Choosing The Right DSLR
Photographers always say to invest most of your money on lenses rather than SLR bodies. The reason for this is quite simple: a mediocre SLR coupled with excellent lenses will take better pictures than an excellent SLR with poor lenses. Furthermore, good lenses don’t drop in value much because they are not replaced as often as SLR bodies are. By investing in lenses rather than SLR bodies, you usually get a better bang for you buck, slower depreciation and better performance.
If you plan on shooting video, I would say the above advice is not applicable. When you shoot video, the DSLR body you choose is very important – more important than the lenses you choose. The reason for this is that Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic approach video recording in three extremely different ways. The main distinction is that Nikon has done very little to make its cameras appeal to video shooters. There are fewer hacks available for Nikon DSLRs and critical manual controls are not available while using Live View. Basically Nikons are wonderful cameras for photography that also shoot video. If there was a polar opposite to this it is the Panasonic line of cameras. In my opinion, the GH series of Panasonics are excellent video cameras that also take pictures. And if you want a balanced tool that can take great pictures and pretty good video AND has a good selection of lenses, go with Canon. My personal weapon of choice is a Canon 60D. I shoot video and stills 50/50. If my sole purpose was video, I think I would go with a Panasonic GH3… and if I was unbounded by money, maybe I’d take a a RED system or an ARRI Alexa :).
If you you want to shoot good video at a low price, I strongly suggest buying a digital camera that is designed for photography. These cameras are either called DSLRs or Panasonics. These systems record fairly good quality video, have all the manual controls you need, and allow for interchangeable lenses. DSLRs and Panasonics are the weapon of choice for amateur filmmakers because they are relatively cheap for what you get. Let’s take a closer look at what separates the camera makers mentioned above.
As mentioned previously, I generally discourage using Nikon for shooting video. Nikon does not offer low end DSLRs with good video capabilities. Many of their cameras lack manual control functions while in live view mode. Furthermore, you cannot hack Nikons as aggressively via firmware as you can hack Panasonics and Canons. They are excellent cameras for photography, and as you will see are fairly powerful for video at the high end range.
The D90 shoots video at a maximum resolution of 1280×720. This is a deal breaker for many. There is no aperture/shutter/ISO control in live view mode.
The D7000 is equally lacking: you are unable to control manual settings in live view mode (mode used for video).
The D5000 does not allow for manual controls in live view. D5100 is in the same boat. Will things change on the D2500? I doubt it.
The D300s shoots at 720p. Riddled with the same lack of live view manual control as mentioned above. The D600 lacks aperture control in live view. The D600 has a very powerful capability: it can output 4:2:2 video via HDMI out. Unfortunately the video resolution is not true 1080p because there is a small black border around the frame.
Same deal in live view.
Unlike most of Nikon’s lineup, the D800 is an excellent choice for film work. In fact, it is more powerful than most of Canon’s line because of the uncompressed HDMI out. 4:2:2 output.
The D3S allows you to control all functions in live view mode, however you have to jump through some menus to unlock it. The D4 also has full controls in live view mode.
Basically, you should only buy a Nikon for video if you are shopping for high end DSLRs. Nikon makes cameras for the purpose of shooting excellent photos and if you are shopping for video cameras, you should probably look elsewhere. The D800, D3s, and D4 are all perfectly fine choices for video work. They are the only Nikon cameras that I would recommend for video work. As the D5200s roll out, we will find out whether or not they fill in the gap in Nikon’s product line for filmmakers on a budget.
The D800 has a very useful feature: uncompressed HDMI out. This allows you to record video that is not as compressed as the usual h.264 garbage that is outputted by most DSLRs. In theory this should reduce macroblocking and increase sharpness.
As mentioned previously, I strongly encourage buying Panasonic GH series cameras. These cameras are not DSLRs. They are referred to as mirrorless, M4/3, or DSLM. I just call them Panasonics. The Panasonics are very powerful cameras because of the firmware hacks you can apply to them.
