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Buying a Camera

These are notes I took in in April 2021 while researching the field, for purchase of a new camera.

I was (am) new to this entire field so if you spot any errors, let me know and I’ll be happy to fix them.

Requirements

My requirements are, loosely:

  • should last at least 5y
  • using it for filming, only
  • <£2k absolute total

N.B.: They shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5, so don’t worry too much about gear. (Or perhaps the lesson is to worry about anamorphic lenses??! :D)

Types

DSLR

Optimised for photography.

A camera optimised for photography, with a mirror in front of the sensor. You can see the real image coming into the lens, through the viewfinder. With your own eye. Directly.

This is utterly pointless for videos, but some people like it for photography.

mirrorless

Optimised for photography.

No mirror, so the image always directly hits the sensor. The viewfinder is an LCD screen (even the small one at eye height must be an LCD screen).

Its main advantage over DSLRs is size. Less mechanical clutter getting between the lens and the sensor.

People buy these with the intent to use them primarily for film, so they’ve become a bit dual purpose. It causes confusion of features, as photography and cinema have some fundamental differences in their use: photography wants small, compact, with grip on the side, camera in front of your face, etc. Cinema wants large, wide top and side grip, fully articulated viewfinder, etc.

camcorder

Optimised for filming.

These are ergonomically ideal.

Fixed lens

Seems pretty clearly a no.

Pros:

  • cheap
  • easy
  • all the Specs you need for video
  • no swappable lenses

Cons:

  • no swappable lenses :)
  • no bokeh / dof
  • lower quality
  • smaller sensor -> poor low light performance, lower quality, etc

Sources:

Interchangable lens

Very cool! I’m in love with these bad boys. Unfortunately, the good ones are expensive, and the cheap ones are shit. There is no “prosumer” category, only amateur and professional.

This is essentially the video equivalent of prosumer DSLR/mirrorless photo cameras, like the ɑ7iii etc.

Pros:

  • ergonomic
  • all the features you could want, and more. hot shoe, cold shoe, lens filters, xlr input, decent built-in mic, audio monitor, flip screens, record onto ssd drives, bare battery connector (meaning you can mount large ones), and on and on and on.
  • good quality
  • very good in-body stabilisation

Cons:

  • very limited offering for prosumers
  • heavy, bulky
  • the only good candidates are from 2010. this is getting too old now.

It seems like this category peaked in the early 2010s. Sony got out of the game, unfortunately! I am sorely disappointed. They made the perfect camcorder, with an e-mount (!).

YT: MarkusPix - Affordable Large Sensor Camcorders JVC LS300 Panasonic AF100 Canon C100 Sony VG900 VG30 FS5ii

Cinema Camera

This is the big stuff. The only remotely affordable cameras are old, out of date gear. Still a great option, and better than a new camera for the same price, it seems.

Pros:

  • All of the advantages of the swappable lens category, with even more features.
  • insane picture quality. A 10yo cinema camera blows a new DSLR out of the water.
  • Second hand old ones are affordable

Cons:

  • insanely bulky
  • requires a lot of extra gear. Monitor, battery, mount, etc. You’re slowly building a real set.
  • that makes the total price more expensive
  • and even more bulky
  • and unwieldy, because you have to manage it all
  • and you don’t have any cool prosumer utility features, like AF or app or anything

This is not for self tapes or guerilla run & gun shooting. This is for a set. Cool, but know what you’re getting into.

YT: DSLR Video Shooter - This $800 Cinema Camera is Fantastic! (Sony PWM F3)

Specs

Features to watch out for:

Importnt:

  • autofocus (!) - noise & quality. (Also seems dependent on lens?)
  • mic jack
  • Continuous power
  • unlimited runtime filming
  • flip out screen

Don’t forget to check:

  • connection type (?)
  • doesn’t overheat
  • resolution
  • FPS
  • storage
  • clean HDMI, i.e. no diagnostics on the vid out (or do we have usbc vid out, now?)
  • stabilisation

For Continuous power: Sony models can use this fake battery: https://www.amazon.com/AC-PW20-Coupler-Replacement-NP-FW50-DSC-RX10/dp/B078ZW7DJ5/ to power continuously. Good for indoor shooting.

