What is the Best Camera for Filmmaking on a Budget?

Let’s compare 6 different cameras to see which is the best camera for beginner filmmakers for low budget films.

The cameras are:

  1. Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Amazon, B&H)
  2. Panasonic GH5 (Amazon, B&H)
  3. Sony a6400 (Amazon, B&H) or Sony a6500 (Amazon, B&H) if you need image stabilization
  4. Sony RX100 VII (Amazon, B&H)
  5. Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II (Amazon, B&H)
  6. iPhone XS
  7. Fuji X-T3 (Amazon, B&H)

The common factor among all these cameras is that they cost below $1,500 – but with no compromise in image quality.

Since we are comparing these cameras specifically for filmmaking, let’s make certain assumptions to provide a level playing field:

  1. We are making a short film of a 15 minute duration, and shooting at a ratio of 7:1.
  2. We are shooting for 3 days, 12-hours each. No permissions, so we need to keep our system to a minimum.
  3. Our final delivery platform is YouTube, though the image quality must look good on a cinema screen for film festivals. The specs are UHD, 24 fps.
  4. Our film will involve tripod, slider and gimbal work.
  5. We will require autofocus and image stabilization for gimbal work. Manual focus for static shots.
  6. To keep things fair, we will require lenses similar to the iPhone XS (otherwise why compare?) This means we need a wide angle lens at about 25mm-ish and a second one at about 50mm. We will try to find a zoom lens that fits this, if possible, to keep the price down.
  7. We are connecting a simple microphone or built-in microphone to record reference audio. We are using an external audio recorder for audio. This makes it easier to sync.
  8. The color grade is restricted to simple changes and no power windows are expected to be used. However, the option to color grade is a welcome bonus feature.
  9. We will not be using an external monitor.
  10. We need the cheapest system that will help us complete this project without compromising on any of the objectives above. If there is more than one option for best camera, we will base our choice on low light ability, service, and resale value.

The basics

Let’s start with the simple stuff, like prices (taken from B&H as of this writing):

CameraPrice of Camera bodyPrice of lensLens Selected
BMPCC 4K$1,295$248Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II
Panasonic GH5$1,498$248Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II
Sony a6500$1,198$298Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6
Sony RX100 VII$1,198$09-72mm f/2.8-4.5
Canon G5 X Mark II$899$08.8 to 44mm f/1.8-2.8
Apple iPhone XS$999$026mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/2.4 (35mm equivalent)
Fuji X-T3$1,499$299Fujifilm XC 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6

For the BMPCC and the GH5, we can choose the following lenses:

  • Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II OIS (Amazon, B&H)
  • Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO (Amazon, B&H)
  • Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4 ASPH (Amazon, B&H)

All three have image stabilization, which the Pocket camera lacks. I chose the cheapest one just to be fair, but you will probably be better off a good lens for a little more money. To learn more:

For the Sony a6500, I picked the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 (Amazon, B&H) but you might be better off with the slightly more expensive Sony E PZ 18-105mm f/4 G OSS (Amazon, B&H).

For the Fuji X-T3, I picked the Fujifilm XC 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6 (Amazon, B&H), but you will probably be better off something like the Fujifilm XF 16-80mm f/4 R OIS WR (Amazon, B&H).

What to look for with lenses

Think about these factors:

Focal length range

If you have a lens that has a greater range, the more types of shots and camera angles you can achieve. The iPhone XS is severely restricted in this regard, unless you are happy to shoot your entire film within this range.

Aperture/Iris range

The smaller the aperture range, the better the lens is in low light.

