“What camera should I get?”

Izzy on the ground with camera.

Izzy on the ground with camera.

“What camera should I get?”

This is one of the most common questions people ask me, and unfortunately it’s nearly impossible for me to answer because there are so many variables that go into the decision-making process.

Instead of making any recommendations for specific cameras, I’ll share some general things to consider when you’re trying to decide what camera you should get for shooting video.

The categories of cameras I’ll discuss here are:

  • Consumer-level camcorders
  • Prosumer/professional camcorders
  • DSLR cameras (which usually shoot both video and still photos)
  • Point-and-shoot (pocket cameras for both video and still photos)
  • Smartphone cameras
  • Point-of-view (POV) – action cameras, such as GoPro

There are plenty more categories of video cameras out there, of course, but these are the main ones I’ll discuss here.

Personally, I like to start comparing by asking some questions. Here are some good questions to consider as you’re weighing the options:

Do you need to zoom?

If you’re a parent at the back of a school audience, trying to capture decent footage of your child performing in a school play, zooming helps.

One of the big advantages of a traditional camcorder (consumer or prosumer) is they usually have very good optical zooms. You can be far from the action but zoom in close to capture the details on video.

Smartphones and POV cameras tend to have horrible zoom options. For example, a smartphone usually lets you zoom digitally, but it’s not a real zoom. You’re just magnifying pixels, which can result in poor quality footage.

A point-and-shoot camera can sometimes zoom, but usually not quite as far as a traditional camcorder.

A DSLR camera can zoom if you attach a telephoto lens. That said, the lens can be big and heavy, depending on the distance you need to zoom. Also, you might need to change lenses to change the different styles of shots you want.

A DSLR image sensor is usually larger than a camcorder sensor, so it takes a much bigger lens to get the same level of zoom.

Personally I like the camcorder option the best when I know I’ll be doing a lot of zooming.

Is good audio important for the kind of material you’ll be shooting? How important?

Some types of cameras capture better audio than others. For example, if the camera has a connector that allows you to attach an external microphone, then your audio potential improves.

Prosumer/professional camcorders usually have the best options because they come with XLR connectors built in. These professional audio connectors allow you to attach very high quality, external microphones.

A smartphone camera may not come with XLR connectors built-in, but you can get external adapters that give you the XLR connections.

Some POV cameras have external mic inputs, but many don’t. The same goes for DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras; some have mic inputs and many don’t.

In addition to mic inputs, the technology for capturing audio can differ dramatically between cameras. When someone says to me their camera can capture 16 bit, 48 kHz audio, that doesn’t mean a lot to me.

It’s kind of like saying “My camera shoots 1080p, 30 frames per second.” There can be an enormous quality difference between 1080p video images.

The same thing goes for audio. The resulting audio might be 16 bit, 48 kHz, but the quality differences can be enormous.

Personally my experience is that prosumer/professional camcorders generally have the best built-in audio capabilities.

(That said, even excellent camcorders can be outperformed by good, stand-alone digital audio recorders.)

Audio is important for video, so it’s definitely something to consider.

How small does the camera need to be?

Is the size of the camera important to you?

For example, if my goal is to shoot casual video of my family’s adventures around town, it probably doesn’t make sense for me to carry my big, professional camcorder around.

Instead, I might carry a small consumer camcorder, a point-and-shoot, a DSLR, or just my smartphone.

My own personal preference is to avoid using my smartphone for casual video, unless it’s the only camera I have with me. The form factor of a smartphone isn’t my favorite: It’s hard to hold without dropping it.

Instead, I usually wear a small pouch on my belt with a point-and-shoot video camera inside. It’s small, easy to access, and great for shooting casual video clips of my family’s adventures.

If we’re going someplace where I’m specifically looking to capture good (but still casual) video, then I’ll usually bring a DSLR camera.

Do you also need to shoot still photos?

Many cameras can shoot still photos, but some are better at it than others. The king for this would be the DSLR.

Most DSLR cameras are primarily for still photography, so if you plan on shooting lots of still photos, these are great for the job.

That said, although I love photography, most of my shooting is video.

