There’s no shortage of excellent video cameras on the market today, but one model has generated more hype than any other: the. With Blackmagic Design’s Hollywood pedigree, the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K brings professional features to an approachable budget, doing more than any other camera to democratize high-end digital film production.
We’ve spent over a decade reviewing hundreds of cameras — from DSLRs to cinema cameras to action cameras, over 325 reviews in all — but only in the past couple of generations of cameras have we seen professional filmmaking features trickle down to amateur-friendly prices. The Blackmagic PCC4K blew us away with its outstanding 4K video quality, RAW and ProRes file options, its gorgeous 5-inch touchscreen, and surprisingly user-friendly interface. It costs thousands less than other cinema cameras, and is inexpensive enough to give amateur filmmakers a chance to dabble in high-quality, professional 4K video production.
It’s hardly the only good choice, however. Mirrorless cameras from Panasonic continue to push the envelope of what hybrid still/video cameras can do, while compact camcorders — although not as popular as they once were — offer good value for the right applications.
At a glance:
Why should you buy this: Professional cinema quality at an enthusiast-friendly price.
Who’s it for: Student, aspiring, and professional filmmakers.
Why we picked the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K:
Blackmagic Design is on a mission to democratize professional quality film production and the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is its most effective weapon in that fight yet. It considerably more affordable than other cinema cameras, and even cheaper than many hybrid mirrorless cameras that lack its high-end video features. It’s built around the Micro Four Thirds system and uses a very similar sensor to the one found in the Panasonic GH5S mirrorless camera (a camera that costs about twice as much). Blackmagic has taken things several steps further by including professional filetypes like Apple ProRes and even RAW video which can be recorded to SD or CFast 2.0 cards, or directly to an external solid state drive (SSD) over USB 3.
The camera features a gorgeous, 5-inch, Full HD display that is perhaps the best built-in monitor we’ve ever seen. The touch interface is also brilliantly designed and offers a surprisingly simple interface for such an advanced camera. Add to this the advanced audio inputs and controls, including both 3.5mm and mini-XLR, and you’ve got everything you need to make your next blockbuster.
Designed for professional movie workflows, the Pocket Cinema Camera doesn’t offer the creature comforts of a modern hybrid camera. Autofocus is slow and often inaccurate, and there is nothing like the face or eye-tracking autofocus found on mirrorless cameras from the likes of Sony and Panasonic. It’s also designed to be a single component within a larger rig, and many operators end up spending hundreds of not thousands more on accessories to fully kit it out. Even so, no other camera provides such a good starting point as the PCC4K for filmmakers who want the best quality on tight budgets.
Blackmagic Design recently introduced the Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, an upgrade over — but not a replacement of — the 4K version. At $2,495, it’s more expensive, but it offers a larger Super 35 sensor and Canon EF lens mount. It might find its way into future versions of this article after we have a chance to test it.
Read our Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K review
Why should you buy this: Beautiful 4K footage from a large, 1-inch sensor and bright zoom lens.
Who’s it for: Those who aren’t afraid to drop some cash for great image quality.
Why we picked the Sony AX700:
Sony’s 1-inch-type sensors have dominated the compact camera market for years, and while those same sensors are newer to video cameras, they are no less impressive here, offering superior image quality to the usual 1/2-inch or smaller sensors found in camcorders. The larger sensor in the AX700 gathers more light than camcorders with smaller sensors, bringing a serious image quality boost. Combined with the S-Log flat color profile, serious shooters can preserve more dynamic range to push the exposure and color further in post.
The larger a sensor is, the harder it is to put a long zoom lens in front of it, but Sony still managed to tack on a 12X zoom to the AX700. The f/2.8-4.5 aperture is bright for the category, working together with the larger sensor to improve image quality in low light scenes. On the flip side, a built-in neutral density filter will assist when the surroundings are too bright, helping to keep the shutter speed down so that video doesn’t look jittery.
The sensor and lens work together with a 273-point phase detection autofocus for smoother focusing with more accurate subject tracking. 4K video is recorded at 100 megabits per second, not as high as the likes of the Blackmagic PCC4K, but higher than the average consumer-grade video camera. Additional capabilities like HDR (high dynamic range) mode, 960-frames-per-second super slow-motion, and a hot shoe connection round out the feature set.
On the exterior, the camera offers a handful of manual controls including a multi-function lens ring that can control focus or zoom. Dual SD card slots allow for plenty of storage and uninterrupted recording.
The price is a bit steep for many buyers, but right in line for the class. Canon’s competingis a slightly more affordable alternative. It also offers a 1-inch sensor, but with an even longer 15X zoom and the same f/2.8-4.5 aperture. It lacks the super slow-motion mode and some other advanced features of the Sony, however.
Why should you buy this: Excellent video quality and audio quality, great stabilization.
Who’s it for: Serious videographers that want the flexibility of multiple lenses and high-quality 4K video.