Depth of field and bokeh

If you want out of focus backgrounds, a small aperture is only half the story. You also need a large sensor. Let’s compare:

CameraSensor SizeH. Crop FactorLens 35mm equivalents*Aperture Equivalents^
BMPCC 4K18.96 x 10mm1.927-80mmf/6.7-11
Panasonic GH517.3 x 13 mm228-84mmf/6.7-11
Sony a650023.5 x 15.6 mm1.524-75mm f/4.8-8
Sony RX100 VII13.2mm x 8.8mm2.724-195mm f/8-12.7
Canon G5 X Mark II13.2mm x 8.8mm2.724 to 119mm f/5-8
Apple iPhone XS5.65 x 4.23mm6.426mm and 50mm f/16 and f/20
Fuji X-T323.5 x 15.6 mm1.523-68mm f/4.8-8
  • *Multiply by the crop factor. For more information, click here.
  • ^For a doubling of the crop factor, the aperture equivalence raises by 2 stops. E.g., a 50mm f/2.8 on a full frame camera is the same as a 25mm f/1.4 on a Micro Four Third’s camera in terms of depth of field. We are using full frame 35mm as reference.

The aperture equivalents give you a good idea about the depth of field and how the out of focus areas (bokeh) will look like. It is pretty clear why software blurring (portrait mode) is popular on an iPhone. You just can’t get the same optically.

So if out of focus areas are important for you, either buy more expensive lenses with larger apertures, or pick the cameras based on this list:

  1. Sony a6500 and Fuji X-T3
  2. Canon G5 X Mark II – by a whisker
  3. Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and Panasonic GH5
  4. Sony RX100 VII
  5. iPhone XS

For me, the real winner here is the lens on the Canon G5 X Mark II (Amazon, B&H). It has a great range and provides amazing out of focus possibilities for its sensor size. This is very surprising!

Lens usability

There are other good reasons to have a separate lens. You get a manual focus ring, though for these cheap lenses you can’t pull focus because they are focus by wire systems.

You also get to use lens filters like ND filters and so on.

Comparison of video features

Here are some important video specs:

CameraMax. Resolution in VideoISO RangeMax. frame rate in 4K/UHD Max. frame rate in 1080p
BMPCC 4K4096 x 2160100 to 12,80060 fps120 fps
Panasonic GH55184 x 3888*200 to 25,60059.94 fps180 fps
Sony a65003840 x 2160100 to 25,60029.97 fps120 fps
Sony RX100 VII3840 x 2160100 to 12,80029.97 fps120 fps
Canon G5 X Mark II3840 x 2160125 to 12,80029.97 fps120 fps
Apple iPhone XS3840 x 2160N/A59.94 fps240 fps
Fuji X-T34096 x 2160160 to 12,80059.94 fps

*In “6K” anamorphic mode. It can also record to 4096 x 2160.

None of these cameras are what we call low light cameras. The Sony a6500 is probably the best in this regard, but you would not be advised to crank up the ISO without restraint. Most times, you shouldn’t go above ISO 3200. The camera that falls apart in low light is the iPhone XS. The larger the sensor, the better the low light performance.

In terms of both resolution and frame rate, the GH5 has a definite advantage. The important thing about the 5K mode is you are able to pan and scan or crop your footage. This is very handy if you are not able to frame perfectly, as happens in a run and gun situation with motion.

With higher frame rates you get better slow motion.

Color and codec are also important considerations:

CameraColor Information (Internal)Best Data Rates, CodecLog Available?Dynamic Range
BMPCC 4KRAW, 10-bit 4:2:21,080 Mbps Blackmagic RAWYes13 stops
Panasonic GH510-bit 4:2:2*400 Mbps ALL-I*Yes12 stops
Sony a65008-bit 4:2:0100 Mbps IPBYes11.5 stops
Sony RX100 VII8-bit 4:2:0100 Mbps IPBYes10.5 stops
Canon G5 X Mark II8-bit 4:2:0120 Mbps IPBNo10.5 stops
Apple iPhone XS^8-bit 4:2:0100 Mbps IPBYes, via App10.5 stops
Fuji X-T310-bit 4:2:0400 Mbps IPB H.265Yes12 stops

*In DCI mode. If you want to record 5K, it’s 10-bit 4:2:0 and the codec is H.265.

^Data rate is when you use Filmic Pro.

