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Updated 16 August 2023
Filmmaking is far more affordable than it used to be. You can now shoot high quality video with a camera that costs a few hundred dollars.
There are several different kinds of camera. The best option for low-budget creative filming is a mirrorless camera. These compact system cameras can shoot sharp 4K video and take still photos. You can fit different lenses. They’re better than most camcorders in low light. And you can film creative ‘shallow focus’ shots.
Here’s my choice of filmmaking cameras from $500 to around $2000.
The first three are mirrorless. The G85 (G80/G81 in Europe) is the best value. The X-T5 is best if you want to shoot high-quality video and stills. For professional use, I’d choose the GH5 or GH5S.
The BlackMagic camera films in professional video formats but can’t shoot stills.
The XA60 is an easy-to-use prosumer camcorder. It’s more convenient for filming news and events. Because of its ease of use it can also be a good option for schools.
I’ve included direct links to buy these cameras on Amazon or Adorama. If you use these affiliate links, you’ll help me to maintain this site.
You can save a lot of money by buying used, and it’s obviously better for the environment. So I’ve also added links to MPB and eBay. I mainly use MPB myself: I’ve found them very straightforward and reliable. They give a six month guarantee on all products, and you can also sell or trade in equipment. (MPB sell used cameras body-only so you can choose the lens you want. This page has advice on choosing lenses).
This article has useful tips on buying safely on eBay.
The Panasonic G85 (G80/81 in Europe) is the best-value camera you can buy for filmmaking, at around $700 with lens. I use one myself. It has a solidly built magnesium body with a tilt and swivel touchscreen, and the body and lens are weathersealed. The sharp 12-60 kit lens covers a useful zoom range, from wide to telephoto. The camera can shoot 4K, and HD at up to 60p slow motion. And it has very good image stabilisation, which makes for easy handheld shooting.
Cons? The sensor size is Micro Four Thirds, which is smaller than the Fujifilm and Canon cameras below. So it’s not as good in low light (it’s better than older Panasonics). It doesn’t have a headphone socket, though you can rig up an audio output from the HDMI socket. Battery life is OK but not great (you can add a battery grip to double it, or use an adapter and an external battery). Autofocus is a bit slow, especially when shooting 4K. But its solid build, slow motion and image stabilisation make it a great choice. More about the G85.
Fujifilm’s X-T5 has a larger APS-C sensor, so it’s better than the G85 for low light and creative shallow focus. But it’s much more expensive.
It has great colour rendition, good dynamic range, and plenty of pro video features. It also has excellent image stabilisation, ultra-fast autofocus, 4K slow motion, and 10x slow motion in HD. It can shoot in log mode, allowing you to capture a greater range of contrast. It doesn’t have a headphone socket, but it comes with a USB-C to headphone adapter. It has a 30 minute video recording limit (20 minutes for 4k 60p).
It has a tilting touchscreen rather than a flip-out screen. I prefer this for filming, but it makes it less useful for vlogging.
It’s also a very good camera for still photography.
The Panasonic GH5 II mirrorless camera (around $1500 body only) has a lot of professional video features in a fairly small package. It has excellent in-body image stabilisation and good battery life for a mirrorless camera.
It can record in a range of broadcast-quality 4K and HD video formats. It includes log recording. This is good for managing contrasty light. It’s solidly built and robust, and you can add a pro audio module.
Cons? The MFT sensor is relatively small, so low light performance isn’t as good as some competitors. More about the GH5 II
The original GH5 has most of the features of the GH5 II (though V-log is a paid upgrade). This makes it a great value used buy.
Check price/buy MPB
The GH5S (around $1400 body only) is designed specifically for filmmaking, with fewer but bigger pixels than most still cameras. That makes it excellent in low light.
It also has more professional video features and better video quality than the GH5. It’s probably the best moviemaking camera under $2000. But it doesn’t have in-body stabilisation, and still images are limited to 10MP. More about the GH5S
Update: The GH5S is now discontinued, but it’s still available new at many retailers. Like the GH5, it’s a great value used buy.
The BlackMagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K has plenty of professional features and excellent image quality at an affordable price. It costs around $1300 body only. It can shoot high quality RAW and ProRes files at up to 60fps and has pro audio inputs. Like the Panasonic cameras it has a Micro Four Thirds sensor.
The downside are that its RAW and ProRes files are very large, it doesn’t have in-body stabilisation or an eye-level viewfinder, and battery life is poor. It’s very good value for creative filmmakers looking for high image quality in controlled conditions. I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners. More about the Pocket Cinema Camera
A prosumer camcorder, with a built-in zoom lens, can be more convenient than a mirrorless camera. Buttons and dials give direct access to important controls. So they’re quicker and easier to use for news, events, corporate videos and school use.
The Canon XA60 has a detachable top handle which makes it easier to film low angle shots and lets you connect professional XLR microphones. It can shoot 4K, and HD with 2x slow motion. It’s compact and well designed. The zoom range is long: 29.3-627mm.
