Camera Buying Guide: Best cameras for shooting video

Panasonic GH5, Atomos Ninja Inferno, SLR Magic Anamorphot adapter, Rokinon 35mm

If you’re in the market to buy a new camera here’s some of the best cameras available today for shooting videos and films.

Ready to take the next step?

Sure, smartphones shoot very good video these days, with many even offering advanced features such as timelapse mode, 4K recording, and optical image stabilization. If you’re serious about video, though, there’s really nothing quite like the freedom and quality offered by interchangeable lenses cameras (ILC).

There’s a lot of good camera choices out there from many established manufacturers, such as Sony, Canon, Olympus, Panasonic, and new ones too, like Blackmagic. To sort through some of the confusion I’ve included some of my favorites below.

Keep in mind the idea of “best” is all relative. Relative to what you’re planning to shoot. Relative to how you like to hold or rig your camera. And, most definitely, relative to your budget.

I’ve been shooting video for Stark Insider for over 10 years (Stark Insider on Vimeo). I mainly shoot interviews and events. But I’ve also made the occasional short film, a fashion film or two, and some videos that I’d categorize as experimental.

Here’s an example of one of our Stark Insider videos below, shot at the San Francisco Art Institute with Loni Stark:

All of the cameras below I’ve either owned or rented and used for at least one Stark Insider video; anything that I’ve used that didn’t perform well or didn’t deliver on price/performance was excluded.

If you’re in the hunt for a new camera, you’re in luck. These are all terrific choices. Let’s not forget: a camera is just a tool. Just about everything else is as, or likely more, important. Lighting, acting, set and sound design will possibly have more impact on the end result.

Either way, I’d suggest getting out there as often as possible. Hit record. See what happens. And practice, practice, practice.

Happy shooting!

Camera Buying Guide: Best Cameras for Shooting Video

Best Camera: Aspiring Filmmaker

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

  • Thumbs up: Beautiful image, inexpensive lenses available for Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mount, touch screen and modern user interface. Tiny!
  • Thumbs down: Poor battery life, internal microphone best suited only for scratch audio.

Outstanding value. But know what you’re getting. Blackmagic makes serious cameras that are anything but point-and-shoot. Their Pocket Cinema Camera produces fabulous images that very much approximate the organic look of film. Perfect for film students and aspiring filmmakers. Don’t forget to get a few extra batteries — the “BPCC” drains them quickly.

Best Camera: On a Budget

Canon EOS Rebel T5i

Canon EOS Rebel T5i EF-S 18-55 IS STM Kit

Canon EOS Rebel T5i with 18-55mm STM Lens

  • Thumbs up: Excellent auto-focus, long battery life, durable build quality. Canon colors and image quality.
  • Thumbs down: No 4K.

If you don’t want to break the bank, but still want a camera that will give excellent results consider the Canon EOS Rebel line. This T5i, for instance, can be had on sale for only $599, and that includes a convenient 18-55mm zoom lens. That’s less than what the body alone normally sells for, making it an excellent budget pick. As usual you’ll get renowned Canon build quality and a menu system that’s among the best in terms of organization and ease of use. On the downside, there’s no 4K video recording option. Still, that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re shooting videos that will end up on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

There’s plenty of other budget choices of course. To save money you could look to eBay for a used Canon EOS Rebel T2i. It’s a fantastic DSLR. Plus, there’s a custom firmware called Magic Lantern which enables advanced filmmaking tools such as waveform, focus peaking and audio levels.

I shot this travel short on a Canon DSLR:

Other budget choices to consider: Panasonic G7 (has 4K video) or Sony Alpha a6000. Or old Canon Rebel DSLRs on eBay.

Best Camera: Documentaries

Canon Cinema EOS

Canon C100 II Hands-On and First Impressions

Canon Cinema EOS C100 (B&H Photo)
Canon Cinema EOS C100 Mark II (B&H Photo)

  • Thumbs up: Superb ergonomics, long battery life. Records to low cost SD cards. Built-in ND filters and professional XLR audio.
  • Thumbs down: No 4K. Large compared to mirrorless and DSLR alternatives.

Documentary shooters will want to be ready for anything. Things like quick auto-focus, high quality audio and robust build are usually essential in situations that are unpredictable. Canon’s “Cinema EOS” range is a good place to start for professional documentary shooters. Especially consider the C100 I if you’re trying to come in under budget. It’s been replaced by the Mark II, but you can get the original for a song — and it has the same 4K sensor (but records only in HD) as the newer model. I’ve shot for years on the C100 II and love it. There’s a reason why it’s so popular and every new camera in its segment seems to borrow from its groundbreaking design.

