Which Camera Should I Buy For My Movie?
By John Ott
The most frequent question I get asked by filmmakers on Making the Movie is: What camera should I buy?
Film vs. HD? DSLR vs. XDCam? RED vs. Viper? I know it can be dizzying to wade through all the information out there. And once you’ve mastered the details, you can’t rest, because new camera technologies just keep coming.
Nobody wants to shell out big money for a camera that’s going to be obsolete in a few minutes. And nobody wants to have their movie ignored by industry gatekeepers simply because it wasn’t shot in the right format. To that purpose, here are some questions to keep in mind when considering a camera…
Some caveats: I’m going to avoid recommending specific camera models, so this information won’t go stale. Choosing a camera is really part of choosing the ‘look’ of your film. It’s a personal decision, like a hair-style. Let these questions guide your research, but ultimately it’s your call whether to go for the bowl-cut or the Bieber.
Should I buy or rent the camera?
Before you even think about buying a camera, you should take a step back and consider rental. Rental solves the problems of always worrying about if your camera is obsolete, and dealing with maintenance issues. If there’s a problem with your camera in the middle of a shoot, most rental houses can just swap it out for another one. Many people want to own a camera so they can practice with it before they are under the pressure of a shoot. But the rental houses I’ve worked with allow filmmakers to come in and test the camera package ahead of time and even provide training.
On the other hand, I know plenty of filmmakers who shoot only on weekends. Buying your own camera can be cheaper than paying the weekend rate again and again, and saves the time spent picking up and returning equipment.
Does this camera work with my workflow?
Speaking of saving time, another thing that filmmakers often don’t consider until it is too late is how the footage is going to get from the camera into the editing suite, and from there into the final distribution format, be it film, HDCam-SR, DVD or web video.
You can save a lot of money shooting in HD vs. film, but quality is likely to suffer if your final delivery format is a film print. That said, the film workflow can be time-consuming and expensive. You have to have a lab develop the film, create dailies — now customarily delivered on HD tapes or as digital files with key numbers burned in– the editor cuts with the dailies, and then creates an Edit Decision List (EDL) so that the final cut can be assembled from the original film. To complicate matters more, most films now undergo a Digital Intermediate (DI) phase, where the film is digitally scanned at high resolution, color corrected, and output back to film. Some filmmakers have wisely skipped steps by capturing digitally at 2k, 4k or higher resolutions and avoiding film until the final output.
If you’re not delivering for the big screen, then shooting on film or high-resolution HD is probably overkill. Just make sure that the format your camera is spitting out is easy to input or convert to a format that can be used to edit, and that you’ll be able to create the right high-quality master at the end of the process. For example, I worked with filmmaker who needed to deliver a feature at 23.98fps, but who had shot and edited the film at true-24fps. The conversion was possible, but took additional time and expense he hadn’t expected.
Am I using available light or rockin’ a fully-loaded truck?
How is your film going to be lit? If you’re shooting in a studio or have a truck full of expensive movie lights, you’ll probably be able to control the light pretty well and can get away with a camera with a small dynamic range. The dynamic range is the range of light your camera can handle, typically expressed as a ratio — how much detail can be seen in the shadows and the highlights in the same shot.
Film is generally more forgiving than HD. Because it is an analogue format, you can fix exposure problems after the fact in the color correction phase. Some HD cameras like those made by RED provide similar options with a RAW format that allows you take advantage of high dynamic ranges.
Will I be shooting handheld or mounted?
Even the least-heavy 35mm camera rig requires a beefy camera operator if you’re going to be shooting handheld all day long. One of the great advantages of DSLRs and small HD cameras is that they can be carried all day long, wedged into tight corners, stuck in refrigerators, attached to improvised booms and generally be used fast and freely.
A lighter camera moves differently than a heavy one. When going off-tripod, you’ll probably want additional stabilization accessories for ultra-light cameras, like a shoulder mount or steadicam-type rig.
Factor that into your budget.
Do I need interchangeable lenses?
While there are now cameras with interchangeable lenses at all budget levels, let me just note that there are cases where you may be better off without one. Having a camera with an attached lens may mean you have less creative control, especially over <em>depth of field</em>, controlling how much of the image is in focus. However, changing out lenses takes time on set and every time it is done risks besmirching the inside the camera with dirt and debris. If you can’t afford to have experienced camera assistants on your crew, you might want to think about a camera kit that’s simple to manage. If you do have a fixed lens, make sure it is a good one that will cover every possible shooting situation that will come up. You don’t want to end up shooting in a small room where you can’t frame the wide shot you need, or have a plot point that hinges on a close-up of an insect, only to find out your camera doesn’t have a macro mode.
How do I narrow the field?
Answered all of the above? Now figure out which cameras in your budget range fit your specs. Another thing to consider is how battle-tested the camera is. Are there lots of filmmakers out there using this camera — therefore a lot of literature on the web, forums, and so on? Is the camera engineered to withstand shooting out in the sun all day, or getting sand blown in the cracks? A camera model that’s been out for several years will have lots of accessories available. If your d.p. already has experience with the camera or a similar model, that can save a learning curve happening on your film.
Time is money, especially on a movie set.
Help! I can’t afford the camera I need!
If you have to stretch to buy the camera that suits your needs, chances are, there are other filmmakers in the area who are in the same position. Consider teaming up, or investing in the camera after you’ve gotten assurances from other filmmakers that they’ll rent it from you. Don’t stress too much. Remember that the camera is just a tool used to tell a story. Great visuals can be created with all kinds of cameras. Be creative, stay flexible and, when all else fails, shoot with whatever camera you can find!