Articles : Buying Your First Film/Video Camera
Posted on 2011/6/26 16:35:31

By Scott Spears

Ok, itís finally time to stop moaning about how lousy the movie you watched on DVD last night was, get off your butt and make a movie. The only problem is you donít have a camera. Where do you start? First you have to determine how much you can afford. A useable DV camera is going to be at least $300 and climb up to $6000. If you donít have $300 or somebody who will buy you a camera, then borrow one from a friend, rent one from a rental house or head to the local public access.


You can try any of the major electronic chains, Best Buy, Circuit City, HH Gregg, Good Guys, Frys, etc... The prices are ok at these places, but the selection isnít that great.

Next you have mail order via the internet or magazine ad. Be very careful here. There are some good places and some very sleazy dealers out there. The rule of thumb is ďif it looks too good to be true, it probably is.Ē This means, if the price is amazingly low, then most likely thereís a catch. First, itís a rip off and youíll never see the camera, period. Second, theyíll try to stick you with over priced accessories and when you donít buy, theyíll send you the camera and thatís it. No manual, battery charger, accessories or warranty card. Sometimes it will be an open box that is a demo or a returned item. You could end up with whatís called a ďgray marketĒ camera. This is a camera that was intended for sales over seas, but was routed to the USA. These cameras have no warranty and often the manuals arenít in English. You can risk it, but if anything goes wrong on the camera, the $30-100 bucks you saved will be eaten up in repair costs. A good way to check up on resellers is through Donít shop without checking here. A very reputable dealer is B&H Photo/Video. Theyíre prices arenít the lowest, but you get great service.

How about Ebay? There are deals to be had, but Iím always nervous about buying used electronics. You have no idea how used or abused the camera may be. Or how many hours are on the heads (where the video is recorded in the camera)? Iíve had buddies spend many thousands of dollars with good results. My advise, be careful and check feedback on sellers.

Have you ever considered refurbished items. Me? I love emí. Think of it this way. When you buy a camera brand new, itís probably been checked out once right before it was boxed up in the factory. Refurbs are cameras that have had some small, usually easily fixed thing wrong with them that have been checked top to bottom. You can save from 20-50 percent off the original price. Some sites Iíve checked out are: and There are many more out there.


What are some features you should absolutely have?

External mic jack is a must. The built in mics on cameras are getting better all the time, but still arenít very good except for picking up ambient noise and the camera operator breathing. Look through the spec sheets for either external mic jack or audio input. This is not to be confused with A/V in and out. Thatís for dubbing tapes, not recording field audio. It will most likely be a mini-plug. Higher end cameras will have professional XLR connectors that start at $2000 and go quickly up in price. With the external mic jack you can plug in a shotgun mic for professional sound.
I donít want to talk too much about audio and shotgun mics, but they run $150 range and up. Azden and Audio Technica makes some decent inexpensive shotgun mics. The king of shotguns is Sennheiser which cost $500 and up.

Manual White Balance Ė Ok, this isnít a must, but youíd like to have the ability to control the color of your image. White balance is the function of the camera that tells the camera what kind of light youíre using to shoot your scene. It can be sunlight, household lamps, tungsten movie lights or whatever is available. Most DV cameras have an auto white balance function where it will attempt to adjust the picture to make it ďnormalĒ looking. Most of the time this is fine, but if you have a scene that you want to be orange, like at sunset, the camera will try to make it look normal, thus defeating that look. If you can over ride this feature you can create all kinds of effects. If you camera has manual white balance and you want the scene to be warm, orange like sunset, you can point the camera at something light or medium blue and manual white balance. They camera will try to make the blue turn white which will shift all the colors to orange, giving your picture that sunset look.

The reason I say this isnít a deal breaker is that a lot of software will let you color correct the image later. Being a cinematographer and control freak at times, I prefer to do as much on the set as possible to control the image.

Manual Exposure Ė Now this is important. You can live without manual exposure, but youíll have much less control over your picture. All DV cameras try to give you an average, home movie look, but in your movies you may want a dark feel or a strange blown out look. If your camera doesnít have manual exposure, youíre stuck with what the camera gives you. Some cameras donít have full manual exposure, but have exposure adjustments which lets you change the exposure up and down some. It ainít great but any control is better than none at all.

A classic case of needing manual exposure is when you have people in front of a window. The camera will see the bright window and close down, leaving your actors dark outlines. Thatís when you can kick into manual exposure and adjust so you can see your talent.

CCDs Ė What the heck are CCDs? Theyíre charge coupled devices, otherwise known as the chips that see your image. Most low end cameras come with one chip. Also, these chips are different sizes and in this case bigger is better. The bigger the chip, the more information it records and the better your picture quality. CCDs start at 1/6th inch which is pretty darn small and go up to 1/3rd or even Ĺ inch. A 1/6th inch chip is ok for exteriors or well lighted interiors, but the picture will suffer with graininess and noise on dark scenes, especially night exteriors. As chips grow in size, the less grain youíll get.

