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Updated 17 December 2021
- Panasonic G85/G80
- Fujifilm X-T3 or X-T4
- Panasonic GH5 or GH5S
- Canon EOS M50
- BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K
- Fujifilm X-T30
4k mirrorless cameras are the best value option for getting started with creative low budget filmmaking. They’re affordable and fairly easy to use. They have larger sensors than most camcorders, which makes them better for low light shooting and creative shallow focus shots. And you can swap lenses. Instead of being limited to a single zoom lens, you can choose between different kinds of zooms and prime (non-zooming) lenses.
Other types of camera can be better for other uses: prosumer or pro camcorders for news and events shooting; compact still cameras, or the tiny DJI Pocket, for travel; or cinema cameras for serious creativity and built-in pro features. What kind of camera do you need?
I’ve chosen cameras costing from $500 to around $2000. If you’re on a really tight budget, you could choose a used camera for under $300.
I’ve now added eBay links so you can search for pre-owned cameras. 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, though 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-T3 (around $1500 body only) has a larger APS-C sensor, so it’s better than the Panasonics for low light and creative shallow focus. It has great color rendition, good dynamic range, and pro video features at a relatively affordable price.
Its impressive features include very good low light performance, ultra-fast autofocus, and 4K slow motion. It can record high-quality 10bit files at 400Mb/s, and shoot in log mode. (Log mode compresses the highlights and shadows, so the camera can capture a greater range of contrast and the image stands up better to colour correction and grading.)
It doesn’t have in-body image stabilisation, and the screen tilts rather than swivelling fully. Battery life isn’t great, but you can power it over USB-C using an external power pack.
It’s also a very good camera for still photography.
The newer X-T4 costs more: it’s around $1700 body only. That gets you excellent 5-axis image stabilisation, a fully swivelling screen, a bigger battery, better autofocus and 10x slow motion in HD. You also gain ‘F-log assist’, which allows you to preview what the finished image will look like when you’re shooting in log mode. They’ve removed the headphone socket, but the camera comes with a USB-C to headphone adapter.
Canon EOS M50
Canon’s M-series cameras and lenses are very compact but have fairly large APS-C sensors, excellent colors and very good dual pixel autofocus. You can fit standard Canon EF lenses with an adapter. The affordable EOS M50 (around $500 with kit lens) has an easy-to-use interface. Its portability makes it a good option for vloggers and journalists. It’s really designed for shooting HD: when it shoots 4K the dual pixel AF doesn’t work and the image is heavily cropped. It doesn’t have in-body image stabilisation, and there’s no headphone socket.
The Panasonic GH5 II mirrorless camera (around $1500 body only) has a lot of video features in a relatively small package. It has excellent in-body image stabilisation, good battery life for a mirrorless camera, and it can record a range of broadcast-quality 4K and HD formats. It includes ‘V-log’ recording (which was a paid upgrade on the original version). 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
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The pricier GH5S (around $2000 body only) is designed specifically for filmmaking, with more pro video features, better video quality and much better low light performance. 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
The BlackMagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K has plenty of pro features and excellent image quality at an affordable price. It costs around $1300 body only. It can shoot 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 very high image quality in controlled conditions, but I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners.
This little APS-C camera has very good video quality for under $1200 including a 15-45mm kit zoom lens. Fujifilm also make good value fast prime lenses.
It’s recently been updated and the new version has improved video features: Full HD at up to 240fps, and a 30 minute record limit (the older version could only shoot 4K for 10 minutes).
Unusually for a camera at this price, it can shoot in log mode and in 17:9 DCI (digital cinema widescreen) aspect ratio. It can also record high quality 10-bit 4:2:2 to an external recorder. There’s also the option of shooting cropped Full HD video at up to 120fps slow motion.
There’s no headphone socket, but you can connect headphones via the USB-C adapter. It has focus peaking, zebras, and Film Simulation modes which emulate the look of traditional Fuji film stocks. But there’s no in-body image stabilisation or weathersealing, and the screen tilts rather than swivelling fully.
X-T30 II (available January 2022)
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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 the best 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 good range of affordable lenses. They are also very good for still photography. Search on eBay