The Best Cameras for Every Budget: Ace One of the Biggest Decisions in Making your Feature

Everybody wants a full palette of colors to paint with, though chances are you might not be able to afford the glorious images you’ve envisioned for your feature. Today’s technology, however, offers even the no-budget moviemaker an array of affordable camera options to rival the images screened in multiplexes the nation over.

One of the first questions to ask yourself when choosing a camera package is: Where is this film going to be seen? An average distribution scenario for a film shot on a $15,000 budget might be a few screenings at several film festivals, and self-distribution online. On the other hand, higher-end movies, in order to recoup their production costs, have to screen on as many platforms as possible. If a film is going to be projected on large screens or even streamed on Netflix (which now requires all of its new projects to be acquired in true 4K, or at least 4,096 pixels wide), it’s going to require a better camera. And that moviemaker has to be mindful of technical requirements and image specifications that her lower-budget peers won’t have to worry about.

Whoever you are, whatever your film, there’s a camera out there that’s right for you. We’ve drawn up four different levels of production budgets and the types of cameras that work well with each tier—and we asked a few friendly DPs for a second opinion.

Budget Tier One: $15,000 and Under

The $15,000-and-under microbudget threshold is where most moviemakers cut their teeth and gain the experience that will eventually propel them into more significant projects with bigger budgets. Don’t worry, though—you’ll be taken seriously with any of the following cameras.

Canon has for years provided several options in their EOS line that capture high-quality imagery without breaking the bank. “We shot [Zal Batmanglij’s low-budget 2011 feature] Sound of My Voice on the Canon EOS 7D and 5D, when they first came out,” recalls DP Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, Mudbound). Yet “cameras have come so far since then that it blows my mind what can be achieved on a consumer or prosumer camera. I think if we were to shoot that film today, the Canon C300 would be the way to go.”

Canon’s Rebel T7i (MSRP $749.99) offers flexibility that allows creators to exercise a sense of style with their work but won’t overwhelm the user with too many options. It features an APS-C (1.6x) sized sensor. This means all Canon EF-S and EF lenses are compatible with the body. It comes standard with an EF-S 18-55mm IS STM lens. The T7i can record in H.264 at full HD (1920×1080) as well as at a variety of other resolutions that might be helpful in certain situations. It is light, weighing only 1.65 pounds.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

For higher quality, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV ($3,499) contains all the features of the T7i as well as a host of others, and has been used on projects with budgets much greater than $15,000. Most significantly, the 5D Mark IV has a full-frame sensor and is capable of 4K resolution. It also has greater low-light sensitivity and a wider spectrum of color capability.

For those looking for the ergonomics of a video camera as opposed to those of a DSLR, the Canon C300 Mark II ($9,999) is quite desirable. Weighing in at around 3.3 pounds, this camera has a larger footprint in production spaces, but can feel more fluid in handheld situations. While at the higher end of the cost spectrum within this budget, it contains a Super 35 (8.85-megapixel) 4K CMOS sensor, giving the captured video a highly cinematic look.

Sony Alpha a6300

Of course, Canon is not the only maker of cameras for this budget range. Panasonic’s Lumix G DMC-GH4 ($1,499) boasts 4K resolution, reasonable light sensitivity, compatibility with Micro 4/3 lenses, and a weight of 1.23 pounds. On the other hand, Sony has the Alpha a6300 ($799), capable of shooting 24fps at 4K and with high frame-rate capture (i.e. slow-mo) at 120fps. The camera clocks in at just over a pound with batteries, but is confined to Sony’s E-mount lenses and the APS-C type (23.5mm by 15.6mm) Exmor CMOS sensor. Sony does offer a full-frame 4K option for the microbudget range—the a7S II ($2,499). Capable of an ISO sensitivity range of 50-409600 for both stills and video capture, the a7S II is an ideal choice if your film includes low-light shooting situations. At 1.38 pounds with battery, it can still be lightweight depending on the lens package used.

Budget Tier Two: $15,000-$50,000

The lower end of mid-range budgets allows for cameras that can dramatically enhance the overall professionalism of your film, when combined with the right lighting and lens package. Blackmagic’s URSA Mini Pro ($5,995) combines film camera aesthetics with broadcast controls and features, giving it a great deal of versatility with the wide scope of projects that can fall into this budget range. Besides the ergonomic design, the camera is able to mount EF, PL, and B4 lenses. It has a 4.6K sensor with 15 stops of dynamic range. The Mini Pro has a built-in monitor, digital slating, and a wide range of storage and audio options. Weighing in at five pounds, the camera is heavier than some of its competitors, but an optional shoulder mount is available. The 1600 ISO sensitivity can also have drawbacks for certain low-light projects.

