How to choose the right video camera for your project

9 minute read

by Jon

July 16, 2015

Once your project has a director, producer, cinematographer, and post-production supervisor/editor on board, it’s time to choose the right video camera that makes the most sense for your production. Here’s what you should consider before you pick your camera kit.

Choose a video camera by starting with the Good/Fast/Cheap discussion

If you haven’t seen one of these, you must not work in the creative industries. Have an honest talk with your team in preproduction about your priorities to save yourself a headache later.

Workflow. The primary consideration in choosing a video camera is how the footage will be handled in post production. By starting at the end and planning backward, you can be sure you’re avoiding any hiccups on the way. The deliverable format will impact the shooting format, and that will impact the choice of camera. That doesn’t mean that you’ll always want to acquire in the same format you’ll deliver in, though. This is especially true for lower budget projects delivering in 1080p. For a detailed explanation of why, I suggest reading Andrew Reid’s post at EOSHD.

Or just mumble something about bit rate vs bit depth and see if anyone else is paying attention.

Or just mumble something about bit rate vs bit depth and see if anyone else is paying attention.

If you’re using pre-shot footage, you may want to match the look of one or more cameras. While it’s usually fastest to use the same camera, many times this isn’t practical. Choose a video camera that shoots in a log picture profile (like the Canon C-series or the Sony FS7, F55, etc.) if you need wiggle room. This lets you match a certain look without giving up video quality.

Most of the workflow decisions should be based on the time and budget available for post production. If you need to deliver in a few days, you’ll want to shoot with a look applied and settings baked in. You’ll probably also want to shoot in the same resolution as your deliverables. Of course, the tradeoff for this is image quality.

Budget. The budget for a project will obviously impact the camera choice. Choosing the right camera often means you’ll need certain lenses, media, or even crew, so be sure to consider the cost for the whole project, not just the camera body. I’ve seen many productions shoot on a RED Epic because they got a great deal on it, and then go over budget because they didn’t include the extra costs for a DIT, storage, transcoding, and a colorist. It’s usually smart to match the level of your camera package to the level of the rest of your production.

all-the-cameras

If you can’t decide on one camera, and budget isn’t a concern, I suggest shooting on all of them.

It’s 2015, and nearly every video could be shot on a camera body that costs under $2000 and looks amazing. Try to resist the temptation to shoot on a high-budget camera just because you can. If the features and strengths of the camera don’t match your needs, you might get better results by spending a lot less. There are advantages to more expensive cameras, but make sure you understand what the extra money is getting you before you spend it.

Time. This one is simple. If you have to get it done this week, you probably can’t shoot on film. You probably don’t even want to shoot raw. On a deadline-driven piece, “good enough” comes after “soon enough.” There is no shame in this. You need to prioritize your productions needs to fit the available timeline.

The look and the story. If you’re trying to capture a near-finished look in camera, it makes sense to take some test shots with various cameras in different conditions. Your cinematographer may have enough experience with various cameras to make a suggestion based on the aesthetic goals of your project. If your budget and timeline allow it, shooting some screen tests is always a great idea. If you have the time in post, you can find a lot of the look after you shoot, too. This means you’ll want to acquire in log or raw formats, with plenty of latitude.

film-look

Free film look plugins can make your video look like it was shot long ago. Like maybe 2008.

Don’t just assume that shooting “flat” or log and sending that to the editor will give you the highest quality video. If the footage isn’t processed properly (or at all) you’re basically making your video look bad ON PURPOSE. Your editor/colorist needs to be prepared to spend time adjusting the video to look good, or you’re better off just getting the look right in camera.

The challenges of the subject. All cameras (and lenses, too) have strengths and weaknesses. Your cinematographer should be able to tell you if a certain camera is a good match for a certain situation. In particular, they should be considering low light performance, dynamic range, on-board audio capabilities, and other technical issues. Choosing the right camera can also make things easier on the lighting and grip budget.

The ease of shooting. Plenty of cameras can look amazing most of the time, but not all of them are worth counting on for basics like exposure and focus. Shooting on a nice dinosaur like a RED One MX or a Panasonic HPX-2000 can give you beautiful video, but don’t try to mount it on a stabilizer or octocopter.  The Canon 5D mark III is a workhorse camera for pretty B-roll, but there aren’t a lot of video features jammed into that tiny camera body. You can get 100% awesome footage, but only about 90% of the time. Most of the cost of a camera body isn’t in the image quality, but in the features and ease of use.

If your grandpa can use it, it must be easy, right?

If your grandpa can use it, it must be easy, right?

If a video camera is easy to shoot with, you’ll shoot more video. If your crew doesn’t have the time or energy to get the camera to the shot, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the images are.  The best camera is the one that tells the story. If the discussion about choosing a camera has come down to dynamic range and chroma subsampling, it should only be after you’ve considered how easy it will be to get the right shots in the available amount of time.

With planning, you can choose a video camera that works best with all the aspects of your production and post production. Need some guidance on the strengths of a particular camera? Leave a message in the comments below!