Know your craft
Beyond knowing your budget, you should the craft of filmmaking before you even consider buying a camera. An expensive camera does not a filmmaker make. If you are lacking in the skills to use the camera properly, or don’t know anyone who does, or you haven’t fully fleshed out your storytelling muscles, then the most expensive camera in the world will not save you.
Get some knowledge first, check out some online courses for filmmaking and storytelling at places like Udemy.com or Masterclass.com, or some of the blogs on this site æStranger.com.
Once you have some basic knowledge then you can start to think about the type of film/video you want to create and what type of style you have. Both are important to know because they will inform the look of your film and thereby inform the type of camera you need.
The last point is to make sure you have your story ready. And what I mean by that is, know what story you want to tell, understand it, breathe it, live it. It’s the passion that you have, to tell that story that will come across on the screen. Regardless of what camera you have, it’s that what you want to show people, not the color density that that particular camera allowed you to achieve (though that does help, sometimes).
Know what you’re going to shoot and edit
Before making the decision to buy a camera, you need to be sure you know how to use the camera. Yet again, take it for a test drive, check how much is manual and how is automatic. Do either of those have an influence on how you are going to film? If you’re a run & gun documentary maker then more automatic features will make your life easier. If you’re an interviewer then having full manual control over what you shoot is probably more preferable.
If you know you’re going to be more stationary then consider if the camera has a detachable lens. I myself prefer cameras with detachable lenses as I like the look that various lenses offer. Bear in mind though that even if you are run & gun style, if you figure out a way to do that with swapping lenses the whole time then more power to you.
Next check what type of audio recording you need. Are you going to do in camera or external sound recording? If it’s in camera, does it have xlr or mic jack port? Do you need phantom power? Research all of these when looking at your camera.
Sensor size may be of interest to you if are planning on shooting narrative film with detachable lenses. A full frame or 35mm equivalent sensor looks and feels much better for that type of filmmaking. Documentary or Journalism can get away with cropped sensors much better.
The final point is to know what format the camera you’re looking at outputs. There are few feelings in the world of filmmaking worse than buying a camera and then realizing you need to spend more getting the right programs to edit that particular format, or that your editor can’t transcode them correctly. So check if it outputs as .mov, .mp4, or .mts or some other random format that that specific camera maker decided to invent…
And also whether 1080p HD or 4K UHD is what you want to publish it. If you’re mainly aiming for web release then 1080p is still fine and will lower the cost of the camera for you. One piece of advice I’d give though is if you’re run & gun, buy a 4K camera, as you can always zoom in in post and get more shots for your 1080p piece.
Know your medium
Where are you going to publish your final work? Will It be YouTube, the big screen, film festivals?
More than likely your answer will be YouTube, but trying the indie filmmaker festival circuit is also a possibility.
So, if it’s YouTube, are you a vlogger, narrative filmmaker, short or long form, documentary, music video or educational? Let’s go through each and break down what type of camera is best in each situation. Hopefully, an overview like this will help you make a more informed decision on what camera to get.
Vlogging, live-form filming or Events
Being a vlogger is super popular now, and is also probably very saturated. So, make sure you have something that makes you stand out. My recommendation is to look more at the Prosumer camera or semi-pro camcorder range. These give you mobility, have mostly automatic settings and allow for fast footage transfers. They also tend to have good battery life and do not overheat due to lengthy use periods.
If you want a slightly cheaper option, then a smartphone or pocket camera is a good option. These cameras are very quick and easy and everything can be set to automatic.
If you are an “artist” and image quality is what you’re after, then a DLSR or mirrorless camera is the choice for you. Especially if you’re leaning more to filming events, as people often want to see the atmosphere rather than have a visual recording of the occasion.
Narrative film; short, medium or long form or Music videos
This is pretty straightforward, in my opinion, you will want a DSLR or mirrorless camera for this. Simply because of the detachable lenses and the ability to shoot in full frame. DSLR’s also have better color and light range in the price class they are in.
You really can’t go wrong with a DSLR in those cases, everyone loves looking at a shallow depth of field shot in a narrative film or a music video.
Documentary films; people or nature shots
If you’re aiming for journalistic documentaries then go more for the semi-pro camcorder, flip cameras or smartphones. Especially if it’s more event and people-oriented journalism. You will want speed and ease in those situations.
If it’s more nature, landscape or the person in nature, then we’re back to the trusted DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Mostly for the same reasons as mentioned above, you’ll be going for a look, color and image quality rather than getting a live story out there.
Our last genre, if you will, is educational content. For some reason, many institutions and people still use camcorders to record educational content. Unless you’re creating promotional video’s, you don’t really need large cameras. You’re just fine with an iPad or iPad mini. These tablets are brilliant as you can get them 64gb to 128gb sizes, they have good quality wide angles sensors/lenses and you can load iMovie onto them and edit and upload your video’s straight away.