The stock GH1 does not shoot NATIVE 24p, you will have to hack it. This camera suffers from fixed pattern noise, and has inferior image quality to the GH2. So by skipping the GH1 and going strait to the GH2, you get a better camera and better image quality. I don’t recommend a GH1 as your main camera.
Possibly the most powerful camera you can get under $1,300 (it runs into the HG3 eventually). Extremely hackable, less moire, and great picture quality (for the price).
It’s a new camera, so the verdict is still coming in. Basically it takes a great camera (GH2) and makes it better. I feel the jump from GH1 to GH2 is much bigger than from GH2 to GH3. So don’t feel like you are missing out on anything amazing if you are settling for a GH2. Early reports suggest that there is less banding, and more detail preserved in highlights. Furthermore the buttons and controls on the camera seem to be laid out in a very intuitive way. Currently, I think the GH2 is a better deal than the GH3 because of the GH3’s current price. Oh, and the GH3 has a touch screen.
I don’t think getting a GH1 is a good idea because for a little bit more you get a GH2. If you do not need HDMI out during video recording, than the GH1 might be a suitable choice. But keep in mind that you must hack the GH1 in order to get 24p. Furthermore the GH1 has a worse electronic view finder and has issues with fixed pattern noise (FPN). If image quality is your only concern than get the GH2 for the eliminated FPN and better ISO performance.
A solid choice because of the decent video capabilities and supported lenses.
Not suitable for video in my opinion because it does not shoot above 720p and does not shoot at 24p (only at 25p).
Like the T3, the T1i does not shoot in 24p.
The T2i is what made DSLRs mainstream for video. Because of the low price point, a ton of people bought these powerful little DSLRs.
The T3i added some improvements over the T2i such as manual audio controls as well as an articulating LCD screen. The swivel screen is insanely useful for video.
The T4i introduces a new DIGIC 5 processor, touch screen and stereo audio. 12 minute recording limit is extended to 30 minutes.
The 60D features separate dials for aperture and exposure – very useful for photography, pretty useful for video. It features a swivel LCD monitor, manual audio controls, and a second LCD screen on top of the camera (fairly useless for video). It uses batteries that hold more power than the rebel series cameras.
The 7D has a professional grade body. You can abuse this camera pretty hard. It’s weather sealed and it’s made out of magnesium alloy, polycarbonate and stainless steel. A huge feature boasted by the 7D is: HDMI output (almost 1080p) during recording. A solid camera for video.
MkII: The full frame sensor allows for better low light performance than Canon’s APS-C cameras (all the Canons I just talked about are APS-C). Unlike the 7D, the 5D doesn’t output HD monitoring while recording. Like the 7D it’s built strong. I’d personally go for a 7D over a 5D if video was my sole priority even though the 5D mkII has slightly better picture quality.
MkIII: The Mark III, like the 7D, allows HDMI out (720p) during video recording. It has a significantly better picture quality and more dynamic range than the 5D mkII. The rolling shutter is the same as on the 5D mkII, but the moire is significantly better controlled. Of the two evils, I find moire to be much more annoying. ISO performance is a bit better as well over the mkII.
You can find better alternatives to Canon throughout most of their line. At the low end there are the Panasonics, and at the high end there is the BlackMagic Cinema. A particular camera that stand out for me is the Canon 7D. This is an excellent bang for the buck because the body is built like a tank and it outputs a live HD monitoring feed while recording. In general, I would say Canon is the best choice if you want a balance between photography and video. The lenses they make are excellent, as are the photography features their cameras provide. If your number one priority is filmmaking, a GH series camera or a Black Magic Cinema might be a better fit.
