The Best HD Video Camera For Filmmakers On A Budget

If you’re looking for the best HD video camera, you’re not alone. Over the past year, my inbox has been inundated by ambitious filmmakers seeking advice on gear. And if you’re like most filmmakers, you can’t wait to get your hands on the best HD video camera and lens package you can.

To help us out, I reached out to filmmaker and self proclaimed gear nerd, Michael Head.

Michael, what is the best HD video camera and lens package for filmmakers on a budget?

– – –

That is actually a great question, and I’ll start by saying this:

Having the best HD video camera in the world will not make your film look better if you don’t know how to use it. You’ll want to know how to properly light for the camera and how to record awesome sound. I’ve seen videos shot on RED Epics that look awful and videos shot on handicams that look spectacular.

Think about it this way. Nobody asked Leonardo Da Vinci what kind of brushes he used. It was his skill that made the difference.

I don’t know what your budget is, but I’ll make any recommendations I can based on my knowledge and experience. Let me directly answer your question on selecting an HD video camera and lenses.

HD Video Camera

Photo © ra2 studio / Dollar Photo Club

The Best HD Video Camera For Filmmaking

1. Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera: The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is great little HD video camera, around $1,000, micro-four-thirds lens mount with a small sensor. But the camera is very workflow and add-on heavy. You’ll either need a lot of batteries or an external power source.

The Blackmagic can shoot both ProRes (compressed) and raw (uncompressed), but both require more storage (a LOT more) then the AVCHD that comes out of the 7D. And while this HD video camera uses SD cards, you are going to need very fast cards (write speeds of 90+ mbps, which are the more expensive cards).

The raw files are amazing to work with but require good knowledge of color correction to make it look right (but at least Da Vinci Resolve, an outstanding color correction software, has a free version). It has around 13 stops of dynamic range and can look very filmic if properly exposed and color corrected.

2. Panasonic GH4: For around around $1,400 this HD video camera comes with a micro-four-thirds lens mount, small sensor, and great images recorded 4k internally. This makes the Panasonic GH4 a great choice if you want to capture 4K in-camera. But similar to the Blackmagic, higher resolution requires more storage.

The Panasonic GH4 also has an add-on unit that allows for XLR audio to feed directly into the camera, but I’ve heard several reports of the audio “drifting” (becoming out of sync) when utilized. Capturing external audio is still a best practice that applies to any HD video camera you choose.

3. Sony A7s: With this HD video camera, $2,500 gets you the body, an e-mount lens mount (highly adaptable) and a full-frame sensor, which allows for very shallow depth of field with the right lens. The Sony A7s gives you around 12 stops of useable dynamic range, which makes it extremely sensitive in low light. As a consequence, it is very easy to overexpose. So you’ll probably need filters if you plan on shooting outside during the day, especially if you want any depth of field.

The Sony A7s is capable of 4k output to an external recorder which, of course, costs more money. And as a possible downside, the battery life is short. So you’ll need extra batteries (there’s a reason it comes with two). Despite these costs, this is actually the camera I choose to adopt, and it has been outstanding for me so far.

Again, it’s not necessarily the HD video camera that makes the most difference. Good cameras can help, if you know how to use them properly. But in reverse order: Make sure your lighting is good, make sure your audio recording is outstanding, and make sure your story is interesting. Without a good story, the camera won’t help much. And without good audio, your audience won’t care what kind of images you’re putting out.

Thoughts on The Sony FS7

It is great when companies listen to their users. Sony obviously listened to comments about the ergonomics of the FS100 and 700 when they designed their newest XDCAM, the Sony PXW-FS7.

The Sony FS7 is an ergonomic prize. It sits nicely on your shoulder and has an extendible handle that puts controls in perfect reach for a one man shooter.

The Sony FS7 sports a super-35 sensor that can shoot Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) with a planned upgrade to full 4K (4,096 x 2,160) available next year. It boasts a base 2000 ISO so it will be great for low light situations, and it shoots up to 60 fps at UHD and 180(!) fps at 180p internally.

Sony FS7

Thoughts on The Sony FS7

The Sony FS7 also utilizes the dual Sony XQD memory cards to record Sony’s new XAVC format, but it does require faster cards then normal, so look for some expensive media for the moment.

