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Best starter documentarian camera?


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#1 Eric Sampson

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Posted 07 January 2018 - 04:59 PM

Hello

 

I'm looking to make a doc or two. I almost bought the Canon TI6 today but decided to hold off and do more research. I'm thinking of a cheaper body and a more expensive lens. I think the lens is more important anyway. 

 

That said,  I don't want too old of a model because things tend to get outdated... or maybe they don't - again I'm new to cameras. 

 

Any advice would be very helpful - thanks! I'm really looking to keep it under 1,000. I already have a tripod and shotgun mic. 

 

 


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#2 Jaron Berman

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Posted 07 January 2018 - 08:32 PM

As they say in still photography - the best camera is the one you have with you.  Obviously "documentary" covers a huge range and variety of content, some of the best are the best because the access is amazing and the story is great.  Yes, style has a little to do with it but let's not kid ourselves - especially in doc, it's more important to get it than to miss it fiddling.  Especially if you're new to camerawork, don't be fooled into trying to get the shallowest depth of field and fastest primes - even for experienced shooters, holding focus with something like a 5d/sony a7s at f/1.4 is a fools errand.    I'm personally sick of the "hunting for focus and never quite finding it" look, popularized by low-skill shooters with 5d's.  Also in doc, you're occasionally or always going to want to roll takes longer than 30min - and if you're concentrating on content and monitoring audio - do you also want to be worried you'll roll-out and have to re-roll all of the time?  Using a dslr, while attractive in picture, may not be your best bet.  Also don't forget - most of the dslr don't have great screens or focus peaking so you'll need to ALSO invest in a monitor. 

 

For years, docs were shot on super16 film or 2/3" video and HD.  Holding focus on those cameras was also difficult and done by pros with lots of time behind the lens - just look at local news (in any market) - using 2/3" video they still miss focus 90% of the time.  There are a lot of 1" chip cameras out there with fantastic image quality that are true "video" cameras but have larger than s16/2/3" chips so still shallow DOF but actually usable by someone who isn't 100% concentrated on camera alone.

 

SO, I'd say look at things like the Sony AX100 (which is 4k) - $1500 or the 1080p version of it HDR-CX900 $1100 - both 1" chips and excellent image quality.  If you don't need to deliver 4k, it's still worth thinking about the AX100 because when downsampled to 1080p you get more color information - basically helps with more extreme color grading.  They're basically the same camera, but the 4k version has some additional slow-mo features due to the additional processing.  Both these cameras have face-tracking autofocus and it works.  

 

Now, if you're dying to get a dslr and can deal with the recording limitations, the sony A6300 and A6500 are the "super35" versions of the A7 series - so you save a lot of money to get most of the same features.  Excellent video quality, 4k video, etc.. They still have the recording time limit but they can autofocus Sony lenses reliably face-tracking etc.  Obviously all of this stuff leans heavily toward sony - reason being they seem to offer the best performance at the budget level, and they have some interesting features ahead of everyone else these days - the face tracking AF is mature, been in a lot of their products for at least 5yr, so it works quite well.  Everyone and their mother has a 5d of some generation and there are a LOT of EF lenses in the wild - but before the 5dmk4 you're not going to find usable AF, and that cam is around $3500.  

 

I'm hammering hard on AF/focus because it's the most distracting issue to have aside from bad audio in a doc.  You're telling a story, so if you can't hear it to follow the story and if you can't see it because it's all blurry or hunting then the technical "artistry" side of things is getting in the way.  Nail the audio cleanly and keep it sharp and framed-well, and nobody is going to care about how shallow your DOF is.


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#3 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 03:15 AM

I don't know how you can build a "workable" kit for a grand, this would be lens, body, cards and viewfinder loupe so you can see the display.

Most of the inexpensive solutions, just don't work well and they will frustrate you until you give up and sell everything.

I have around $3k into my Blackmagic Pocket cinema camera setup, but that includes 2 bodies, 4 lenses, and all the accessories you could imagine. Where I do think they're good for doc, they aren't ideal in any way. With that being said, having a camera that go anywhere and shoot anything that's the size of two iphone X's, is pretty powerful for documentary. It allows you to be incognito, which is quite powerful. Ya don't get that kind of inconspicuousness with a REAL ENG style camera that one would normally use on a documentary. 

