View Full Version : Advice plz! Camera for documentary

06-11-2008, 01:51 PM
I've been scouring the internet for days trying to get a handle on my one question: which camera should I use for my documentary? And all the information I've found seemds to contradict itself and it's a muddle that has only left me more in question.

I am a screenwriter, and have directed two narrative films (35mm). After several years of only writing I got bit with the desire to make a documentary after an idea stuck hard with me. Ok, so my doc will be more of a cultural explorative piece with mostly talking interviews (experts, artists, etc.). I'm interested in seeing this film broadcast for tv, and at minimum do the academic circuit. (i'm thinking all this background info will help in answering my question.)

I'm now trying to figure out what camera to use. SHould I buy? Should I rent? Well,I can afford up to about $1200 and I've seen used Sony PD 150's and Panasonic AG-DVC20 and AG-DVC7 within my range. But the internet boards are filled with this warning that to shoot in anything but HDV is ludicrous considering that it will soon be the industry standard. Whereas, other's have more of a 'who gives a crap, just shoot your movie by any means necessary' philosophy. Now I believe in my film and I have hopes that it will have a shelf life longer than 5 years, but trying to figure out this tech side of what cam to use (yes, I will be shooting, it's a two man crew) is starting to slow me down. Therefore, I'm asking for any help.

I care first and foremost about my story, which I really believe in, so I'm falling more into the category of 'screw it, get a pd150 and just shoot!'. but i want to be smart about it too, and I just haven't been up on the tech debates to determine once and for all the best camera route to go. Any help? thanks.

06-11-2008, 03:52 PM
Yep. You have found that everyone has an opinion. And many times those
opinions contradict each other. That's going to happen here, too.

I've been editing a doc for a year. A guy hiking across the country on The
American Discovery Trail. He is shooting with the Canon GL1. A standard def
camera. Several producers and companies have expressed interesting in
distribution to DVD or even cable. Not one has said shooting SD is ludicrous.

The PD150 is an excellent camera that can be used for a documentary. So
are the Panasonic's you mention.

There are three things that are VERY important when getting a camera:

Three CCD’s
Manual controls for the iris, shutter, focus and white balance.
A microphone input.

In the $1,000 - $1,500 range:

The JVC GZ-MG505 is in the $800 range. It has a mic input and records to a

I like the new JVC GZ-HD7. I’ve seen these on line for as little as $1,200. A
really nice Fujinon lens makes a huge difference and full manual controls is
important. Three 1/5’ 16:9 progressive scan CCD’s are pretty impressive for
a camera in this price range. It records directly to a built in 60GB hard drive.
It has manual controls, a mic input and an excellent focus ring which is
surprisingly rare on small cameras.

Both the JVC HD5 and HD6 have a mic input and both record to HDD - the
HD6 can record 1080/60p through HDMI - pretty impressive.

The Panasonic PV-GS400 is terrific 3CCD cameras. Unfortunately, it’s hard to
find and that’s too bad. It’s a great little camera. The 500 doesn’t have a mic
input - what are they thinking?

Close is the Canon HV20. It records in HDV (1080i) and 24p (60i), has a mic
input and manual controls of white balance and focus but it uses one 1/2.7”
CMOS sensor rather than 3 CCD’s. For me the jury is still out on the CMOS.
And it’s so small the handling is difficult.

The HV30 adds a 30f (Canon’s “frame mode”) in addition to 24p.

The Sony HDR-SR12 has a mic input and a good sized 120GB HDD. It uses a
1/3” CMOS chip and like the Canon is really small. Because of the input placement,
the mic cable kept getting in my way. The HR9 (which records to tape) is also
a nice, very small, camera with the essentials. Again the mic input is just below
the lens which is rather poor placement, in my opinion.

I think you're right - screw it, get a pd150 and just shoot!

06-11-2008, 05:02 PM
I just finished reading the book "Shut up and Shoot, a Documentary Guide" (see The book is specifically about shooting documentaries. One point the author made very strongly is that quality audio acquisition is more important than picture quality.

Yet another POV to add to your list of contradictions! :)

p.s. I recommend the book to all non-technical shooters. It takes a very non-technical, practical approach to the documentary production. It talks about camera features, what you absolutely need, and what is nice to have. He talks about lighting and sound (and more); all from a practical point of view with low budget options. It is not a technical book.

06-11-2008, 05:48 PM
I recommend renting. Rather than spending the money on a consumer camera, use it to hire a prosumer camera for a week and get broadcast quality images.

06-11-2008, 06:55 PM
I recommend renting. Rather than spending the money on a consumer camera, use it to hire a prosumer camera for a week and get broadcast quality images.

I'm wondering if that's cost effective for a documentary?

What is the average price for a week rental of a prosumer camera?

06-12-2008, 01:39 AM
I'm wondering if that's cost effective for a documentary?
Especially for recording interviews and guerrilla style filming.

06-12-2008, 09:33 AM
Thank you all! Yes, I do have the book, 'ShutUp and Shoot', Great guide, it does have a small list of camera recommendations however and it doesn't mention some camera's I see recommended on the boards.
And I did price rental as opposed to buying. With the production schedule by time i finished, not taking into account unforseen extra shoot days, I would have spent about three quarters of the cost of a used camera in the $1000 range.

As of now, I'm leaning towards a sony pd150 on sale for $699 or the JVC GZ-MG505 directorik suggested and not panic about the impending HDV takeover.

06-12-2008, 09:50 AM
I might also be willing to loan you my Panasonic AG DVC80. It has been a great camera. It's in excellent condition, has XLR inputs, and I hate to watch it sit and collect dust. If the batteries don't get used and recharged, they will go bad. I haven't been able to bring myself to sell the camera.

Just a thought.

06-12-2008, 10:12 AM
It's in excellent condition, has XLR inputs, and I hate to watch it sit and collect dust.

oh, man that hurts. A camera collecting dust! lol. I would totally take you up on your offer, however I'm the kingdom of Brooklyn, NY, far from NC.
Hmmmm, i just can't help but wonder how much a camera just sitting and collecting dust would go for????

06-12-2008, 10:52 AM
Hmmmm, i just can't help but wonder how much a camera just sitting and collecting dust would go for????
Therein lies the problem with selling it. The anamorphic adaptor alone is worth $700 and the camera lives in a $75 Pelican case, but I probably couldn't get $1500 for the entire package, so I let it collect dust in the hope that one day I'll be glad to have it as a backup. It really does shoot great video. It has the same configuration as the DVX100, but no progressive frame mode. Combined with the anamorphic adapter, it shoots beautiful, full resolution 16x9 video. :tear:

To be fair, the camera is way out of warranty and it does have some mileage on it. A new DVX100B sells for $2500 so my camera probably isn't worth more than $500. I could re-purpose the Pelican case and try to sell the anamorphic adapter separately, but for $500, the camera can serve as an inexpensive DV deck, or expensive web-cam. :rolleyes:

I'm bad when it comes to parting with old equipment; especially when it has a flawless track record. I'll bet I'm not the only person who has a collection of 35 mm SLRs. :lol: