Looking to buy a video camera in 2021? Here’s a breakdown by a professional videographer of the most important points to consider when choosing a camera.
I love buying guides. I don’t like making decisions, just tell me what to buy. If some dude, probably writing sponsored content, says a pair of shoes are cool, I’m sold—don’t even have to think about it. The only thing that’s never really worked for me is camera buying guides.
I’m a videographer/filmmaker and I work at a camera rental house. So, there are few days I don’t have a camera in my hands, whether it’s on my own shoot or when a movie comes to town, I’m the guy who helps them choose and build out their cameras.
One of the side effects of this is that every time I see a camera buying guide, I want to pull my hair out. These guides tend to focus on things like 4k, megapixels, and other buzzwords that aren’t as important as you would think and ignore other things that really matter.
Another thing they like to do is cram photo and video cameras together. I get it, a lot of cameras do both, but really, they are totally different animals that sometimes overlap.
But for the sake of this article, we’re going to stick to video-only.
So here it is finally a helpful guide to buying video cameras, whether you’re looking to buy something to vlog with, shoot content with, or even if you just want to have a camera to mess around with.
Before we get started:
- Disclaimer: These are just my opinions based on my own experience. There’s stuff out there that isn’t on this list that might be amazing. Your uncle Bob probably knows better than me just like he says.
- We’re going to keep everything under 3k. Why? Because if you need a camera body that’s more than that you’re probably past this buying guide. Plus, I always hate when there’s a section at the end of a buying guide that’s like “For the man in your life who has it all” and then they show off a 40,000 camera that really isn’t meant for people to own. That’s just nonsense.
- This article is split up into two parts: The first is the boring, useful part, where I’ll explain what you should look for in a camera. The second section is the instant gratification part, where I’ll actually give you some suggestions for cameras based on your needs.
- Camcorders suck: you’ll notice that there aren’t a lot of camcorders on this list. Camcorders have a lot of great features, built-in zoom, long recording times, etc. But they tend to be overpriced for what they are and give you far less control over your image. In addition, I’m not a fan of being stuck with one lens that you can’t change or upgrade. That’s not to say they don’t have their place, but I’m not a fan nor do I use them enough to really give any advice on them.
VIDEO CAMERA BUYING GUIDE 2021
Part 1: What to Look for in a Video Camera
It Should Fit All Your Needs
Very few cameras at any price point do everything. Think about what your main need is out of your camera.
Are you doing a podcast where you zoom with wrestlers from your house in New Jersey? Well then, you probably don’t need all the bells and whistles, but you’ll absolutely want something that can be used as a webcam.
On the other hand, if you’re buying a camera to show your friends how much better your golf swing is than theirs, you might want something that prioritizes slow motion, but you can probably skip out on the webcam capabilities.
It Should Fit Your Budget And Then Some
The sticker price is just the beginning. To get your camera working you’ll need some lenses (don’t skimp out on these), media, some extra batteries, a tripod, and there’s a good chance you’ll want some sort of microphone.
That’s not even getting into cool things like gimbals. Save some money for all of these things. It won’t matter how good your awesome camera is if it’s just a paperweight.
It Should Fit Your Sensibilities
Cameras all have different layouts, menu systems, etc. If you’re using a camera constantly, you’ll want something that fits what you like.
If you’re digging through menus to change one item or the features you need aren’t readily available to access, regardless of the camera that can technically do them, there’s a good chance after a long day you’ll want to hurl the thing into the ocean.
For instance, Sony for years was notorious for absolutely enraging menus on otherwise awesome cameras.
Nothing made sense and the terms were often scientific rather than based on any sort of language that related to camera users. It got to the point where their reps would even admit they were awful.
Now they’ve gotten so much better in recent years, with their newest cameras having pretty solid menu interfaces (The Sony A7s III and Sony Venice have great, easily navigable menus).
This is a totally personal preference. For me, I like buttons on the camera, rather than digging through menus.
I also like little things like being able to change the shutter speed to shutter angle (they are for all intents and purposes the same just different ways of notating the same thing) these are really minor things, but they help with my workflow and make a pretty big difference when you’re using your camera every day.
Especially if it’s a major purchase make sure you get something with either a really good return policy or take the time to rent it for a weekend, check if your local rental house has the camera you’re looking at available.
If not, there are plenty of online camera rental places like Lensrentals.com, borrow lenses, and lens pro to go that stock everything.
The Things That Matter When Buying A Video Camera
Dynamic Range or latitude refers to the measurement between what your camera sees as pure white and pure black (i.e., where they clip and have no detail).
A camera with a high dynamic range allows you to handle high-contrast situations. It helps prevent you from having an all-white sky, or a blown-out window in your shots, or on the other hand having parts of your image in pure darkness. It’s usually measured in stops; really high-end cameras come in around 14-16 stops.
That being said, don’t make this your only issue, just because a camera’s dynamic range isn’t super crazy doesn’t make it bad. Especially if you are shooting in areas where you control the light, you’ll be fine.
This is kind of a catch-all group. Color refers to a couple of things color science, color sampling, and color profiles.
Color science is just how your camera’s sensor interprets color, this is usually proprietary to each company, and a bit of a matter of taste.
Color Sampling and bit depth refer to how your camera interprets colors. To save information your camera essentially limits the amount of colors it’s using because the human eye is affected more by different brightnesses than colors.