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:
In the world of hybrid still and video cameras, no name is better known than Panasonic Lumix. The GH5 is the latest model in the highly lauded GH line that brings professional filmmaking features to a recognizable mirrorless camera body. What separates the GH5 from would-be competitors is its video quality: 10-bit 4:2:2 video in 4K resolution at up to 400 megabits per second. Most other cameras need an external recorder to even get close to that, but the GH5 can do it right to an SD card.
What’s more, unlike most mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, the GH5 places no time limit on how long you can record; want to go on a long-winded rant for your rabid YouTube fans? You can do that. Need to record an hour-long interview on your podcast? No problem.
Rounding out the list of features is a 5-axis internal stabilization system that keeps your handheld footage smooth. A 180-degree articulating monitor means you can keep track of your framing for any selfie shots, while high-quality preamps keep audio crisp and clear when using an external microphone. If you don’t need stabilization and want even more emphasis on video quality, check out the more advanced GH5S, which uses the same sensor as the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K.
Read our full Panasonic Lumix GH5 review
Why should you buy this: 4K video and excellent autofocus in a compact package
Who’s it for: The serious consumer that wants solid video quality without spending a fortune.
Why we picked the Sony RX100 VII:
The seventh iteration of Sony’s class-defining RX100 brings a wealth of advanced features to the compact camera. Not only does the RX100 VII offer the most impressive video feature set of any compact camera, it also happens to excel at still photos, giving you a one-size-fits-all device for travel. It uses a 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor (the same physical size as the AX700 above) matched with a fast Bionz X processor for detailed images and fast performance. The 24-200mm, 8X zoom lens isn’t long compared to the camcorders on this list, but it’s an impressive amount of range for a camera that can easily slide into a jacket pocket.
4K video can be recorded at either 30 or 24fps, Full HD 1080p up to 120fps, and super slow-motion as high as 960fps at lower resolutions. Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) and S-Log profiles are also included for capturing more dynamic range and creating video suitable for playback on HDR televisions.
New to the Mark VII is Sony’s Real Time Tracking and Real Time Eye AF focusing technology. First introduced in the company’s high-end mirrorless cameras, this uses artificial intelligence to track moving subjects and keep them tack-sharp — in both still and video modes. Also new is a microphone jack (finally) that allows you to connect external microphones for better audio quality. All of these features mean the RX100 VII doesn’t come cheap, but unlike traditional point-and-shoot cameras, it is built to last and should be viewed as an investment.
Why should you buy this: Record an entire little league game with enough zoom to get up close to your favorite player.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants long zoom and recording times that they can’t find on a smartphone.
Why we picked the Canon Vixia HF R800:
The Canon Vixia HF R800 may not have 4K or a huge sensor, but it has a 32x zoom lens on the front that can be expanded all the way to 57x using an advanced digital zoom option. Its 1080p HD at 60 fps video isn’t going to win any contests for image quality, but it’s a good video camera for recording family memories and outings.
Despite the price point, the HF R800 brings a lot to the table. Dynamic image stabilization controls camera shake on three different axes, slow and fast-motion options can create slow-motion or time-lapse sequences, and the Highlight Priority Mode will keep clear skies and other bright objects properly exposed.
The HF R800 also uses a touch screen and stores video to SD cards, but if you want built-in storage, look at the slightly pricier Canon Vixia R82 or R80. Arguably, the best part about the R800 is its low price.
Why should you buy this: Great image stabilization and 4K/60p video.
Who’s it for: Anyone with a love for POV videos or who needs a camera small enough to fit anywhere.
Why we picked the GoPro Hero7 Black:
Action camera is becoming a misleading title. These tiny cameras can be used in a much wider variety of settings than the name entails, from nabbing extreme sports shots to recording Netflix-level movies. From point-of-view shots to car interiors to other tight spots where traditional cameras won’t fit, the GoPro Hero7 Black can handle anything you can ask of a such a small camera.
While GoPro is seeing more competition than ever before, its newest flagship maintains the edge thanks to incredible electronic image stabilization that is simply the best we have ever seen. The camera also features a new TimeWarp mode that creates smooth time-lapses similar to Instagram’s Hyperlapse app.
Built around the same GP1 custom processor introduced in the Hero6, the Hero7 Black records 4K video at up to 60 frames per second or 1080p up to 240 for slow-motion playback. The user interface, which was already one of our favorites, has been redesigned to make it more user-friendly. GoPro also added native live-streaming so users can share their adventures in real time with friends and fans around the world, something that previously required third-party tools.
Read more on the GoPro Hero7
The best camera for stills and video: Panasonic Lumix DC-S1
Why should you buy this: Full-frame still photos and cinema-quality video in one camera.
Who’s it for: Enthusiasts and pros who want the best of both stills and video.
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix DC-S1:
We put the Panasonic Lumix S1 at the top of our list of the best mirrorless cameras, and for good reason. The first full-frame camera from Panasonic, it easily exceeded expectations thanks to its 5.7-million-dot electronic viewfinder, seemingly bulletproof build quality, and great image quality from the 24MP sensor. This is a mirrorless camera like we’ve never seen before, and, being a Panasonic, it also incorporates a host of high-end video features.