The Sony FS7 E-Mount system is remarkably adaptable, and many Speedbooster users will be thrilled. There will be a several add-ons that change it’s recording capabilities,

The Good of The Sony FS7:

– Ultra HD up to 60 fps, 1080P up to 180 fps (with full 4k coming)
– Super-35 sensor with base 2000 ISO
– 10 bit 422 internal recording up to 50 Mbps in HD (broadcast quality)
– Great ergonomics (mostly)
– E mount is highly adaptable for almost any lens 2k raw (at 240(!!) fps) and 4k raw output to Sony’s new XDCAM-FS7 unit and a capable recorder (such as Odyssey7Q)
– ProRes recording (kind of – see below )
– Reported 14 stops of dynamic range
– S-Log 3 profile (great for getting the most out of your dynamic range)
– Built in ND filters
– The Sony FS7 is under $10,000

The Not So Good of The Sony FS7:

– Expensive (for now) media
– Convenient handle folds up into an awkward position

The What?

ProRes recording requires a hardware and firmware upgrade Raw requires same hardware, plus a capable recorder. What will this do for users invested in the FS700 and F5?

Final Thoughts on The Sony FS7:

The Sony FS7 is another amazing looking product that seems aimed at Canon’s C line, and the high frame rates for a (relatively) low cost make it a great option. I don’t really understand why they require a hardware add-on for ProRes, but if Sony’s XAVC is as good as their AVCHD implementation then it should hold up well under some grading. The sample images look great, and the flexibility of frame rates and ergonomics make it an extremely well designed and thought out camera.

The Sony A7s Camera

Thoughts On The Sony A7s Camera by Michael Head

I once had a cinematography professor tell me that the video DSLR trend is just a fad. But for whatever reasons, camera manufacturers didn’t hear his message.

New and more powerful cameras are coming out everyday, and each model strives to be better then the one before it. This makes it hard to be a tech-nerd in the film industry! (I want ALL this gear!)

One DSLR-style cameras with excellent video features is the Sony A7s.

The A7s comes out of the Sony A7 mirrorless SLR camera family that includes the A7 and the A7r. Both of these are great full frame (large sensor) cameras. While it might seem odd at first, the A7s, has the smallest number of pixels, weighing in with 12 MP.

However, while it is “only” 12 MP, it is a full 4K sensor – which means the pixels are bigger and can therefore actually be more sensitive to light then the same sensor with more MP.

How much more sensitive?

Some early tests have shown video taken in the woods at night with no lights.

And the image OVEREXPOSES – in the DARK!

As filmmakers, we live in an interesting time.

The extended ISO of the A7s’s sensor lets you record downsampled 1080P video at up to 409,600 ISO (yes, you read that right) and 60 frames per second (720P up to 120! FPS). That’s an amazing sensor.

Sony A7sThe Sony A7s Camera

Although shooting that high of an ISO is not likely to happen often, it is an amazing option for making sure that dark shadow in the corner of your room is only a jacket and not a vampire or something. And surprisingly the sensor doesn’t line-skip like many of the popular video DSLRs. This means moire and alaising are reduced.

But that’s not all!

The full frame sensor gives you the same depth of field you can get with other Full Frame sensors, but it also will shoot in a crop sensor (x1.6) mode. In other words, you can choose to use a smaller sensor size. Why might you do that?

Some lenses don’t cover full frame sensors, and those lenses can still be used on the A7s. In effect, you can double your number of lenses using full-frame lenses and the crop fame shooting. Your 35mm full frame sensor can shoot as a 50-ish (56mm) lens is crop sensor mode. While this does affect your depth of field, it’s a nice for those with limited budgets.

Sony also seems to have moved away from the A-mount lenses. Instead, the A7s has an e-mount, which has numerous adapter options for almost any lens.

Another video-centric feature is the inclusion of S-Log 2 built in. That’s right, the flat Sony picture profile that was included in the FS700’s $400 upgrade is built. If you haven’t seen what S-log is capable of in the hands of a skilled shooter, do some research on Vimeo – it’s an amazing option.

The Good of The Sony A7s:
– Full-frame (and crop) 4k Sensor with no line skipping 1080P/60fps internal video
– Ultra-HD 4K Output through HDMI (see wrap-up)
– Highly adaptable e-mount len mount
– S-Log 2 picture profile (native 3200! ISO) at around 13 stops of dynamic range
– Clean ISO up to 64000 (although I still don’t recommend shooting that high)

The Not So Good of The Sony A7s:
– No 4k Internal (see wrap-up)
– Extremely sensitive sensor (a Sony quality) means you need to invest in some quality ND filters
– Limited Battery Life

Final Thoughts on The Sony A7s:
I asked Philip Bloom about the dynamic range, and he said that it gets up to about 13 stops. This is a similar dynamic range to the outstanding Blackmagic Pocket and Cinema Cameras.

While the The Sony A7s is priced between the Blackmagic 2.5K and 4K Production cameras, it has a 4K powerhouse of a sensor and I am very excited to see what good cinematographers can do with it. Internal downsampling is nice, but being able to output full Ultra-HD 4K over HDMI is a great option.

Check Out the AJA CION

Check Out the AJA CION by filmmaker Michael Head

AJA has jumped from the realm of video capture and post conversion, and into camera design with the AJA CION, a 4K capable camera that looks like it sits right above the Blackmagic URSA in specs and in price.

The AJA CION uses a Super-35 (APS-C) sized sensor to record up to 4K resolution with reportedly 12 stops of dynamic range with a global shutter to eliminate rolling shutter artifacts.

AJA even built in an Optical Low-Pass and IR Cut Filter to reduce artifacts like moire, aliasing, and infrared contamination that many digital sensors experience (smart move!).

AJA CION

Check Out the AJA CION

The AJA CION is well versed in Prores capture, and this camera shows off that expertise.

It records 4K in all of the popular Prores flavors and even achieves high frame rate capture internally up to 60 FPS and 120 FPS through 4 x 3G-SDI outputs.

Internally it records to AJA’s Pak media, which is cost-effective for what it does but might be a bit pricey for some owner-operators. It will allow capture of “AJA raw” through multipe 3G-SDI outputs up to 120 FPS and a Thunderbolt connection up to 30 FPS.

Ergonomically speaking, the AJA CION is a step towards a ready-to-shoot-out-of-the-box camera which can easily be shouldered with the built in shoulder rest – which is great.

The AJA CION is also designed with multiple mounting points around the camera, include Arri Rosettes for handles and 15mm rod support on the body of the camera.

As nice as it is to have a sensor in a box, the ability to shoot without investing tons of extra money in rigging is a welcomed change.

AJA CION – The Good:

  • Super-35 4K sensor with 12 stops of dynamic range and global shutter
  • Built-in Optical Low Pass and IR Cut Filter
  • Records full 4K (4096×2160), Ultra HD (3840×2160), 2K (2048×1080) and 1080P
  • Apple Prores 4444 ( up to 30 FPS), 422 (60 FPS), AJA Raw up to 120 FPS through 3G-SDI and 30 FPS through Thunderbolt
  • 2x 3G-SDI output and 2x HDMI for monitor output
  • Ethernet output for monitoring and control through a computer
  • 2x XLR input with phantom power
  • Nice, almost ENG style design but flexible with multiple mounting points

AJA CION – The Not So Good:

  • No ND filters internally (but the OLP/IR filter is welcome)
  • No raw recording internally
  • PL Mount only (not great for those who are heavily invested in DSLR lenses but pretty easily adaptable)
  • Linear capture only – no LOG recording for now
  • Proprietary SSDs are a bit pricey (but AJA has a good reputation for them)

The Questions:

  • What is AJA Raw and when will we be able to fully use it?
  • Will the sensor be a problem?

AJA has a great reputation for on time delivery, which is a problem that has haunted some of the other camera manufactures.

The decision to go with only linear capture is interesting, but with raw capability it might not be too bad of a choice. AJA is apparently trying to nail the color science so that there is an “AJA Look” that people might try for.

With a price of around $9,000 AJA is aiming for a market above the Blackmagic cameras but still firmly in the realm of the owner-operator and small indie film market. The AJA CION looks to be a great entry into the market.

Who Else Wants a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera?

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

You can’t go anywhere in the the indie filmmaking community without someone touting the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. For many gear hungry filmmakers, the camera has simply become a must-have.

