View Full Version : WIP: FAQ: Which Camera Should I Buy?

03-19-2005, 07:44 PM
FAQ: What Video Camera Should I Buy?

I have noticed a frequent amount of questions regarding making camera purchases. As we all know, these decisions are not easy, as we all want to get the best bang for our buck. As seems to be the case with most technology, trying to make a decision on cameras is also made more difficult by confusing terms, brands pushing inferior products and salespeople who are, to say the least, less informed than they should be.

So we here at IndieTalk will keep this FAQ updated as much as possible to make your buying experience easier.

PLEASE NOTE - This FAQ will mostly appeal to those looking to purchase a video camera. It does contain information that is relevant to purchasing a film camera, but it is highly directed at video.



SECTION 1 - All the stuff you need to know

1.1 - What is the Difference in Formats?
1.1.1 - Mini-DV
1.1.2 - Digital-8
1.1.3 - DVCAM, DVCPro
1.1.4 - HDCAM

1.2 - What is a CCD?
1.2.1 - 1 CCD or 3 CCD's?
1.2.2 - Is a 1/2" CCD really better than a 1/6" CCD?

1.3 - Optics - What should I know about Lenses?
1.3.1 - Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom - Why is Optical so much Better?
1.3.2 - Wide-angle Attatchements?
1.3.3 - Filters?

1.4 - Aspect Ratio Considerations
1.4.1 - Aspect Ratios Explained - 1.33, 1.66, 1.85, 2.35, 2.66
1.4.2 - What is 16x9 (Widescreen)? Is it better than 4x3 (Regular TV Frame)?
1.4.3 - True 16x9 vs. Cropped (Fake) 16.9 vs. Any other Fake Aspect Ratio
1.4.4 - Should I use 16x9 or 4x3?

1.5 - Other nifty features of Cameras

SECTION 2 - Buying a Camera for Your Needs/Price Range

2.1 Buying your FIRST Video Camera - ($200-$800)

2.2 Buying a midrange Camera Once you've learned the basics (XL1, GL2, DVX100, VX2100, etc.) ($800 - $2500)

2.3 Buying a high-end Camera (XL2, DVX100a, Z1, etc.) ($2500 - $10000)

2.4 Buying/Renting HD Cameras

SECTON 3 - Don't Forget the Accessories!

SECTION 4 - Now That I've Got the Camera, What Else Should/Could I have?

4.1 - Editing Station
4.1.1 - Basic overview of Hardware
4.1.2 - Basic overview of software
4.1.3 - Analog/SDI/Firewire capture

4.2 - Lights
4.2.1 - Do it Yourself
4.2.2 - Pro Stuff

4.3 - Steadying Systems
4.3.1 - Steadycam type systems
4.3.2 - Dollies
4.3.3 - Cranes, Jibs and others.

SECTION 5 - What does the future hold?

5.1 - High Definition
5.2 - Digital Distribution in Theaters
5.3 - Others

03-19-2005, 07:46 PM
Feel free to add anything or help me write it guys, otherwise I will just keep plugging away at it.

03-19-2005, 09:40 PM
SECTION 1 - All the Stuff You Need To Know

1.1 – What is the difference in Formats – DV? Mini-DV? DVC? HDCam? Digital-8? Argh!

These different formats are all varieties of storage that different cameras from different brands use. Some are older and some are newer, Some created by Sony, some created by Panasonic and others. The defining part of these formats is much like cameras, you usually get what you pay for. More expensive formats like P2 and HDCam only work with specific cameras that are expensive, but they have a higher resolution. Formats like Digital-8, Mini-DV, and DVCam are relatively inexpensive and extremely popular, but do not have a high definition resolution. So which one is right for you? Read on.

1.1.1 – Mini-DV (DV mode and HDV mode)

Mini-DV (Digital Video) is a digital format of tape that has become extremely popular and is fairly inexpensive. It is the most used format for ultra-low budget filmmakers and amatuer videographers. This format is basically the superceding format for the superior SuperVHS format of the 1980's. You can buy cameras that use Mini-DV from $200 to $6000, and it can accept recording in traditional DV mode (525 lines of vertical resolution) all the way to the new HDV (over 1000 lines of resolution). You can buy the cameras at Wal-Mart and the tape stock too - this means you'll never be in a situation where you can't find more tapes, nor a replacement camera quickly. This format will produce broadcast quality images and has 60 minute or more of recording time. I should note here as is explained later, all mini-dv cameras are capable of recording 525 lines of resolution. This is not always the case, but usually this only fluctuates marginally (This is called perceived resolution). Also, only new cameras such as the FX1, Z1, HD-1, HD-10, and HD100 currently support HDV recording. This format is most suggested for low-budget filmmakers of all types above any other format.