One very important thing to note is not all cameras offer the best data rates at the highest frame rates. For cameras like the GH5 and X-T3, you need to drop color and data rates for 60p. Since our requirement is just 24p for our short film, this isn’t a big deal for us.

Which camera is the best in terms of image quality and codec ? That’s easy, it’s the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Amazon, B&H). Shooting RAW gives you the best colors, and it has the most dynamic range.

Here’s my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Amazon, B&H) review:

The GH5 and the X-T3 will both suffice as well. The image quality is a a tiny bit less, and most cinematographers, even professional ones, will be hard-pressed to squeeze that extra dynamic range out of the BMPCC 4K in any practical sense. I have shot with both the BMPCC 4K and the GH5, and I would not hesitate to pick either camera for similar image quality. Most filmmakers on a low budget will be quite happy with 12 stops. Film only had 12 stops of dynamic range, and that’s modern film. Many of the great films from two decades earlier and before had about 10-11 stops at best!

Check out my Panasonic GH5 (Amazon, B&H) review:

Now that we’ve understood a bit about image quality, let’s look at how much all this is going to cost.

Media Cards

If you’re going to record in 4K, you need to know how many media cards you’ll need, and how much they’re going to cost. We have our limits for our short film:

  1. 15 minute duration
  2. Shooting ratio is 7:1.

What this means is we will end up with 7 x 15 = 105 minutes of video. And since we are shooting for three days we’ll end up shooting 35 minutes of video per day.

For the purposes of our short film, these are the settings we will choose for each camera (UHD, 24 fps for all):

CameraData RateColorCodec
BMPCC 4K^608 MbpsRAWBlackmagic RAW 5:1
Panasonic GH5400 Mbps10-bit 4:2:2ALL-I H.264
Sony a6500100 Mbps8-bit 4:2:0H.264
Sony RX100 VII100 Mbps8-bit 4:2:0H.264
Canon G5 X Mark II120 Mbps8-bit 4:2:0H.264
Apple iPhone XS100 Mbps8-bit 4:2:0HEVC
Fuji X-T3400 Mbps10-bit 4:2:0ALL-I H.264

^I’ve assumed we are recording to SD cards with the BMPCC 4K, at a data rate of 76 MB/s (5:1 RAW). This is cost effective without sacrificing quality.

This simple table should give you a good idea about the media required:

CameraDual card slots?Minutes per 64 GB cardMinimum cards*Cost of media**
BMPCC 4K^No14.33$327
Panasonic GH5Yes21.82$218
Sony a6500No87.41 $20.50
Sony RX100 VIINo87.41 $20.50
Canon G5 X Mark IINo72.81 $20.50
Apple iPhone XSNo87.4#n/a$0
Fuji X-T3Yes21.82 $218

*Here’s the problem. There’s no laptop on location because we need to keep our footprint small. That means we can only offload data at the end of the day. We need enough cards to last us the 12 hour-shooting day.

**We need UHS-II cards for higher data rates. I’m only comparing Sandisk Extreme Pro cards for consistency.

^I’ve assumed we are recording to SD cards with the BMPCC 4K, at a data rate of 76 MB/s (5:1 RAW). This is cost effective without sacrificing quality.

#With the iPhone, we will have to find a way to offload data during the day, or buy two iPhones! It might take about 40-45 minutes to transfer 64 GB via a Lightning port to USB adapter.

Backups and data transfer speeds are also something you should be thinking about:

CameraTotal Data SizeCost of 2 drives*
BMPCC 4K521 GB$90
Panasonic GH5308 GB$90
Sony a650077 GB$36
Sony RX100 VII77 GB$36
Canon G5 X Mark II77 GB$36
Apple iPhone XS77 GB$36
Fuji X-T3308 GB$90

*We are assuming two hard drives, the second as backup. I’ll pick a 1TB hard drive, non SSD, because we have no money! Ideally, you might want to pick something like a Samsung T5 (Amazon, B&H). For the four cameras with 77 GB data size, I pick the cheaper 128 GB Sandisk USB 3.0 pen drive (Amazon, B&H).

