Whether you’re shooting a no-budget short with your friends, making an indie feature for festivals, or tackling the next summer blockbuster, finding the perfect cinema camera is challenging. 

While your story will always be the most important thing you’ll ever need, having the right tools to capture the image you have in mind comes in at a close second. With so many options now available to indie filmmakers, what do you do?

Let’s shake off our brand loyalty and Gear Acquisition Syndrome to go through three steps to get you on the right track. 

Your Budget and Camera

When making a film for no money, you’re probably calling in every favor you have and feeding your crew with what you have in your fridge. This means you’re probably borrowing whatever camera your cinematographer friend has. 

If that’s the case, then use that camera. You’re done. You found the right one. 

However, you have some options if you have a budget. First, see how much you have to spend and prioritize where you need to spend it. 

If you’re working on a big production, you might have the option to acquire a rental-only camera package like the ARRI Alexa 65 or Panavision Millennium DXL2. But only if you’re project needs a large format frame. 

Panavision DXL2 & DXL-MPanavision DXL2 & DXL-MCredit: Panavision

You might think that you have fewer options as your budget shrinks, but that’s actually not true. Between incredible offerings from ARRI, Sony, Canon, Blackmagic Design, Panasonic, and RED, there is a literal cornucopia of choices. 

You can even weigh the costs vs. benefits of buying a camera, especially if you’re shooting long productions over the course of many months on the weekends.

Once you have a budget range for rental or purchase, you can make a list of available camera options to choose from. But we’re only getting started.

Sony FX3The Sony FX3 is a great budget cinema cameraCredit: Sony

Internal Specifications

Next, filmmakers must consider what each camera offers internally and how that fits their project. Consider the following questions:

  1. What is my final exhibition?
  2. Do I have a lot of VFX?
  3. What resolution do I need to meet both of these needs?
  4. What dynamic range do I need?
  5. What color science best fits the aesthetic of my project?
  6. What size sensor best support my project?
  7. If shooting anamorphic, how compatible is the camera?
  8. Does my camera choice meet my low light needs?
  9. Does my camera meet my frame rate needs?
  10. Am I limited in how much storage I have for post?
  11. If so, what is the best codec for my project, and does my camera support it?
  12. How will that codec affect my storage needs?
  13. How will that codec affect my editing workflow and color-grading process?

This is a lot to answer, but isn’t necessarily a complete list. Your project might have niche needs that you’ll have to discover on your own. Once you have answers to the above questions, your list should get much smaller. 

For example, when shooting with anamorphic lenses with a high squeeze factor, you’ll need a camera that can support recording in 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratios. This will allow you to utilize the entire sensor area without cropping. 

Sony Sensor Frame Size ChartThe sensor size is important for lens choice and aestheticCredit: Sony

If your film takes place at night? You may need a camera that can handle shooting in low light, like a Sony Venice or the much cheaper Sony FX3. Once you’ve figured out all of these technical needs, we have a few more steps to cover.

External Specifications

With your budget figured out and your technical needs met, the next step is determining your accessory support and ergonomics. To answer this, we need to ask one question: Does your project limit the physical size of your camera?

If you’re shooting mostly handheld, a gimbal, or drone footage, consider cameras that are smaller in size, such as the ARRI Alexa Mini, RED Komodo, or Sony FX6 (or Sony FX30 for those super low-budget projects). All of these cameras are compact but still leave room for critical accessories. 

RED Camera on gimbalGoing handheld? Consider a compact cinema cameraCredit: Victor Hughes

Crew size, efficiency on set, and accessory needs will also affect your camera choice. For example, if you have a low budget but wanted to shoot on an ARRI (for the color science), the Alexa Classic is an affordable choice. However, it’s bulky and requires more than one person to operate efficiently. 

If you have one operator and loads of setups, this choice will slow you down. 

Next, consider things like lens mount options, internal NDs, and outputs (for monitoring and power). How will your camera choice affect your focus options, video transmission, and power needs? In our example above, an ARRI Alexa Classic will eat through your batteries. On the budget end, the internal batteries of a BMPCC 6K, for example, might not be enough either. 

ARRI Alexa Mini LFARRI camera have incredible accessory supportCredit: ARRI

The Right Choice

Once filmmakers go through the above steps, finding the right tool for the job should be a breeze. Having said that, different projects might have different needs, so there’s not a one size fits all solution. You may have to go through these steps on every project. 

But this is just the tip of the iceberg for shooting on a digital cinema camera. In Depth Cine has a great video that goes into these steps with a bit more depth while also covering critical steps for production and post. 

Whatever tool you choose for the job at hand, it’s best to think about your budget capabilities first and then everything else. While the hot new camera may be appealing, it’s best to leave brand loyalty at the door when making these choices. Almost every camera out there will give you an incredible image. If you know how to use it. Yes, even your smartphone.

But what do you think? How do you choose your camera? Let us know in the comments!

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Source: In Depth Cine