The Holy Grail
Possibly one of the most discussed topics in the filmmaking world is what are the best cameras in the market. There are trends, filmmakers h
ave their favorites to get the cinematic looks they’re striving for, and studios and agencies all have their own requirements as to what cameras can be used to produce content. This means that talking about the best cameras available is no easy task. While there are a wide array of fantastic cameras available, pinpointing the “best camera” is impossible, because each filmmaker will focus on different specs and aspects before choosing one for their project.
Generally speaking, the best camera is the one that fits your production needs: your locations, your story, your logistics, and the scale of your project all can help you pick the right camera that best fits your needs. This means that the best camera for one of your films may not be the best for another project. Finding the best camera for you and what you’re shooting is a case by case choice, and you should take all aspects mentioned into account before picking a certain camera just because it’s a trend or because you know the same camera was used on a movie you liked. As the saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility”, and if you pick a very powerful camera but you don’t have the knowledge or resources to use it properly, it will show on your end product, and sometimes it will even do more harm than good.
There are leading brands and manufacturers of digital cinema cameras that curtail their catalogs to various specific needs of cinematography. Especially in today’s day and age, a lot of the main competitors battle to win audiences over by releasing new cameras on a frequent basis, always pushing the limits of their designs through means such as increasing dynamic range and low-light performance with wider ISO limits and greater pixel density from full hd video output, to full frame to increase image quality, or increasing slow-motion capabilities of cameras to push higher resolution sensors beyond the 60fps or even 120fps mark. Cameras now are even becoming equipped with built-in gimbals to improve image stabilization . Nevertheless, there are cameras that you can own and adapt to different scenarios, and in their own way, those are the best cinema cameras. The ones you can use for commercials, films, documentaries, and smaller shoots too. The ones that allow you to change the shooting specs, build them differently (small build for smaller shoots with small crews vs. bigger build for larger scale projects with a big crew), and pair them with other tools to get exactly what you want out of them.
There are different types of cameras made for different audiences, and for different purposes. Low budget videographers will often consider the best video camera to be DSLR mirrorless cameras with a sensor size of at least super 35, but ideally a full frame sensor to achieve the highest quality video without being too bulky to make run-and-gun style filmmaking more difficult than might be desired by beginners. They may also look for camcorders with a varying degree of stops of dynamic range, or wifi and bluetooth connectivity. However, digital cameras with interchangeable lenses, whether they be E mount cine lenses or EF lens mounts, will often be more beneficial to young video shooters for a dynamic selection of lenses that allow for dynamic filmmaking techniques. Those who are taking part in video recording primarily with the goal of vlogging or other less artistically laborious ventures will likely gravitate to cameras with reliable autofocus and built in ND filters, along with high battery life and built in LCD touchscreens or built in USB-C and HDMI ports to allow for ease of UHD live streaming without the need for an adapter. Similarly, having frame rates capable of reaching high FPS numbers will give access to slow-motion video recording, giving vloggers the ability for their RAW videos to fill up their card slots quickly with the large amounts of data captured by high megapixel sensors. And, even more importantly than whether you’re recording RAW video or filming in ProRes, having the capability for an external recorder via XLR will keep costs down and efficiency up when it comes to sound capturing. Some camera options for individuals looking for these elements, or just a general buying guide for individuals who want to upgrade from their iPhone, would be cameras like the Panasonic Lumix, BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro, the Sony A7 or A7sIII, or even the Canon 5D Mark ii or higher. Many of these cameras can be found on Amazon or other retail vendors, but not
all productions call for these types of cameras. For example, cinema cameras used on movies and TV shows include high end manufacturers like Arri, RED, and Sony. Other market leaders include Blackmagic Design, Panasonic, Fujifilm and Canon. Here is a list of the most known and used cameras from each of these manufacturers:
Arri Alexa Mini
Arri Alexa Mini LF
Arri Alexa 35 (latest release)
Red Ranger (with different sensors)
Red DSMC2 (with different sensors)
RED’s most popular sensors are:
Monstro 8K VV
Helium 8K S35
Gemini 5K S35
Dragon-X 6K S35.
Sony also has consumer cameras that are extremely good and powerful for video production, like:
BMPCC 4K and 6K
BMPCC 6K Pro
Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro 12K
Canon C300 II
Canon EOS C70
What do I do now?
If you’re thinking: “but how am I going to get my hands on one of those expensive cinema cameras?”, you’re not alone, and believe it or not, the answer is much simpler than you think. The truth is that most of the content we consume on a daily basis is not shot with one of those cameras at the top of the list. On the contrary, now
more than ever we have the power to create astonishing images and nuanced stories with affordable gear. Thanks to the era in which we live, many high quality, trustworthy cameras are affordable and available to the public. I can assure you that, if used properly, some of the cameras at the bottom of the list can look just as good as those at the top.
As previously mentioned, frequently the best camera, or the right camera, is chosen based on other factors of the production. Big films, TV shows, and commercial productions have enough money to hire a handful of experts to work with an expensive camera, but the truth is that if you’re shooting a project “solo”, using one of those professional cameras might not be the best idea, because you need enough hands to take care of it and make it work for you, instead of spending your entire shoot day working for the camera. Camera crew members in big productions can add up to 5 people per camera. That means there’s 5 people responsible for operating different functions of the camera. Can you imagine doing all of that yourself while also wearing other hats?
I heard this when I was getting my start in film production and I haven’t forgotten it because it's one of the biggest truths out there about the film industry: “The best camera is the one you have with you”. If you have an Arri Alexa Mini LF but don’t know how to light a scene or operate the camera, it won’t make your project look good. On the other hand, if you just have your smartphone but you know exactly what you want and possess the right knowledge to make something look and feel right, you have better odds at creating something special that lives on.
So, yes, while it’s important to know and understand bigger cameras and systems, since that can give us strength and motivation to climb up the ladder and get there one day, the best thing we all can do is use the resources we have available to shoot and truly become professionals of our craft. Not to mention that nowadays you can buy a camera with a great sensor that shoots 4K for under $1500.
There is still plenty to learn about cinema cameras, and you can find that information in various places. If you’re looking to read about the cameras that were used on all the Oscar 2022 nominees, or more affordable but still great cameras, take a look at the articles linked within. Let’s shoot!