There’s a lot more to it than this that way more technical and smarter people than me have covered on the internet, but for our purposes, you’ll see the following in order of least to most color information: 4:2:0 8-bit 4:2:2 10-bit, and 4:4:4 12-bit.
There are benefits in having a high level of information especially if you shoot in really challenging locations, want to do some heavy color grading, or are doing anything that needs to broadcast on TV, but this is not all totally necessary especially starting out.
These are baked-in presets for how your camera captures the image. Profiles have different levels of contrast, saturation and interpret colors differently. For creative work especially, it’s helpful to have a neutral color profile or log profile that allows you to alter and color grade your image after.
ISO/Low Light capabilities
ISO is a pointless name that stands for International Standards Organization. It just refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light.
Cameras usually have a native ISO; this is the sensitivity level they like to be at. The higher you get the more noise in your image. Some cameras handle this better than others, recently companies have introduced cameras that have dual native ISOs which pretty much gives you ISO to use when you have light and one to use when you don’t.
The biggest thing with ISO, is that just because a camera can go to a high ISO doesn’t mean it looks good. Some cameras are fantastic with this others are totally noisy pixely garbled trash.
You want to be able to control everything with your camera. You don’t want your camera compensating for something, this never ends well.
Autofocus (if that’s your thing)
When I went to film school autofocus was a four-letter word. Most of the cameras with autofocus we had were designed for taking photos resulting in a jumpy awkward thing that would change with any movement.
Things have gotten a lot better with brands like Sony and Canon having really strong face tracking autofocus that is excellent.
It’s totally not necessary, the film industry has been pulling focus manually for a good hundred or so years and has done just fine, but if you’re using your camera as a webcam or recording content yourself it can be a really helpful tool.
Trust me. It sounds lame, but changing your batteries constantly is horrible, stressful in certain situations, and can really put you in a jam.
Sure, you can always use wall power and there are external battery solutions at all levels, but you’ll thank me later on this one.
Frame rates refer to the number of images that your camera captures per second (FPS). For North American folks, the frames rates you need to care about are 24p/23.98(motion picture standard), 30p/ 29.97(television standard), 60p/59.94(sports and some television).
Some cameras shoot even more frame rates which allows you to shoot in slow motion. Common frame rates for this include (48, 120, 240) 60p can also be used along with 30 or 24 frames per second footage to create nice slow motion. You might also see this information listed under an S & Q mode meaning slow and quick mode.
In this case the camera automatically slows the footage down for you rather than having to change it in the edit. Make sure when you’re looking at frame rate options you see that these are listed with a “p” next to them or the word progressive.
There’s another way that images are captured called interlaced scans which you don’t want.
You’re going to be buying lenses, and it’s nice to know that you have options when it comes to this. Canon EF, Micro four thirds, Sony E mount are some the most used lens mounts for video cameras.
It’s really easy to find lenses that will work with these at a variety of price points. The Micro four thirds and Sony E mount can also virtually adapt to any mount which is an added benefit so if you have some old lenses lying your uncle is trying to get rid of you can most likely find an adapter to one of these two mounts.
Headphone Jacks, Microphone Jacks, Standard Ports, etc.
Here’s the one bit of industry I’m going to bring into this article.
The film industry loves standardized things. You will never see a camera go out into the field naked. Camera assistants will attach monitors to them, transmitters, focus tools, motors for lenses, etc.
You don’t need to put any of that stuff on your camera. But it’s nice to know that any tool you buy or rent will work well with your camera and the next camera you get.
While the film industry loves standardization, camera manufacturers, on the other hand, seem to hate it.
Plenty of entry range cameras are loaded with proprietary plugs and ports that only work with that company’s gear.
This will make you buy some okay equipment that won’t likely work with any camera you purchase in the future and will make it harder to update your camera.
A couple of things to look for:
- A real headphone jack. You’ll want to be able to monitor audio
- A microphone jack. This most likely will be the same size as the headphone jack unless you get a camera with XLR ports which are great as it is the industry standard.
- HDMI port for monitors
- A shoe mount usually located on top you can use this to slid in a microphone, a light, or a monitor
- ¼-20 or 3/8th 16th screw holes This is the jackpot as pretty much every arm in the camera world will mount to this.
I put this last because it’s the most technical and the most aggravating.
To keep it really simple the more data you use the better the image is going to look, BUT the bad side of this is that you’ll need more media.
You’ll fill up cards faster and have to buy more expensive media that’s fast enough to keep up with all the data they need to write.
Most cameras have a few recording modes and codecs you can choose from.
Things That Don’t Matter (That Much) When Buying A Video Camera
This is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to cameras. The amount of times I’ve heard someone ask “does it shoot 4K?” ignoring everything else about the camera is somewhat enraging.
4K refers to the resolution of the image. In short, it refers to the detail in the image.
4K will not make your colors better or help retain the highlights from that window that’s turning pure white in your image.
I’m willing to gamble most of your favorite movies were not shot in 4K.
It’s not to say that higher resolution cameras are bad, but unless your work requires it, it’s not the first thing I would consider.
Honestly just ignore these with video cameras, they matter for photography, but it’s not worth your time here.
And that about covers it all when buying a new video camera.
In my next article, I’ll cover the best video cameras of 2021 for every budget and skill level.