The digital cinema camera is the modern-day iteration of the traditional film production camera. These cameras aim to reproduce the latitude and tonal qualities of celluloid while eliminating huge portions of the typical film workflow. Determining the best cinema cameras on the market today can be complicated.
Now, in addition to these workflow advantages, the image quality produced by today’s cinema cameras often meets or exceeds what is possible when shooting on film. And that’s not to mention the increase in creative control you get from shooting in a digital format.
At the end of this article, we’ll go over some of the special considerations unique to this form factor. But first, here’s our list of the best cinema cameras on the market today.
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Best all-around cinema camera
The Sony FX3 is a feature-packed well-rounded camera. It’s user-friendly making it easy to use. If you’ve shot videos with any kind of dedicated camera before, mirrorless or DSLR, you’ll feel right at home using the FX3.
While the FX3 only captures up to UHD 4K, it still offers 10-bit 4:2:2 internal capture or up to 16-bit RAW externally. The camera features a top frame rate of 240 frames per second in HD and delivers fantastic 120fps in 4K. Also, the camera’s dual card slots are another great feature. It has dual media slots for either SD/SDHC/SDXC cards or the CFexpress Type A. Additionally, the Sony FX3 full-size XLR inputs. When camera manufacturers offer mini XLR inputs, it’s always a letdown. Videographer workflows become more complex when cameras offer only mini XLR inputs. Thankfully, the FX3 offers full-size XLR inputs, making this a more dynamic camera compared to mini-XLR input cameras. The camera also has an ISO range of 80 to 406,600, 5 axis in-body image stabilization, and 14+ stops of dynamic range. While Sony claims the camera has 15+, our testing didn’t confirm this claim. However, this isn’t important because the image quality difference between 15+ and 14+ is very minimal.
The FX3 is 640 grams and 3.06 inches x 5.11 inches x 3.33 inches. It’s slightly heavier than the a7S III by 26 grams. Overall though, their sizes are similar. However, the FX3’s handle feels great to hold. With the handle, low-angle handheld shots are much easier to do. Its rear screen is a 3 inch 1,440,000-dot LCD and supports touch functions, like navigating through the menu and touch auto-focus.
The Sony FX3 is a well-rounded camera offering something for everyone. It’s easy to pick up and shoots pro-quality video.
Best budget cinema camera
Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 4K
The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 4K uses a Micro Four Thirds sensor to capture DCI 4K video with up to 13 stops of dynamic range. It’s also the first camera from Blackmagic Design to feature dual native ISO. This should help improve the historically limited low-light performance in Blackmagic cameras.
The camera can record DCI 4K, UHD 4K and full HD video at standard frame rates, with off-speed frame rates of up to 60 frames per second (fps) in DCI 4K and 120 fps in windowed HD mode. Supported codecs include 10-bit ProRes and 12-bit CinemaDNG RAW.
With the addition of dual native ISO, the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K can shoot at ISOs up to 25600, a significant improvement over its predecessor. Blackmagic Design also promises a reduced crop factor with a 4/3 sensor specifically designed to match MFT lenses.
Best run-and-gun cinema camera
Offering both a compact form and cine-style imaging, the Sony FX6 delivers on so many fronts. It’s able to capture up to 15+ stops of dynamic range, uses the Sony S-Cinetone gamma, and up to 10-bit, 4:2:2 XAVC-I recording. This camera uses a 4K full-frame Exmor R sensor paired alongside a BIONX XR Exmor R sensor with a BIONX XR engine. It uses a base ISO of 800 and features an ISO 12800 high-sensitivity mode aiding greatly in low light conditions.
The FX6 body is highly portable, weighing under 2 lb, allowing you to hold the camera with ease through your shoots. Additionally, the body measures 6 x 4.6″, allowing for simple transportation. It also has features like phase-detection autofocus with both Face Detection and real-time Eye autofocus. The camera offers both auto and manual ND filter settings and a 3.5” LD monitor.
The Sony FX6 is a highly capable camera that’s easy to use throughout an entire shoot.
Special considerations for cinema cameras
Not all cinema cameras are created equal. Let’s go over some of the most important features to look for as you shop.