Stabilisation

In-body stabilisation is unnecessary if you use a gimbal.

Electronic gimbals blow in-body stabilisation out of the water. They’re at least $400.

You also have mechanical stabilisers (steadycams) for around $40 which give v decent quality shots. Definitely worth it. They require more skill to operate.

YT: The School of Photography - Image Stabiliser vs Pro Gimbal (in-body vs gimbal) YT: NigelBarros - Cheap Stabilizer vs Gimbal (steadycam vs gimbal) YT: Andyax - Good & Affordable Steadicam (Yelangu s60t)

Conclusion: in-body stabilisation is not important to me.

Models

Sony models in age:

  • a6300
  • a6500
  • a6400
  • a6100
  • a6600

Sony ɑ5100   no

  • $313 in 2020 2nd hand
  • overheats when internally recording
  • no mic input
  • it’s a classic for streamers

No: Too old, cheap, not good for internal recording.

Sony a7iii   no

  • 2018
  • $2000
  • full frame sensor
  • no real time AF with eye tracking
  • 30min limit
  • only tilt screen, no flip at all (and does it work with a tripod?)
  • larger body

No: too expensive, a7c is better.

Sony a7c   no

  • 2020
  • $1800
  • full frame sensor
  • real time AF with eye tracking
  • no recording limit
  • flip out screen
  • smaller body

No: too expensive

Fujifilm X-T4   no

Panasonic GH4   no

  • 2014
  • andyax is a fan apparently

No: too old, poor autofocus.

Canon t8i   no

  • $750
  • 4k sensor, 1.6x crop for 4k vid, causing poor AF
  • APS-C sensor
  • full flip touch screen, can see yourself
  • 30min limit

No: crop, AF, 30min limit.

Canon M50   no

  • £700
  • better camera than the Canon SL3
  • M mount for lenses which apparently isn’t great

No: canon AF, crop, M lens

Canon SL3   no

  • “Beginner” camera
  • poor dynamic range
  • good autofocus, eye tracking
  • 4k has 1.6x crop, apparently causing rolling shutter?
  • £539 / $600
  • “wouldn’t recommend to cinematic film maker”
  • flip-out screen, good UI
  • v small
  • EF lenses, which apparently are plenty, good, cheap

YT: Tech Through The Lens - Canon SL3 Review (2020)

No: Crop, not up to par with Sony AF

Sony ɑ6000   no

  • 2014
  • very popular
  • ±$650
  • very good value for price (apparently)

No: old, superseded by newer models

Sony ɑ6600   no

V similar to the Sony ɑ6100.

Differences:

  • late 2019
  • $1400
  • in body stabilisation
  • better battery (NP FZ 100)
  • headphone jack for live monitoring of sound
  • flat picture profile

No: Too expensive compared to the Sony ɑ6400, no compelling features

Sony ɑ6400   YES

Think Media guy is a fan. Noted as a good camera for live streaming, vlogging.

Similar to Sony ɑ6100.

  • £850
  • Shitty battery (NP FW 50). But: can draw from external source, even socket.
  • flat picture profile

YT: Jeff Elo - Camera Power Options - Sony …

Sony ɑ6100   no

  • late 2019
  • $750
  • APS-C sensor
  • 1.5x crop, full sensor at 6k , downsampled to 4k, so better AF
  • 180deg flip screen, but annoying when using mic
  • unlimited rec
  • realtime AF with eye tracking
  • no in body stabilisation
  • Shitty battery (NP FW 50)
  • no flat picture profile
  • mic, but no headphones

Mario So: Good choice for photographers.

No: superseded by the Sony ɑ6400 for video.

Lenses

Omfg… Ok here we go.

Focal length & Field of View

Focal length is the length of the lens. Field of View is the equivalent when scaled to a “Full Frame sensor”. IOW: On full frame sensors, Focal length = field of view. On e.g. Sony APS-C, you have a so-called “1.5x crop factor”, so Focal length × 1.5 = Field of View. IOW: A 35mm lens on a ɑ6400 looks like a 50mm on a ɑ7iii.

