A few general points about cameras from the perspective of a filmmaker:
- a full frame sensor is far from a necessity. Such a sensor has advantages, but also disadvantages. The film cameras that Hollywood traditionally used had the image size not much bigger than the APS-C sensor.
- the MFT sensor that Panasonic uses is not too small to get cinematic shots. Panasonic makes outstanding f/2.8 zoom lenses (and fast primes); you can also use Canon and other lenses via the Metabones Speed Booster adapters
- similarly, all the cameras listed below can produce great shots in low light, provided you know how to work with light. To learn how to get noiseless video with any camera and in any light, please go here
- when working on cinematic projects like films and music videos, I do not rely on autofocus, so this is a feature that I normally do not worry about. Part of the reason is that I change focus for creative reasons, and even the best autofocus system cannot predict my creative decisions. Having said that, there are, of course, situations where reliable autofocus is very useful
- there are cameras with very good in-body image stabilization (for example, the Panasonic GH5, Sony a6500). Still, on cinematic projects I opt for a stabilizer like a steadicam or 3-axis gimbal. The day might come, though, when the in-body stabilization will be good enough so that no additional stabilizer will be needed
- although Nikon makes excellent cameras for photographers, as a filmmaker I’ve never found any of their models compelling. I’m sure some of their cameras offer solid video, but since there are excellent choices of DSLRs and DSLMs from Canon, Sony and Panasonic, I’ve never been tempted to buy or rent a Nikon (but in the old days of 35mm film photography, I had a Nikon camera)
Here are the cameras that I recommend:
Sony Alpha a6000
- small, affordable camera with very good HD video
- I previously recommended (the now retired) Sony NEX-5RK (see my review here). The a6000 is a successor to this very good camera
Canon EOS 80D
- great all around DSLR camera – good for photos and HD video
- amazing autofocus – Canon’s Dual Pixel AF
A cheaper alternative is the Canon 70D. It’s very similar to the 80D, but you lose the headphone jack and 60 fps HD video.
Panasonic Lumix G85 / G80 / G81
- affordable camera (under $1K) with beautiful 4K video
- very good in-body image stabilization
- the only major weakness of the camera is poor autofocus – see my full review here
Sony a6000 vs Canon 80D vs Panasonic G85
- of the three, the G85 is my top choice – for video, I do not use autofocus much
- Canon 80D gives you the best autofocus
- Sony a6000 offers decent autofocus, has APS-C size sensor (like the 80D), and is the cheapest
Sony Alpha a6500
- great all-around 4K camera
- very good autofocus – in fact, I bought this camera so that I could film myself without a camera operator
A great alternative to the a6500 is the Sony Alpha a6300. Both cameras use the same sensor and processor, so the image quality is the same. The main improvement of the a6500 is the inclusion of the in-body image stabilization. You might be better off saving money on the a6300 and putting it towards a glidecam or 3-axis gimbal.
Here is my review of the Sony Alpha a6300.
Panasonic Lumix GH5
- the best DSLM / DSLR camera – as far as filmmakers are concerned
- highlights: 10 bit 4:2:2 color, 4K in 60 fps, anamorphic mode – my full review here
- comes close in quality and functionality to cinema cameras, but is much smaller and cheaper
Having said all the wonderful things about the GH5, the Panasonic Lumix GH4 remains a very capable camera (I still use mine). Here is the review of the GH4.
BlackMagic URSA Mini 4.6K and Pro
- my cinema camera of choice
- in the same league as the cameras Hollywood uses, but cheap enough for a filmmaker to buy (not just rent)
- highlights: 15 stops of dynamic range, 4.6K RAW 60 fps
- the Pro version of the BlackMagic URSA Mini 4.6K adds built-in variable neutral density filters and more physical buttons, for quicker camera operation. On the downside, the Pro model has a smaller screen. Here is the review of the URSA Mini 4.6K
In 2017 two cameras have been announced that might eventually dethrone the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K as the best value cinema camera. They are the Canon C200 and the Panasonic AU-EVA1. Mind you, I’m speculating based only on specs, as these cameras are not available yet (the Panasonic AU-EVA1 will be released by the end of October 2017).