 

Sorry for the ramble, but I just don't have much of an answer. I shoot doc's for a living and I love my blackmagic rig, but it's way out of your price range for the right lenses and such. If you could increase your budget, you'd find some great solutions, but lens + body for sub $1k? You're not gonna wind up with anything that's good. Just another low bit-rate MPEG 2 camera like the Rebel T6i, 7D or even a 5DMKII as they're dropping in price super fast these days.  DSLR's are still cameras... they're just not great for video at all. 


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#4 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 03:21 AM

$1,000 is going to be tough to do. Even when I first started, I invested close to $3,000. If you have to stick to that budget, you're probably going to have to look at the mid-range DSLR's, something like an A6300 with an included kit lens. It's not going to be pretty, but it'll certainly work. Documentaries, and even features, have been shot with far less. 


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#5 Eric Sampson

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 09:28 AM

Thanks for the responses!

 

I'm really surprised at them. I thought DSLRs were what everyone was getting. I had purchased a Canon XF100 HD camcorder that shoots in 4K. Then after finding out it was made in 2011, it was clunky, and that nobody uses DSLRs that I know, I decided to return it. It was $2,000 also and that seemed expensive. 

 

I CAN spend a little more but I thought I could get away with less. This would be my first doc - you never know how something will turn out so I hate to risk a ton of money up front. 

 

But now I'm thinking about going for a camcorder again. I didn't think about the battery life as being a major issue but I guess it is and I've been an actor on sets where the battery runs out and it is frustrating, especially in freezing weather. 


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#6 Eric Sampson

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 10:51 AM

Another question I have - I have seen people on set with camera and headphones. Do you really need the headphones to make sure the audio is right?


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#7 Mark Dunn

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 02:35 PM

Another question I have - I have seen people on set with camera and headphones. Do you really need the headphones to make sure the audio is right?

Yes. The cans cut out some of the extraneous sound. I wouldn't be too happy recording important sound without at least some monitoring. They needn't be expensive.


Edited by Mark Dunn, 08 January 2018 - 02:38 PM.

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#8 Oron Cohen

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 03:06 PM

Actually B&H are having a sale now for the Panasonic GH4 including the V-Log add on for on 1K USD. Add a Metabones Canon EF adapter, a 17-50 or 24-105 (look at B&H used section) lens and Rode mic, and you'll have a workable package for around 2K ish. 

 

Or for around 3K including a lens get a used C100 markII + lens , only down side it's only 1080p, but it's a wonderful video camera with all the bonuses you want for a video camera, like XLR's input, good in camera mic, auto focus, native EF mount, exposure and focus tools and very nice to handle in a documentary situation. Although it's only 1080p, the image is very sharp and crisp, and I did some test blowing it up to 4K it's still look nice. 

 

Just my 2c. 


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#9 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 03:49 PM

But now I'm thinking about going for a camcorder again. I didn't think about the battery life as being a major issue but I guess it is and I've been an actor on sets where the battery runs out and it is frustrating, especially in freezing weather.


Cheap camcorders have built in (slow) lenses and usually very small imagers, so they don't work well in lower light situations. They're also very noisy in general due to the MPEG based codec's they use to capture. Plus, good luck editing the codec natively, you'll be transcoding everything to an intermediate codec like DNXHR or Pro Res. It's just super annoying and it's why I went with the pocket cinema camera because it has native 10 bit Pro Res, interchangeable lens mounts so I can use any lens I want and of course, form factor makes it killer for doc. 

 

The GH4 option is pretty good, but alas the internal recording function isn't so good, but it's better than the more inexpensive DSLR's.  


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#10 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 08 January 2018 - 05:24 PM

I own a GH4 with VLOG update, and I can say the camera is great - but as Tyler says, the internal codec leaves a lot to be desired. However, I think that is the case on most cameras under $5,000 - they pretty much all require an external recorder to get really good results. Mine uses an Atomos Shogun Inferno recorder, which combined with the Speedbooster and such, the whole setup cost me around $3,000.But do keep in mind your intended audience. Most people starting out are making things that will go directly to video or streaming, in which case the viewing mediaum is going to be 4:2:0 8-bit H465 level compression anyway.

