Interchangeable lens versus non-interchangeable lens cameras - Choosing one for your film

Interchangeable lens versus non-interchangeable lens cameras

The difference explained 

So you’re planning on making your film soon and you need a camera. There are tons of cameras out on the market, old and new, good and bad, and it’s very difficult to see through the haze of choices to find the one for you. 

My rant before we talk cameras

First of all, like most creative film people, I’ll tell you that the camera is secondary to many other aspects going into a project. If your script, storyboard, shot list, actors, lighting, and composition aren’t good then don’t even worry about picking up a camera just yet. Iron out those very important production elements first then worry about what to record it all with. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that most cameras will do a sufficient job giving you decent images and for short films and documentaries, images quality is even of less importance than a feature film with the goal of someday screening at Sundance. Still though, if all the elements that I mentioned in the above paragraph are superb, people won’t give a damn if your film is grainy, noisy, unsharp, and generally ugly because it was shot on your old Canon XL1. They’ll care about the story, the characters, and what’s going to happen at the end. They’ll hang with your film not because of how good it looks. If you don’t believe me, watch Brothers McMullen, which made it into Sundance and gave Ed Burns his start as a filmmaker. 

Now that we have that out of the way, there’s the choice of whether you should use a video camera with a fixed lens, or one that has an interchangeable lens mount. The difference is usually that a video camera with a fixed zoom lens will give you much better reach and stabilization in a long lens, but virtually no depth of field, and at the long end these zooms usually are f5.6-f6.3, so you’ll have much more grain in your image when zoomed in or you’ll have to boost your light to reduce the grain. 

When shooting in Auto, most amateurs will complaint that their $5k camera is grainy. That’s because when they zoom in to 100mm-300mm and longer, the camera is increasing the ISO to super high numbers in order to give them a correct exposure. 

With an interchangeable lens system you’ll be able to mount any zoom or prime you’d like, including f2.8 lenses or faster, giving you much better performance in low light. You’ll also be able to use super fast lenses like a 50mm f1.2 or f1.4 to get shallow depth of field that you otherwise will have a hard time getting. You will almost certainly lose auto focus when you mount lenses from another system on your video camera. Some newer camera bodies, like the Sony NEX VG10 can auto focus with some of their lenses, but I’m not sure how good these lenses perform in AF - I seriously doubt they are on par with a fixed video lens camera in terms of AF speed and reliability. 

So what are the choices for Interchangeable lens cameras


Right now it looks like Sony is offering the most affordable interchangeable lens video cameras. The NEX VG10 is the cheapest, which has been replaced by the newer VG20 and VG30 cameras that look very similar. I’m guessing these newer bodies offer better AF and maybe image quality, but the VG10 looks to be the best deal for the money. The VG10, however, only shoots in 60i mode, which is similar to 30p, or 30 frames per second, which is not the standard 24 frames per  second that you want for your film. For this you can convert your 30p footage to 24p in your computer, or skip the VG10 and get the VG20 or the current VG30, both of which shoot 24p, 30p, or 60p, giving you more useful options. 

Moving up if you stick with Sony, they have the more professional and expensive NEX-VG900, which is a full frame camera very similar to the VG10, or the NEX-FS700R which shoots 4k in 12-bit RAW for ultimate quality if you’re looking to get your film into theaters, among other very useful and professional features (for $7700 it should have all the bells and whistles). 


Moving to Canon there are some options as many already know. DSLRs are interchangeable lens systems, so you have to consider all of Canon’s DSLRs that shoot video, all of which are excellent and you can’t go wrong. Obviously the newer bodies may produce slightly better results than the older bodies, but even with a 7D or a 5D Mark ii you have features like variable frame rates (24p, 30p or 5D mark ii and 24p, 30p or 60p in 720p for 7D). 

Stepping up you have the more expensive 1DC which is a 4k DSLR (not sure exactly what compression the 4k is in, maybe just h.264 like the 1080p) but for the money it’d be nice if it could do RAW video as well. 

If you want RAW out of the box with Canon, look at the EOS C500, which does 4K RAW and all the other fancy things of a $20k video camera. 

The C100 and C300 and Canon’s more affordable interchangeable lens video bodies, but are pretty limited in features. The C100 only shoots 1080p at the standard frame rates like 24p, 30p and 60p, but does give you built in XLR audio inputs and ND filters, crucial pro features that DSLRs lack unless you add them yourself. It also allows uncompressed recording via the HDMI out. 

Personally, the 5D mark ii is still a wonderful camera and you can get great results with it for your film at a very attractive price now. I’m hanging on to mine, but wouldn’t mind playing with some of these more video-ready bodies like the C-series cameras.  

If you want to go old school, look at the Canon XL1 or XL2 camera bodies. These were top of line in their day and are still used today by many broadcast production companies. They are a bit dated, as they are not HD and only output the standard 720x480p frame size. But to give you an idea of what can be done with these, just watch 28 Days Later, which was shot on the XL1. The beauty is that you can adapt any prime or zoom you want and get nice shallow depth of field and low noise. Many would agree that a nice low-noise SD shot looks better than some crap shot in HD. It’s not the format but the quality of the composition and lighting, etc. 


Panasonic has one of the best looking interchangeable cameras now on the market - the AF100. It’s very affordable and uses the micro 4/3s lens mount which is very popular. I’m not a fan of the micro 4/3s format for photography, but it seems ideal for video. The AF100 is very similar to Canon’s C100. Take a look on ebay, as these AF100s tend to sell for a very tempting price there - around $1500 to $2500 depending on the accessories. 

