Why that’s a bad question and the 7 superior questions you should be asking yourself.
To say that there are “a lot of camera options these days” may be the understatement of the century. Let’s take a look at the exponential options that camera recording “systems” have these days and why “What camera should I buy” is basically unanswerable.
In the good old days – basically any time when options were more limited – the question of what camera to buy was a lot simpler.
These days, there are a ton of questions that need to be asked to even decide what type of motion picture camera you want to buy.
When people ask me “what camera should I buy” I give them the following answer, it’s thorough, but I believe it really gets to the heart of what makes your camera choice an extension of your all-around choices about filmmaking itself.
What size sensor do you want?
Are we talking Full-Frame or Micro Four Thirds (MFT)? Or are you possibly trying to get something a little more prosumer and “events” oriented?
Bigger is not always better when it comes to sensor size and having to shoot at a 5.6 or 8 to keep enough things in focus for certain shots on a Full-Frame sensor might end up being a hassle for your style of production.
Decide at the outset what depth-of-field characteristics best fit your intended use. Check this out for just a sampling of what’s out there.
Do you want RAW or compressed footage?
The versatility of RAW footage can be incredibly useful when you need it… or it can be incredibly cumbersome when you don’t. This is one of those cases where just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Think long and deeply about why you would want to shoot RAW footage and incur high data rates before spending a lot of money on a camera that will only shoot that way or forces you into a certain ecosystem.
People who used to shoot only DNG sequences might have some horror stories for you. Meanwhile there are a ton of people shooting 50mbps and getting great results.
Do you plan on changing lenses often?
The sensor size and camera body type make a big difference for the versatility of a package. If you want to do live production then Full-Frame sensors that don’t have a crop mode might be the wrong tool for the job.
Also, the type of mount is important to take into account. A PL mount is awesome if you’re typically shooting jobs that require it. Most people don’t. A Sony mount can be great in that case because the flange focal depth is pretty short and can be adapted to almost anything else.
Do you plan on renting out your gear or getting gear that clients will specifically ask for?
When we’re talking about higher-end cinema gear this can be a very important question. For some people in some markets, the best decision might be a little counterintuitive.
The best business choice may be to buy a popular camera even if it isn’t your favorite or doesn’t do everything that you want.
Do your research on what is being rented and used locally. For a long time the Canon C100 was very popular in corporate shooting. I never really liked the look, but clients asked for it all the time. Before that it was the HVX-200 and nowadays it seems like the Sony FS class is quite popular.
These things change over time so don’t feel pressured to buy a camera that you will have forever. Take a look at this for a thorough rundown of what’s being rented these days.
What ecosystem are you already in?
This can dictate a lot of your choices. Maybe the “Sony Look” or “RED Look” or insert your camera name here isn’t your favorite, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not easily tweakable with a small amount of work in post.
It may be a much more important factor how familiar you are with their menu systems or how many of their batteries you already have, or how many lenses you have that are made for a particular format.
If you have 5 MFT lenses you probably don’t want to leap to the Sony A7S3 unless you want to make a significant reinvestment in glass. This goes for monitoring and cards as well.
Form factor is important. Be honest about how you shoot
Most of us love to dream about massive camera packages that are IG worthy with a sturdy 1st AC to lug them around for us. Conversely, the “stealth mode” package that is little more than a body and a lens might feel really appealing.
But the most important question to ask yourself about form factor is not what you want to do, but what you already do and probably will continue doing most of the time.
If you do a lot of interviews and are used to recording sound directly into camera then make sure your new purchase makes that easy.
If you are almost always on a gimbal then buying a heavier camera with a lot of power requirements might be a really bad idea.
Being real about your actual requirements is usually more logical than buying gear for what you hope you might be able to do in the future if everything goes right. In those cases it might be better to rent anyway.
The last question to ask yourself is, “what’s your budget for peripherals?”
The camera is just the first part of the equation. Media, both on camera and in post, can be a big determining factor.
No one likes a DP (Director of Photography) who shows up on set and can only roll for 30 minutes without having to offload data.
- Do you plan on recording RAW to an external recorder?
- What about sound?
- Do you have enough money to buy 2 or 3 versions of any breakable cables?
- Do you have enough cash to buy enough batteries to keep you going all day without recharging?
- What’s your lens package going to be like?
As the Head of Production at BLARE Media, I decide who gets hired for a lot of productions. I care about your reel, but if you only have 3 primes, then for the majority of my shoots that will be a hindrance.
The same goes if you only have one slow zoom lens with a lot of range. I typically go out with about 10 lenses.
I only use 3 zooms for the majority of shoots, but in many situations they are vital to have on hand. If you shoot everything in a specific LOG format that I or my clients don’t want to deal with then that may be a deal-breaker as well.
The last point I’ll make is that if you are going to be hired by me or someone like me as a one or two person crew, then having a $40K dollar camera package will be pretty meaningless if you can’t get more than a single LED panel and two c-stands on set.
I often prefer people with a more modest camera package but more options with lighting and grip, etc… If you’re not this type of shooter and only do your own productions then that may change the type of holistic package that you have, but even then, you’ll need the minimum amount of non-tech gear to get the job done.
Sand bags might not seem sexy, but being safe and effective on set with the proper gear always is.
What Camera Should I Buy – Conclusion
So I hope I didn’t answer your question about what camera you should buy. That’s because you’re the only one that can answer that.
And you can probably only answer it by doing some research. You may have done 30 projects last year but only really remember the fun ones.
Were those the ones paying the bills though? That’s an important question. What do people in your market also have?
I’ve found it incredibly useful to have similar gear to my friends so that if I need to send out two crews or scale up to a 3 camera shoot I know who to call to get what I want and what I’m familiar with.
In the end, there’s no perfect answer, but I think that in most cases there is a best answer.
Take some time to answer it for yourself and try your best not to get caught up in the hype of the newest and greatest. Caveats and pixel-peeping don’t make great content. You do when you have the right gear.