Forget hand-me-down camcorders – the best camera for film students is about more than just pointing and pressing the record button. Whether studying for film school, college credits or media courses, students need a nuanced tool to help them learn about aspect ratio, focal length, lighting, bitrates and framerates.
However, getting the best camera for film students doesn't mean investing in the best cinema camera. There are plenty of interchangeable lens stills, hybrid and video bodies on the market that possess powerful recording capabilities – and many of them are used on sets by professional videographers.
Ever since the groundbreaking Canon EOS 5D Mark II, consumer-grade DSLRs and now mirrorless cameras have shattered the glass ceiling of cinematography. Armed with autofocus, variable framerates, the ability to use prime and zoom lenses, external microphone and headphone jacks, articulating screens (which are de facto external monitors) and the ability to shoot in 4K, they offer students everything they need to learn, master and advance their filmmaking.
Systems with smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors offer the ultimate in compact and affordable camera bodies and lenses. APS-C sensors are broadly the same size as the Super35 format, while larger full-frame sensors deliver premium image quality and offer ultra-creative depth of field.
So, with all the above in mind, these are our picks for the best cameras for film students across all budgets and sensor sizes…
The best camera for film students
Panasonic has long sold its mirrorless cameras as hybrid stills and video shooters, making this early 4K capturing example one of its more popular for budget conscious filmmakers. While the camera impressively offers 4096x2160 pixels Cinema 4K footage at up to 60fps, or can dial it down to Full HD if you want to save space on the memory card, it’s also possible to extract 18MP stills from 4K resolution footage shot at 30fps. Handily, the camera is weather sealed too, making it an option for all shooting scenarios, while further pluses include dual SD card slots with UHS-II support, plus a full sized HDMI Type A terminal output. It goes without saying that filmmakers also have access to a wide range of existing Micro Four Thirds lenses and accessories in support, making the GH5 a sensible starting point for fledgling filmmakers.
A version of the Panasonic GH5 that has been tweaked for filmmaking, at the expense of some of its still shooting capabalities. It offers ‘just’ 10 megapixels – and thus even more dedicated to the art of filmmaking, and particularly so in lowlight. Here we get not just regular 16:9 ratio 4K footage and the option of Cinema 4K at the slightly wider 17:9 ratio, along with twin UHS-II card slots to cope with the data hungry demand; we are also gifted Dual Native ISO. The latter is a feature borrowed from its maker’s pro video cams that claims to deliver less noise at higher sensitivities – thereby making the camera a more proficient tool when recording in lower light. Naturally, this being Panasonic, 8MP stills can be snatched from a 4K video sequence, and, unlike regular stills cameras, video recording duration doesn’t cut off at just shy of 30 minutes. With far too many nuanced video features to go into here, check out our standalone long form review of the GH5S for the fuller picture.
See full Panasonic GH5s review
If you want to truly step up your filmmaking, the Panasonic S5 features a full-frame image sensor – which is about 50% larger than Super35 / APS-C and 100% larger than Micro Four Thirds. This gives a number of technical advantages over smaller formats, from higher resolution and detail to cleaner ISO and low light performance. It also delivers the creative effect of an incredibly shallow depth of field, for superior subject separation and dreamy out-of-focus backgrounds. In effect the S5 is essentially a full-frame version of the GH5 (though it's actually smaller and lighter), though it incorporates features from the Netflix-approved Panasonic S1H. With 10-bit 4:2:0 4K 60fps, and up to 180fps in 1080p, it's an absolute powerhouse – though it's worth noting that native L-mount lenses are quite expensive, and like all Panasonics the AF is a little flaky. However, you can easily adapt all manner of other lenses, and for filmmaking you'll likely be pulling focus manually anyway.
See full Panasonic S5 review
Designed for filmmakers from the get go, the (deep breath) Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K isn’t an option to consider if you’re looking to shoot stills as well. For this chunky retro looking device is based around a Micro Four Thirds lens mount and Four Thirds sensor combo while being heads and shoulders above actual Four Thirds stills cameras when it comes to video capability. It benefits from a huge 5-inch LCD, lots of on-board connectivity, dual card slots and dual native ISO; the latter meaning that this Blackmagic option actually delivers low noise 4K video recording more impressively than some full frame sensor cameras, which is a high recommendation. If it’s video you want pure and simple, you could even say it’s ‘magic’.
Described by us as one of the best beginner-targeted interchangeable lens cameras ever, we get the ability here to shoot 4K video coupled up with Canon’s latest Digic 8 processor. A further bonus is Live View autofocus utilising Dual Pixel sensor technology, thereby ensuring a swifter response than the contrast AF used by many competing models’ sensors when placed in Live View mode. For composing and reviewing videos, the DSLR’s flip out and twist LCD screen adds creative flexibility; but there are some limitations. For example when switching from Full HD video to 4K shooting there’s a significant crop factor, which effectively narrows the lens’ angle of view, meaning you may need to step back and re-frame your shot. Focusing in video mode isn’t instantaneous either; but it is at least smooth and silent, avoiding jerky transitions between subjects. While not 100% perfect, then, this is still a decent option for fledgling filmmakers looking to cut their teeth.
While this compact, solid-feel Sony may not offer 60/50P 4K capture like a couple of its rivals, it does utilise full pixel readout, capturing oversampled 6K data and then down sampling it to 3,840x 2160 pixels UHD resolution. It also offers clean HDMI output to external recorders, while claiming to offer the world’s fastest AF acquisition time of 0.02 seconds. The above is undoubtedly what sets this camera apart and makes it worthy of investigation by those looking to get into shooting 4K video on a budget, as apart from the features mentioned the A6400 is rather conventional. It has to be said though, the fact that the magnesium alloy body is dust and moisture resistant will aid filmmakers looking for a camera that won’t let them down, while once again a tilting rear LCD screen offers up flexibility to filmmakers looking to get creative – student or otherwise.
Crammed full of technology that has trickled down from its Nikon Z6 and Z7 bigger brothers, the Z 50 has the advantage of capturing 4K across the entirety of its sensor width, rather than a cropped version that some of its rivals have employed. On top of this, 4K time-lapse sequences can be created in camera, while shooting in Full HD adds additional slow motion footage. Digital image stabilization is provided in video mode only, plus a tilting one million dot touchscreen flips through 180° to face the person in front of the lens. This obviously makes the Z50 particularly useful for vloggers, not just film students looking to buy the best capture device they can for their budget.
The best cameras for filmmaking in 2020