Best low-cost large-sensor cameras for video - Canon vs GH2 vs NEX-5n (+ others)
So you wanna shoot quality video? All of these cameras are really fantastic and give a really great image if used properly. Don't get too hung up on what camera to buy. Get a camera and sell it later if it doesn't suit your needs. A few things to remember:
- This is a comparison of the camera bodies, not their lenses. There are great lenses to fit all of these cameras so don't worry too much about that.
- This is mainly a comparison of the video features.
- This article is written with the assumption that the reader has a decent understanding of film and photography terminology. If you see something you don't understand, Google it!
- There are additional notes below about a few other cameras that are also low budget options but that are not included in the main comparison since they are either a little too expensive or they are not ideal for video.
- It is the filmmaker who makes the film, not the camera! Most of these cameras will look good to start with, and when used correctly have the potential to be great filmmaking tools. ..On a side note, they can all look just as sh*t when used incorrectly. Okay, so let's get right to it, I'll be as accurate and detailed as I can.
- Very little moire or aliasing.
- No recording limit on NTSC model or hacked PAL/NTSC model and no overheating issues reported.
- Very sharp and detailed - This is not really that important for me but it's a very good thing for some shots. Your audience will most likely not know (nor care about) the pretty minor sharpness difference between this and a Canon unless they see it side by side. Or unless they are knowledgeable in that area. The same cannot be said for moire issues, which can be very noticeable even to the untrained eye. Here's a comparison showing the GH2 kick the butts of the 5D MKIII and NEX-7 (LINK)
- Very good high ISO performance. A little better than Canon, a little less than the Sony. The difference is only really visible when viewing side-by-side comparisons: GH2 vs Canon (LINK), GH2 vs NEX-5n (LINK). I don't think it will make much of a difference to your videos in real use. I've never really cared about a bit of noise anyways.
- Built-in digital viewfinder. Useful but not super detailed or easy to focus with.
- Swivel screen, this is really important for video.
- Tons of lens options BUT most lenses won't look quite as wide on this, nor will you be able to get depth of field quite as shallow as with Canon - not to mention you are loosing a little bit more of that lens's resolution so lens aberrations may be slightly more pronounced. The difference will be more noticeable compared to full frame, not necessarily from the tiny difference between the GH2 and APS-c (crop) Canon/Sony bodies but worth a mention.
- Very decent 720p video which means it has much more slow motion potential than Canon. When scaled up properly its about as detailed in 720p as the Sony is in 1080p, but I still much prefer the slow motion video from Sony.
- Lower resolution screen, only 460k dots. It's okay, but not great. Not as easy to focus with as the Sonys and Canons.
- Smaller sensor - 1.86x crop from a full frame. I hate this.
- No custom 'picture styles'.
- Banding issues - Not enough color information which can cause lack of smooth color gradation. Example video (LINK)
- Possible minor issues with horizontal lines or weird banding issues, nothing I've come across myself but it's easy to find this with a Google search.
- 2.5mm input jack requires an adaptor for most microphones. Not a big issue.
- No audio monitoring. You can handle this by recording with a Zoom H1 and monitoring on the Zoom.
- Really annoying menus and controls. Getting used to the 5n took me under 2 minutes as a long time Canon user but after a few weeks with the GH2 I still had problems with the menu and overall layout of the controls on the body and within the camera. The manual is quite horrible too.
- Battery is not easy to change on a tripod. Big quick release plates need to be removed for battery change.
- A few people say it's ok but I've never been impressed with the dynamic range of the GH2.
A direct comparison of the GH2 and NEX-5n (which is covered further below).
Sorry, this video was deleted.
- Larger sensor with a 1.6x crop.
- Same great video quality that the 5D Mark II astonished us with a few years ago. Shallow depth of field shots look fantastic on this camera, which is why most people fell in love with DSLRs and large sensor mirrorless cameras in the first place.
- Overall best features and controls, especially when used with the Magic Lantern firmware hack. Magic Lantern gives us audio improvements and controls, exposure and focusing tools and improvements, advanced camera controls, fine settings and display adjustments, in-camera controlled time-lapse and much more.
- As with all of the cameras in this comparison, Canons are great in low light!
- Very large lens selection and adaptability.
- Lots of custom picture styles which allow you to shoot with a really flat image which retains a lot of detail in the highlights and shadows and get a better dynamic range. Here's the 600D VS the GH2 in dynamic range. (LINK)
- Audio monitoring with the ML hack on the 60D and 550D but not the 600D.