1.1.2 - Digital-8 - Digital 8mm is a proprietary format to allow people to record on 8mm tapes digitally. It does produce a nice signal, but was basically only invented to allow home video makers to continue to use 8mm tapes. However, the tape runs at twice the speed as 8mm, so a 60m tape will only last 30m (1.5x for PAL format). At this stage, this format will not be around much longer.

1.1.3 - DVCAM, DVCPRO - Neither format alone will produce a picture better than an image recorded by a mini-dv camera. It is the high-end (usually Electronic News Gathering ENG) cameras with better optics and recording systems that produce a slightly better picture. These formats are usually used for most News shows, Sports programs, and anything else that is a standard definition show on television.

1.1.4 - HDCAM - This format is used on high end High Definition cameras for aquisition and as a projectable format alternative to film. In other words, If you orignated on 35mm film, 16mm film, or High Definition, eventually you could dub to HDCAM to project your movie at festivals.


1.2 - What is a CCD?

"Short for charged coupled device; a mechanism that converts light into a proportional (analog) electrical current; the two main types of CCD are linear arrays, used in flatbed scanners and digital copiers, and area arrays, found in camcorders, digital cameras, and the like." - CNET

In Short, the CCD is the same thing as film in a film camera. It captures the images and transforms it from light into digital numbers when then goes through the rest of the camera's processing chips and such.

A CCD is obviously a very important feature of a camera. The difference in picture between 1x1/5"CCD and 3x1/2" CCD is significant. This is why you need to read this section very carefully.

It should also be noted here that there is a difference between regular 4x3 CCD's which can produce a 4x3 aspect ratio AND a squeezed (fake) 16x9 Aspect ratio and true 16x9 CCD's which can do both 4x3 and 16x9. The true 16x9 chips are found usually on higher end cameras and are more expensive.

1.2.1 - 1 CCD or 3 CCD's?

This is an ongoing debate.

1 CCD means the camera has 1 CCD to gather all of the light and transform it into numbers.

3 CCD's means each CCD is usually smaller than in 1 CCD cameras, but each CCD has its own part of the color spectrum that it is responsible for.

However, as overall CCD sizes grow, the need for 3 seperate CCD's diminishes. Suffice to say, if you have a choice between 3 and 1 CCD for the same price and the CCD's are roughly the same size, by all means go for the 3 CCD camera. For instance, if you have a camera with a 1/4" CCD and one with 3 1/6" CCD's, the picture may be similar, but the color accuracy will likely be superior with the 3CCD camera.

1.2.2 - Is a 1/2" CCD really better than a 1/6" CCD?

Yes. Of course this also matters on what comes before and after the CCD - the lense and the processors in the camera. Bigger CCD = More light capturing, more detail. This is why as newer higher end cameras come out, they typically have larger CCD's. The very well respected Mini-DV cameras like the XL-2 have larger CCD's (The XL2 has 3x1/3" CCD's - that's 1 full inch of CCD size overall).


1.3 - Optics - What should I know about Lenses?

Most Video cameras have built in lenses that zoom. Only very high end Canon and other cameras have detatchable lenses (like a film camera would). Manual Focus and aperature rings are also usually found only on higher end cameras/

1.3.1 - Optical Zoom vs. Digital Zoom - Why is Optical so much Better?

Just like how it sounds - optical zoom takes place inside of the lens and digital zoom takes place inside of the camera's processing. The optical zoom wins picture wise every time because it still retains the resolution and detail, just closer to the subject. The digital zoom starts with the full resolution of the captured image and then essentially digitally "blows-up" the subject. This is why you want a high optical zoom (10x-20x) and you really shouldn't care about digital zoom. And it goes without saying, if you don't have to zoom on a subject, don't. Move the camera closer.

