So you have decided you want to take your filmmaking to the next level with a new camera? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Visually speaking, the most impressive video quality comes from cameras with large sensors. Large sensors like those found in digital SLRs allow better low-light performance shallower depths of field (DOF), and better optics. More specifically, these higher end cameras allow you to control the exposure and color balance of your videos so that they are consistent. A caveat to using a digital SLR is that they require manual focusing which takes practice but the reward is great once mastered.
This guide will primarily cover digital video SLRs, at least in the sub $5,000 price point. That is because these video cameras represent the best “pro quality” for the price. If you need more of a handy cam type of camera for home movies or soccer games, check out this guide instead.
$749 – Canon T1i Kit (with EF-S 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 IS lens)
Released in 2009, The T1i was Canon’s first crop-frame digital SLR that also featured HD-movie recording. It features a basic 1080p recording at 20 frames per second (fps) and 720p at 30 fps. Audio is recorded via a built in mono microphone (mic) and there is no 3.5mm input for an external mic.
Runner Up: $650 – Nikon D5000 Kit (with 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G VR lens)
If you have Nikon lenses and want to get into video recording or on a strict budget, the D5000 is a worthy option at $650 . Unlike the T1i, it only features 720p recording at 24 fps. It also features an articulating LCD which is helpful for composing your shots. No audio inputs are available (although a mono mic is included) and the Nikon dSLRS show a higher degree of rotating shutter artifacts (objects appear like jello when quickly panning).
$900 – Canon T2i Kit (with EF-S 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 IS lens)
The T2i is the successor to the T1i and Canon has added many of the features found on higher-end dSLRs like the 7D. This is the latest in the Rebel lineup as it was released in February of 2010. It shoots 1080p at 30 and 24fps and 720p at 24 and 60fps. It also takes an external microphone input, unlike the T1i.
$1700 – Canon 7D (Body Only)
$1900 – Canon 7D Kit (with EF 28-135mm F/3.5-5.6 IS lens)
The Canon 7D is Canon’s flagship crop frame camera. Like the T2i, it features 1080p recording at 30 and 24 fps, and 720p recording at 60 fps. A microphone input jack is available in addition to the built in mono mic. The 7D is priced higher than the T2i because it has a better build quality, can shoot still photos at 8 frames per second (18 MP), has weatherproofing, and has a better view finder among other things. Photography wise, it’s definitely a better camera.
Runner Up: $1500 – Nikon D300s (Body Only)
Again, if you have F-mount Nikon lenses, this would be an obvious solution to your video needs. The D300s features an external mic input, but like other Nikons is limited to 720p at 24 fps.
$2500 – Canon 5D Mark II (Body Only)
$3300 – Canon 5D Mark II Kit (with EF 24-105mm F/4L IS lens)
The Canon 5D Mark II was Canon’s first digital SLR to shoot movie. It is a full-frame camera that currently shoots 1080p video at 30 fps and 720p at 60 and 30 fps. A highly anticipated firmware updated is coming later this month (version 2.0.3) which will allow 1080p and 720p at 24fps. It will also enable 48 kHz (up from 44.1 kHz) audio recording, manual audio level gain, and a live histogram when in movie mode. Like the 7D, it features weatherproofing, a microphone input, and much more.
$5000 – Canon 1D Mark IV (Body Only)
This camera features Canon’s APS-H 1.3x crop sensor. Like the 7D, it shoots 1080p at 30 and 24 fps and 720p at 60 fps. This camera is geared towards professional sports and action photographers. It features a high-iso range of up to 104,200 ISO for ultra-low light shooting. Unless you need a high framerate (10 fps) for stills or a professional-grade autofocus, go with the 5D Mark II and spend the money on lenses.
$17,500 - RED One (Body Only)
If you couldn’t already tell from the price, the RED cameras represent a professional line of cinematic gear. This camera shoots at an extremely high resolution of 4K (4096 x 2034 pixels) at 30fps! You can read more about them at RED’s website.
$0+ DSLR Lenses
DSLR lenses allow you to alter both your depth and field of view. To a certain extent, premium lenses will allow you to capture more light, sharper videos, and better color. The main reason for upgrading your lens is to change the perspective of your shot. Longer focal length lenses allow you to get closer to your subject while smaller focal length lenses allow you to capture wider shots and fit more in your scene. Another important reason for new lenses are larger apertures. Large apertures (opening in the lens) allow you to narrow your depth of field and make your subject in focus pop. As previously stated, a larger aperture allows you to capture more light to keep your ISO lower, resulting in a cleaner video.
I hope this guide has given you a brief introduction to SLRs as professional level video cameras to take your filmmaking to the next level and give it that magical cinematic look! The prices here are list prices and you should be able to find them cheaper when on sale or if you shop around. For most, the kit lens will suit you just fine if you are starting out and you can slowly expand your system overtime with prime lenses, audio equipment, and camera supports.