by Tom Barrance | Updated January 2023
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- Mirrorless cameras and SLRs are great for the ‘film look’
- Camcorders are easier to use, and better for news and events
- Cinema cameras combine the best features of both
Should you get a camcorder, a DSLR, a mirrorless camera – or something else – for low budget filmmaking?
What’s the difference?
A camcorder is designed specifically for shooting video. Most of them have built-in zoom lenses and tilt-and-swivel screens. More expensive pro camcorders have good built-in microphones and professional XLR audio inputs. They aren’t great for still photography.
A DSLR (digital SLR) is mainly designed for still photography. It’s a ‘system camera’: it takes interchangeable lenses. A mirror reflects the image up to the viewfinder, and flips up – blacking out the eyepiece – when you take a photo. So when you shoot video with it, you have to use ‘Live View’ on the main screen instead. They are largely being replaced with mirrorless cameras (below).
A mirrorless camera is like an SLR – you can swap lenses – but it doesn’t have a mirror. You view the image on the main live view screen, or an electronic eye-level viewfinder if it has one. They’re usually smaller and lighter than DSLRs, with better video features, and can also shoot high quality stills. Most new system cameras are mirrorless.
Why would you shoot video on a camera designed for stills?
Most camcorders have quite small sensors and fixed zoom lenses. These small sensors aren’t great in low light, which can give mirrorless cameras and DSLRs – which have much bigger sensors – a big advantage.
Big sensors also have much shallower depth of field: so at the same aperture, less of the shot is in focus. That looks more ‘cinematic’ (like cinema films rather than video). You can make the most of it by fitting wide aperture prime (non-zooming) lenses. You can even ‘pull focus’, changing the focus from one part of the image to another as you film.
If DSLR and mirrorless video looks so great, why doesn’t everybody do it?
Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs aren’t cheap. You can get a basic HD camcorder like the Panasonic V180 for around $250 (£200); you’ll need to spend more than twice as much for a mirrorless camera or video-capable DSLR.
Some SLRs and mirrorless cameras don’t have headphone sockets, and some can’t record good audio even with a separate microphone. So you might need to use a separate audio recorder.
If you’re trying to hold focus on moving subjects, shallow depth of field can be a nuisance rather than an advantage. Judging focus on a live view screen can be slow. If you’re using an SLR, or a mirrorless camera without an eye-level viewfinder, you may need to magnify the image with a separate viewfinder or ‘loupe’.
Handling and stabilisation
These cameras can be awkward to hold steadily and to move smoothly for video shots. Not all of them have stabilisation. You may need a tripod, a monopod, or a special rig. Camcorders are easier to handhold.
Mirrorless camera and SLR sensors are designed to shoot high-resolution stills as well as videos. Most current ones have at least 18 megapixels, but you only need 2MP for HD video (or 8MP for 4K). So some cameras just record video from some rows of pixels (line-skipping). This can cause distracting interference patterns called moiré or aliasing.
Most SLR video isn’t recorded from the whole sensor at once: instead, it scans down the sensor. This can cause ‘rolling shutter’ distortion when you move the camera sideways or use it handheld.
Size and complexity
SLRs – and to a lesser extent mirrorless cameras – are bigger than equivalent camcorders, and you usually need accessories to get good results. But with camcorders, you can just pick them up and start shooting.
Which should I get?
For most people who want to shoot good quality video, a mirrorless camera is the best option. They’re good for shallow focus and low light, while being smaller and lighter than a DSLR. I’d look for one with image stabilisation, microphone and headphone sockets, and an eye-level viewfinder. My recommendations are on this page.
I wouldn’t buy a new DSLR now, but used ones are an affordable way to get the advantages of a larger sensor. Canon are the best choice: they have good colour rendition, and it’s easy to adapt them to take older manual focus lenses. Models to consider include the 650D/T4i, the more robust 70D, or the professional 5D Mk III or Mk IV.
For events and news, a good camcorder could be better. Audio is easier and they’re easier to pick up and start shooting. And by the time you’ve stopped down the lens on an SLR to give you enough depth of field for a fast-moving scene, there sometimes isn’t that much difference in low light performance.
What else could I use?
If you’re on a really tight budget, you could pimp your phone: a current iPhone with a good filming app, an add-on microphone and a case or pistol grip can shoot good video and attracts less attention than bigger cameras. iPhones are popular with mobile journalists and documentary makers.
Another portable option is the DJI Osmo Pocket, a tiny stabilised 4K camera which uses your smartphone as the monitor.
Best of both worlds?
If you want to combine the advantages of camcorders and SLRs, Canon’s professional Cinema EOS cameras like the C100 have large Super 35mm sensors and take interchangeable lenses, but they’re much faster to use for filmmaking and have better video and sound quality. You can pick up a used C100 for a similar price to a high-end mirrorless camera.
If you want to record in high quality professional formats that are easy to colour correct and ‘grade’, BlackMagic’s Cinema Cameras are good value. The Pocket Cinema Camera 4K can record RAW and ProRes 4K files at up to 60fps.