Fields of view:

  • 15mm: very wide
  • 24mm: wide
  • 35mm: normal
  • 50mm
  • 80mm: zoom. Movement v hard w/o gimbal, just hard w gimbal.
Prime
fixed focal length. Advantage: tends to have faster aperture.
Zoom
variable fl.

An APS-C sensor on Sony has 1.5 crop, so 35mm becomes 52.5mm, etc.

Note: 35mm here refers to the focal length. Do not confuse with a “35mm camera”, which refers to the size of the sensor. In that context, 35mm is the width of the film onto which the image is projected (including grip strips, so really more like 24mm), which later became the reference size for digital sensors. Full Frame is equivalent to this 35mm film (aka 24×36mm of light sensitive material). This has nothing to do with a lens with 35mm focal length. That’s pure coincidence.

Aperture

f stops are a log scale (the values are geometric): every stop is ½ the light of the previous:

↑ shallow DOF, faster, large aperture

  • f/0.7: Kubrick, NASA, dark side of the moon
  • f/1
  • f/1.4: night - shallow DOF
  • f/2.0
  • f/2.8: inside.
  • f/4.0
  • f/5.6: Medium. Hollywood: “if in doubt, use 5.6” (according to Rando McYouTube)
  • f/8.0: medium DOF
  • f/11
  • f/16: landscape is fully in focus
  • f/22: larger DOF
  • f/32: very small aperture, lets in almost no light

↓ large DOF, slower, small aperture

(meaning of fractional notation: f/ n = f 2 i , i being the “stop”. Iow, n = 2 i . Hence 1, 1.4, 2, …)

Larger apertures (aka lower f numbers, because it’s a divisor) mean more light, which means shorter shutter speed. This is why they’re called “faster apertures”.

Reasons to go faster:

  • bokeh (but this can get wanky real quick)
  • easier to shoot at night

Reasons to go slower:

  • get more of your scenery in focus (you chose the env for a reason, so show it)
  • looks less wanky
  • easier to focus on the subject
  • less flare (flare is not just those light streaks, but also loss in contrast, which is not good)

The shallower your DOF, the more difficult it is to focus. The focus puller on Barry Lyndon had a v hard time.

“General rule of thumb: lenses have to be stopped down by 2 stops for best sharpness”, aka a 1.4 lens will be sharpest at 2.8. Tbh I wonder how much this matters to me, but it does explain the value of faster lenses.

If you go too far down, you lose sharpness again, because of diffraction. Again: not sure how important this is for me atm.

Aperture and Crop Size

Crop size affects Depth of Field, but not aperture. Much like it affects Field of View, but not Focal Length.

Specifically: the actual aperture is not, itself, affected by crop size, but the amount of light that eventually hits the sensor IS affected, therefore when comparing lenses you should correct for crop size, when comparing both focus length and aperture. Just like Focus Length vs Field of View. If you take a photo with a 80mm f/1.4 Full Frame, and you want to replicate it on a APS-C with 1.5 crop, bokeh and all, you’ll need: 53mm f/0.9 (± 50mm f/1). Fundamentally, this means that the smaller your sensor, the harder to get shallow DoF (because faster lenses are more expensive).

This is assuming that you correct for field of view by getting a lens with shorter focal length. Really, that’s the whole point: if you didn’t do that, you would technically keep the same DOF across sensor sizes, but you would have a different picture. Remember that if you keep the same lens and aperture and everything, a smaller sensor is just basically a crop. You might as well take a photo on a larger sensor body and crop in post. Would that change your DOF? Obviously not. The same goes for having a cropped sensor to begin with.

Open question: this affects bokeh, but how about light sensitivity? Does a f/1.4 on a APS-C also require an ISO equivalent to a f/2 on a Full Frame with equal amount of pixels? Since we are cropping, i.e. cutting out a chunk of the image, you’d think less light ends up hitting the sensor, so I assume that yes, I also need a higher ISO?

Recommendations

Peter Lindgren

Peter Lindgren highly recommends 24-70, f/2.8. However, it’s not clear what size his sensor is—I assume full size, so on an APS-C it’d be “16-46mm f/1.8” ≈ 15-50 f/2.

