choice. Thank you!

Comment from bodhi
Time: April 2, 2012, 7:37 am

You made the SLR cameras sound really great, so why not just get the SLR? What are the advantages of shooting with a prosumer camcorder?

Comment from dnoss
Time: May 15, 2012, 1:08 am

I use an Olympus EP-2 PEN Four Thirds still camera with video capability. (there is now an EP-3 with higher def video and in April/May 2012 the new OM-D–even better). The main issue with using these kind of cameras is that you must shoot short video clips or the processor will overheat. These are great cameras as they are smaller than DSLR’s and you get a full range of lenses.

Comment from indie
Time: June 27, 2012, 7:45 pm

Jade – memory cards are to the point where they’re large enough to handle a significant amount of HD footage. The quality of the footage and the ability to swap lenses on DSLR cameras provide much higher quality results than a typical camcorder.

Comment from indie
Time: June 27, 2012, 7:53 pm

Quinn – this isn’t true as far as I know. I’m editing almost solely in Full HD these days (1080p – 1920×1080) and there is no reduction in quality whatsoever. Without question, DSLR cameras are far ahead of anything else available on the consumer-grade market. I think at this point they have almost become the be-all and end-all for quality. Of course, your lens matters just as much as your camera, so having a decent one is important too.

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