 

You can certainly purchase a GH4 though - and used they can be head for well under $1,000 right now. In terms of DSLR's, its the most feature-rich 'DSLR' for video shooting - offering 4K up to Cinema4K resolutions, and many other features like the optional Vlog, and the ability to get clean 10-bit 4:2:2 from the HDMI port. The GH4 is a great 'starter' camera in my opinion - because you can build on it over time, as you need more features.

 

If you can swing $2,000 (and you already have some lenses that can fit or be adapted to a m43), you can get a GH5. These camera record 400mbps interal C4k 4:2:2 10-bit at up to 60 fps. That is basically the best you can get in any camera under the URSA.

 

Even more interesting though is the new GH5S that was recently announced. It's probably going to be more than the GH5 base is, but the camera is suppose to support more cinema-related features, like a 10 megapixel sensor, dual native ISO, probably best in class low light performance, timecode, built-in VLOG, etc. That's one I'm watching. the GH5 already produces great images, and the less-megapixel sensor should only help. 


Edited by Landon D. Parks, 08 January 2018 - 05:28 PM.

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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 12:40 AM

Low-light performance is pretty good with the new GH5S:


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#12 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 01:23 AM

Low-light performance is pretty good with the new GH5S:

 

Tis, but it looks very "video" like. The higher the ISO, the more it looks like a handycam. 


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#13 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 03:52 AM

Looks the same as regular GH5 footage to me. Nothing that looks super-amazing, but then again its not an Arri. I'd have to see some higher quality tests before I make an assumption, but I doubt Panasonic is going to launch a camera that looks worse than their current flagship, and charge $500 more for it at the same time. I have seen several other test videos that show the GH5S looking perfectly fine - much like the regular GH5. Of course, shooting anything at such high ISO is going to look 'videoish'. Personally, I'd say the dual native ISO is handy at  its 2500 on the high end, which is about right - given the sensor is about 1/2 the number of pixels as the GH5, and the GH5 was good to about 1600 ISO. Just because you can shoot 52,000 ISO, doesn't mean you should. 

 


Edited by Landon D. Parks, 09 January 2018 - 03:58 AM.

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#14 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 04:50 AM

Aye, it just looks like a video camera, which I guess is what it is! EEK!
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#15 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 06:10 AM

Aye, it just looks like a video camera, which I guess is what it is! EEK!

 

Which might just do the job, documentaries often use images that look like video, usually it's the content and its truth that matters in these productions.


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#16 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 11:29 AM

Having owned an M4/3 camera before for stills, the biggest weakness for me was sensitivity so I think the GH5S shows a marked improvement in that regard.
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#17 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 07:47 PM

I'd be worried about overheating issues with DSLR's and documentaries because on a lot of docs the cameras always running for long periods of time.  Anyone know if the GH5, 5s or Sony still cameras have issues with that?


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#18 Frank Hegyi

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Posted 09 January 2018 - 10:34 PM

When shooting docs, the most important things are:

 

Audio: Don't buy anything without XLR inputs.

Focus: The larger the sensor, the harder it'll be to hold focus. A sharp 4K sensor doesn't matter if you can't keep it in focus.

Battery Life: Don't buy anything that can't make it through a 60min interview on a single battery.

Zoom Lens: When you only have one chance to shoot something, you won't have time to change lenses.

Low Light: Being able to shoot at ISO 3200 is very useful.

 

If I were you, I'd look at either a GH5 with the XLR module, a used Canon C100, or a Canon XF400. The XF400 has Canon's incredible touchscreen auto focus and a super long zoom lens. If you're just getting into film making for the first time, those two features will be super useful.


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#19 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 10 January 2018 - 03:07 AM

The Panasonic line of mirrorless cameras don't have issues with overheating in normal circumstances. Stay away from the compact Sony's though if you are in fear of overheating. I have worked with my GH4 for several hours straight and never had it come close to overheating. 


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