I do want to reiterate that many cameras can shoot a still photo if they need to, but usually not as well as a DSLR (yet).

Do you need a “cinematic” image?

If you’re shooting something where you need (or want) a cinematic image, then out of the camera types I’m discussing here, the DSLR would prevail.

The other cameras have small sensors, so it’s hard to get a high quality, shallow depth of field.

The ability to control depth of field is helpful for creating a “cinematic” image.

I should mention that if cinematic imagery is your primary goal, then there’s a whole category of cinematic cameras out there for you. I haven’t been discussing the cinema camera category in this article, but these cameras are designed for cinematic use.

Typically they have a single, large sensor. They allow you to swap lenses, attach external mics, and shoot with a wider dynamic range. They’re a great option for shooting music videos, commercials, short films, etc.

Also, I should mention that technology is coming in the (near?) future that might allow us to shoot shallow depth of field video with small sensor cameras (such as a smartphone).

More to consider

These are just some of the questions to consider. There are plenty other questions you could think about, but I think these are a good place to start.

And frankly it’s one of the reasons I use more than one camera.

For professional video production, I use a professional camcorder.

For casual family video, I use a DSLR or a point-and-shoot camera.

As a last resort, I always have my smartphone with me (though I usually have at least the point-and-shoot).

The question “What camera should I get?” isn’t an easy one to answer. Different cameras are good for different situations, so it all depends on what you’ll be using them for.

What other questions would you add to this list? What are your thoughts? Feel free to add your comments below…

16 thoughts on ““What camera should I get?”

  1. Hi Izzy,

    I own a Sony HXR-NX5E (E stands for Europe = PAL) which is really good and easy to handle. I also have a 7″ screen added to it for when I shoot on a tripod and dolly it gives me an even better overview.
    I could also send you some pictures while filming.

  2. Good post.

    I have the Canon S100 P&S, which really doesn’t cut it, tho it is good enough ATM for my still basic learnings. Thinking of getting a mid-range DSLR… but may have to reconsider. Depth of field/cinematography isn’t in the cards for me, so maybe a low to mid-range dedicated vid cam will be a better choice.

  3. Hi Izzy, nice article.

    Question: I have a DSLR (NIKON 3200) for teaching recording at my home studio. Which additional lens do you suggest to have to supplement the default 18-55mm lens?


    1. I’m glad you liked the article.

      It’s difficult to answer a question about a lens like this because it depends on what you’ll be using it for. For example, you could ask yourself questions like:

      * How close to the action do you need to be?
      * What kind of look do you want?
      * How fast does the lens need to be?

      A lens can be a pretty big investment, so after you ask yourself these questions, I would recommend trying/renting lenses before buying.

      I hope that helps a bit. :)

  4. I’d love to know what consumer camcorder you would recommend as the best all around camera. Also, are 4K cameras worth the $? Can FCPX operate with those files?

    1. There are plenty of great consumer camcorders out there, so I don’t recommend just one. Start with what you’ll need, your budget, and then go from there (the Canon and Sony models are very popular). I’ve owned (and liked) a few different consumer camcorders from Canon.

      I haven’t personally upgraded to 4K yet (other than my phone, which I don’t use much for video). For the kind of video I produce, I don’t need 4K yet, so I’m waiting for the prices to come down and for it to be widely adopted.

      And yes, Final Cut Pro X can handle 4K, but of course that also depends on your computer system and drive speed.

      I hope that helps!

  5. One other important consideration for me at least is stabilisation. When you are shooting on the move, climbing, walking, driving etc… trying to hold the camera steady and get usable footage is often difficult. I recently videoed a friends swim team reunion party where I had to move from person to person with a roaming camera changing angles every few seconds as part of a multicam project. It was almost impossible to hold the camera steady for nearly 3 hours and I was regretting not having something like the osmo? which has a round camera floating on a stabilising gimble like they have in drones or at least a decent video camera like the Sony with built in optical stabilisation. I’ve tried a number of the basic steady cam mounts and they have their limitations. Shakey video is my biggest problem and renders a lot of my video useless. Using stabilisation software during editing crops the video and it tends to lose sharpness. I’d appreciate any recommendations regarding the best options for stable video shooting.