For a short film the cost of drives isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. If you can keep your shooting ratio to a low number you should be okay. For feature films or documentaries things change drastically.

Overall, even though there is a price difference, I don’t think it makes a big difference to the final budget.

Battery life and Power

We are shooting for 3 days, 12-hours each. This means we need enough batteries to last us 12 hours. And we should be able to charge them during the night.

Here are the numbers, when you can’t afford external power solutions:

CameraBattery life (Normal operation)Cost of one battery^BatteriesCost of charger^
BMPCC 4K Option 140 minutes$4018$720**
BMPCC 4K Option 2180 minutes$2694$0
Panasonic GH5180 minutes$204$160
Sony a6500100 minutes$267$240
Sony RX100 VII60 minutes$3512$480
Canon G5 X Mark II60 minutes$3012$480
Apple iPhone XS180 minutes$50*2$0
Fuji X-T340 minutes$66^18$720^^

*The iPhone will only last about 2-3 hours and you need power banks to keep it going. I picked the Anker PowerCore 20,000 mAh (Amazon, B&H)

^I’m picking low budget battery options like Watson or Wasabi (Amazon, B&H) to save money – except for the Fuji. Charger is a Watson Duo dual charger (Amazon, B&H), and it usually takes 6 hours – or all night.

**I’ve included two options for the BMPCC 4K because a low battery life is simply problematic for a low budget filmmaker. Which is better? Here are the total amounts:

  1. Option #1: $1,440
  2. Option #2: $1076

Even though it might seem cheaper to go with smaller batteries it will kill you if you have to charge them overnight. We will need 9 dual chargers (each dual charger takes about 6 hours to charge one battery). Option #1 is clearly impractical.

^^This is also not practical. You’ll need one or more power banks to work this this camera.

As you can clearly see, this is where a lot of low budget dreams shatter. To work with cameras that have a poor battery life you need to power them with larger batteries. This means bulking them up to be cost effective or spending more money to stick with smaller batteries.

For this article, we’ve decided we can’t bulk up our camera because we don’t have permissions, and we need to use it on gimbals. We have stick to small batteries and tons of chargers. Seriously though, this is not really practical.

Lesson here is, be very careful about the camera you buy, and don’t listen to the hype!

Important accessories

For our short film we need the following accessories:

CameraGimbal*SoftwareMicrophoneTotal
BMPCC 4KZhiyun Crane 2Davinci Resolve (free)$59^$608
Panasonic GH5Zhiyun Crane 2NoneBuilt-in$549
Sony a6500Zhiyun Crane M2NoneBuilt-in$269
Sony RX100 VIIZhiyun Crane M2NoneBuilt-in$269
Canon G5 X Mark IIZhiyun Crane M2NoneBuilt-in$269
Apple iPhone XSZhiyun-Tech Smooth-4Filmic Pro ($19.99) or Mavis ($29.99)Built-in$159
Fuji X-T3Zhiyun Crane 2NoneBuilt-in$549

*I’m sticking to Zhiyun products to keep it fair. Weight is the sole criterion. You will need extra batteries to last through an entire day of shooting. The three gimbals are:

  1. Zhiyun Crane 2 (Amazon, B&H)
  2. Zhiyun Crane M2 (Amazon, B&H)
  3. Zhiyun-Tech Smooth-4 (Amazon, B&H)

^We need one because of the fan. I’ve picked the Rode VideoMicro Compact On-Camera Microphone (Amazon, B&H)

We will also need other important accessories like a tripod, bag, slider, etc., but they are common to all cameras.

Phew! That’s it. Time to total up everything.

What is the best camera for filmmaking on a budget?