Blackmagic Cinema (BMC):
This is a camera that is in a class of its own. The Blackmagic Cinema shoots video that is RAW as well as video that is compressed (ProRes and DNxHd). Its maximum bitrate crushes all DSLRs with 960 Mbps. When you are not shooting in RAW, you can make use of 4:2:2 chroma subsampling (the camera preserves twice as much chroma red information as your typical DSLR). The BMC also shoots in a 12 bit color depth, which is a huge deal. Instead of having only 256 colors per channel, you get 4,096 colors per channel which means you get more accurate colors in your video as well as a smoother gradient (say goodby to banding). The Cinema also boasts a dynamic range that beats the rest of the cameras in this guide: 13 claimed stops of exposure. Oh, and this camera has a bunch of other features and can shoot in 2.5k resolution.
|Camera||Price ($)||Crop Factor||Weight||Battery||LCD Resolution||Swivel LCD||Build||Flange Distance|
|GH1||250-320||2||443g||1,250mAh||480 x 320*||Yes||Fair||19.25mm|
|GH2||470-600||2||444g||1,200mAh||480 x 320*||Yes||Fair||19.25mm|
|T2i||300-380||1.6||530g||1,120mAh||720 x 480||No||Fair||44.00mm|
|T3i||400-500||1.6||560g||1,120mAh||720 x 480||Yes||Fair||44.00mm|
|T4i||600-650||1.6||575g||1,120mAh||720 x 480||Yes||Fair||44.00mm|
|60D||550-750||1.6||755g||1,800mAh||720 x 480||Yes||Good||44.00mm|
|7D||750-1,200||1.6||820g||1,800mAh||640 x 480||No||Excellent||44.00mm|
|5D mkII||1,100-1,750||1||810g||1,800mAh||640 x 480||No||Excellent||44.00mm|
|D800||2,000-2,800||1||1,000g||1,900mAh||640 x 480||No||Excellent||46.50mm|
|D3s||2,900-4,000||1||1,240g||2,500mAh||640 x 480||No||Excellent||46.50mm|
|D4||4,600-5,500||1||1,180g||2,000mAh||640 x 480||No||Excellent||46.50mm|
|BMC||3,000+||2.4||1,500g+||n/a||800 x 480||No||Good||EF/MFT|
* Also features a high resolution electronic viewfinder that is active during video recording.
|Subsampling||Bit Depth||Codec||Bitrate||Dynamic Range||24p||1080p||HD Monitoring|
|GH1||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||17Mbps||7.6 Stops||No||Yes||No Monitoring|
|GH2||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||24Mbps||7.6 Stops||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|T2i||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||44Mbps||7.6 Stops||Yes||Yes||No (SD)|
|T3i||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||44Mbps||7.6 Stops||Yes||Yes||No (SD)|
|T4i||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||44Mbps||7.6 Stops||Yes||Yes||No (SD)|
|60D||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||44Mbps||7.6 Stops||Yes||Yes||No (SD)|
|7D||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||46Mbps||8.0 Stops||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|5D mkII||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||38Mbps||8.3 Stops||Yes||Yes||No (SD)|
|5D mkIII||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||91Mbps||8.7 Stops||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|D800||4:2:2*||8 bit||H.264||24Mbps||9.0 Stops||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|D3s||4:2:0||8 bit||H.264||22Mbps||8.7 Stops||Yes||No||No (SD)|
|D4||4:2:2*||8 bit||H.264||24Mbps||9.0 Stops||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|BMC||4:2:2**||12 bit||RAW***||960Mbps||11 Stops||Yes||2.5k||Yes|
*4:2:2 output via HDMI out. Internal recording is 4:2:0.