- Better screen than the GH2, about the same as the 5n. Just under 1 million dots, not as many as it sounds but it's a decent screen. Swivels on some models.
- A better stills camera than the GH2 or NEX-5n, mostly because of the buttons and viewfinder.
- HDR video with ML. It alternates ISO values between frames which means you can get 15fps 1080p or 30fps in 720p once those frames are blended together in post. This takes time and has it's issues, it's really only usable for shots with little subject movement and only very slow camera movement, like on a tripod or slider. See this video (LINK).
- Bigger body with decent controls is good for most stills jobs but is a disadvantage for many video situations, not as heavy as the 5D and still comfortable to shoot with.
- Very fast battery change which is very important for professional work! This does not apply to the Rebel range (anything XX0D). This is due to the position of the battery compartment, it allows changing batteries even while on most rigs, tripods, etc. even with large quick release plates.
- Moire and aliasing issues, mostly in wide shots and deep DOF shots. Not very problematic with shallow DOF.
- Lacks the crazy sharpness and resolution of the GH2. It still look great when used properly.
- Near-useless at 720p due to horrible moire, aliasing and reduced resolution.
- Recording limit of 29.59 minutes or 4GB, whichever you hit first. As a general rule you can estimate to hit 4GB after 12 minutes but this can vary if you change the bitrate using Magic Lantern.
- Overheating can occur on some bodies. At room temp most cameras can go 40 minutes or more (assuming you keep pressing record every time you hit 4GB). However, some bodies show no signs of overheating even after 70 minutes. (I've tested this with 4 DSLRs in the same room (about 25 Celsius) on a big shoot I had a few months ago. One 550D would overheat in 30 minutes, another one in 40, a third one did not overheat at all and neither did the 60D.)
I shot this short comedy on a 60D:
SONY NEX-5n (With notes on the NEX-6 and NEX-7)
- Great price. A slightly higher price for the NEX-6 and NEx-7 which have a few improved features over the 5n (see notes below).
- Large sensor with a 1.5x crop factor (slightly larger than Canon).
- Lots of lens options, even more than Canon with just a few less than the GH2.
- Super smooth color gradation (not found on any other camera in the range as far as I know) in 'Sunset' picture style which means you need to pay extra special attention not to shoot with a white balance too warm (Can look warmer in the actual footage than initially on the screen). Skies look great on this camera and overall the image is really cinematic.
- Full 1080p HD resolution at 60p with the NTSC model. It looks slightly better than Canon does in 1080p, and can do it in 40% slow motion if needed (slower than half of real time - when shooting 60p and conforming to 24p in post). As with the Canon, the image is not quite as sharp as the GH2 but still looks absolutely gorgeous when used well.
- Very good dynamic range. About the same as the canon but without needing the custom picture styles. Note that most of the NEX examples online have a crippled dynamic range due to a Mac/AVCHD color issue which is extremely easy to fix in post if you know you need to do so. See this video and read the description below it (LINK).
- The tilt screen is nice and compact but does not work well for self shooting or shooting from tight corners. It's 16:9 aspect ratio makes this screen a little larger than Canon in video mode, and quite a bit smaller than Canon in stills mode unless you want to shoot 16:9 stills, which have a cropped top and bottom from the 3:2 sensor.
- Awesome 10fps burst in stills (had to add this to the list) - and it's a real burst with a real shutter, not a simulated burst like the GH2's 40 FPS burst (which has major skewing issues). About 9 images at full speed at any resolution then it slows down (I think it's on purpose so the 5n doesn't compete with Sony's bigger DSLRs). Not so easy to shoot stills with this one due to the lack of a viewfinder, this is where you may want to spend extra on the NEX-7 or NEX-6.
- A tiny body makes this camera very configurable and very lightweight. Flying this thing on a Glidecam is so much easier than a Canon, especially with a small lens.
- Once configured has really decent controls. There are configurable buttons and I find it just as easy to change my settings as when shooting on Canon.
- This camera is fantastic for shooting while keeping a low profile. See my video below.
- Battery changing is also very good on this camera and can be done without removing most quick release plates.
- Focus peaking in-camera. The screen is good enough on it's own but this is a nice addition. The Canon does this with Magic Lantern, but not quite as well. I don't use it on either.
- 30 minutes of recording, well past the 4GB file limit on Canons. However, sometimes this camera will overheat after 10 minutes of recording. More about this in the negatives section.
- Still has the moire issues than Canon does but with a little improvement. Again, this is not a big issue for shots with shallow depth of field.