1.3.2 - Wide-angle, Anamorphic Attatchments? - Wide-Angle - There are adapters available from Century Optics and others that allow you to get a wide-angle image. They screw onto the lens already on the camera and simply give you a wider angle than what is available to you just using the regular lens. This is great for more confined spaces and really just about any cinema. Master shots in wide frame generally look very cinematic. - Anamorphic - Anamorphic adapters for 4x3 CCD Mini-DV Cameras do exist but they are very expensive (Usually over $1k). They accomplish a better widescreen image than a digital squeeze by a 4x3CCD camera, but not as good as a true 16x9 CCD camera would.

1.3.3 - Filters?

Filters exist in the same number as for film cameras. From Polarizers to Neutral Density filters, brands like Tiffen and Hoya offer many to choose from and you owe it to yourself to check them out. If there is one filter I would say you need, it is a UV filter. This will protect your camera's lens and block harmul UV rays (which also cause haze on your image). One other filter I would strongly recommend would be a 2x Neutral Density Filter - these ND filters cut light linearly, like putting a pair of sunglasses on your camera. You may not think you need it, but when it is noon and you don't want washed out colors and blown out whites, you want to use that ND filter.

Filters come in various sizes which refer to their thread size in the rear - like 77mm and 42mm. Find out what the thread size is on your video camera before buying your filters.

03-19-2005, 09:41 PM
1.4 - Aspect Ratio Considerations

This is a primary area of concern for all productions.

When you go to a cinema, there is a feeling you get from watching an image that is enormously wider than it is tall, and similarly there are times watching sports and the like that the more image you have on screen, the better. The more players you can see on the field, the better. This is why Aspect Ratios are important, and they really become important as you become more professional with your work and want it to be distributed or shown in theaters. The two common aspect ratios found in video cameras are 4x3 and 16x9.

Aspect Ratios are expressed in equivelent ways.

4x3 is equivellent to a Aspect Ratio of 1.33:1 meaning an image that is 1.33 times as wide as it is tall.

2.66:1 would be 2.66 times wider than it is tall.

1.4.1 - Aspect Ratios Explained - 1.33, 1.66, 1.85, 2.35, 2.66

Here's some pictorial descriptions:

Here's the definitions that pertain to Digital Video:

1.33 - (otherwise known as 4x3) This is standard NTSC television. Also known as full frame. This is much less preferable of a format for cinematic projection because it is basically square and does not conform to movie theater screens. For television (non-widescreen), however, this is perfectly acceptable. Commercials, News programs, Sports shows, Talk Shows, and even to a limited extent, Documentaries, can be 4x3.

1.85 - (otherwise known as 16x9) This is the ratio for HDTV. It is known as Academy. It is creeping into 4x3 television too, as seen by the letterboxed (black bars at top and bottom) picture during commercials and TV shows. These images are then perfectly suited to work with HDTV widescreen broadcasts, as well as theatrical projection, because they fill the screen size well.

1.4.2 - What is 16x9 (Widescreen)? Is it better than 4x3 (Regular TV Frame)?

16x9 is a newer development for video. As explained above, each ratio has a purpose and therefore you should consider what your project's outlet will eventually be. Both will fit onto a DVD, but 16x9 will be specially converted for HDTV/widescreen sets to fill the screen. Neither is better than the other, but as we move more towards Widescreen at home, cinematic endeavors like short films and features are better off shot on 16x9 because they will be more apt to find a home with distributors.

1.4.3 - True 16x9 vs. Cropped (Fake) 16.9 vs. Any other Fake Aspect Ratio

This is VERY important - listen up. Of all of the apect ratios mentioned, there is true and then there is fake (cropped). True Widescreen Aspect Ratio like 16x9 or 1.85:1 is going to give you much better resolution and detail than fake widescreen. What do I mean by fake (cropped)?

If you take a 4x3 image and simply crop it by adding a black bar at the top and bottom, you can make an image 16x9 (or any other aspect ratio). But that isn't actually capturing the image in the widescreen ratio, it is just faking it. This looks fine on a 4x3 TV but put up on a 50' theater screen, the difference is clear. True 16x9 is achieved ONLY with True 16x9 chips, like from an XL2. TRUE 16x9 IS HIGHLY SUPERIOR TO FAKE 16x9 HOWEVER YOU ACCOMPLISH IT.