How about using multiple chips to improve the picture? Great idea and thatís why there are 3 CCD cameras out there. They divide the picture into itsí basic color values with each chip handling a color. The old adage three heads are better than one applies here with three chips. The drawback is that the more chips, the higher the price, but there are some 3 chip cameras that are breaking the $1000 barrier. Usually, they are three small 1/6th inch chips, but again, three small chips are better than one.

CMOS Chips

These are newer chips which are progressive chips. Again, the bigger the better and more is better. The only draw back to CMOS is they are less sensitive than CCD chips which are being phased out.

Firewire Ė Itís tough to find a camera that doesnít have a built in firewire (IEEE 1394), but I have seen a few that didnít have it. Usually they are older models that stores or resellers are trying to clear out at a low price. Without firewire built into the camera, you canít digitize your footage into your computer. Now in the age of files on storage cards, this isnít a must.

A note on using your camera to digitize tape footage. Unless youíre poor and canít afford another device, donít use your camera to dump scenes into your computer. It will wear out the tape transports. I own a Panasonic DVX100 which cost over $3000, but I use a $400 Canon ZR 40 to digitize my footage. I look at the ZR as a deck that just happens to take pictures. Also, I take it on location scouts and use it to document the behind the scenes stuff. I know some of you can barely afford one camera, but as soon as you get some spare money (yeah, like indie filmmakers have spare cash) look into buying a digitizing device. Recently, I was at Fryís and came across a little DV camera with firewire for $200. You can check out refurbished sites for low cost cameras too.


One of the first things youíll need for your camera is a case. You really shouldnít be dragging your camera around in a sack or the cardboard. Cases can start at around $20 and go up into the hundreds of dollars. Remember to get a case big enough to hold extra accessories, like microphones, headphones, battery chargers, etc...

A friend of mine, Peter John Ross of fame, found a great metal case at Loweís for around $25. It looks like a little metal briefcase and has plenty of room for your extras.

The next item is a tripod. Indie projects are plagued by too many handheld shots, so spring for tripod and change that trend. They start at $40 and go up into the thousands of dollars range. My advice is donít buy a cheapie tripod at Walmart. Iíve found that they fall apart. Get a fluid head for smooth camera moves. These are heads which have a hydrolic liquid which makes the head move smoothly. You can find a decent tripod for $100-150 to start out with. Some good brands are Bogen/Manfrotto, Miller, Sachtler, Vinton and many others.

How about a lens hood or matte box? These are great extras if youíre really serious about your videography. They can keep light from hitting your lens and causing lens flares which can be distracting. A matte box will allow you to add filters to control your images (more on that later). Box boxes can start in the $150 range and go up from there.
A good accessory to have is a wide angle adapter. Most DV cameras have just an ok wide angle. If youíre shooting in tight quarters, it may be hard to fit your cast members in one shot, so thatís where one of these comes in handy. Pop it on and presto, youíve got a wide angle lens where everybody fits in the shot.

Filters are where shooting gets fun, but they shouldnít be used indiscriminately. The first filter I would recommend you get is a:
UV/haze filter It doesnít do much to the image, but it protects your lens from getting hit by flying debris.
ND: Neutral Density. These are filter which will knock down your exposure without effect the color. Most cameras have them built in, but occasionally you may need more ND and sometimes you may want to drop the exposure to effect depth of field.
Pro Mist: They soften the image. These come in two types, white and black. White tends to make the blacks go milky and are generally used for flashbacks to days gone by. The black pro mist keep your blacks nice and dark. I prefer the black pro mist. They come in grades starting at Ĺ and up to 2, with 2 getting pretty fuzzy. I like the Ĺ and 1. Also, thereís a variation called a Warm Pro Mist which adds some warmth to the image.
Polarizer: A great filter for eliminating glare on windows and making a blue sky darker.

There are tons of filters out there. Check out for more info.


If youíre still shooting tape, which there a still a lot of you out there, you gotta have tape stock, but where to buy? To save money, you can look on the web. and Both carry a full line of tape stocks. Many people recommend that if you start with one brand of tape stock you should stick with it. If you own a DVX100, use only Panasonic tape stock. The tape uses a dry lubricant which will not gum up the record heads. The key to tape stock is pick one brand and stay with it. So if you pick Sony, stay with Sony. If you pick Panasonic, stay with them.

WEB SITES FOR CAMERA INFO Ė User reviews of cameras but take them with a grain of salt Ė A place to buy which also has user reviews.

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