Sony’s FS7-M2 ($11,999) has a 4K Super 35 Exmor sensor with 14 stops of dynamic range, an ISO 2000 sensitivity and the ability to shoot at high frame rates with minimal image skew. The FS7-M2 can record in RAW as well as Apple’s ProRes 422. Like the MiniPro, it offers built-in electronic variable neutral density, a feature that can be important on exterior shoots.

RED cameras are often used for projects far beyond this budget range, but, depending on the supporting package needed, you might want to consider them. The RED Raven ($14,999) uses a Dragon 9.9 MP 4K CMOS sensor which is smaller than APS-C, but slightly bigger than Micro 4/3. It has 16.5+ stops of dynamic range and weights just over 3.5 pounds. Something else to think about: RED’s model for updates (with trade-in options and alternating upgrades for the brain and body of the camera that save the user from having to upgrade the entire package at once) is a blessing for moviemakers who don’t want to start from scratch every time a new camera system or recording technology hits the market. Conversely, others want to avoid being locked into a particular system for every future project. Keep that in mind when you make your decision.

Budget Tier Three: $50,000-$250,000

More possibilities open up in this budget range, depending on what you need. A DP lensing a small modern-day drama with just a few locations might have more of the budget allotted to her for the camera package, whereas a DP shooting a period piece heavy in costumes and production design might find himself still working with some of the cameras mentioned above.

Arri Alexa Mini

In this tier, any camera in Arri’s Alexa series is a great choice. The Mini uses the same 35mm format ARRI ALEV III CMOS sensor found in every other Alexa camera (with the exception of the Alexa 65), so images acquired on the Mini will cut seamlessly with footage captured with nearly all of Arri’s higher-end cameras. The lightweight carbon housing of the Alexa Mini makes it ideal for shooters who need to move fast on set—and it’s a great choice for high-quality aerial drone footage. The Mini captures up to 200fps for beautiful slow motion and can record raw image data with the use of an XR Capture Drive. It integrates CDLs (Color Decision Lists) and 3-D LUTs (Look-Up Tables) in-camera for on-set color management, ensuring images that remain consistent as they travel down the post-production pipeline. That said, the $35,000 price tag for the brain alone might be too steep for this budget, so renting is probably the move.

“The Alexa Mini has been a dream to work with,” says DP Velinda Wardell of the Australian Cinematographers Society. “Arri has really considered the integrity of the image right through the post path. I also love the precision of the Arri system, the way lens data is communicated to the WCU-4 [wireless compact unit] for the 1st AC. The internal ND filters are handy for working fast and making quick decisions on your exposure or depth of field. I find that the camera can be configured for really comfortable handheld operation.”

More praise for the Alexa Mini comes from DP Toby Oliver (Get Out), who acknowledges that his recent budgets have been between $2-6 million, yet his preference has been “exclusively the Alexa Mini.” Generally, he says “we can afford two Alexa kits so long as I don’t go too crazy with amount of lenses and the rental house is prepared to offer a reasonable discount to win the job. The Mini gives me all the goodness of Alexa in a lighter package.” That said, “if I had to originate on true 4K for say, Netflix, then I would have to look at another camera as this one’s maximum resolution is 3.4K.”

Another great camera is the Panasonic VariCam 35. The body of this camera will set you back about $15,000, but its images are pristine, and it’s perfect for capturing films for theatrical release and Netflix. The VariCam has 14 stops of dynamic range on its V-Log setting—a method of image encoding that more closely approximates what the human eye sees by increasing sensitivity to shadow areas of the screen.

Budget Tier Four: $250,000 and Up

Once you’ve crossed the $250,000 mark and begun trekking up the budget scale, there are very few noticeable differences in base camera packages. You’ll find the most discernable differences in lens packages, lighting and grip equipment, camera rigs, and other add-ons.

At this level, note that you could also consider shooting on film. Besides its many other upsides (posterity, for one), shooting on film automatically moves a feature into a prestige category that causes distributors to take notice.

Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Eye in the Sky, Locke) shot this fall’s Murder on the Orient Express on rare 65mm Panavisions—a far cry from what your production may be capable of, sure, but nevertheless Zambarloukos argues that film is viable for indies. He cites Kodak, with whom he worked on Orient Express, in particular for opening more indies to up to film: “What they’re creating is an all-in package for filmmakers, where film is used for the acquisition, then it’s developed and scanned immediately, then graded for dailies and stored for the final digital intermediate for a later date. That makes it very viable, efficient, and practical.”