He considered the 16mm on his APS-C too wide! That’s a 24mm equivalent.

  • 16-35mm f/4 (on Full Frame)

    This guy is all over the map. Does he consider 16mm FF good, or 24mm FF equivalent too wide?! 😂

  • 28-75mm f/2.8 Tamron (on Full Frame)

    “Most versatile lens in my kit”

Brandon Li

Sticks to Sony lenses for AF, reliability, stabilisation, and smaller form factor.

Personal note: as soon as he gets to 50mm, f/1.8 on APS-C (so 75mm f/2.7) I lose interest. Is it because of the shallow DOF? Or because of the zoom? I am definitely noticing an upper limit of 50mm FoV.

  • Sony 10-18mm, f/4 (on APS-C)

    (15-27mm f/6 equivalent)

    • wide, can crop to 1080p later
    • safe when you’re not sure what will happen
    • for run and gun guerilla journalist style
    • low aperture so not great at night
    • no bokeh
  • Sony 35mm, f/1.8 (on APS-C)

    (“52.5mm f/2.7” equivalent ≈ 50mm f/2.8)

    • face recognition tracking AF with bokeh
  • Sony 35mm, f/1.8 (on Full Frame)

    Note the difference with putting this on an APS-C! That will turn it into a 50mm, f/2.8. The equivalent for an APS-C would be a 23mm, f/1.2, I guess? Can you even get that?

    • Good balance
  • Sony 16-50mm, f/3.5-5.6 (on APS-C)
    • very small aperture, bad at low light
    • small
    • “covers a lot of useful focal lenghts”

    Personal: looks like a good run & gun outside wildcard lens

Sebazpictures

  • Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 (on FF?)
    • no AF button on the lens (is this important?)
    • aperture and zoom gears switched
  • Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 (on FF?)
  • Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 (on APS-C)

Comparisons

Sony 35mm f/1.8 vs Sigma 35mm f/1.2

Mostly compared on photography (!)

Conclusion: equal. Size & price are the only thing that matters, the quality is practically equivalent. And obviously there’s an f-stop, that’s something.

Sigma 35mm 1.4 ART E-Mount VS Sony 35mm 1.4 - Eye-AF - Video Focus Test - Image Quality

Subtle but noticeable difference in quality of AF. Only noticeable because he showed me explicitly. Never in a million years would I have noticed without it.

Sony is buttery smooth tho.

Update: Final Purchase & Debrief

Update from 2 July.

Camera

I found an ɑ6600 on https://cameraworld.co.uk, discounted from £1400 to £1100. It’s… fine? I can only name things I don’t like about the interface. Tony Northrup was 100% correct about the menu and UI being shit.1 Just apalling. Apple needs to make CameraPlay or something. And the limited articulation of the flip screen is a pain.

Lens

I got just one lens: the E 16-55mm F2.8 G-master for just under £1000 (also at Cameraworld). That’s a fixed-aperture zoom lens. It is incredibly versatile, quite fast, and I honestly struggle to imagine what else I could possibly want. A faster lens for even lower light? The DOF is already amazing, the zoom covers everything I need (35mm equivalent: 24mm - 82.5mm. I’m never going wider or tighter than that.) I find the low light performance largely sufficient, especially at a 1/25 shutter speed. Sure, you’re shooting at a million ISO, but I don’t care about the grain. It’s fine.

Honestly the lens was probably the best part.

Footnotes:

1

Except about the internet connectivity (very happy there’s none), and the smartphone app, which is great :D. But seriously–look at the comments on that video.

Unexpected plus: the mobile app. Very smooth. You can use it as a remote viewfinder and controller, even so much as controlling video recording from your phone. Very handy for individual small photos and quick filming. Instant camera -> phone transfers work seamlessly. Didn’t expect that.

Aside from that, I have zero frame of reference, so I can’t adequately comment on the quality. Nobody needs my feedback; YouTube has plenty of experts.

A week after buying my camera, I was on a shoot where the guy had a FF, Sony ɑ7siiicXXXL something. It turns out they’re not worth it unless you shoot video all day every day.

Date: 2021-04-03

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