Choosing a Camera


What are you shooting?

The first question you should ask yourself when choosing a camera is, “What are you shooting?” Here are a couple things you could be shooting:

  1. Narrative – Controllable light, Crew, Planned shots
  2. Commercial – Sometimes Controllable light, Small Crew, Sound done in post
  3. Documentary – Solo work, Natural Light, Unplanned
  4. Sports – High frame rate, larger focal lengths (smaller sensor)
  5. Everything!

There is no “best” when choosing a camera. One thing to keep in mind is this guide refers to cameras under a certain price point. Anyone purchasing a camera above 10,000$ likely knows much of the information within this guide. That being said, you can’t have everything in a camera, especially at a low price point. If you are planning on filming specific styles, you can choose a camera better suited for those needs. If you want a camera that shoots everything then you must sacrifice in certain places.

Understanding Sensor Size

What are megapixels and do they matter?
Megapixels are a number associated with how many pixels a sensor produces. For example:

  • 2.07 Megapixels gives you a resolution of 1920×1080 (108p, HD)
  • 8.30 Megapixels equates to a resolution of 3840 x 2160 (UHD)
  • 8.85 Megapixels equates to a resolution of 4096 x 2160 (4k)

As you can see from above, 1080p is a measly 2MP, and for all intensive purposes it is still the “standard” resolution. Thus why are so many cameras filled with huge megapixel counts? In most regards it’s related to marketing, but it’s also important to understand what your camera does with all those pixels. With the addition of video to DSLR cameras, which typically have high megapixel count for printing and editing photos, technology adapted what was already there and added on the ability to record video. In doing this, cameras must take a large megapixel image and “downsample” it into a compressible size. This downsampling of larger sensors can actually cause problems such as aliasing and moire. More information on that here.

So do those extra megapixels matter when choosing a camera? There isn’t a definite answer, but what you should take from this is that megapixels ≠ quality. In some cases having more megapixels on a camera made for photos can cause problems with shooting video(Moire and aliasing). Cameras made with the intention of shooting video such as the Canon C100 and Panasonic GH4 use their megapixels to improve the quality of the final image.

Does Sensor Size Matter?

  • Quality: The size of a sensor ultimately determines how much light can be absorbed into each pixel. Sensors are made up of photosites, so if you have a larger physical sensor then you can hypothetically fit more pixels into it. But most importantly you can fit more sensitive (physically larger) pixels into an area. This ultimately allows manufacturers to produce higher quality image sensors with less restrictions, but does this increase the quality of the final image? In some cases it does, but with the advancement of technology, that quality gap is beginning to close.
  • Crop Factor: One thing that doesn’t change with technology is crop factor. Wikipedia – “a crop factor is related to the ratio of the dimensions of a camera’s imaging area compared to a reference format; most often, this term is applied to digital cameras, relative to 35 mm film format as a reference.”
Courtesy of gizmag
Courtesy of gizmag

The above image shows sensor sizes for most common video cameras. Full frame is our “Reference” 35mm. What you ultimately need to know is that the smaller the sensor size, the more you have to multiple your focal length by. For example: A Lens rated at 24mm for full frame would be 38mm on an APS-C camera and 48mm on a Micro Four Thirds camera. If you want more information on crop factors, look  here.

  • Low Light: In typical cases, the larger the sensor size, the better the low light capabilities will be. This is because the physical sensor is larger and can “see” more light through the lens.
  • Depth of Field/Light: Smaller sensors make achieving shallow depth of field a bit more difficult. For example, f2.0 on a 35mm sensor is the equivalent of f1.3 on an APS-C sensor. This also effects the amount of light taken in by the camera. However most of these difference can be managed with a lens booster, which we will get too later.

So, does sensor size matter when choosing a camera? Ultimately it’s dependent on the shooter. Many people like the look of Super 35MM or Full Frame. But realistically, technology has caught up and small sensors produce amazing images as well. I’ll leave you with this: