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Which budget cameras are best for filming?

The price-performance ratio of film and TV technology has improved out of all recognition. KFTV takes a look at some of the best cameras available at the budget end of the price spectrum. 

There are cameras from a few thousand pounds right down to the value of a single roll of 35mm film, and in competent hands many of them are capable of almost cinema-quality images.

The following are some of the best options at prices well below the value of a traditional news-gathering outfit. We focus on equipment for single-camera dramas, since the considerations for documentaries are very different. Bear in mind that most of these cameras will require accessories – lenses, batteries and the rest.

JVCJVC GY-LS300 - £2,800

The LS300 is a product of JVC's purchase of sensor manufacturer Altasens. It's notable for the incredible flexibility offered by its variable sensor windowing and micro-four-thirds lens mount that's difficult to fit around a super-35 sensor.

This combination means, however, that the camera can handle more or less any lens other than E-mount types, given the right adaptor. It will shoot 4K, with rates up to 120fps in HD. Otherwise, it goes incognito as a very everyday tourist's handycam, especially with the detachable top handle removed.

Having been on the market for a couple of years, there are things that we might prefer to see improved. The LS300 takes SD cards. They're cheap but all recording is in AVCHD at a maximum bitrate of 150Mbps, meaning that many applications will want to add a better external recorder, which may not be compatible with the high-speed modes and will only record the eight-bit SDI signal.

But it remains a brilliantly flexible design. For comparison, Canon's C100 Mk. II costs slightly more and can control popular EF lenses, but lacks 4K and the high frame-rate options.

Sony a6300 - £1,000

Move below the £1,000 price bracket and we’re into the realm of the video DSLR. If the brilliant A7S series is too expensive at twice the price, consider the a6300, which offers a subset of the same capability. There's 4K resolution at conventional frame rates and up to 120 frames in HD. With its E mount, it's mechanically compatible with essentially any lens in existence and it's a 24 Megapixel stills camera as well.

Sony a6300What it lacks is the A7S's superb 12 Megapixel sensor. While the lower pixel count sounds like a negative, larger pixels increase sensitivity – hence the A7S's impressive low-light performance.

The other element that's missing from most DSLRs is really good sound handling and the highest bitrate is 100Mbps at 4K, though there's an HDMI out which can clean for recording.

At a similar price, consider Canon's EOS-6D, which is a full-frame DSLR and therefore produces the ultra-short depth of field beloved of DSLR users – though be sure that isn't too much of a good thing. Again, owners of EF glass will enjoy the fact that Canon's cameras can all control it.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera - £839

Blackmagic's pint-sized camera has held its price simply because it performs so well, with a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range and high-quality recording. Some will scorn the lack of 4K and the super-16 sized sensor, but in reality the small chip is a good thing - there's much greater availability of lenses for that format. With (lightly compressed) raw recording as well as ProRes, all to SD cards, the pictures are superb and, like the LS300, the Pocket uses a micro-four-thirds lens mount for wide compatibility.

There is no 4K and nothing over 30fps, which sounds like a lot of sacrifices compared to less expensive cameras. There's no XLR audio inputs (which would practically double the bulk of the camera) and in many cases the Pocket will feel small and fiddly, but on drones and cars that's an upside.

Because the Pocket is such a specific piece of technology, it's almost impossible to find a comparator at a similar price point, though something like Sony's very different FDR-AX53 handycam is a worthwhile point of price comparison.

Panasonic DMC-GH4Panasonic DMC-GH4 - £630

Controversy always abounds over the advisability of buying a camera that's been superseded, but the GH4 was fully half the price of the GH5 at the time of writing and deserves consideration.

The GH series has always been very compact and extremely frugal on power, as well as being cheap to run. SD card recording keeps costs down and the micro-four-thirds lens mount is a highly compatible piece of equipment.

The GH4 lacks the on-board ten-bit and 60-frame 4K capture of the GH5, the improved viewfinder, test and measurement tools such as the waveform display, and isn't compatible with the new, cheaper XLR audio module. If these limitations aren't a concern, the GH4 remains a great camera and is suited to upgrading with an external recorder.

As an alternative there are many DSLRs at this sort of price, but it's hard not to mention the GH5 again (albeit at double the cost).

Nikon D3300 - £315 incl. lens

Capable of shooting HD pictures at 60fps, the 3300 has, like the GH4, been superseded, but as such it represents a highly affordable option that will particularly attract anyone with a standing investment in Nikon glass. The camera takes SD cards and although the bitrate is rather low, there is the option to output clean pictures over HDMI. The D3300 (below) can thus be paired later with a third-party recorder for much improved performance. The most common kit lens, as with most suppliers, is basic, but there are good deals available.

Nikon D3300Among the nearest similarly-priced alternative is the Canon 700D/T5i. It lacks the clean HDMI output and thus the external recording option, though keen tinkerers might like the Magic Lantern option which doesn't exist for Nikon.

Pocket-sized options

Some of the more recent smartphones offer high frame rates and reasonable quality, with Apple proudly convincingly showcasing iPhone stills on large hoardings. Otherwise, the best phones for ultra-unobtrusive video are still the top-of-the-range options which are generally more expensive than many DSLRs. This might include the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus (£730) and OnePlus 5 (£500). 

The Google Pixel, which fluctuates wildly in price depending on spec, is now no longer quite the latest release and may be more affordable. It's a 12 Megapixel device, a comparatively low resolution. Though the sensor is naturally tiny, this will still tend to confer some sensitivity and noise benefits. 

The biggest problem with smartphones as a production tool is battery life and storage, particularly on an iPhone where data can only be downloaded via Apple's own software.

Perhaps a more practical approach to saving money can be found in the used market, where yesterday's greats, such as the Sony F3, can be acquired at reasonable prices. Even the FS700, with raw recording options, highly compatible lens mount, and frame rates beyond 240fps, can be found for fractions of their original cost. From a technology perspective, there's never been a better time to be a cinematographer on a budget. Those competent hands, though, are still required.

Images: JVC/Sony/Panasonic/Nikon


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