How much does it all cost? Here are the final figures:

CameraCamera and lensMediaBatteriesAccessoriesTotal
BMPCC 4K$1,543$417$1,440$608$4,008
Panasonic GH5$1,746$308$240$549$2,843
Sony a6500$1,496$57$422$269$2,244
Sony RX100 VII$1,198$57$900$269$2,424
Canon G5 X Mark II$899$57$840$269$2,065
Apple iPhone XS$999$36$100$159$1,294
Fuji X-T3$1,798$308$1,908$549$4,563

Before we conclude, check out this quick table of pros and cons for each camera:

CameraUSPCons
BMPCC 4KDavinci Resolve, Blackmagic RAW, Image quality, SSD captureNo AF, fixed LCD, reliability, fan, not dust proof
Panasonic GH5Internal 10-bit 4:2:2, 5K, anamorphic mode, swivel LCD, exposure tools, dual card slots, decent battery life, V-Log, Slow motionAverage AF
Sony a6500APS-C sensor, low light ability, video AFPoor Codec and color, lack of exposure tools
Sony RX100 VIILens is integrated, Not for low light, lack of exposure tools, can’t use filters.
Canon G5 X Mark IILens is integrated, wide apertureHeadphone jack? lack of exposure tools, can’t use filters, 10 minute recording limit for 4K
Apple iPhone XSBattery life, weather sealed, No manual focus, stabilization artifacts, poor colors and codec, data transfer is cumbersome, no protection for lens, can’t use filters. Impractical to use with power banks on a gimbal.
Fuji X-T3APS-C sensor, Fuji colors, weather-sealed, lack of exposure tools, poor battery life

For filmmaking, the number of scenarios you’ll be able to cover spending the least amount of money without sacrificing quality is key.

We need the cheapest system that will help us complete this project without compromising on any of our objectives. If there is more than one option for best camera, we will base our choice on low light ability, service, and resale value.

Based on price, here are the 7, from best to worst:

  1. Canon G5 X Mark II or Sony a6500 (or a6400)
  2. Sony RX100 VII
  3. Panasonic GH5
  4. BMPCC 4K
  5. Fails
    1. Apple iPhone XS
    2. Fuji X-T3

The iPhone XS fails because we really can’t drive it the way we want. It needs a large power bank to keep going, and that’s not practical give our constraints.

The Fuji X-T3 is bottom on the list because the batteries are too expensive. That poor battery life is a deal breaker.

Bottom line

If you’re really cash starved, the best bang for your buck today is the Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II (Amazon, B&H):

Overall though, considering how close the prices are for the top three, my favorite – the camera I’d pick is the Panasonic GH5 (Amazon, B&H). In fact, even though I own multiple cameras, and can rent whatever I want, I picked the Panasonic GH5 for a couple of scenes of my new short film, Man May Love.

Here’s the kind of image quality you can expect from it:

Let’s revisit our original requirements:

  1. We are shooting for 3 days, 12-hours each – the camera has no recording limit.
  2. Our final delivery platform is YouTube, though the image quality must look good on a cinema screen for film festivals. – No problem!
  3. Our film will involve tripod, slider and gimbal work – No problem! The GH5 interfaces very well with gimbals, and the swivel screen is a godsend for those tough angles.
  4. We will require autofocus and image stabilization for gimbal work. Manual focus for static shots – same as above.
  5. Lenses – not only do you have excellent lenses, you can adapt all sorts of manual lenses with the GH5.
  6. We are connecting a simple microphone or built-in microphone to record reference audio – No problem. The onboard mic is fine for scratch audio.
  7. The color grade is restricted to simple changes and no power windows are expected to be used. However, the option to color grade is a welcome bonus feature – With the GH5 you can grade, because you’re recording in 10-bit 4:2:2.
  8. We will not be using an external monitor – You don’t need one, due to the swivel screen.
  9. We need the cheapest system that will help us complete this project without compromising on any of the objectives above – Here here are 50 good reasons to pick the GH5 over the BMPCC 4K:

Case closed.

What do you think?

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6 Comments

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    1. A 1000 feet film can could only record 10 minutes. Do you do takes longer than that for filmmaking?

  1. The Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II should be disqualified due to the fact it does not shoot 24fps in any resolution.

  2. Well, I chose GH5-S. Got excellent low-light 4K – a good option between BMPCC 4K and GH5