Check price/buy Adorama
You could also consider buying used. Older models such as the XA11 or XA20 (HD only) or the XA40 (4K) have a very similar design to the XA60, though the viewfinders are smaller.
Ultra low budget options
If you’re on a tight budget, used older models of Canon’s video SLRs such as this T4i, or the more expensive 70D, are a good choice. Unlike the other cameras here, they aren’t mirrorless and can’t shoot 4K. But they have good colors, relatively large APS-C sensors, and a wide range of affordable lenses. They are also very good for still photography. Search on eBay
Search for used Canon cameras MPB
Choosing a camera: what to look for
What kind of camera is it?
I recommend mirrorless cameras for most low budget film and video. A mirrorless camera (also known as a compact system camera, or CSS) takes interchangeable lenses and can shoot video and stills. It looks a bit like a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, but it doesn’t have a moving mirror to reflect the image into the viewfinder. This makes it smaller, lighter, and more convenient for filmmaking. Most mirrorless cameras have electronic eye-level viewfinders as well as screens.
Mirrorless cameras have bigger sensors than most camcorders. This makes them better in low light. It also makes it easier to film creative ‘shallow focus’ shots, because larger sensors have less depth of field.
How easy is it to use?
Is the camera comfortable to hold? Are the controls easy to use? Can you change the important settings with buttons and switches, or do you have to use menus? If there’s a touchscreen, does it work well? Does the camera have an accessory shoe so you can fit a microphone or light?
Does it have manual controls?
Can you set exposure, white balance and sound levels yourself, or are they all automatic? These controls might not matter to you now, but you may need them if you get serious about your filmmaking.
What kind of lens does it have?
With a camcorder, how far does the camera zoom out (wide angle) and zoom in (telephoto)? The wide-angle setting is probably more important. It lets you get close and makes handholding easier. The best way to compare this is find out the 35mm equivalent. Under 30mm is good, 25mm or less is great. It’s the optical zoom range you need to know – digital zoom is pretty much irrelevant (see bottom).
If the zoom range isn’t very wide, does the manufacturer make wide-angle or telephoto adaptors to fit to the front of the lens?
How close can the camera or lens focus? What’s the widest aperture? (A low number, like f/2 or f/1.7, lets more light in so you can use the camera in dark conditions or get shallow focus effects).
How does it handle sound?
Is the built-in microphone good? Is there a headphone socket so you can listen to the sound while you film? Can you plug in a separate microphone? (If you want to be able to use pro microphones, you need a camera with three-pin XLR inputs).
Does it have image stabilisation?
Image stabilisation can make pictures less shaky. It’s not essential if you’re going to use a tripod or a good camera support, but it’s very useful for shooting handheld. The most effective stabilisation, featured in some cameras like the Panasonic GH5, combines lens-based optical stabilisation (OIS) and sensor-based in body image stabilisation (IBIS).
How big is the sensor?
The sensor is the electronic part that captures the image (it’s like the film in a traditional camera). Larger sensors are usually better in low light. They also let you film creative shallow focus effects. But for news and events shooters, small sensor cameras may be better as more of the image will be in focus.
Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs come in three main sensor sizes: full frame, APS-C and Micro Fourth Thirds (MFT):
- MFT (Micro Four Thirds) sensors are the smallest. This means the cameras and lenses are compact and convenient, but can be less good in low light.
- APS-C is around the same size as a 35mm movie film frame. It’s better than MFT for shallow focus and low light.
- Full frame cameras are usually the best in low light. You can also get really shallow focus shots. But they’re expensive and have bigger, heavier lenses. I don’t really recommend them unless you’re sure you need them.
What recording formats does it use?
Check that the camera records in a format that your editing program can handle.
You may only need 1080p HD, but filming in 4K ‘ultra high definition’ has some advantages. 4K footage can look better even when downsized to 1080p. It also gives you the option of cropping (eg from a mid shot to a closeup) when you edit.
Some cameras can record higher quality video like 10 bit and 4:2:2. These take up more space (and are more demanding on your computer) but they’re easier to correct and adjust when you edit.
If you’re planning to film material for broadcast, check the format requirements with the broadcaster.
Can it film in log mode?
This video recording mode compresses the highlights and the shadows. It looks very flat straight out of the camera, but gives you more scope for colour correction. So it effectively extends the ‘dynamic range’ (the amount of contrast that the camera can record).
Things to ignore
Special effects. If you want them, add them when you edit the film.
Digital zoom. ‘200x digital zoom’ sounds great, but on most cameras it’s just a way of electronically blowing up the middle of the image. It makes the picture quality worse, so you shouldn’t use it. But the ‘digital teleconverter’ setting on some mirrorless cameras is useful as it can enlarge the image without losing quality.
Megapixels. This tells you how many million light-capturing pixels there are in the sensor. More megapixels are good for big prints, but they don’t make video any better. (Full HD video is only 2 megapixels and even Ultra HD 4K is only 8MP). More megapixels on a small sensor may mean that the camera is worse in low light.