New: updated December 2016.
If you’re interested in shooting high quality video using a DSLR or mirrorless camera you, my friend, are in luck: the world is your oyster. But with so many choices it can be hard to decide which camera to buy. After shooting video for a living since 2006 here’s my picks for the top 5 best DSLR and mirrorless cameras if you’re planning to do the same, or even as a fun, rewarding hobby (scroll down to cut to the chase).
Over the last few years the market has seen major advances when it comes to video. Now there are several (relatively) low cost cameras that can shoot high resolution formats such as 4K, record well in low light with minimal noise, and, even, track a moving subject thanks to accurate, continuous auto-focus (a feature previously only available on camcorders, and not DSLR cameras).
With so many video-enabled DSLR and mirrorless cameras available today making the right choice can be tricky and confusing. And the research exhaustive. If you’re like me you tend to over-research; Google-ing until the wee hours of the morning, wondering, and wondering over and over again, which camera to buy.
So, which camera is the right choice?
Only you can know for sure. First, I’d suggest you determine the intended use for the camera:
Is it for filming a narrative, where each scene can be carefully composed and lit?
Or is it something you’ll use to capture live action, maybe “run-and-gun” style, with only one chance to get it right?
Or, will it be just a bit of a play thing, perhaps to take higher quality footage of random things around the house and neighborhood, or at birthday parties and other family events?
Knowing the intended purpose, and then establishing a budget should make short-listing and ultimately choosing a DSLR or mirrorless camera much easier.
As for me, I’ve been shooting video here on Stark Insider, at least professionally, since about 2006. I started with a Canon Vixia Camcorder, then took up the DSLR video revolution with open arms with the intro of the Canon Rebel T2i (the then sweetheart 5D Mark II was out of my budget). After that I upgraded to the EOS 60D. Now I shoot on the fabulous Canon EOS 70D (Shooting Video with the New Canon EOS 70D – How good is it?). Not once has shooting on, call it, a consumer or even prosumer camera, inhibited our ability to get access to actors, backstage Broadway shows, and live concerts.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to get interviews with the likes of musician Colbie Caillat, actors Ben Stiller, Nicole Kidman, Emma Stone, James Franco, and Elle Fanning; and gain access backstage at Broadway shows touring across San Francisco. But: big deal and enough with the name dropping. You don’t need any of that necessarily — my favorite thing to do is to grab the 70D and with nary a care or plan in the world go shoot some wanderlust style video segment with my wife. I always remind myself that the camera alone won’t make or break me. The creative process, to me, is what matters most. Learning from it is a very satisfying feeling and engaging life pursuit.
I highly recommend you not think that the bigger or the more expensive the camera rig, the better and more important you’ll look. Forget about that… dare I suggest, get your shots, and instead hone in on composition, story-telling, uniqueness.
Also, something I’ve learned over the years is that often a big camera — such as a shoulder-mounted rig — can often intimidate people (though not professional actors, for example). So if you value authenticity, and natural, spur-of-the-moment reactions from everyday folks it’s often hard to beat a discrete camera like a Canon DSLR, or small Sony mirrorless camera.
With that, here’s my short-list of the top 5 cameras I believe you should consider for shooting video. Of course, there are many more to evaluate and read about, but at least in my experience, these are some of the very best on the market today.
Clint’s Top 5: Best DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras for Shooting Video
(UPDATE: also thumbs-up for Canon’s new step-up model, the EOS 80D)
Price: $899 for Canon EOS 70D body only (via Amazon, check your Costco too for possibly a good bundle deal) or $1,199 for 70D with the (amazing!) Canon 18-135mm STM lens / $1,249 for 70D Video Creator Kit / $1,099 for Canon EOS 80D body only
Best for: Ease of use, rugged applications, “run-and-gun” and when auto-focus is needed (e.g. live action)
I rank the Canon EOS 70D #1 for a reason: it’s a quality workhorse that has never failed me. The video quality is excellent. And, because it uses the ubiquitous Canon EF lens mount, there’s a barnyard of lens options. Price-wise, it’s a bargain. You needn’t spend thousands for a full-frame camera to get film-like footage. Put quality glass on it, such as the remarkable Sigma 18-35mm ART lens, and prepare to be blown away by the results. Yes, I love this camera (as I did its successor the 60D).
One key feature of the 70D that might make it ideal for you versus my other picks below is its trick auto-focus. Canon calls it Dual Pixel CMOS Auto-Focus. This handy features allows you to use the touchscreen to mark a subject – from there the 70D will automatically track it wherever it moves. It works extremely well. Note that to get best results you should use one of Canon’s new “STM” lenses. I have the Canon 18-135mm STM kit lens on my 70D about 90% of the time (Clint’s Top 5: Best lenses for shooting video with a Canon DSLR with video examples), and it can get me close-ups, decent wide shots, and with stabilization I can get acceptable handheld work too.
