What is the Best Digital Cinema Camera to Buy?

What is the Best Digital Cinema Camera to Buy?

What is the Best Digital Cinema Camera to Buy? A blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

What is The Best Digital Cinema Camera To Buy?

So you want to find the perfect camera for your film and/or video production?

In my opinion, for the budget conscious independent filmmaker there are only 9 digital cinema cameras that you need to be concerned about:

  • C100 Mk II
  • FS-700
  • Ursa Mini 4.6k
  • FS-7
  • C300 Mk II
  • Red Raven
  • Red Scarlet W
  • FS-5
  • Varicam LT

And of those, I think there are only three that are worth seriously considering if you really are on a tight budget. But the truth is that just like the wand chooses the wizard, there is an important choice to be made. So I've got seven steps to help you find the perfect Digital Cinema Camera for you. To help you do this, I’ve spent hours going through camera manuals, spec sheets, brochures and websites to put together a list you can use to find the perfect Digital Cinema Camera.

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But before we get into tons of technical specifications, it’s important that you understand how to select the best camera to buy.

Chase Jarvis, a photographer I really respect and appreciate, some years back said “The best camera is the one you have.” I could always see that working for many photographers, but it never really sat right with me from a cinematography point of view. Basically, I think that statement is half right and half wrong.

I think what that statement does right is it gets a bunch of people who might be spinning their wheels on gear and tells them to go get shooting photos because practicing your craft constantly will improve your photographic skills more than a new camera will. So in that regard, I applaud the statement.

But to some degree it minimizes the care and importance one needs to take in selecting the best camera for work that must be done. And for many of us, the fear of making the wrong choice on budgets as tight as ours can be crippling.

So while there are many cameras at many price points, how do you decide which is the right one? Most people go at this process completely backwards looking at the technical specifications of the camera first. WRONG!!!!

The first thing you should be examining is the technical requirements of the work you are getting paid for or want to get paid for.

Once you know what those are, selecting a camera is a no-brainer hassle-free process. You just look amongst those cameras which meet the technical requirements of your work and find the camera with the image aesthetic that you like the most.

So here, in my opinion, is a more accurate statement:

“The best camera is the most affordable one which meets the highest technical and aesthetic requirements for the work you do.”

Yes, that’s a bit long-winded. But it’s true.

I would also argue that the vast majority of people buying cameras to take photos are largely looking to take photos for the enjoyment of their friends, family and themselves, whereas I think the vast majority of people buying Digital Cinema cameras are trying to have a paying career from the work captured on the camera.

So we could also say it this way too: “The best camera is the one you can make the most money with.” Which means you want to spend as little as possible to maximize the return on your investment and pay that camera off as fast as possible.

But I want to again remind you, that you won’t get the jobs where your camera doesn’t meet the technical requirements of the client. Example: If you have a C100 Mark II that shoots a gorgeous image (because it does) but only shoots full HD and your client is demanding 4K deliverables, then that is not the best camera is it? Even if you can make great images with it, you won’t get the job with that camera.

So you want to find the best Digital Cinema Camera for you? Let’s get started! And to help you with this I’ve made a list of all the major cameras that are below $20,000, (this doesn’t include DSLRs because that will be a separate post).

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Click on this to go to free course page.

Step 1. Make the list of the top 10 technical requirements which are most important for your work. As an example, here’s how I picked my camera. I shoot independent cinema as well as corporate videos and my own blogs and short films. These are the technical requirements I run into most in sequence of priority:

  • Run and gun scenarios requiring light form factor, ease of use, long battery life and ability to adapt to any existing lighting situation rapidly. (Internal ND a big plus)
  • Recording formats and camera styles which can go through a whole grading process or look great right out of the camera for immediate turnaround. (Minimum 10 Bit 4:2:2 to have latitude for heavy grading and stylization.)
  • Low-Light Capable.
  • Excellent Dynamic Range to shoot interiors without blown out exteriors easily.
  • 4K delivery.
  • Mainly using EF type lenses
  • Mountable to Ronin or Movi type stabilizers.
  • Able to incorporate Pro Audio direct to camera for one man banding
  • Slow motion at least up to 60 fps in 2k. Ideally 120 fps.  
  • Able to record RAW sometimes for jobs that need it.

Step 2. Make a list of the cameras that can do that. It might take a lot of research but this is time well spent. Go through every camera website or just through all the listings on B&H or another major seller make a list of all the cameras that meet those ten requirements.

Step 3. Make a list with the price of the camera AND WHAT ACCESSORIES IT WILL NEED TO BE USABLE. It’s super disappointing to get a camera that you are expecting to be able to use out of the box and not be able to use it. And you just need to be aware that a number of the higher end cameras will have a pretty daunting list of accessories to get them actually functional. Do your homework.

Step 4. Cross off the list the ones you know you can’t afford. Don't panic and don't be stupid. After you've been in debt enough times, you know that it's something that you only take on after careful consideration and because the thing being purchased with the debt is going to make more money, not to fulfill hidden camera fetishes. No sense in torturing yourself, just scratch them off the list. You'll get there, don't panic about it.

Step 5. Look amongst the ones that are left and pick the one that has the image you like the most. Full disclosure, I usually look at the image of the camera first and then see if the technical specs match the work. If they don’t but aren’t that far off and the image is definitely the quality of what I want, then I might compromise as long as the tech specs it falls short on doesn’t disqualify it for paying jobs.

Step 6. Rent the camera for a day. Before you buy any camera, you need to get your hands on it and try it and see how it feels. You can go to one of the bigger stores and get your hands on it, but it's always better to run it through it's paces in a field test. My theory is that cameras are like the wands in Harry Potter. You know when it’s the right one. And if you use it and it doesn’t feel right or operate how you like it, move on.

Step 7. Once you’ve settled on the camera, find where you can get the best deal and get the camera. I’m not just talking about cheapest price, I’m talking about financing it on a multi-year lease to own plan. Why pay $16,000 up front if you can pay $400 per month? You’re basically getting a month long rental for $400. Impossible to beat.

After doing all this myself, I bought the C300 Mark II and I'll cover my reasoning in another blog post on that, but for me it was a perfect fit.

My choice for the top three "best bang for their buck cameras"?

#1 Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini 4.6k. - Soon to be my B Cam. You can find it on B&H here.

#2 - Sony FS-7. Hard to argue with what this camera can do, and if you are happy with the "video'ish" image that it outputs, then you are good to go. You can find it on B&H here.


#3 - C300 Mark II. The more expensive of the three, but in my opinion the best all around camera of the three as well, but it doesn't win in the economy category. You can find it on B&H here.

And there you have it. That’s how you get the right camera for you. Once you get it, go start making projects with it!

I know many of you might be saying: Hey wait! What about lenses! That, my friends, is the subject of several other blog posts. But to get started, if you had no money, you could get some cheap used prime lenses on ebay for a few hundred bucks and work your way up to better and better glass.

Until next time.

What is the Best Digital Cinema Camera to Buy? A blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

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