Here’s an example doc I shot on the C100 II:

Also consider: Sony FS5 or Panasonic GH5 with XLR audio adapter and some ND filters (a pain to use).

Best Camera: Landscape and Travel Videography

Sony Alpha a7S II

Sony a7S II ILCE7SM2/B 12.2 MP E-mount Camera with Full-Frame Sensor

Sony a7S II Full-Frame Camera

  • Thumbs up: Full-frame sensor, unbelievable in low light, SLog3 (for color grading and creative options), high frame rates for slow motion (1080/120fps), 5-axis image stabilization.
  • Thumbs down: Pricey. Menus can be tricky to learn. E-mount restricts lens choices (but can be solved by adding a Metabones adapter)

Sony broke the video market wide open with the introduction of the Sony Alpha line, and specifically the a7. With the a7S II, Sony is inching closer to perfection. Filmmakers love this camera. It’s easy to see why. You get a lot of incredible features in a tiny body. There’s a full-frame sensor that produces gorgeous images, both video and stills. You get plenty of recording options including various codecs, all the filmmaking tools you’d expect from a mirrorless camera in this class, and the beauty that is SLog3 (which I like a lot, though others aren’t as keen) making for lots of creative opportunity during your post-production workflow. Canon has better AF technology, but just about everything else tips in favor of the a7S II. If I were starting from scratch in the world of video, I’d likely start here.

Best Camera: Wedding Videos, Events, and Just About Everything Else

Panasonic Lumix GH5

Panasonic GH5 with Atomos Ninja Inferno

Panasonic Lumix GH5 body

  • Thumbs up: Outstanding 5-axis IBIS (i.e. you can use non-stabilized lenses with good results), internal 10-bit 4K 4:2:2 video 24/30p and 10bit 4:2:2 60p via HDMI (I use Atomos Ninja Inferno), Vlog-L option, dual SD cards, comprehensive filmmaking tools (waveform, focus peaking, 4:3 anamorphic, etc.), optional XLR add-on, improved battery life and sensor (now 20.3MP) over GH4.
  • Thumbs down: Video auto-focus not as good as Canon and Sony (I’d recommend either competitor if your mission is to Vlog).

Shooting a wedding video or event or live concert? The above mentioned Canon C100 is a good choice. But so too is the new Panasonic GH5. If you need auto-focus, and low light the C100 is probably the better option. However, the GH5 brings a lot to the table. For wedding videographers there’s several enticing features. First up is IBIS (in-body image stabilization). It’s amazing. With it activated you can even use lenses without IS built in, such as high quality cinema lenses, or even a sharp, high quality zoom like the Sigma 18-35mm, as seen in above photo. Second, the “Extended Teleconvert” function. Turn that on and the GH5 punches in closer to the subject matter — ideal for capturing key moments during a wedding ceremony. Another benefit with the GH5 is that it looks like a normal camera. Consequently guests won’t feel intimidated, and you’ll likely get more natural reactions.

I shot a short film called “Crazy or Die” on the GH5 and found it performed very well:

Also see: Crazy or Die director’s commentary (Vimeo) where Loni and I talk about working with stuffed animals, a wig, and a Stella.

Best Camera: Shooting Stills and Videos

Canon EOS 80D

Canon EOS 80D Video Test Examples

Canon EOS 80D

  • Thumbs up: Outstanding auto-focus thanks to Canon’s groundbreaking innovation known as Dual-Pixel AF (DPAF), touch and fully articulating LCD, everything just feels right in the right hand, rugged build, long battery life.
  • Thumbs down: No 4K. Lacks important filmmaking tools such as a waveform monitor, focus peaking, and framing guides.

My favorite reasonably-priced stills camera is the Canon EOS 80D. It also shoots pretty looking HD video. Thanks to Canon’s trick Dual Pixel Auto-Focus system, you can even track moving objects and otherwise do focus pulls (transition focus point from one subject to another) that would otherwise almost be impossible without an assistant. The 80D is a great starting point for those new to photography who might also be interested in experimenting with video from time to time. Canon has taken everything it learned from the models that came before it, such as the 60D and 70D, and turned out an outstanding camera in just about every way possible. I do wish the 80D has filmmaking tools built-in, such as a waveform monitor and focus peaking. Keep that in mind. If you’re planning to do serious video production, there’s better choices (GH5) out there. But for an all-rounder, the 80D is hard to beat.

Best Camera: Compact and Easy-to-Use

Sony Alpha a6000 (or a6500 if you need 4K)

Sony Alpha a6500 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Sony Alpha a6000
Sony Alpha a6500

  • Thumbs up: Compact, relatively inexpensive compared to similarly featured competitive models, filmmaking tools (focus peaking, waveform monitor, log recording, etc.). 4K (a6500), IBIS (a6500).
  • Thumbs down: Can overheat during extended recording sessions, IBIS not quite as good as the GH5. Average battery life.

