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Choosing a DSLR

This guide focuses on Canon’s EOS series of DSLRs (1D Mark IV, 5D Mark II, 7D, Rebel T1i, Rebel T2i), but also pertains to Nikon’s cameras (D90, D300s, D3s), as well as other video-capable DSLRs like the Panasonic Lumix GH1, Pentax K-7 HD, and Sony’s NEX series. If you’re wondering why some DSLRs shoot video and others don’t — or why none of them did a couple years ago — check out Gizmodo’s article. At this point in time I believe the Canon DSLRs offer the best quality and flexibility for filmmakers, due in part to their superior h.264-based codec (which is of higher quality than the MJPEG codecs of Nikon and the lower-bitrate AVCHD codec of Panasonic’s offering). However there are several top DSLRs contending for your hard-earned dollars (not all Canons); each camera has its particular strengths and weaknesses, which should help you decide which DSLR is right for your particular needs.

The main thing to understand while reading the following comparison is how DSLR sensor size affects the images the camera produces. Larger sensors aren’t always better, but for our purposes it’s easiest to think of larger sensors as capturing images that have a shallower depth of field, greater dynamic range, and better low-light sensitivity. Here is a chart of DSLR sensor size:1

CMOS Sensor Size of DSLR HDSLR VDSLR Cameras Canon T2i Canon 5D Mark II Canon 7D Canon 1D Mark IV Nikon D3s Panasonic GH1 APS-C APS-H Full Frame Micro 4:3As you can see in the chart, Canon and Nikon’s implementation of APS-C is slightly different, but not enough to make a practical difference. For comparison’s sake, I’ve included the $9,000 Sony EX-3 professional video camera in the chart — you can see how much larger all of these DSLR sensors are, which is the chief reason why DSLRs are such a disruptive technology. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the top DSLRs for filmmaking:

Canon 5D Mark II


Strengths: In my opinion, thanks to its full frame sensor the 5D produces the smoothest, most beautiful images of them all (this should be written out four times because this factor far outweighs the others… ) Also due to the sensor size, the 5D is the friendliest of the Canon DSLRs for using old SLR lenses (you don’t have to deal with crop factors). Thanks to a firmware update, shoots at 1080p/24p as well as 30p. Also has manual 48KHz audio. Good build quality. Shoots terrific stills.

Weaknesses: HDMI output drops to 480p the moment you hit record; this is terrible for using field monitors (not so much an issue if you’re planning on using a LCD viewfinder). Footage starts to get noisy from heat without the camera telling you it’s overheating. Full frame sensor can be an issue if you want to adapt cine lenses, which don’t cover the almost VistaVision-sized sensor. No 50p or 60p which means you can’t get great slow-motion footage from the camera. Full frame sensor means your depth of field is so shallow that it can be difficult to pull focus.

Canon T2i (a.k.a 550D)

Strengths: A great deal — it’s basically the same camera as the 7D (see below) for less than half the price. Cinema-sized APS-C sensor size with lots of recording options: at 1080p, 24p/25p/30p; at 720p, 50p/60p (great for slow-mo work). Terrific LCD screen. Did I mention the T2i is a great deal? IMO it can’t be beat as a “first DSLR.”

Weaknesses: Not much weather coating, and not as good at shooting stills as some of the others (slower continuous shooting speed, no top LCD). HDMI-out drops to 480p during recording. Overheats easily. No manual audio control.

Canon 7D


Strengths: Offers some advantages over its cheaper cousin T2i, chiefly that its HDMI-out stays at 1080i during recording. If you’re planning on using a field monitor, this is huge. The 7D is also crazily weatherproofed — video camera users will not be used to being able to leave a camera recording in rain and snow, but the 7D can handle adverse conditions with aplomb; something to keep in mind if you’re shooting in extreme conditions. Same sensor size and flexible video recording options as the T2i.

Weaknesses: More expensive than the T2i without offering a ton of upgraded features — it’s still priced very aggressively, and its price wouldn’t be considered a “weakness” if it weren’t for the cheapness of the T2i. Overheats easily. No manual audio control.

Canon 60D

Strengths:Possibly the best combination of price/performance currently available. The main advantage the 60D offers over the slightly older 7D is it has an articulating LCD screen, which is a DSLR first and a must-have for shooting video. If you’re not going to be using a field monitor, the flip-out LCD is a life-saver. Same sensor size and flexible video recording options as the 7D.