Other pluses for the 70D include: long battery life, standard SD card slot for storage, and wi-fi (great for transferring photos to your smartphone while on the go).
Advanced tip: the 70D supports custom picture profiles (you can upload them to the camera from your computer). I use CineStyle by Technicolor (yes, the famous “Technicolor” company of film fame) which results in a flat, low contrast image. Then I apply a LUT (look up table) in post-production to process the image. And then I use the FilmConvert plugin (which works for a range of Cameras including Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Blackmagic, RED, Nikon). Why bother? You’ll get slightly more dynamic range (or perceived dynamic range) and you’ll be able to get more of a film look and avoid the dreaded over-sharp camcorder look… to me, all worth the effort.
Canon EOS 70D/80D Video Examples:
“Wrong’s What I Do Best” – San Francisco Art Institute
Canon EOS 70D, Canon 18-135mm STM lens, Sigma 18-35mm ART 1.8 lens
“Morado” – Short film shot in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Canon EOS 70D, Canon 18-135mm STM lens, and lots of mosquitos and a random, purple scarf
“Glamping” – Treebones at Big Sur, California
Canon EOS 70D, Zoom H1 recorder with lavalier, Sennheiser MKE 600 shotgun microphone, Genaray LED-6500T 209 LED Variable-Color On-Camera Light
“Opera!” – San Francisco Opera
Canon C100 II A cam, Canon EOS 80D B cam, Zoom H1 recorder with lavaliers, Sennheiser MKE 600 shotgun microphone, $30 dolly with wheels
“Best’s So Lonely” – An ’80s Music Video Homage
Canon EOS 70D, Canon 18-135mm STM lens (black & white conversion and grain added via FilmConvert)
* Most of my videos are processed using FilmConvert, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe Audition (for sound), some de-noising using the Neat Video plug-in
Price: $2,199 for Alpha a7S body (a low light demon and cinematic beauty!)
Best for: low light, landscape and videography that needs wide shots, portable applications
The Sony Alpha a7S took the market by storm last year. And for good reason. Sony’s powerhouse performer comes in a tiny package, but offers stunning, cinematic performance. Plus, the a7S may well be one of the best low-light cameras of all times. Check out some of the reviews and you might be stunned to learn that this camera can literally see in the dark. That alone might make it the perfect choice for you, especially if you shoot videos, say, at night, or in dark theaters, or at dimly lit weddings and receptions. Feel free to crank ISO on the a7S — you may be surprised at how much light you can add to a dark scene without introducing noise (the same can’t not be said, sadly, of the 70D above).
Also, important to note about the a7S is that this is a “full-frame” camera. This essentially means the sensor captures images in identical size to a traditional 35mm camera. So, a 50mm lens captures images at 50mm. Contrast that to a “crop sensor” such as the aforementioned 70D (APS-C) that will capture an image zoomed in or “cropped” — in the case of the 70D the image is magnified by about 1.6, hence using a 50mm lens results in a images equivalent to 80mm. I’m over-simplifying here, but hopefully you get the idea (Google for more in-depth information on the subject of full-frame vs. crop sensors to learn more).
One gotcha with the a7S: “Jello”. Or, also known as “rolling shutter.” That means, simply, if you do fast pans, say from left to right, the image will get warped and distorted, prompting many to refer to the footage as Jello. So, heads up, if you do a lot of action work, be it sports or dynamic street videography the a7S may not be for you.
Sony priced the a7S very competitively. Retailing for $2,499 (UPDATE: now on Amazon for only $2,199), you might think otherwise, but keep in mind its nearest competitor is likely the Canon 5D Mark III, another full-frame camera, yet priced about $1,000 more (Canon has since dropped the price of the 5D Mark III).
If I were just getting started in video, and wanted a high performance camera, and had yet to invest in Canon EF lenses, I might very well make the Sony a7S my first choice for best overall video camera. It is, in a word, phenomenal.
Advanced tip: Add something like the Atomos Ninja Flame external recorder, and you’ll be able to record 4K video using the a7S. Although you may not want (or be able to afford) to do this right away, it’s nice to have the option. Think of it as future-proofing your investment.
Also consider: If you can stretch your budget, the Sony Alpha a7s II ($2,998 body) may well be the most advanced, high performing 4K mirrorless camera of all time. Many Canon 5D shooters are switching. It’s that good. But will stretch your budget over the a7 by about $1,000.