Panasonic also has the GH2 and GH3 bodies that are supposed to be good for video. I’ve played around with the GH2 but didn’t like the ergonomics, as it’s very small and made with lots of plastic. Supposedly the video quality is very good. 

BlackMagic Cinema Cameras 

BMCCs are little interchangeable cameras targeting the filmmaking world. They look like nice little cameras with some nice features, all packed into simple packages - albeit maybe a bit too simple. However, for the price these little cameras are probably the best deals out there. The 2.5K bodies in particular looks great - you get a slightly larger frame than 1080p and RAW. The trade off is that these cameras use expensive SSD hard drives for storage and built in rechargeable batteries that don’t last very long. So you’ll be forced to invest in a power solution and storage along with your body, making the price tag a more realistic $1k more than what you see in catalogues. 

These cameras in popular lens mounts; you can choose either an Canon EOS mount or micro 4/3s, giving you a 2.3x crop factor, similar to Canon’s old XL1 and XL2 (which have 2.7x crop factor). For comparison, the popular Canon APS-C sensor cameras like the 7D have a crop factor of 1.6x and Nikon DX bodies have a 1.5x crop factor. 

RAW vs. Uncompressed vs. 4k vs. 1080p vs. Full HD vs. H.264 vs. the world

If you’re new to all this technical camera talk your head is probably spinning while you shop for cameras. Video has always been a feature-heavy world, with companies always trying to pack more and more in. That’s all created to sell more cameras. 4k is an unnecessary feature, just like 1080p was and how all this other crap is…it’s created just to get people to spend money. What was wrong with standard definition? I still watch SD DVDs that look awesome - I don’t like the look of ultra-crisp HD. Why do I want to see how rough someone’s skin is? 

With that out of the way, I’ll explain all these terms now. 

RAW - another video format that saves each frame of video as a digital negative, so later you can open it up in software and tweak the image like you would a real film negative. This gives you way more color and dynamic range, just like real 35m film. RAW is awesome. 

Uncompressed - this is a very high bit rate video codec that is virtually uncompressed, so it is very large in size. Honestly, H.264 and uncompressed video looks very similar to me. I can’t tell much of a difference, and uncompressed is like around 4x larger, so I don’t use it. BlackMagic Design, the camera company, makes a few devices for capturing uncompressed video from your camera to your laptop's hard drive. If you want to go to all the trouble, check out the BlackMagic Design website.

4K - like 3D, another gimmick created to sell more cameras and TVs. Watch out, soon everyone will be buying 4K TVs because they’re so much sharper and clearer. I’ll stick to my 720p Samsung and save my money for something more important, like food. 

1080p - most of us know what this is - this is a frame size that video is offered in, and it’s currently the largest broadcast frame size. Actually, the standard TV formats for broadcast are 1080i or 720p, depending on the network. 

Full HD - this is 1080p or 1080i. 

H.264 - a video codec, or format, that was created by Apple is now a very standard codec because it offers high quality in generally small file sizes. It’s funny because Apple computers have a hard time playing back H.264 - ask anyone using FCP and they’ll tell you they have to convert their H.264 files before editing. 

Bit rate - this is a term used a lot to describe the amount of information the camera can record and play back. I’m still not sure that this matters that much, or maybe I don’t understand it, but the 5D Mark ii has a low bit rate of about 5 mbps , which many newer video cameras shoot around 24-50mbps. The 5D footage looks great so I’m not sure what all this really matters. If you want a higher bit rate in your 5D Mark ii, check out the Magic Lantern firmware hack that allows you to increase this (and shoot RAW - but you better have the fastest, largest CF cards on hand). 

Fixed-lens video cameras (or non interchangeable-lens)

These less-exotic but still-great-cameras come in even more shapes and sizes, almost too many to discuss clearly here without writing a book on the subject, and even then it will all change in a matter of months as the big players release their newest models. 

In general there are a few categories of these cameras. There are the prosumer models, which include everything from GoPro action cams to $10k Sony Exmore cameras that have astounding image quality. Yes, many professionals are using GoPro now...just check out almost any reality TV show and you'll see a few camera angles shot with GoPros. Most manufacturers currently offer a few dozen shoulder mount fixed-lens cameras and they all seem similar, but they aren't. You need to choose based on what you need. If you want shallow depth of field then look for a large sensor. If you want sharp HD footage that is always in perfect focus, a smaller sensor would make more sense. If you must have XLR audio inputs, built-in ND filters, and a long zoom range, look for a cam with those features - some have them, some don't. 

For a feature, I wouldn't get hung up on having a camera that has XLR and ND as you can always add those yourself. I would look at the lens, making sure it's good and offers a decent F stop like f2.8 or faster, and see how slow it gets on the long end too. Most of them will only offer an f5.6 or slower at the long range, killing your depth of field and image quality. Just like with photography, the lens is really more important than the camera or sensor. 

If I were shooting a documentary, I would go with a camera that has a smaller sensor but offering sharp, quality images at the same time. This should be an easy task for any $3k+ pro HD camera nowadays. Just be careful, as even some recent HD 3CCD cams can look good on paper but disappoint in the end result because of the lack of light gathering ability of the sensors. 


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