Weaknesses: The only disadvantage the 60D has compared to the 7D, to my knowledge, is that it doesn’t output a full HD signal through its HDMI port (the 7D does). If you’re going to be shooting extensively with a field monitor, this is something to keep in mind.

Canon 1D Mark IV


Strengths: Canon engineers applied some magic to the sensor and got some extra low-light performance out of the sensor (most famously demonstrated by Nocturne). APS-H sensor size splits the difference between Full Frame and APS-C, which can offer some interesting advantages (zoom lenses get a bit more reach and your lens kit effectively doubles if you’re pairing the 1D with a different camera because primes attain a different focal length on the 1D). Beefier batteries, beefier build quality.

Weaknesses: APS-H sensor splits the difference between Full Frame and APS-C, which can offer some interesting disadvantages (good luck finding good wide-angle lenses). No manual audio. More than twice as expensive as the 5D Mark II, yet has a smaller sensor.

Nikon D3s


Strengths: Full frame sensor just like the 5DmkII; the best low-light performer of them all thanks to A) the size of the sensor, B) larger pixels on the same size sensor (the D3s is 12MP instead of 21MP), and C) better noise reduction. If you’ve got a lot of Nikon lenses, you don’t need to mess with adapters. Probably the best camera in this roundup for taking still photos.

Weaknesses: Maxes out at 720p! Crappy MJPEG recording codec. 5-minute clip limit (Canons max out at 12 minute takes). Nikon engineers are still significantly behind Canon engineers when it comes to video and so the $5k Nikon DSLR trails the $800 Canon when it comes to resolution, codec, and frame rate options. No manual audio control.

Panasonic GH1


Strengths: Inexpensive. Offers 1080p at 24p and 720p at 60p (for North America; 25p and 50p for PAL countries). Articulating LCD screen and actually viable auto focus give shooters greater flexibility than the other DSLRs here. The GH1 also doesn’t line-skip like the Canons do which reduces or eliminates aliasing problems. I didn’t consider the GH1 to be a particularly viable camera for filmmaking because of its MJPEG codec, until it was significantly upgraded thanks to a brilliant hacked firmware that allows the codec bitrate to be raised from 17Mbit to 50Mbit. At such a high datarate the efficiency of the inferior MJPEG codec is much less of an issue; this singlehandedly transforms the GH1 into a viable moviemaking tool. DVXUser has some GH1/5D comparisons, from which users seem to favor the GH1′s image; I like the filmic look of the 5D much better, but the GH1 costs much less.

Weaknesses: Low-bitrate MJPEG codec is crippling if you’re not into the idea of installing unsupported hacked firmware on your $1k equipment. Not great in low light no matter what you do to the firmware. Micro 4/3 sensor won’t give you as shallow a DOF as the rest of the cameras here. No manual audio options.

To summarize, I still like the Canon 5D Mark II as an all-around great DSLR (for both movies and stills) despite its quirks; once Canon added 24p and manual 48KHz audio via firmware update, the 5D became a much more viable tool for shooting, say, feature films. On the lower end the T2i is so much camera for the money that I can’t see a downside to owning one (even as a B cam to, say, a 5D). As the GH1‘s hacked firmware matures, it will be interesting to see if it catches up to the Canons.

One could write an entire guide on choosing a DSLR, but that is a never-ending and ever-changing debate that I can’t resolve for anyone; each shooter’s DSLR choice comes down to availability, price point, and their own particular needs. Take into account the strengths and weaknesses mentioned above and also check out the forums for further info! Also, when budgeting for a camera package, assume the camera itself is going to make up a third (or less) of your overall expenses. This is just a rough rule of thumb, but if you have $8k to spend, don’t target a camera that costs $5k; consider a $2-3k camera body and then budget for lenses, tripod, audio equipment, etc. and see where you end up. While DSLRs are capable of capturing great moving images, they are by no means optimal for movie making in terms of features or ergonomics; thus a plethora of add-ons are necessary to make a DSLR behave like a “legitimate” movie camera. Unfortunately, much of the add-on market is targeted at accessorizing cameras that cost several times as much as a DSLR; when your camera costs $300k, it makes sense to spend $5k on a matte box; when your camera itself cost $3k, it’s a bit harder to justify. This guide focuses on finding quality equipment on a reasonable budget.

  1. Sensor size illustration modified from a Wikipedia image by Moxfyre and Autopilot. []