There has never been a time in the history of cinema when there have been so many fantastic and affordable camera options as there are today. In the movie days there were some 16mm basic cameras like the Bolex that dominated the market for lower budget film production, and when things went digital there were cameras like the DVX100 and later the 5D that were designed for independent producers and directors Must have and DPs. But for the first time, possibly ever, filmmakers really don't have a clear choice when it comes to buying a new camera in this price range. That's both good and bad. The good thing is that it means that camera makers are constantly challenging each other to bring out better cameras at lower prices, and that filmmakers really have a choice. The downside is, with such an abundance of camera options, it can be quite difficult to choose the right camera for your needs – which is why I wanted to compile this list.
Before I get to my camera comparison, I would like to consider a few things.
First off, the cost range of some of these cameras is quite large (between $ 1,300 and $ 10,000). While for some filmmakers the higher end of the budget cameras may not be affordable, I still wanted to combine them with the cheaper cameras as there is not always a massive loss of quality and when choosing an even on a tight budget it is still important knowing how it can withstand more expensive cameras.
Since there are so many cameras in this price range, I've only picked a handful of the most popular / relevant. The camera you have your eye on may not be on this list, but something similar (and likely in the same lineup) is likely on that list. So use this as a reference. Do your homework with the camera that you have your eye on and make an appropriate decision. The cameras on this list are by no means the only decent options in this price range, but in many cases they are likely to be among the most popular.
Canon C100 – $ 6,500
- Super 35mm sensor
- Uncompressed HDMI output
- Excellent performance in low light
- Solid build quality
- XLR input
- Built-in ND filters
- Canon Log gamma
I shot a little with this camera and had an overall positive experience with it. The image quality straight out of the camera is quite good and many advantages of the C300 in terms of low light performance and a nice grain structure remain. The fact that it has XLRs and NDs built in is a huge plus for many. That said, it's pretty limited in other ways – still only 8 bits, no slow-motion option at all, and a heavily compressed codec that only takes up to 24Mbps. This wouldn't be a deal breaker for me if the camera wasn't that expensive, but in my opinion it's really overpriced. The C100 is a very nice camera objectively, but at $ 6,500 it's a slap in the face that you can't get more than 30 frames per second and get stuck at 8 bit 4: 2: 0. Ultimately, I have the same problem with it as with the C300 (which I really like), namely that the price is just wrong. I would assume this camera is best suited for documentaries and event videographers. I say this because it has a lot of important video camera style features that let you work with the gun, but doesn't try to push boundaries in terms of image quality. While the image that comes out of this camera can be beautiful, there isn't much that can be tampered with in the mail as the camera is crippled in so many ways.
Sony A99– $ 2,800
- Full screen
- Rotatable LCD screen
- 1080 / 60p
- Internal image stabilization
- Solid performance in low light
- 24MP stills
This is a camera that I haven't had a chance to shoot with, but that I wanted to add to this list as it is quite a buzz. It's an affordable full-frame camera that takes great stills and some really nice videos of what I've seen so far. It has a 1080 / 60p mode which is vital, and it has tons of other features for video. Unfortunately, there are a few options I would have liked to see on the camera (such as a headphone jack), but overall it's a solid camera. The E-mount is pretty adaptable, so most Canon, Nikon, or even PL-mount lenses can be adapted to the camera. In terms of the market for this camera, I would put it in the same category as the 5D. Around the same price range, full screen and with excellent still images. If you're a Sagittarius who also takes a lot of stills the 5D has a leg up in this department, but if you're all video shooting, this one is a winner between the two in my opinion.
Canon 5D MKIII – $ 3500
- Recognized name that is still in demand for DSLR video
- Fantastic performance in low light
- NTSC / PAL switchable
- Great build quality
- Full screen
- All-I video recording
- Time coded video
For those of you who have shot on the Mark II, there isn't much of a change in video image quality here. One of my biggest disappointments with this camera is the fact that while the image has improved slightly over the Mark II, the difference is small. All the advantages of the Mark II are still there – great low light performance, build quality, name, etc. But I really feel like Canon dropped the ball on this one. I can only guess that when it comes to video, they focused more on the C100 / 300/500, leaving the Mark III as a great still camera with a pretty powerful video option. I would recommend this camera to users who primarily want to capture still images or a 50/50 mix of still images and video – a photojournalist, for example. The image quality in video mode is probably the worst of all the cameras on this list. So if this is the deciding factor for you, this is not your camera. All in all, it's more than capable of producing some great pictures (and has a big leg in front of many cameras in terms of low light performance), but it's not the best bang for your buck unless You plan to do a lot of still photography.
Nikon D800 – $ 3,000
- Full screen
- Excellent 1080 / 24p mode
- Uses SD or Compact Flash
- 36MP sensor
- Excellent stills
- Solid build quality
- D800E option available without anti-aliasing
This is another camera that I didn't have a lot of experience with, but that I've heard really good things about. In terms of video quality, this is truly the first Nikon camera to capture videos that surpass Canon's quality. Nikon had fallen far behind in adding video capabilities to its cameras, but it appears to have caught up. Like the 5D, I still think this is best for shooters who take a lot of stills, as one of the biggest advantages of this camera is the amazing full-screen stills that you can take with you. The video option is great, but not necessarily groundbreaking. It's more of a trailblazer for Nikon than the video market as there are cheaper cameras out there that have the same or better video quality as the D800, but it's nice to see Nikon finally improve their game. This is a fantastic option if you come from a Nikon background with lots of Nikon lenses and are interested in video. It would have been nice if more video capabilities had been added as I think this would really have put this camera past the 5D, but still the image quality speaks for itself.
Blackmagic Digital Cinema Camera – $ 3,000
- 2.5K resolution
- RAW recording option
- ProRes / DNXhd option
- DaVinci Resolve and Ultrascope are bundled with the camera
- 13 stops from DR
- EF or MFT mount options
- Records on SSDs
In terms of cost and performance, this camera can hardly be surpassed. The fact that it records 2.5K RAW with 13 DR stops at this price is incredible. It's my favorite camera on the list for many reasons, but the most important thing is image quality. This is by far the most cinematic image of any cameras on this list. It is also the second highest resolution next to the scarlet. And while the scarlet has more resolution, the BMCC has more DR and a more cinematic, cinematic quality. I also like the simple design and the reduced menus. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that there is currently no Bolex or DVX100 that is the ideal camera for independent filmmakers. I believe the BMCC will become that camera – that is, if it is ever properly released! The camera's biggest drawbacks are that the MFT version is passive (meaning you can only use manual glass) and the sensor size means that with the EF version you have a limited range of lens options in the fast / wide category. It also only records up to 30p, but we may get higher frame rates with a firmware update. I am not sure if this is possible. Another benefit is that while peripherals (like the Scarlet) are required, the options for this camera are much less expensive because it records on SSDs and doesn't use proprietary hardware like RED.
Red scarlet – $ 10,000
- 4K output
- Shoots Compressed RAW (Redcode)
- PL mount or EF mount option
- Excellent performance in low light
- 48 FPS in 3K and 60 FPS in 1080
- Trustworthy name and build quality
- HDR-X video
The scarlet fever is a great camera in many ways. It shoots 4K, which is the highest resolution of any cameras on this list, immediately placing it in its own category, and it can later be upgraded to a kite sensor that should allow it to record 5K. The raw capture in Redcode r3d is now widespread and there are workflows with all the major NLEs, which makes it one of the simpler tasks that can be edited with a RAW camera afterwards. Overall, the image quality of this camera is excellent and it offers durability, reliability and a name that appeals to producers and directors in the industry. The disadvantages are mainly cost and ease of use. The $ 10,000 price tag does not include recording media, extra batteries, support equipment, etc. All of these are urgently needed to make this camera photographable, and all of them are extremely expensive. While this camera falls below the $ 10,000 mark even for this list, it's closer to equaling $ 15,000 or more to make it usable. It also requires some set-up time like most movie cameras do, which makes it a little less attractive for documentary filmmakers to do a lot of run-n-gun shooting.