Fake 16:9 can be done in post or in camera. In post, just crop the image. In camera, a feature called digital squeeze will perform a FAKE anamorphic action digitally to emulate 16x9, or Letterbox 16x9 will simply crop the 4x3 image as I mentioned you can do in Post. If you have to fake it, I highly suggest cropping in post as then you have the option of moving the final image area up or down on the frame.

A final word for the highly technical minded - Cinema Scope (2.40) is possible by using an anamorphic adapter on a true 16x9 camera. This is expensive and if you know what I am talking about here you likely have more info than I can give you.

1.4.4 - Should I use 16x9 or 4x3?

Once again, use what you need to use for your project. For all Cinema, 16x9 is preferable. For TV or Documentaries, 4x3 is probably preferred. If you are making a TV report for your local station, they need to be able to cut in your footage with their broadcast, so if they broadcast in 4x3, you better shoot in 4x3. Both 16x9 and 4x3 is equivelent if planning to release on DVD, but the 16x9 image will show much better on widescreen HDTV sets. My final recommendation is for pure futureproofing of your stuff, shoot 16x9 if you dont have to shoot in 4x3.

1.5 - Other nifty features of Cameras

There are tons of other great features of cameras that can lead to bad, good, and great productions. Each camera is specific, but typically the more settings that have manual adjustments, the better. On your first productions you shouldn't concern yourself with these things. Later, adjustments like gamma, sharpness, and brightness/contrast will not only make sense, but you will become an expert on tweaking and refining these to match the look you want to get on screen. As I said earlier, the amount you need to adjust on each of these is not only dependent on the specific camera, but is subjective to you the filmmaker, and also what will work for the production.

2.1 (Contributed by WideShot) Right, this is your FIRST camera. You don't need to pay thousands of dollars to learn the basics of using a camera and getting the most out of it. In fact, I would recommend, even if you have the budget for a $1000+ camera, to start with a very low end DV camera, which can be had for $200-$500. Nearly all of the new cameras today in this price range will produce a nice enough picture that you will have no problem making some nice first-time shorts with it. The camera's built in mic will make recording sound automatic, which allows you to focus on learning camera techniques, cinematography and directing and not get so distracted with separate sound and other things.

Also, buying such an inexpensive camera allows you to buy a tripod and carrying bag inexpensively and get used to using a tripod. Read on to the other questions so you can get idea of what to look for in a camera, but in short, as long as it has firewire and is min-dv and is new, it should be good enough to learn on.

03-19-2005, 11:01 PM
Dan, FYI, These posts can only be 10k characters so it will have to be split into seperate posts.

03-20-2005, 05:53 AM
Looks great. Not my area of expertise, but a great resource. Good work, dude.

03-21-2005, 08:13 PM
Let me know when the FAQ involves "the best way to shoot a scene where you lead actor hits his face on a toilet seat" or "the best way to tell a lame joke about your lead actor hitting his face on a toilet seat."

Seriously Wide. Great idea! You are a better man than I for undertaking this. It also helps that you know a hell of a lot about cameras.


03-22-2005, 04:24 PM
Thanks for the support guys! Again, ANY technical stuff you think should be included in this basic Camera/format FAQ feel free to post here.

On that thread I answered more questions which I will add to the FAQ, especially the fps issue, which is partly why I went into such a detailed response.

Poke or Will - Maybe you could write a quick thing on a question like, "OK Ive got my cheap Mini-Dv camera, how do I start learning to make movies?" Like coming up with a basic premise, taking into account what you have, how to at least buy a pizza to feed your tiny crew... something simple like that. If not, no problem, I know you guys are both very busy guys! I'd ask Clive but I know he's just sitting around with nothing to do himself ;)

Will Vincent
03-22-2005, 07:46 PM
I'll see if I can't whip up some "feeding your crew on a shoestring budget recipes" or something.. ;)

Maybe it's not directly related.. but I'll title it something like this:

"HELP! I spent my life savings on this camera, now I can't afford to feed my cast and crew... can I?" yeah.. that'll work. :)

03-22-2005, 07:51 PM
After we get done with this ITOOFC 3 thing I will probably be able to contribute more.


08-11-2005, 11:46 AM
I worked some more on this today. All the "what camera should I buy" questions are piling up, so Ill try to get this done.

I'm up to section 4.1.2 right now. I think I'll offer the thread as the TOC in a post with a .doc or a .txt as a download.