Cinema cameras are designed to be true video-first cameras. They come complete with the external controls and input/output options you’d commonly find on a professional camcorder. The most obvious difference from the outside is the cinema camera’s interchangeable lens. But even though cinema cameras look a lot like camcorders, they produce an image that looks more like actual film.
Larger than a DSLR or mirrorless camera, cinema cameras also have space for more accessory mounting points. This helps reduce reliance on full camera rigs or cages. Cinema cameras usually also have XLR inputs as well as HDMI and/or SDI out for sending a clean video signal to an external recorder.
One of the main advantages of using a cinema camera is the expanded dynamic range these cameras typically offer. A larger dynamic range means the camera captures deeper shadows and brighter highlights in the same shot without losing detail.
Cinema cameras are designed to capture video with a dynamic range that, at least, matches that of film: around 13 stops. Modern cinema cameras can reproduce 14 or more stops of dynamic range. This gives you a more cinematic image and incredible flexibility during the color grading process.
Cinema cameras are designed to capture video with a dynamic range that, at least, matches that of film: around 13 stops.
Sensor size and dynamic range
One way camera makers achieve this is through the use of larger sensors with larger pixels. This allows the sensor to gather more light at once, which increases low-light performance and reduces noise. It also allows each pixel to accept more light before beginning to clip from overexposure. That means you get more information in both the shadows and the highlights.
ISO and dynamic range
ISO is a factor here as well. Cameras capture the least noise at their native ISO. Therefore, this is also the point at which they capture the greatest dynamic range. At the native ISO, cameras can capture deeper shadows before noise is introduced. Some cinema cameras now feature dual native ISO. This feature originated in top-end, Hollywood level cinema cameras and is now trickling down into more accessible camera models.
Cinema cameras will typically offer a number of high-quality codecs to fit various workflows. ProRes and DNxHD codecs are especially common, and some kind of raw recording is now all but standard.
As you shop, look for recording formats that give you enough information to freely grade and composite in post-production. Just make sure they don’t bog down your workflow.
Raw recording captures unaltered information directly from the sensor to provide maximum flexibility for color grading and compositing in post-production. It preserves all of the dynamic range and color information captured by the sensor. Raw footage does require post-processing, however, and takes up a lot more space on a storage drive. Most times, you’ll need an external recorder to capture raw video.
Log picture profiles
Logarithmic picture profiles, commonly referred to as log, offer a more practical alternative to shooting raw. Log picture profiles assign exposure values along a logarithmic curve rather than a linear curve. This process produces a flat image that preserves more color information and detail in the shadows and highlights. In post-production, colorists apply a LUT to transform this extra-flat footage to a more natural-looking color space.
Bit depth and color reproduction
Connected to this are color science and bit depth. Each camera manufacturer has developed a particular way of capturing and recording color information. That’s why Sony cameras produce an image that looks different from one out of a Canon camera, even if all the settings match.
However, what’s more important is the amount of color information a camera can record. Typical consumer cameras and most DSLR and mirrorless cameras are limited to recording at a bit depth of 8 bits. Cinema cameras, however, often capture 10-, 12- or even 14-bit video when shooting in a high-quality codec or raw format. Again, it’s all about flexibility. The more color information your camera can deliver, the more latitude you will have in post-production. This, in turn, means you’ll be better able to craft a unique look for your finished video.
Additional cinema camera controls and settings
Since cinema cameras aim to give the DP ultimate creative control, they often include some handy bonus features. Higher maximum frame rates allow for slow-motion recording, and anamorphic de-squeezing helps when working with anamorphic lenses. Global shutter is another feature that allows cinema camera to behave more like traditional film cameras. This also eliminates rolling shutter issues that cause straight lines to bend during quick pans. In general, these extras are there to make it easier to capture the desired image.
While these features help distinguish cinema cameras from other camera types, it’s still important to consider universal features like sensor size, resolution, and connectivity. You’ll also need to think about how the camera will fit into your existing kit and production workflow. For an overview of the most important features, read How to buy a camera.
Once you know what you need, you can pick out an awesome camera perfect for your next production.