- No audio inputs, only a built-in mic. It works fine for quick tutorials or family videos but not for pro work. Must be used with an audio recorder. (The NEX-6 has an $800 XLR adaptor although there are no tests online, and the NEX-7 has a 3.5mm audio input which requires the AGC to be disabled using an external adaptor or MP3 player overloading one of the channels which would ruin the audio playback outside of a video editor.)
- The hot shoe is proprietary and requires a £10 adaptor which also ads size. Lets hope someone makes a smaller adaptor sometimes soon. (Once again the NEX-6 comes to the rescue with it's standard hot shoe)
- Just like the canon it's seriously missing a digital viewfinder for shooting video. (The NEX-6 and 7 win here again)
- Overheating issues! My 5n can overheat after 10-15 minutes of video/live view (sometimes even if I'm not recording the whole time) when shooting at room temperature but sometimes it will record two 30 minute shots one after the other with no sign of overheating. Some users report no overheating, others report about the same times as I've noticed. It takes 1-2 minutes for the camera to cool down so you can continue shooting. There are many fixes reported to work. Some say to use very fast cards or specific Sony cards (LINK), some say to remove the sticker behind the screen found on most (or maybe all) NEX models and you can even place a small computer fan and battery behind the screen (LINK). The NEX-7 has the same issue but no overheating reported on the NEX-6 yet.
- No custom picture styles but it creates a beautiful image with the ones it has. The 'Sunset' profile gives the smoothest color gradation but makes the auto white balance too warm for anything but sunsets, so you'll need to pay close attention to your white balance and change it manually. The 'Portrait' profiles gives the highest dynamic range and no WB issues so this would be most shooters' go-to style.
- It's not as sharp as the GH2. It's pretty close to the Canon but resolves a little more detail.
- European residents need to order the 5n from the USA in order to get 24p and 60p, and then we don't have the option to shoot 25p and 50p. It's a big annoyance.
Something I shot quickly with the NEX-5n:
And I really can't leave this out, the video that sold me on the 5n:
All three are really great cameras, and it simply comes down to personal needs. If you need full HD slow motion and a compact body, the 5n is most likely best. If you need super clean video but don't care about super shallow depth of field, the GH2 is the winner. I personally really did not love the GH2, it's operation is not easy or fun and it's image is very clinical, which is good for some, but not for me, which is why I sold mine after a few shoots. If you're a heavy stills shooter or need the extra functionality of Magic Lantern then one of the Canons is probably the best all rounder. What's my favorite? The NEX-5n. It's large sensor and slow motion footage make me all warm and fuzzy inside, and I love using it out with my very inexpensive and super compact Fujian 35mm f1.7 lens which has a really unique look which is suitable for some of my work. What would I recommend on a slightly higher budget? - The 5D Mark III and the NEX-6. As a stills and video shooter, this would be my ideal two camera kit in a reasonable price and size. (See notes below)
Notes about other cameras:
Canon 7D - Not ideal for video as it has the same sensor and video quality as the smaller Canons but comes with a higher price, fixed screen and heavier body. It can now use the Magic Lantern firmware (after many years of waiting). Overheating still possible.
650D - No big improvements on the video side and no Magic Lantern yet.
Sony NEX5r, NEX-6 and NEX-7 - The NEX-6 is currently one of the nicest stills/video cameras around. The 7 and 6 both have some fantastic improvements over the 5n, mainly in functionality rather than image quality which has remained about the same. Bot the 6 and 7 feature great viewfinders, supposedly the best on the market as well as better hot shoes. The 5n has a weird connector, the 7 has the Minolta/Sony shoe and the 6 has a standard hot shoe.
The 6 has quite a few other improvements like a brilliant new pancake kit lens, in-camera timelapse video, fantastic autofocus in both video and stills and other useful wifi applications.
Ignore the NEX-5r unless you really need the time lapse app or wifi functionality.
Canon 5D Mark II - Has the same issues as the smaller canons while improving slightly on dynamic range and low light performance. It's full frame sensor has made it one of the best video capable DSLRs for almost four years. It was so good that it was only discontinued months after the release of the 5D Mark III. This also makes use of the Magic Lantern firmware hack. This camera does not overheat like the smaller Canons but has the 12 minute recording limit as well as a lack of 50/60p modes.
Canon 5D Mark III - This is probably the best video DSLR you can get, it's almost perfect and has a huge array of improved features:
- First of all, a huge full frame sensor with no moire or aliasing.
- The image is a little soft but because it's clean it can be easily sharpened in post (an extra minute of work during editing) but of course it's still not as detailed in video as the GH2.
- A larger 3.2" screen is really quite lovely but lacks the swivel function which is really disappointing. It has a headphone jack as well as more video dedicated controls.
- Extreme low light performance, one of the best in the world.
- Usable video up to 12800 ISO and able to go up to 25600 if in a pinch.
- It's is slowly but surely getting Magic Lantern, a full featured firmware should be available late 2012 or early 2013.
- Large and heavy body, as is the Mark II, making it a little more difficult to shoot with than most other cameras in this comparison.
- No overheating reported and a generous 30 minute recording limit.
- In stills mode this camera is still a beast, although it's difficult to shoot stills with manual lenses due to the non-replaceable focusing screen. I've found a way to hack the camera to fix this, but it's not ideal.
As nice as this camera is, it also has some fixed pattern noise in the shadows no matter what ISO you shoot at, it gets especially nasty with flat picture styles. The flatter you go the worse it gets, for example the 'Flaat 11' picture style will give you shadows worse than any DSLR on the market, regardless of the ISO you use. At $3000, this camera is out of the budget for many shooters, but it's certainly something to save up for.
BlackMagic Design's 'Cinema Camera' - This is the one of the best lower cost dedicated video cameras in the world but it has a very specific use and it's not an overall workhorse that will work for every shooter. It has clean 2.5k (larger than HD) video with 13 stops of dynamic range that can be recorded completely raw or as high quality compressed footage. Either option will require a lot of hard drive space and a powerful computer (RAW will need much, much more). It records to SSDs and requires an external battery since the internal battery is not removable. It's a really powerful tool for some, but lacks the versatility and fast workflow we get with most cameras, it also currently has a very large number of issues that should be fixed with firmware upgrades. It has the smallest sensor of any camera in this article, a little smaller than the GH2 with a crop factor of about 2.4x, which means it will be more difficult to get wide angle as well as more pronounced lens aberrations and less control over depth of field. For more info, see Philip Bloom's 45 minute long review here (LINK). At $3000 plus very expensive accessories, this is not for everyone.
Sony Alpha (DSLRs & SLTs - not NEX) - Sony makes awesome cameras that still suffer from the same issues as the other DSLRs but with many more issues added. Some of them have a limited ISO range in video mode as well as other weird issues like an additional crop factor in video mode. They also have some very cool features like in-body image stabilization and many Alphas have awesome digital viewfinders and 1080p/60. However, the biggest issue is that they cannot use most lenses from other brands, even with adaptors (Unless you use an adaptor with corrective glass, which heavily reduces quality and light transmission while adding even more crop).
Nikon - Up until recently, they were completely out of the video scene (no pun intended) and were mainly used for video by the few people that either did not know that others are better for video, or those that were Nikon stills shooters who also shot video. Recently Nikon stepped up their game with some better cameras like the ($3000) D800, which is sharper than the 5D Mark III in video but still has moire and aliasing and does not perform as well in low light. Unfortunately, most Nikons still have the same issues other DSLRs have while adding a large selection of bugs and issues with no advantages to make up for them. See this article by EOSHD (LINK) if you want more info. They also have even less compatibility with lenses from other brands than Sony Alphas do. You can use lots of old Nikon lenses which is great, but it's not an advantage because Canon, Panasonic and NEX cameras can use those too (not Sony Alphas though). Nikons can use adaptors with corrective glass and have the same issues as mentioned in the Sony Alpha paragraph above.
Panasonic GH1 - Has most of the good qualities of the GH2 like the clean, sharp video but is a little less refined. Still a great camera for a little less money. Lacks the 1:1 crop mode which is really useful on the GH2.
Panasonic GH3 - Also a great camera but at a higher price and even more crop than the Gh2. Some improved features but nothing mind blowing. Honestly, I would still prefer a GH2 and an NEX-5n, both of which could be bought for about the same price as one Gh3 body.
Sony VG-900 - This camera has a full frame sensor in a video-dedicated body. According to Andrew Read of EOSHD (LINK), it's not not at all worth it's price, so if you're looking for full frame at this price point, scroll up and read the awesome features list on the 5D Mark III again. However, I'm definitely looking forward to the rumored full frame NEX in early/mid 2013. But by no means would I recommend waiting for this camera, since there are so many fantastic options already available.
Sony VG-20/30 - It's an overpriced NEX camera in a consumer/prosumer camcorder body which does nothing but add weight and reduce overall build quality and usability. There are a few small improvements such as audio inputs, but if you need that just get the NEX-7 or NEX-6 with the XLR adaptor. More reasons not to buy the a VG series camera can be read about on EOSHD (LINK).
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