Now that 2012 is over and done with, it is time to name the best DSLR for video. First, I’ll tell you on what basis I’ve made my decision.

Before I do, I have a confession to make. I have a sweet spot for the Panasonic GH3, and my first thought was to declare it the winner outright and then justify my answer. But that’s just like every other pseudo-reviewer who’s getting paid, or an amateur fan boy who’s disillusioned by marketing and hype – except nobody’s paying me, and I’m only delusional on Sundays.

The first thing I did was (yes, you know what’s coming) I made a list of what is really important to me.

Criteria for best DSLR for video

  • Must offer 1080p24 8-bit Rec. 709
  • Must have availability of an excellent range of lenses covering the entire focal range
  • Must be able to deliver wide angle and telephoto easily without adapters
  • Must have a great viewfinder
  • Must have an excellent LCD display good enough for bright exteriors
  • Must have low latency live view with video details
  • Must have an excellent codec, with options to tweak if possible
  • Must offer recording times limited by the memory card or sensor heat
  • Must offer full control of white balance and picture profiles
  • Must have a dedicated record start/stop button and a programmable mode
  • Must have a customizable menu option for preferred quick fixes
  • Must display a full 1080p clean feed via the HDMI for monitoring
  • Must offer clean video at ISO 1600 at least
  • Must offer Super35mm like DOF
  • Must have exposure controls with at least a 1/3rd of a stop of control
  • Must have the least rolling shutter artifacts
  • Must have excellent battery life
  • Must offer excellent weather protection, for both camera and lenses
  • Must offer decent audio
  • Must be the cheapest one where all other criteria is equal
  • After the dust has settled, if there’s still more than one camera standing, choose the one with the best stills ability, and finally, the best pedigree

The initial list of hopefuls is quite exhaustive:

Whittling down the list

It’s important to keep our head about ourselves and judge objectively. On the basis of three criteria only – clean HDMI, weather protection and recording limit – I can whittle down the list to:

The next step is to look at audio and battery life:

Camera Audio specifications Microphone jack Headphone jack Approximate Battery life
Canon 1DX Linear PCM 16-bit 48Khz, 2ch 3.5mm No 2 hrs
Canon 5D Mark III Linear PCM 16-bit 48Khz, 2ch 3.5mm Yes 1.5 hrs
Nikon D4 Linear PCM 16-bit 48Khz, 2ch 3.5mm Yes 2 hrs
Nikon D800 Linear PCM 16-bit 48Khz, 2ch 3.5mm Yes 1.25 hrs
Sony A99 Dolby Digital AC-3 16-bit 48 KHz, 2ch 3.5mm Yes 2 hrs
Panasonic GH3 Dolby Digital AC-3 16-bit 48 KHz, 2ch 3.5mm Yes 2.5 hrs

Okay, the 1DX has no headphone jack. Even though I’m unhappy with DSLR audio in general, there are circumstances where someone is compelled to record audio in-camera. To not have a headphone jack is inexcusable.

Regarding battery life, there isn’t sufficient deviation to prefer one camera over another. There are different batteries available for each camera, so times will vary greatly depending on usage. DSLR batteries are cheap and light enough, so carrying spares are not a problem. I decide to discount battery life as a criterion.

The next thing I compared was codecs:

Camera Interframe Codec Intraframe Codec Maximum frame rate @1080p
Canon 5D Mark III H.264 32 Mbps H.264 91 Mbps 30
Nikon D4 H.264 24 Mbps N/A 30
Nikon D800 H.264 24 Mbps N/A 30
Sony A99 AVCHD 28Mbps N/A 60
Panasonic GH3 H.264 50 Mbps H.264 72 Mbps 60 (IPB), 30 (All-I)

Data rates don’t tell the whole story most of the time. Therefore, I’m not inclined to take the differences between interframe codec specifications too seriously. However, having an intraframe option is brilliant.

Only two heavy-weights remain: The Canon 5D Mark III and the Panasonic GH3.

What a tight race! The Panasonic GH3 has one serious advantage – 60p, while the Canon 5D Mark III has a full frame sensor which is great in low light. It is time to look at all my criteria once more for the final battle:

 Camera Panasonic GH3 Canon 5D Mark III Better
Widest angle f/2.8 (FF 35mm equiv) 24mm 14mm 5D
Max telephoto f/2.8 (FF 35mm equiv) 200mm 400mm 5D
Weather protected lens Not completely Full weather protection 5D
Viewfinder 100% EVF 100% OVF 5D
LCD Specs 3″ 610K LED Flip Screen 3.2″ 1,000K LCD Fixed GH3
Super 35mm like DOF 17.3mm x 13mm 36mm x 24mm 5D
Price $1,298 $2,975 GH3
Still image specs 16.05 MP 4:3 22.3 MP 3:2 5D

The larger sensor of the Canon 5D Mark III also helps it shoot with a higher ISO rating than the GH3. The writing’s on the wall. Consider pedigree and resale value of your gear, and there’s only one undisputed champion:

So, what is the best DSLR for video?

Drum roll…the best DSLR for video is the Canon 5D Mark III:

Want to learn which are the best lenses for this camera? Click here. To learn how to fully rig this camera, read the Comprehensive Guide to Rigging ANY Camera.

Want firecrackers? Here’s the biggest I’ve ever seen:

You might be wondering why I avoided image quality in my comparisons. I didn’t. The differences between image quality of DSLRs in 2013 is negligible for most practical intents and purposes. You’ll find lovers of every camera’s ‘look’ – but that’s not a fair or objective way to judge a camera’s merits for the title of ‘best DSLR for video’!

By the way, if you want to know who the kid in the photograph is, it’s my six-month old nephew.

Wish you all a happy and prosperous 2013!

4 replies on “What is the Best DSLR for Video?”

  1. Love your breakdown. But for me, what is important was ever-so-slightly different. A rotating screen was way up on my list. I just cannot shoot everything at eye level. I need the creativity I can get when the camera is low on a slider, or up in the air by simply getting my mono-pod well above my head. I sold all my Canon lenses and went with the Sony A99. Is it perfect? No. Close? Yes! :)

    1. Darrell_B Thank you, Darrell! You are absolutely right – a flip screen is a life-saver. 
      I’m very interested in knowing your experiences with the A99. Don’t tell me you made the change just for the flip screen!

      1. Sareesh Sudhakaran Darrell_B if you just want a flip screen you should’ve gone for the GH3!

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