“Which camera should I use?” This is one of the questions I am asked most frequently, and the time has come to address this issue once and for all.
First things first: camera shopping has nothing to do with being a filmmaker.
In this post I will write about why you need to start shooting your projects with the top cameras as soon as possible, which camera you should buy, and how the camera manufacturers are scamming you.
Why you should shoot your projects with the top cameras (Red Epic and Arri Alexa)
If you are an ambitious filmmaker, I strongly encourage you to shoot your projects with top movie cameras after you have completed your early projects, which are normally training pieces that allow you to build some basic skills before you can invest more significant sums of money in serious work for your director’s reel.
In my opinion, having built some skills with those cheaply shot early projects, you need to start building a serious reel, and you should use the Arri Alexa or Red Epic cameras to do so.
You might think that this advice is based on image quality, but that is not in fact the case. You see, the truth is that most projects these days are watched online, and if a video is only going to be watched online and all we care about was quality, frankly lesser cameras would be more than enough.
But there is a lot more to it than image quality.
The real reason for insisting on shooting your high-end projects with real movie cameras is professional development.
If you are a seriously ambitious filmmaker, surely your goal is eventually to get paid to direct high-end projects. There is no doubt that these high-end projects will be shot on cameras such as the Arri Alexa or Red Epic. Hence the value of building your reel with those cameras is that by the time you start getting paid to direct, you already have experience of using those cameras and directing crews that use those cameras.
In other words, by shooting your high-quality reel using the same cameras that you will use on big projects, you are training yourself to direct high-end film crews.
A director who has only ever shot projects on those pathetic DSLR cameras is simply not as professionally developed as a director who has solid experience of shooting projects with real movie cameras.
Case in point: a few years ago one of the production companies that I contacted with my reel (which was of a lower quality than it is now) e-mailed me back and asked me a very simple question:
“Your work is good, but have you directed any projects on 35mm or HD?”
(This was in the days before Red and Arri Alexa.)
My answer was “No,” and I never heard from them again. Back then I thought that they were being petty and unreasonable, but now, with several years of extra wisdom and more directing experience, I see that they were not being as unreasonable as I thought.
Can a director who has only ever shot with camcorders and DSLR cameras really be trusted with a real film crew? In principle, the answer ought to be yes; in practice, it is a more complicated question then you might think.
The issue is ultimately settled by a very simple fact: there is quite simply no shortage of directors these days; hence, other things being equal, those who are in charge of hiring directors will always prefer the director who, in addition to obvious artistic talent, also has solid experience of shooting with real cameras.
You see, if the project was shot with a DSLR, the director’s talents can still be demonstrated, but it is not at all clear just how small the crew was. It might even have been a one-person shoot! Hence there is no evidence that this director has the interpersonal and leadership skills required to direct a real film crew. There is more to directing than simply framing a good shot: you also need to be good with people.
A reel that was shot exclusively with DSLR cameras does not provide evidence that the director has strong leadership skills. That is a problem.
Conversely, if the director’s reel was all shot with high-end movie cameras, it is an inescapable fact that this director must have worked with substantial film crews, because it’s the only way to shoot with those cameras, which need grips, focus pullers and all manner of other personnel to manage them. Hence that director has demonstrated talent as well as solid leadership and management skills – a winning combination.
In short, a director whose reel was shot with real cameras as opposed to those silly DSLR toys is a director who can be trusted with a real crew.
In this day and age, you need all the help you can get, because the other directors you’re competing with are able to say “Yes, I shot my projects with the Arri Alexa.”
“But I can’t afford those big cameras!”
If you are shooting your first, second or third project, you are a complete newbie and you need to cut your teeth and develop some basic practical directing skills.
For these early projects, you don’t have to worry about shooting with real cameras — just shoot with the best camera you can get hold of and focus on building your skills.
However, having cut your teeth on those early projects, the time has come to build a serious reel that is good enough to land paid work. For these projects, nothing less than the best cameras will do, for the professional development reasons mentioned above.
When you get to this stage in your development, if you can’t afford those cameras, you can’t afford to shoot – period.
You’re going to be spending significant sums of money to build your reel anyway, see you may as well raise a bit more money and do the job properly.
In this way, when producers ask you whether you ever shot anything on a Red Epic or Arri Alexa, you can proudly say “Yes, I did — and you can get references from the Director of Photography I worked with.”
The great camera scam
Some savvy filmmakers have wised up to what I’m about to tell you, but most haven’t, so is worth explaining here.
The camera manufacturers are essentially running a carefully crafted scheme whereby they sell you overpriced cameras that they then deliberately make obsolete six months or a year later by releasing an updated and superior model that they had in the pipeline the whole time.
The release of the latest hottest camera model makes the camera you own obsolete and undesirable, particularly in the eyes of paying customers (this is a concern for videographers, who are the biggest users of these wretched DSLR cameras).
These camera makers have no respect for filmmakers — their interest is simply churning out camera models every six months, each time with features not found in the earlier models, so that the filmmakers who are in the thrall of gear lust are forced to keep buying, partly to please narrow-minded clients, and partly to accommodate their insatiable lust for new cameras. It’s pathetic.
You see, the manufacturers could easily have packed all those features into their first model, but that would reduce their future sales. What they do instead is release some features in today’s camera, more features in the camera released in six months, and yet more features in the camera model that is released a year from now, all done to ensure a continuous flow of repeat business.
These manufacturers are drip-feeding their targets carefully timed releases of new cameras, and the hapless buyers just keep lapping it up.
They then stab them in the back with what can only be called “scheduled obsolescence.”
Each time the true objective is to make the earlier models as undesirable, obsolete and workflow-unfriendly as possible. And folks just keep buying! And the camera-review bottom-scraping websites keep churning out their camera reviews and endless tests and feature comparisons, and the newbies read them and obsess over the finest details, when they should really be working on improving their skills with actors, editing and camerawork, regardless of which camera model they are using.
Do not buy an expensive camera — if you do, you are supporting this hateful business model. Withdraw support and let them scramble to deliver real value!
When the time comes to shoot your project, you should instead rent a camera from a sucker who bought it and now has this huge depreciating asset tied around the neck like an albatross. Rent the camera, use it to shoot the project, and then send it back to the unfortunate owner who is stuck with it.
In principle one could keep using a camera that has been made obsolete by the carefully timed release of an updated model. In practice, however, most paying clients are so narrow-minded that they only hire videographers who own the newest and coolest camera – hot this month, obsolete the next. The less knowledgeable the client is, the more they insist on using the coolest and newest gear.
Newbie filmmakers are obsessed with camera shopping
Why are newbie filmmakers so obsessed with camera shopping? Why don’t violinists spend their time discussing which violin they should buy and reading violin reviews? Why don’t painters have a comparable obsession with paintbrush brands?
Come on folks, let’s step up! The truth is that filmmaking encompasses a gargantuan range of requisite skills. It’s a long journey, and I don’t think that endlessly ruminating over the relative merits of different camera models and reading review after review is a sensible use of time. Rookies have bigger problems to deal with, like amateurish framing, absent editing skills and poorly directed actors.
The only camera you should buy
The only camera you should ever buy is a cheap camcorder that you can use to practice and develop your visual style.
(Please do not ask me which model you should buy. Any camcorder with a zoom and an LCD screen will do.)
Even when your camerawork skills are polished, these little camcorders are immensely useful in pre-visualizing sequences and designing camera movements with toy figures and other stand-in objects.
I still own the camcorder I had 10 years ago. It is still more than enough for quick practice sessions and pre-visualisation videos. I am a terrible customer for the camera manufacturers. Bring it on!
When the time comes to shoot a project, I hire the best camera there is, which provides real image quality, helps with the all-important professional development and age-proofs the work. The camera then goes straight back to the poor sucker who borrowed money to purchase a device that in a few years’ time will have been made completely obsolete and unfashionable by the very company that made it. All carefully planned by them years in advance, of course.
I will not cooperate with this racket. I will not buy the newest and coolest camcorder because my 10-year-old one, surprise surprise, still does its job remarkably well. And I will not buy a high-end camera like the Red Epic or Arri Alexa, because they too will have been outdone in a few years’ time, and I don’t fancy getting married to the camera equivalent of a high-maintenance gold-digger. I will not cooperate.
The only people who should buy an expensive camera are those who regularly get paid to shoot videos and for whom it makes sense to own a camera rather than keep renting one, simply because they shoot so much. If you are busy enough to earn a good living off the camera and pay it off before it becomes shunned by clients, then by all means go ahead: in these cases it definitely makes sense to buy.
But these days very few filmmakers are in that position. In case you haven’t noticed, low-end video production is an awful business to be in, because the customers think that they can get stuff free, just because it’s video. Don’t bother with that squalor. Aim for the best work — and ensure that you tick all the boxes needed to get there, including gaining experience with real cameras.
1. If you are a complete newbie, you should shoot your first two or three projects with whatever camera you can get hold of — the true purpose of these early projects is to develop some solid filmmaking skills and cut your teeth. These projects will be mostly unwatchable and therefore it doesn’t really matter what camera you use to shoot them. It’s all about the training.
2. Having cut your teeth as a director, the time has come to shoot the most impressive reel you can, and for these projects you absolutely must use real movie cameras, which these days means cameras like the Red Epic and Arri Alexa.
3. The true benefit of using high-end cameras has little to do with image quality and more to do with professional development. They will give you valuable practice in directing real film crews and will also reassure prospective employers that you are a real director with real directing experience who can be trusted with real film crews. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this.
4. Camera manufacturers are exploiting gear-hungry filmmakers by releasing updated and improved cameras on a regular basis. These new models make the older models undesirable by short-sighted clients, forcing these videomakers to keep buying new cameras. It is a scam because the camera manufacturers are deliberately delaying and withholding the release of features for the purposes of ensuring a steady stream of camera purchases. I will not cooperate with this racket and you should opt out too. Withdraw your support!
5. The only camera you should buy is an affordable camcorder for the purposes of honing your visual sense and pre-visualising camera set-ups. Every filmmaker should own one, regardless of experience. Buy a cheap one and keep it for as many years as you can!
I hope that this post saves you money and motivates you to be smart and focus on professional development and building an employable reel, which is the only reliable way for a director to move forwards.
Thanks for reading and good luck! 🙂