Picking the Right Camera for the Job

A few days ago I saw a buddy of mine ask Edward Burns on Twitter if he felt RED would be a good camera to use for a first feature film. Ed replied that if you could get a RED, use it.

That got me thinking: although the RED is indeed a terrific camera, it may not be the best camera for this particular job. There are so many factors that go into picking the camera you use for a gig.  Budget is obviously by far the biggest indicator of what you can use. But even if money is no object, there are other factors.

  • Location: where will you be shooting? What kind of space do you have to work with? Do you have the room necessary for the crew that may be required for the camera you choose? Do you have the room for mobility should you need it? What’s the terrain and weather like? Will you be filming in public places where you need a low profile, or will you have free rein?
  • Lighting: do you have the budget (and space) for lots of lighting gear? Will you need to use all available light? Will you be filming at night? Will you need a wide dynamic range due to lots of shadows and bright spots in the same shot?
  • Subject: what exactly are you filming? Is this a reality TV style documentary where you need to move around a lot and need really long takes (i.e. longer than the 12 minute clip limit of most DSLRs)? Is this a more traditional documentary with a lot of sit-down interviews? Are you working with professional actors or amateurs?
  • Crew: what kind of crew do you have access to? Are they skilled with the camera you intend to use?
  • Post production: what kind of post production processes do you have in the works? Do you have the computer power and data storage necessary to edit raw video like what the RED spits out? Are you shooting a film that has a lot of visual effects or green screen, requiring a higher color space or bit-depth video quality?
  • Audio: what are your audio needs? Will it be inconvenient to have audio recorded to a separate audio recorder, thereby requiring a camera that can capture both high quality audio and video?
  • Long-term: lastly, are you renting or buying? If buying, you need to decide which of the above mentioned parameters will affect most of your productions to make your investment worthwhile.

These questions may seem self-evident, but I think filmmakers all too often don’t bother to ask them. They just know that such-and-such camera is “the best” (whatever that means) and they want to shoot on that. The camera you should use, is the camera that’s best-suited for the particular job you have. This is one reason why I shy away from investing in really expensive camera gear (e.g. over $6,000 US). First, new ones come out every few months. And second, I’d rather rent when I have the budget for it, and invest in inexpensive gear for the smaller, more frequent jobs.

What’s most important to you when picking a camera?

3 thoughts on “Picking the Right Camera for the Job

  1. I do run-and-gun shooting for documentary television. I’ve been using the Sony compact camera RX100 for a lot of my C camera work. It fills in the gaps nicely if I need a wide shot, macro shot, or a stealth angle in guerilla shooting environments. The video quality is up to par with any mid-range DSLR; it just doesn’t have quite as shallow DOF. I’ve done a lot of blogging about it on my site rungunshoot.com.

  2. This has been a big topic for me lately, as the majority of my work is related to event video or web promos, but I am starting to get some broadcast work, and the decision to invest in better cameras is tempting. With all of the new cameras coming out right now, I just don’t feel it’s the right time for a major investment. I would like to see how things shake out .. So I decided to buy an Atomos Ninja 2 to extend the life of some of my older cameras and still give me broadcast quality. And like brandon, I got a Sony Rx100.. Great little camera and super cheap! When I have the budget, I rent better cameras, but I really prefer to work with gear I am comfortable with .. It’s always stressful learning a new rig on set with a client.

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