    1. My dad was a documentary film maker in the days of Super 8 and 16mm. I grew up shooting with an Arriflex 16mm as I helped him out.

      When I was 14 I went to summer camp. It was a camp specializing in mountain climbing and backpacking owned by a very old and gracious lady who had owned a girl’s camp that my mother attended as a girl.

      That year she asked me to make a short film from a camper’s perspective and gave me a Super 8 camera and film and a rudimentary “movieola” editing system (most of you probably don’t have a clue about A and B roll film editing).

      I shot a ton of footage and edited it together.

      At my birthday that year, after he had seen the result, I got a tripod as a present with an attached note that read “Here’s a tripod for you son, use it in good health, BUT USE IT!”

      Always use a tripod unless you can’t. If you can’t and you don’t have a Steadicam, try a monopod. Get one that has quick releases on the shaft and get a good ball-head that will hold your camera and a quick-release plate on top of the ball head. Manfrotto makes a good one.

      The hardest part of hand-carrying a camera is of course shake, which is why pros use bulky shoulder mounts that let them use both hands and their torso to steady the camera.

      With small cameras there’s little inertia to counter the natural quivering of your muscles and a monopod will allow you to get a good ground rest for most shots including pans. You can also get subtle side and push/pull movement by leaving the ball head slightly loose and the rocking the monopod in the desired direction while keeping the frame where you want it.

      Grounding the camera somehow, with a monopod, or by bracing yourself against an object goes a long way towards removing the shakes, but nothing works like a tripod and, if you can use them, dolly wheels.

      Run-and-gun is all the rage but a lot of that sort of video makes people seasick and they quickly stop watching.

      Dynamic video is a great thing, which is what’s so great about the Osmo or the Ronin, but avoid the impulse to overdo it. Use camera position and different angles and then edit them together, just like the big boys do.

      Also, every precision rifle shooter knows that standing off-hand is the worst for accuracy and that prone with a rest is the best, and in between are kneeling and sitting. With a video camera sitting in a tailor’s seat with your elbows locked to your knees is a great position for steadiness. If you need height, sit on a table or one of your production Pelican cases to elevate your viewpoint.

      And carry a small bean-bag or sandbag with you that will allow you to rest your camera on anything from a handrail to a table. With some long velcro straps on it you can strap it to a light pole or tree and then bed the camera into it as you lean against the pole.

      The last bit of advice is when you start to get fatigued and shaky, stop filming freehand because you’re wasting your time. Go to a tripod or supported shot no matter how much you want a dynamic move if you can’t be sure you’re getting rock-steady shots.

      As you know, shaky shots are a complete waste.

      Best of luck

  6. Great article thanks Izzy. Just thinking about photographs – you can extract a photo from video footage using Final Cut Pro (which you’ve probably already produced a video about no doubt!). This can be really useful if you need a photo and didn’t take one. I was once filming a medal presentation at a masters swimming gala zooming in from about 30 yards away. The official photographer was snapping away using flash photography close up. I was amazed when viewing the single frame footage in Final Cut Pro that a frame appeared all lit up by the flash and the next frame had no flash – great way of getting the professionals to help you take a variety of shots without them even realising it!

  7. I’m a underwater imager shooting stills as well as video. Once I was lucky that a scientific group let me work with their huge professional camera. I think in this environment in particular because the water wasn’t crystal clear, such a camera doesn’t add an advantage above a simple HD CamCorder. The CamCorder is a lot easier to handle and delivers very good quality. For filming I prefer the CamCorder above the DSLR, because it gives me the possibility to zoom-in up to macro quality and (at least with my housing) I can also take stills.
    For photography only I use the DSLR as it shoots in RAW, which gives me a lot more control over the end result without loosing quality.

  8. One thing to consider is a 4K video camera that can shoot 100 MB per second, extracting pictures from this video is excellent quality. You have 30 pictures per second to choose from and unlike an SLR when making selections all you have to do is watch the video when you see something interesting stop quickly search out the exact Frame you want. I know this goes against the grain of Long time still camera photographers but sometimes you need to think outside the box, and for that matter what’s wrong with using both. # just sayen

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