“Film’s an acquisition process,” he continues. “That’s the least expensive part of it.” So unless you want to finish on film, shooting on it is a possibility for even a $250,000 film.

“Film’s an acquisition process,” he continues. “That’s the least expensive part of it.” So unless you want to finish on film, shooting on it is a possibility for even a $250,000 film.

Black Panther and Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison has worked on both low-budget indies and large studio flicks. Photograph by Jason Travis

Rachel Morrison agrees: “Fruitvale Station was also made for under a million and we managed to shoot Super 16 on the Arriflex 416, which is still my favorite camera ever designed. Nothing really compares to 16mm grain and texture, so it really does help your film to stand out in a crowd.”

Another factor to consider: How much VFX will you need to do? Cameras like RED’s Weapon and Arri’s Alexa SXT are top choices for acquiring the maximum amount of visual information to take full advantage of FX work and color grading. The Alexa SXT sensor allows for Open Gate mode, which means the full surface area of the sensor is accessed to acquire the most amount of imagery data possible. Shooters can procure 3.4K ARRIRAW or ProRes 4K Cine footage in the Open Gate setting. This extra, “uncropped” area allows for the placement of VFX tracking markers and gives effects artists the most freedom in the post process. The Open Gate format is also great for shooting films in the 2.39:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The RED Weapon with its Helium sensor costs around $50,000 for the body alone, but it’s receiving some of the best image reviews in all of RED’s 10-year history. The Weapon can acquire RAW images from 6K to 8K (depending on your camera selection)—which may seem like overkill, even for big studio films. But don’t write off the 6K and 8K formats just yet—photographers have historically oversampled their image resolution for the purpose of maximum control in the post process. The RED Weapon can simultaneously record RAW footage along with Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHR/HD and support 1-D and 3-D LUTs, which gives colorists the maximum amount of control in the grading process. If you film calls for detailed effects work or relies heavily on green-screen, shooting 6K to 8K RAW footage will give you about the best image detail you can find on the market.

For her part, Wardell likes the Weapon because “it’s possible to scale the camera right back and travel light… in a compact configuration. This is great if you are working on your own or with a small team. You can still have the high resolution of the sensor and take advantage of slow-motion. The flexibility of changing the camera mount from PL to Canon EF, for instance, means that if the gear budget is really tight, it’s still possible to get a nice result using non-cine lenses if you can adapt your style to the limitations of shooting on stills glass.”

Your instinct might be to shoot with whatever camera you can get your hands on, but when the budget allows, always think through your post workflow, consider the number of FX shots, be aware of the final distribution medium, and know the specifics of your deliverables. But above all else, let the story you’re telling drive your technical choices, not the other way around. The latest, most expensive camera may not be the best choice for your film. And at the end of the day, audiences will overlook a few technical imperfections if you’ve given them compelling characters and stories… no matter the size of your sensor or production budget. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies. Top photograph of DP Velinda Wardell of the Australian Cinematographers Society with a Panasonic VariCam LT by Phil Erbacher.

5 Comments

  1. Jeff

    October 30, 2017 at 10:23 am

    Canon 5DIV, which has a crappy codec, and no mention of the Sony a7S II or a7R II, with which actual feature films are being shot? Besides that the a7S II blows the Canon 5dIV away with respect to low light capability. And your comment that Sony cams are confined to E mount lenses completely destroys the credibility of the story’s author. I suggest you guys take another look at what’s possible with mirrorless and E mount and perhaps adjust your article accordingly.

  2. Jeff

    October 30, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Canon 5DIV, which has a crappy codec, and no mention of the Sony a7S II or a7R II, with which actually feature films are being shot? And your comment that Sony are confined to E mount lenses completely destroys the credibility of the story’s author. I suggest you guys take another look at what’s possible with mirrorless and E mount and perhaps adjust your article accordingly.

  3. jaw

    October 28, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    “confined to Sony’s e-mount lenses” – you might just want to take a second look at e-mount. The glorious thing about it is that it can literally be adapted to any other lens out there (if there is a lens mount that doesn’t have an adapter I don’t know what it is).

  4. Tom Luca

    October 24, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    For digital, ARRI ALEXA or I would love to try the PANAVISION DXL. But love photo chemical or celluloid.

  5. Tom Luca

    October 24, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Make mine PANAVISION Platinum, Gold, or Millennium XL. Or ARRI 435

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