**Bayer pattern used for RAW footage.
*** ProRes and DNxHd codecs also available.
Low end recommendation:
- Panasonic GH2
- Panasonic GH1
- Canon T2i
Lots of contenders in this category. Definitely buy used. If I was only focused on video, I would recommend getting a used GH2. I avoid getting a GH1 because its video quality is not as good as the GH2’s and it requires firmware hacks to get native 24p. You also cannot externally monitor video while recording. Even though you can hack the GH1 make it a very powerful camera, I personally would opt for a GH2. The T2i would be second choice if video monitoring was absolutely crucial. Canon’s T2i is fairly powerful with Magic Lantern firmware installed. Though unlike the Panasonic firmware hacks, the Canon hacks generally don’t do much to boost image quality. A great thing that the T2i has going for it is that it uses a great line of lenses and can be adapted with a manufacturer’s camera grip. If you do not need the T2i’s live monitoring feed, then I suggest you pick up a GH1 (if you can’t afford the GH2). The GH1’s articulating LCD screen will make it way more comfortable to use than a T2i. Also, a hacked GH1 will capture higher quality video than a T2i. Not only do you get less compressed video, but you also get less aliasing. So for me it comes down to live video monitoring vs picture quality. Seeing that I already have a 60d which I can monitor with, I would defiantly go for a GH1 as a back up over the T2i because monitoring would not be critical for my back up body.
As mentioned previously, if you can afford it just get a GH2. It’s a better camera for video than the GH1 and T2i. It has the best of both worlds. You get better picture quality than the GH1 and you also get live video monitoring. The only downside to owning GH series cameras is that the lens line up is not as plentiful as Canon’s or Nikon’s. For video, this is not a big deal because adapting manual lenses is very common.
I would only get a T3i if you are dead set on only using Canon bodies or, if you are a photographer who also wants to shoot video (in fact if you want to shoot stills and video, you should buy either a Nikon, Pentax, or Canon DSLR, not a Panasonic). The T3i’s articulating LCD screen is defiantly worth the price premium over the T2i. You can also adjust the audio levels manually on the T3i (a feature that requires the use of Magic Lantern on the T2i). In my opinion manual gain control is fairly useless on a DSLR because the audio captured by DSLRs should be avoided (use a dedicated recorder). There is not much point in getting a 60D or a T4i in my opinion. The 60D doesn’t give you anything over the T3i that is too important; you get a rotating dial for aperture control (very useful), a battery that holds more juice (fairly useful), a better LCD screen (I can’t tell a difference), and a second LCD screen on top of the camera (useless for video). The T4i offers an updated processor (I can’t tell a difference), touch screen (useless), and longer recording times (do you shoot weddings?).
Mid range recommendation:
- 5D mkII
The GH3 and the 7D are excellent cameras in the sub $2,ooo range. The GH3 has better image quality than the 7D; way less moire/aliasing. Keep in mind that a 7D is a camera for photography that also shoots video. The GH3 schools it in pretty much all video features. Maybe build quality goes to 7D but aside from that, get a GH3 if you want the best sub $1,500 camera for video . The mkII has come down in price so I lumped it in this group. Basically, it is similar to a 7D only with slightly better image quality and no HDMI monitoring during recordings.
High end recommendation:
- BlackMagic Cinema
- 5D mkIII
Currently the Nikon D800 beats everything in the Canon 5D line because it can output 1080p signal in a 4:2:2 subsample via HDMI. Canon is supposed to add a similar feature to the 5D mkIII via a firmware update in the near future, but for now the Nikon takes the cake . The 5DmkIII has several benefits over the mkII. Moire is significantly less, there is a boost in dynamic range that is very noticeable, and it allows for HDMI monitoring while recording. Overall, the 5D mkIII is a big improvement over the mkII. If you are debating between Nikon and Canon, just go with the brand you like more. Once Canon releases a firmware update, the D800 and 5D mkIII will be very evenly matched. Brand new the D800 will run you about $2,700, and the 5D will be slightly more. Why not spend a little more and get a video camera that is insanely more capable?
The BlackMagic Cinema (BMC) is easily the most powerful camera featured in this guide. Like, it’s not even close. The insane thing about this camera is how much cheaper it is than professional grade cameras (ARRI, RED). It shoots uncompressed, captures way more color information that your typical 4:2:0 DSLR, and has more color to choose from (12 bit). You get high quality footage with truer color and sharper resolution. The camera also smokes all the cameras featured in this guide when it comes to dynamic range. Hack your GH2 or Gh3 all you want, you will not come close to the dynamic range of the BMC. If I had $4,000 to spend on a body and $3,000 for outfitting it with accessories, I’d buy the BMC.