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Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker

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Rose O'Connor
Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 10, 2010 at 10:29:19 am


I'm looking to buy a camera to make documentaries with and would really appreciate some advice. I want to use it to make my own documentaries and to get paid work too (on other docos or corporate stuff) so want something production houses would be satisfied with.

My budget is about Aussie $4000-10,000 (US$3500 - US$8800). Of course I would prefer something as cheap as possible as I don't have paid work lined up yet but I do want something that I can use professionally.

Is shoulder-mounting important for documentary? Which cameras are best for this? I have used Sony Z1 and was not too impressed with its tendency to override my attempts at manual control and keep everything in the background in focus (I'm more used to the control of SLR still cameras). However, I've heard that Canon video cameras have their own issues, like capturing and playing because of the recording format?

As you can see, I have a lot to learn so any tips on what I need to get started would be appreciated!

Thanks in advance :)

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Chip Thome
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 10, 2010 at 10:25:01 pm

Suggestion. If you have an extensive background in SLR and still cams, you might want to think heavily about a DSLR like the Canon 7d which does video. There are a lot of people shooting those, and other DSLRs, from what I have seen from the forums I frequent.

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Rose O'Connor
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 12, 2010 at 9:28:25 am

Thanks. I was thinking a lot about the Canon 5D Mark 2 but, apart from the price, there were so many impediments to using it as a video camera, esp for 'run and gun' stuff in documentary.

I am now thinking about getting a Panasonic Lumix GH1 (DSLR type thing) which has some pretty nice looking results (though still shaky for handheld) and is cheaper. Then I could upgrade to the Panasonic AG-AF100 when they come out. I've had them recommended to me as something that's more designed for video than stills and will have High Def images. I've been told it's got a smaller image sensor than the Canon Mark2 but still 8 x that of many conventional video cameras. Sounds promising.


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James Wilhelmi
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 12, 2010 at 4:52:32 am

I would not jump in and buy anything yet. Your situation is calling for rental equipment first. I would get a few paid gigs and rent a few different cameras to find one that works best for you. There are many factors to consider. What will you edit with? I assume you'll want to shoot in HD most of the time. Can your computer handle the HD footage? The camera is not the only thing you will need to think about. You should have a good tripod, backup battery, camera case, & extra media are a few of the essential items to have. Then there are mics that are important too(lav mic and shotgun mic) & even a lightkit can be a must. I would rent just the things you need for each job you get. Then, just buy the essentials when ready. And then, if you decide it is beneficial to buy other stuff, you'll have kwowledge of what you need.

Personally, I like the Panasonic P2 cameras. The HPX170 is a nice little camera you can get for around $4000US. But then, I would suggest buying another P2 media card - 64gig is about $1000. It comes with a 16gig card.

There are alot of factors to think about. These are just a few to things to consider. Good luck!


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Rose O'Connor
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 12, 2010 at 9:45:49 am

Thanks James.

I know, I know, I should not rush in, but it's actually months I've been thinking about it and not making any progress as I'm such a newbie it's hard to know where to start! As I responded to Chip, I have been leaning towards the Panasonics too, after talking to a guy who knows a lot more about video cameras than me! Although a second guy (where are all the female cameramen by the way?) has recommended the Sony HVR V1P which also sounds perfectly useable.

One reason I don't want to wait till I get paid gigs is that I want to make films and practice camera work outside of the paid videographer stuff (though the paid stuff will be good when it happens!). I am making some short documentaries already and won't have access to free gear after this current one. Another reason is I am already doing some filming for an NGO who can't provide me with a camera (or budget) so I kind of need to bring my own gear one way or another. That will mainly be done on tripod.

Yes, my computer can handle HD. And yes, I WILL need those extras like sounds and lighting gear. Mustn't forget to budget for those. Thanks again and if you or anyone else wants to give me some extra tips, do feel free! It's all valuable to me.

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Martin Curtis
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 13, 2010 at 12:24:13 am

I have the HVR V1P for low end corporate work. I got it a few years ago now on the basis of price and its similarity to the PD150 we already have in the unit. It's a fine camera but I personally think tape has had its day. I get occasional dropouts or "dirty head" messages - much more often than is justified by its usage - even though I just use Sony MiniDV tapes.

If someone gave me money for one, I'd buy the Sony NX5 and the external HD for it. A shade under $6k for the camera.

I edit on a 3GHz iMac using FCS2 so I'd take the opportunity to upgrade to a MacPro with a few fast drives so I could move to a ProRes workflow. If someone gave me the money :-)

The new Sony HXRMC50U looks interesting as a second camera.

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grinner hester
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 16, 2010 at 7:48:10 pm

Pick your favorite. Opinions and needs vary way too much for anyone here to tell you to buy a RED scarlet or a D5 with audio goodies.
I have an old FX1 and it bills to this day. None of my clients ask model numbers. I buy based upon my needs.

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Adam Troup
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Jul 19, 2010 at 3:55:05 pm

I have an NX5 and use it for covering weddings and events, with 2 x 32Gb SD cards you can record 7 hours non stop at 24mbps AVCHD and of coure with the added 128Gb SSD you can record even longer and to to the cards at the same time for a back up. The high capacity batteries last for so long you hardly have to think about them which is great. When you are capturing something that wont happen again which when shooting documentaries you will, not having to worry about running out of memory/tape and battery is a big deal, more effort for capturing the better footage.


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Viking Jonsson
Re: Best Camera for beginning Documentary-maker
on Aug 1, 2010 at 9:44:27 pm


I didn't have time to read all the answers. I noticed someone talked about the Digital SLRs.
The D-SLRs have there advantages but they also have some disadvantages that you really should think about before You buy.

They are nearly impossible to operate as handheld you have to something like a glidetrack shooter:
Otherwise the audience will get seasick.

Another big disadvantage is that You can't turn the LCDs on most of them. So it is a pain if You need to shoot from "creative" angels.

They are great for shooting fiction (you can control your shoots) but documentary might be hard to shoot with D-slrs. But I actually haven't tried shooting documentary with d-slrs, so i might be wrong.

Good luck


Named after Viking Eggeling

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