Price: $929 body only (this is a stellar mirrorless camera — now fourth generation — that records up to 4K internally… say no more)
Best for: capturing 4K footage without requiring a rig,
Another relatively new camera that has upended the <$3K market segment for DSLRs and video cameras. The big headline with the Panasonic Lumix GH4 is: internal 4K recording. You can record to 4K without the need for an external recorder (as the a7S, above, requires). That’s pretty impressive. Really impressive. Whether or not you actually need 4K capability today is of much debate. Sooner or later, though, it will become the standard. No question, just a matter of time — when, in the history of video, have we ever not moved to higher resolutions?!
Like the a7S the GH4 is mirrorless. Because no mirror is used, the overall camera is compact compared to something such as–my sweetheart–the Canon EOS 70D. Lenses for mirrorless cameras such as the GH4 and a7S also tend to be quite small by comparison. So if portability matters to you that’s something to keep in mind.
Many camera sites and enthusiasts compare the a7S to the GH4 — both hit the market about the same time, are fairly close in price, and offer high performance mirrorless camera bodies. Comparing the two could be as simple as this: want low-light performance go with the Sony a7S, want internal 4K go with the GH4. Of course, in reality your decision will likely be based on many more factors. My advice: don’t sweat it too much… buy one already, and start shooting, and shooting and shooting! Both will produce amazing footage. Get your gear, then shift your mental cycles to more important things: capturing high quality sound, telling a compelling story, framing your shots creatively, etc.
(Update: also consider the newer Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera)
Best for: narrative filmmakers, advanced users comfortable with color correction and grading, those interested in achieving the most cinematic image possible without breaking the bank
Oh cinema, oh my.
Footage out of the Blackmagic cameras is simply divine. Gorgeous. Filmic. Dynamic.
No question, Blackmagic (out of Australia) has given us a camera that is beyond reproach when it comes to capturing images that rival the most expensive cameras used to produce Hollywood blockbusters (i.e. Arri Alexa). A lot of that has to do with something called “dynamic range” – that is the number of stops, from dark to light, the sensor in the camera is capable of capturing. The more the better. This Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, for example, captures about 14 stops of dynamic range. My trusty Canon EOS 70D fares not so well, capturing about 10 stops. What does this mean practically? It means that with less stops of dynamic range, the image will have less detail in the highlights (bright whites) and shadows (dark greys and blacks). Filmmakers care about this a lot. For run-and-gun people, like me, it’s not as important – this is especially true if you deliver to the Web (YouTube, Vimeo) and have no designs for your work to appear on a 120 foot big screen.
What you get with the BMPCC: best-in-class film quality footage, lots of dynamic range, an inconspicuous body that looks like an innocent point-and-click camera (great for capturing footage in museums, restaurants, or in top secret locations!)
What you also get: poor battery life, quirky ergonomics, below average audio quality, short recording times, and a less established brand.
The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera was recently released. In some ways, you might consider it the successor to the Pocket. I say in some ways because the Micro does not have a monitor built-in. Fear not. Just add a Blackmagic Video Assist external 5-inch monitor and you have a convenient, lightweight set-up for capturing cinematic footage in ProRes or even RAW (for about $1,500 USD, plus whatever lenses or adapters you’ll need). Better still: the Micro uses standard Canon batteries (LP-E6) and they last longer than the proprietary ones used to power the Pocket.
I own a Micro and love it. Here’s a few videos I shot below with the BMMCC.
“Movie Star” – A Celebration of Film by Clinton Stark
Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, Blackmagic Video Assist, Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm F/2.8
“Wasps & Lavender” – Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera / Canon C100 II
Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera with Fotodiox EF/Four-Thirds Adapter, Canon C100 II, Both using Canon 70-200mm F/2.8
If you want Blackmagic, you already know what you’re getting, and will likely adore the thing to bits. For most mainstream video shooters, the Blackmagic will be a novelty, and a niche camera. For the price, again, an astounding product. I’m especially interested to see what Blackmagic does with its next iteration of these cameras.
Best for: documentary shooters, low budget indie filmmakers, those looking for their first “pro” level Super 35 cinema camera
Okay, okay, this one is not really a DSLR. Instead the Canon C100 Mark II Super 35 cinema camera is a full-on, professional camera (though entry level in Canon’s range that includes the step-up C300 and C500) designed purely for shooting video. I wanted to include it here to demonstrate how much value can be had from other cameras on the market (as mentioned above) for a lot less money. Of course, we’re not comparing apples to apples. There are many reasons why the Canon C100 may or may not be worth the significant jump in price.
