Documentaries require cameras with versatility. Here are some of the best options to choose from.
Documentary filmmakers embed themselves into the moment where quality, speed, and functionality are a top priority for the tools they use to tell their stories.
Like a one-man band with a bass drum mounted to their back and a snare on top of their heads, these filmmaking journalists usually cover the entire spectrum of production including sound recording, camera operation, story producing, and everything in between.
When we look for a camera that can aid them in their creative tasks, we’re looking for one that can really do it all. A loner. A device that can shoot fantastic video, capture clean and clear sound, one that is small and portable, and easy to use in a high-pressure, fast-paced environment.
Here are the best available cameras available today for documentary work.
Best Overall: Sony FX6
The Sony FX6 is a compact beast of a camera that is loaded with features that rival its larger and more expensive big brother, the Sony FX9. With a glorious Full-Frame image sensor, rock-solid codecs, an easy RAW video output, astonishing high-speed modes, and a size and weight that allow it to be mounted anywhere to anything, this camera is a sure-fire solution for a documentary filmmaker who is on the go.
Sony has had us seeing in the dark for the better part of the last decade with their A7S mirrorless series of cameras. The FX6 builds on top of that full-frame gem with an even more advanced low-light capability. The FX6 can capture a clean image at 12,800 ISO and still push the gain further and further to a point where we’re seeing things clearly in nothing but moonlight.
In Slog-3 it can capture 15+ stops of dynamic range, which is absolutely essential for a documentary filmmaker who needs to set things up quickly. With this camera, you need not worry about avoiding areas of high contrast or tinkering with adjusting practical light sources to compensate for the shortcomings of your image sensor. You could comfortably film a subject indoors, beside an open window and easily split the grade in post to produce a perfectly level final image with the Sony FX6.
Documentary film crews are often very small. At times they can be no larger than just a single person. Not only can the FX6 capture fantastic sound quality through its 2x XLR inputs with phantom power, but it also incorporates one of the best implementations of smooth, continuous auto-focus that has ever been offered on any camera. A phase detection based AF system that can track objects, faces, and eyes will allow the cinematographer to focus on composition and story rather than milling about with their fingers on the lens barrel while they try their best to keep things in focus.
One of the most notable things about the FX6 is its size and weight, at just 2lbs with a battery and a box camera design that can easily be mounted to any handheld gimbal to acquire incredible tracking shots and b-roll. It is lightweight, easy to use with buttons for every setting on the outside, and still compact enough to fit in overhead storage while traveling.
But what documentary filmmakers really need is an image quality coupled with codecs that can meet their deliverables, and the Sony FX6 brings it all to their fingertips. The internal XAVC-I 4:2:2 10-bit codec is just what it takes to meet the specs for broadcast and streaming, and for when you need a little more quality, it offers a simple HDMI output solution for recording 16-bit RAW.
Additional features that are worth mentioning are the FX6’s built-in ND, high frame rate options, and Sony E-mount, which can adapt to almost any lens available. There are very few compromises with this camera, but if you’re looking for something from a different brand, consider these cameras.
Table of Contents
- Best Overall: Sony FX6
- Best Autofocus: Canon C300 Mark III
- Best RAW: Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2
- Final Thoughts
Best Autofocus: Canon C300 Mark III
For a very long time, the C300 series of cameras from Canon has been the de facto standard for broadcast documentary work, and the C300 III has carried on with that tradition. Just like the FX6, it contains everything the run-and-gun documentary shooter needs in an all-in-one design. Beyond that, it is built to integrate well into a multicam environment, boasts an impressive Dual Gain sensor, and can record RAW internally.
It is a bit heavier than the FX6 at 3.9 lbs but it is still relatively small and compact. As far as lenses go, it is locked into either working with EF or PL (for a hefty premium) and that eliminates the possibility of using lens adapters.
Overall, this is a workhorse camera that will serve its operator for many years and be the backbone of their career as an operator.
Best RAW: Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2
With a few years under its belt, the URSA Mini 4.6K G2 hasn’t become outdated. This fantastic image capturing tool set the standard for affordable filmmaking, and it is still heavily used today. Coupled with Blackmagic’s fantastic BRAW codec, purchasing this camera means entering an ecosystem that offers nothing but the best quality and ridiculous playback speeds for any RAW codec. Pairing that with the free version of DaVinci Resolve, it's a tough camera to beat in terms of RAW.
It is, however, much larger than the FX6 with a weight of over 5 lbs without a battery and an overall size that is nearly twice as big. This camera will give you fantastic images but it can be a lot to lug around, and can’t mount to a handheld gimbal like the C300 III or the FX6.
The main benefit of filming with Blackmagic is the codec and storage options. You can literally just plug an external USB-C drive into this camera and record directly to it, saving you boatloads in media costs.
There are a lot of cameras out there that can serve documentary filmmakers very well. As long as they’re designed around usability and don’t compromise on quality for cost and size, a skilled cameraman can use them to capture fantastic video for your films. Any documentary filmmaking camera should include built-in audio, built-in ND filters, and a codec that can meet the requirements of the broadcaster or streaming service that will be showcasing your work.
Noteworthy mentions include the Canon C70, Canon C200, Sony FX9, and Panasonic EVA-1, but there are obviously much more expensive options out there as well. None of these cameras have the versatility of the FX6, and hopefully, the size and weight of the FX6 will serve as a model for all camera manufacturers moving forward. The possibilities are endless.