I was interested in finding out more – So I reached out to the folks who make the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. And they put me in touch with the Diamond Brothers. As you’re about to find out, The Diamond Brothers are no joke. These filmmakers tread the line between technology and storytelling.

In addition to directing and producing awesome content, the Diamond Brothers recently completed a 13 part series for FILA, created the launch spot for Sony’s PS4 and created a seven-part interstitial series for VH1. Given their experience, I asked them to write the following review on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

The Diamond Brothers Review Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

The Diamond Brothers Review Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

[Note: Just like every article on Filmmaking Stuff, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera article you’re about to read contains affiliate links and advertisements.]

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

So by now everyone has seen the new Pocket Cinema Camera from Blackmagic Design that was announced at NAB 2013. Late last year we were able to get one, and we are very excited about the results. Let’s go over the basics first.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera TwoThe Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera has a Super 16 sensor and records either Lossless CinemaDNG RAW or Apple ProRes HQ (Log or Rec709) both at 1080p.

It has an active Micro Four Thirds lens mount with Iris and Focus control for active lenses and shoots to SDXC/SDHC SD cards.

Thankfully, it has a removable battery that is essentially the Nikon EN-EL20 battery, so you can easily find them online.

Other than that, the specs and operation of this camera are almost identical to its larger cousin, the 2.5K Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera however does not have a touchscreen, but instead opts for a four way directional control. This was done to keep the size and weight down.

Pros:

  • Removable Battery
  • 13 stops Dynamic Range
  • Highly adaptable Active Micro Four Thirds Lens Mount
  • Micro HDMI out
  • LANC control

Cons:

  • No Audio Metering
  • No Histogram
  • No in camera card formatting
  • No library/thumbnails of recorded clips

So let’s talk about Super 16 for a second. This was a very smart choice for the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, as it opens up a wide array of options for lenses. Of course shooting with an active Micro Four Thirds lens is a great choice as the market for these lenses has been huge since the popularity of the Panasonic GH series, as well as others.

But we’d like to talk about some other options. As of now there are more than 15 different MFT adapters ranging from Canon and Nikon to Olympus, PL, Leica, Pentax, Contax/Yashica and more.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera OneIn our estimation, the most exciting lens choice for this camera, however, is C mount. Most people commonly know the C mount as a BOLEX film camera lens. They are small and fast and easily changeable via screw in system.

While not all of them will work with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (including cover the sensor, focus to infinity, and a few others), they are very reasonably priced, and it has become somewhat of a challenge for us to find some obscure options.

A great resource is vintagelensesforvideo.com. They go into great detail about lenses and mounts for a variety of cameras, but routinely have good insight into what will work and what won’t specifically for the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

Where this camera shines is its ability to be versatile.

Since it’s so compact you could easily use it for a POV camera or Interior Car Mount. Also for documentary shooters, it’s a great option to keep with you to catch on the fly moments that a larger camera could interfere with. At the price of $995 it seems almost silly not to have one of these cameras in your kit for any situation.

Recently we were asked to shoot some helicopter footage for a charity concert in Central park. So we grabbed the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with an MFT to EF mount and threw a Leica R prime on it and brought it up as a B cam / BTS cam. It was perfect due to the tight space in the chopper and the compactness of the camera.

The great thing is that you can also build this camera up into as a big of a beast as you can imagine. Third party companies, such as Wooden Camera, make cages and audio accessories that will help you easily put this camera into any scenario.

Here’s a perfect example.

Some friends of ours had a movie accepted to Sundance and needed a small versatile setup to record a “director’s intro.”

We gave them the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a C-Mount Zoom, the Wooden Camera cage with rail support and the A-Box for audio. They shot it in a restaurant. They were able to be discreet and stay out of the way of customers.

Final Thoughts

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is a great addition to the ever-expanding camera lineup that Blackmagic Design is developing. With its ability to shoot to inexpensive SD cards, a removable battery, adaptable lens mount and very aggressive price point, this camera is not only a great entry camera for people just beginning but a solid addition to any professional kit.

About The Diamond Brothers

The Diamond Brothers are equal artists and technological mercenaries treading the fine line between bleeding edge technology and storytelling. Directing and producing award winning content they have recently completed a 13 part series for FILA, launch spot for Sony’s PS4 and 7 part interstitial series for VH1.