If you’re an indie filmmaker or documentary producer, chances are you already know about this camera. I’d call it in an all-in-wonder. It has a Super 35 sensor so you can get that vaunted cinema-look. There’s true-to-goodness XLR inputs for capturing pro audio, the battery goes forever, and the ergonomics are perfect for run-and-gun, or setting up in a rig for shooting scenes for narrative projects. And, the C100 performs well in low light. Add all that together, and you have a tantalizing product for those on a budget who don’t want to compromise on image quality.
“Broadway Under the Stars” – Sonoma, California
Canon C100 II EOS Cinema Camera, Zoom H1 field recorders with lavs, Senheiser MKE 600 shotgun microphone, Atomos Ninja Blade external recorder
“A Gift From Me To You” – Celebrating, for better or worse, 10 years of Stark Insider
Canon C100 II EOS Cinema with Sigma 18-35mm ART F/1.8, Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera with Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm F/2.8 (Chapter 3 only), Genaray LED lights, FilmConvert, LED strobes, a black box, stuffed toys, and one majorly willing wife
The C100 is the bottom rung on Canon’s cinema line. The step-up C300 is very popular for television productions, especially across the U.S. and the U.K. Shows such as Once Upon a Time regularly use it, as do news and entertainment segments for outlets such as CNN and PopSugar. Unfortunately, the C300 retails for $14,999! But, guess what? The C100 uses the same 4K Super 35 sensor… so you’re actually getting a lot of bang for the buck. Again, this is entry pro level stuff, so if you’re eyes are bleeding, then, well, just know you can do perfectly fine with some of my other picks above (hint: Canon EOS 70D/80D, and you’re off to the races).
Conclusion: These are just (great) tools
A reminder to all of us: these are all just tools. These are all just tools.
When it comes to the creative process they are probably the least important part of the puzzle. There are so many important aspects to creating something people will want to watch: convincing acting, quality lighting, nicely composed shots, a compelling plot, among a very long list.
So, take a deep breathe. Don’t do what I and so many others tend to do from time to time and get locked in paralysis-analysis. Comparing sharpness shoot-outs. Scanning forums for this thing vs. that thing. Thinking deeply and lovingly over which camera to buy, and in the process ignoring your spouse’s adoration for Taylor Swift’s latest video. Just shake all that off I say.
- 5 tips for shooting video with the Canon EOS 70D
- 5 best lenses for shooting video with a Canon DSLR (with video examples)
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art lens is a real sweetheart (Highly Recommended)
- Add camcorder zoom to your Canon DSLR (PZ-E1 hands-on video)
- Should I upgrade to a Canon EOS 80D or should I switch to a Sony mirrorless camera (a6500)?
A few years back, when I was just getting started in video production, someone told me “don’t got too crazy at first.” He kindly suggested that I should just buy a Canon Rebel T2i and a simple kit lens (which I did) and go from there. Learn as you go. Buy a new mic eventually. Maybe another accessory a few months later.
In other words: don’t be that new guy who shows up at the gym with shiny new runners, cool Nirvana shirt, iPhone 7 Plus taped to his arm, and super-brand-new sweat bands.
Rather, get a modest initial amount of gear. Use it, learn it. Then expand as you increase your expertise. Otherwise, best case you might overwhelm yourself, and, worst case, you might look like you’re trying too hard. Either, likely a formula for middling results.
5 Amazing Cameras for Shooting Video
Good news: you can’t go wrong.
All five of these are extremely capable cameras. Ranging in price from about $800 to $4,000 theres’s a camera here for everyone — from those who are just getting started with video to those who are experienced and looking to take their video productions to the next level.
Top 5: Best DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras for Shooting Video
1. “The All Rounder”
2. “The Cinematic King of Low Light”
3. “4K or Bust”
4. “The Filmmaker’s Choice”
5. “Documentary Champ”
My top pick for an all-rounder is still the Canon EOS 70D (and 80D, and even the venerable classic that is the Rebel T2i which I still own and cherish). But, remember, of course, that is the “best camera” for our videos here on Stark Insider–interviews, run-and-gun on the streets, travel features.
If I were shooting a narrative film, I’d go Blackmagic or RED (I used a RED Raven to shoot All American Apple Pie with Loni Stark).
If I were shooting a proper documentary I’d go Canon C100 Mark II or Sony FS7.
Now It’s Up to You…
Canon EOS 70D/80D, Sony a7s/a7s II/a7SR II, Panasonic Lumix GH4, Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and Micro Cinema Camera, Canon C100 Mark II Cinema Camera…
Take your pick — all superb cameras for shooting video, each with their own strengths.
And get rolling. The world awaits you.
Friendly reminder: above all else, your creativity is more important than any tool.