Both the a6000 and a6500 are terrific video shooters from Sony. At only $598 with 16-50mm power lens the a6000 is also a terrific bargain. If you need 4K you’ll need to fork out for the up-level a6500 which, granted, is a lot, but still less than the competition including the GH5 which costs about 50% more. These are crop sensors, so you’ll forgo the wide vista afforded by full-frame sensor cameras (e.g. Sony Alpha a7 and Canon 5D lines), but keep in mind for narrative purposes that shouldn’t be an issue (most Hollywood films are shot on crop sensors, the idea of full-frame is one that comes from photography not filmmaking). So for music videos, short films, fashion films, trailers, weddings, Vlogs, and just about anything else, the a6000 and a6500 should serve you quite well. I recently took an a6500 with 18-105mm to Paris and Iceland. Here’s some preview clips:

3 DAYS IN ICELAND: Aurora Borealis from Stark Insider on Vimeo.

Best Camera: Narrative Filmmaking

Panasonic GH5 or Canon EOS C100 or RED Scarlet-W or Sony Alpha a7s II

Panasonic GH5 with Atomos Ninja Inferno Hands-on Review - First impressions
If I had to pick only one… Panasonic GH5 with Atomos Ninja Inferno monitor/recorder.

Panasonic GH5
Canon Cinema EOS C100 Mark II
RED Scarlet-W
Sony Alpha a7S II 

Take your pick really. If you’re shooting a narrative film, there’s lots of choice. Heck, you can even use your smartphone and get a suitable image (obviously, it won’t be as good as one of the cameras I recommend here). It really comes down to your budget. Based on what’s out there on the market at the time of this writing I’d go with one of these four cameras: Panasonic GH5 or Canon Cinema EOS C100 or RED Scarlet-W or Sony Alpha a7S II.

For all-round price/performance it’s hard to beat the GH5. Add a metabones adapter ($649) and you can use all your existing Canon EF glass. In my experience so far, I’ve found the GH5 IBIS to be best-in-class. For narrative, I’d take that any day over, say, the best-in-class AF you find on Canon.

The Canon C100 is a good choice too. Great ergonomics, records to low cost SD cards. But it does lack high frame rates (for slowmo) and its relatively weak codec could limit its appeal. It just depends. I know many who use and love the C100 for filmmaking. Don’t forget, some work shot on the C100, like The Wolfpack (2015), even make it to the big screen and score big at film festivals (in this case, Sundance). It’s not about the camera!

RED is a proven performer. And it comes at a (hefty) price. To fully kit out the company’s entry model (the RED Raven is no longer available) the Scarlet-W expect to pay about $20,000-$25,000 including the brain which sells for $12,500 (and can’t even be powered on without accessories). In return, you get the best image outside of Arri Alexa, flexible Redcode (R3D) files which can be manipulated very much like a film negative in post, and plenty of high frame rate options (ideal for fashion films, high end commercial work).

And you can’t have a discussion about indie filmmaking these days without including the Sony Alpha range. I’d go with the Sony a7S II.

Cameras, Cameras, Cameras:
A Golden Age of Choice and Performance

Hint: You pretty much can’t go wrong these days!

As always, these are just recommendations… based on my experience. We all have our preferences. Who knows? Maybe your favorite camera to shoot is the one that just feels right in your hand. Fair enough. If that means you enjoy shooting video that much more, and that it yields quality results then there’s your answer.

The camera is probably the last thing holding us back.

I will add that out of all the cameras on the market today, the one that impresses me the most is the new Panasonic GH5. I didn’t expect that. I expected to try it out (to see what the fuss was all about) and promptly return to shooting on my 80D/C100. Things don’t always turn out as you expect. More often than not, I’m now using the GH5 for Stark Insider videos. It just does so much so well. Sure, it has 10-bit 4K. Amazing in its own right. But it’s go everything else too: slow motion options, 4:3 anamorphic mode (nice!), dual SD card slots (piece of mind!), extended tele for punching in, accurate focus peaking, waveform monitor, and on and on. Put a Metabones EF adapter on the GH5 and the world is yours … Tony.

And, finally, let’s be fair with each other for a moment — because, you know, I’m Canadian. The camera is probably the last thing holding us back. If anything it’s our will to execute, right? That along with an active imagination (for me, it’s the steam room and 80’s New Wave). So let’s keep setting deadlines, shooting/editing as much as we can, and, in the words of David Lynch, keep trying to catch the Big Fish.

Happy shooting!

Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 11,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Watch us on Amazon Prime or subscribe to Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.