Firstly, it can record 4K video at up to 60 fps (30 and 24 are also offered) with optional HLG mode for producing content for compatible HDR TVs. But it gets better with the help of a paid firmware update that unlocks additional video power, including higher bitrates, 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording, and the V-Log color profile — the same one used on Panasonic’s Varicam line of cinema cameras. That means greater dynamic range and more flexibility in post for anyone who wants to get into the nitty gritty of color grading.
But when it comes to potential alternatives to the Lumix S1, there’s a wildcard in the mix: the Nikon Z 6. With a similar 24MP, full-frame sensor, the Z 6 is a capable still camera that is both smaller and less expensive than the S1. By default, it doesn’t quite match the S1’s video capabilities, but an upcoming firmware update will bring RAW video to the Z 6 — a first for a hybrid mirrorless camera. That’s an intriguing proposition for high-end video shooters, but until we have the chance to test it, the S1 will safely hold down its place on this list.
Research and buying tips
In truth, not everyone needs a dedicated video camera anymore; our phones have great cameras in them that are good enough most of the time. There are a few key reasons why you may want a standalone camera, however.
Your phone may have two (or five) lenses built into it, but if you need the versatility or reach of a long zoom, a camcorder is your best bet. Not only does this give you the ability to film subjects that are farther away, but camcorders also use powered lens motors that provide a very smooth zooming action.
Alternately, interchangeable lens cameras will grant added creative control, even if their lenses don’t zoom as far or as smoothly.
Battery life and record time
If you need to film a long event — from a little league game to a wedding ceremony — you probably don’t want to risk running down your phone’s battery. Particularly with mid-range and high-end camcorders, video cameras often offer multiple different sizes of battery, with high-capacity options designed for such situations. Mirrorless cameras, like the GH5 above, have optional battery grips that can be attached to extend battery life, while cinema cameras can be powered by large external batteries.
If you want to achieve a cinematic look, you can do that relatively affordably with any DSLR or mirrorless camera. The combination of a large imaging sensor and interchangeable lenses grants much more creative control over the look and feel of your video, letting you shoot with a shallow depth of field and vastly improving low light performance over your phone.
Let’s face it: Your phone kind of sucks at recording audio, especially in a noisy environment. A dedicated video camera will not only have better built-in microphones, but it will also allow you to attach an external mic to get the best results in any given situation, from a wireless lavalier mic for recording dialogue, to a shotgun mic for cutting through ambient noise, to a stereo mic for recording music.
Video cameras can be broken down into four categories, each of which has unique advantages.
These are small, lightweight, and mountable cameras designed for “set it and forget it” applications. Strap one to your chest, stick it to your helmet, or mount it to your bike frame and just press record. Typically, these cameras are waterproof and ruggedized and can survive a beating.
Although not as popular as they once were (you can thank smartphones for that), camcorders still come in handy when you need a compact, all-in-one solution for recording video. They are characterized by having a zoom lens that is integrated into the camera body. Entry-level models are generally quite compact and able to be used one-handed, while higher-end models are larger and often include professional audio inputs and more controls.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras
These are photo cameras that can shoot video — and some models are very good at it. The benefits are a large sensor and interchangeable lenses, which improve video quality and creative versatility over the likes of camcorders and action cams. Because of the larger sensors, you won’t find any extremely long zoom lenses like you get on camcorders, but you will be able to choose from a wide selection of lenses that give you vastly different looks.
These cameras, like the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera that took the top spot on this list, share much in common with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. They have relatively large sensors and interchangeable lenses. What separates them is the user interface, video-specific features, and higher-quality filetypes. Whereas most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras recorded highly compressed video, cinema cameras often offer uncompressed RAW files or lightly compressed filetypes like Apple ProRes. The higher-quality filetype means more flexibility in postproduction.
Yes. Today, most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are “hybrid” cameras, meaning they perform well for both stills and video, even if they are geared more toward still photography. Camcorders and cinema cameras can usually take photos, as well, but generally lack the resolution of a dedicated still camera. Whereas a mirrorless camera will easily have 20 or more megapixels, a camcorder or cinema camera tends to only have as many as it needs for video — for 4K resolution, that’s around 8MP.
While professional cameras tend to have better sensors and, likewise, better image quality, what really separates them from consumer models are the user interfaces and connectivity features. A professional video camera will have more direct access control — physical buttons and dials on the camera body — as well as a slew of input and output options for both audio and video. In the case of cinema cameras, these actually have fewer convenience features than consumer cameras — auto-focus and auto-exposure may be limited or nonexistent, for example.
The answer is probably yes, if for no other reason than 4K is quickly becoming the default. Even midrange mirrorless cameras now come equipped with 4K video. However, if you don’t have a 4K television or monitor, you won’t fully realize the benefits of a 4K video camera — and many people can’t see the difference, anyway. That said, shooting in 4K does allow you some flexibility to crop and reframe a shot in post, which can be a very welcome feature when you need it. It also does a much better job rendering fine patterns, like the threads in clothing, that may otherwise cause moiré at lower resolutions.