GH3 – $ 1300
- Very high definition 1080p video
- 1080 / 60p option
- Great audio features (including headphone jack)
- Well built
- Wi-Fi functions
- Long lasting battery
- All-I recording
I'm a bit biased about this camera as I've shot a ton of shots with my GH2 and as my previous article states, this is a nice step up over this camera in almost every way. What I love about this camera is that you get all of the features listed above for a price that is way below many of its competitors. For example, compared to the 5D MK III, there are very few (if any) situations that I would shoot with this camera on an MK III, but it's almost 1/3 the price. A very good camera for the money and with the Wi-Fi options definitely one that will be future proof in terms of functionality. For some, the camera's biggest disadvantage is that it doesn't capture a full frame. So if you're from a 5D or similar camera and don't want to invest in new lenses, getting the same look you're used to on the larger sensor is tough. However, if you're willing to invest in a fast wide-angle lens or two on this camera (ex. The SLR Magic 12mm 1.6 or 17.5mm Voigtländer 0.95), you can get a frame-like look with very easy Excellent Low-light performance and a wafer-thin depth of field.
Sony FS700 – $ 8,000
- Amazing in low light
- Best slow motion of all the cameras on this list
- ND filter
- XLR input
- NTSC / PAL switchable
- Can be upgraded to 4K in the future
- HDMI and SDI output
While I've never been a huge Sony fan, the FS700 is certainly the camera that could change my mind. This camera offers some incredible features at a reasonable price. In many ways, this is possibly the best all-round camera on this list as it has almost all of the important features you would expect from a cinema camera, while also including a lot of video camera features like ND filters. For those who want to record a lot of slow motion, this camera is a no-brainer. In some modes even up to 960 fps can be recorded! I also like the fact that you can upgrade the camera to 4K recordings later so that it is somewhat future proof (although this is quite expensive and, by then, may be cheaper if you just buy a new 4K camera). I think this camera is best for shooters who have a wide variety of jobs as it seems to be able to handle shows, documentaries, movies, and more – all by providing such a wide range of features. However, if you are solely buying a camera as a digital cinema tool, the BMCC (cost, DR, DaVinci, etc.) or the ROT (industry standards, 4K out of the box) has advantages. Not to mention that both cameras record RAW.
If you're in a low price range (under $ 3,000) I'd say the best options are the GH3 and Blackmagic cameras. The decision between the two is a question of which features are more important to you. The fact that the GH3 can record in 1080 / 60p is a huge plus, but it's hard to ignore that the BMCC's sheer quality, resolution, and DR will blast them out of the water. That said, the GH3 should stand up to just about every camera on this list, outperforming many of the cameras at a higher price point while offering additional features. The other cameras in this price range, such as the 5D MK III or D800, by no means achieve the BMCC quality and not even the quality level of the GH3. For this reason, I would advise against these options unless you are planning on doing a lot, in which case you may want to make your decision (between Nikon or Canon) based on the lenses you own.
At the higher end of the cost bracket, the two cameras that really need to be considered 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 is probably better suited for those who want an all-round camera to use in just about any shooting environment and who want to invest less in peripherals. While the Scarlet is better suited for a theater-style production, when it comes to resolution and build, Trump adds features like built-in NDs.
If I had to pick a single camera on this list, it would be the BMCC – even if cost didn't matter. Remember, I mostly shoot storytelling projects and when I do documentaries, this is mostly planned. The fact that the camera costs $ 3,000, provides such a beautiful image, and comes with Resolve and Ultrascope makes it a clear winner for me. My favorite camera out there today is the Arri Alexa, and this camera goes pretty well with it at a tiny fraction of the cost. The money that is saved by buying a BMCC over a C100 or Scarlet can be used to spend more money on lenses, lighting and other aids, which in some scenarios make a very large contribution to the added value of the end product.
As I said at the beginning of this post, there are now almost endless 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 not a camera is the best choice for every type of shot.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!