Best DSLR Camera For Documentary Filmmaking

by Louise
(Bergen op Zoom, The Netherlands)


I am an aspiring documentary film maker from the Netherlands, and just started my own production company. I want to purchase my own gear, but my budget is not very large yet. I want to get started now and start filming and practicing!!

I have been thinking of purchasing a video camera for years, but I can not figure out what camera to buy. I have finally decided that a DSLR will be my choice, but now I need to decided which one is the best. At first I was considering the Nikon D7100 or a Canon comparable camera, but now a salesman has pointed out that Sony has a very good technology and more possibilities for filmmakers. I am really lost and cannot make a decision!

My budget is 1.000 to 2.000 Euros. I hope someone out there can help me!

Thanks in advance.

Desktop Documentaries | Answer

Hi Louise,

This is a very common question! Deciding what camera to buy is an important decision because all of the other equipment you buy is directly connected to what camera you choose.

Here are a sampling of similar questions which have been posted to this site which may be helpful to you in your decision.

What's the best camcorder for documentary filmmaking?

Which handheld camcorder is best for very amateur filmmakers?

Canon XF305 vs Canon 5D MK3

Keep in mind that although buying a DSLR is less expensive than buying a comparable video camera, there will be “extras” you'll need to get to go with a DSLR such as an external audio recorder and lenses which add to the price. When you buy a video camera, it's an “all-in-one” audio/video package.

I personally own the Canon 60D DSLR and can highly recommend it for both photography and video. I do not have experience with all the various DSLR cameras on the market, including Sony, therefore cannot make any specific recommendations.

What I can tell you is that in the end, all the DSLRs on the market today provide excellent results and you can't go wrong in your choice. In the end, it's the STORYTELLING that matters in documentary filmmaking. Even an iPhone (with a good external audio recorder) can be used to create a compelling documentary.

I will say this - since you are just starting to build your gear list and you've determined that a DSLR is the way to go, I would get an entry-level DLSR with video made by either Nikon (Nikon D3200) or Canon (Canon Rebel T3i). This will cost you under $600 (even less if you get a camera that is a year or two old). For another $800-$1,200 you can purchase a separate lens. The reason DLSRs are so attractive for video is because they are able to use the incredible lenses that used to only be available to photographers.

Here are two great general purpose lenses from Nikon and Canon:

Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX Nikkor Zoom Lens

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens

If you are not using a great (not good) GREAT lens with your DSLR you are missing the point of the DSLR. In time, you can upgrade to a camera with a full-frame sensor. Starting out with good glass will give you better results which will only encourage you to go out and shoot more.

Audio is a challenge with DSLR cameras. An external mic recorder like the Zoom ZH4N ($300) is handy and can do a fantastic job of recording audio. But you will need to sync the audio and video in post. You can run audio directly into a DSLR, but it is done with a mini-jack (the same size as your headphones). This is not the ideal way to capture audio and audio is very very important. The best way to bring in audio is through professional XLR cables (which the Zoom H4 supports). Seinnheiser makes good wireless lavalier microphones such as the Sennheiser EW 112P. Having at least one wireless lav will help you in almost any interview setting. These entry-level mics can cost about $600.

Focusing on moving subjects is also challenging with a DLSR camera (no matter how awesome the lens). For interviews a DSLR is great. If you are trying to follow the action of a football game with a DSLR it will be hard to keep your subject in focus. Zooming is also more awkward with a DSLR.

If you think you are going to be shooting more video than taking pictures with your DSLR, you may want to consider a video camera like the Canon XA10 or Sony HXR-NX30U.

Additional Helpful Links:
How To Choose A Camcorder
Low-Budget Filmmakers Equipment List
Video Production Equipment Check-List
DSLR Gear List for Filming Sports
How To Shoot DSLR Video (Video Tutorial)

Anyone else have ideas or suggestions for Louise?

Comments for Best DSLR Camera For Documentary Filmmaking

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Sep 06, 2013
brilliant results with Canon 7D
by: Ramesh (via Facebook)

I am primarily in photography, but have recently started videgraphy documenting nature and my trips to mountains and the Buddhist sites. Results are brilliant with my Canon EOS 7D. Convenience with dslr is the flexibility with the range of lenses at hand. Your budget, I hope enables you to go for this or maybe Canon EOS 6D, though I have not used it but it is a full frame camera!

Sep 06, 2013
60D or 600D?
by: Nikunj (via Facebook)

Canon 600d or 60D which one is better for video???

Sep 06, 2013
60D vs 600D
by: Scott (via Facebook)

Nikunj: As far as final output (what you see) they are the same. I use a 60D because it is bigger (fits better in my hand). You can't go wrong with either camera. However, if you are concerned with how your video looks, the lens you put in front of these cameras will determine that. If budget is a concern, go with the cheaper camera so that you can afford to buy a really good lens.

Sep 06, 2013
DSLR Vs. Camcorders...
by: Anonymous

There is a growing trend that is getting stronger concerning the use of DSLR cameras to shoot videos. Although in my personal opinion, DSLR cameras work well for shooting videos, nothing beats a great high definition 3 chip camcorder. The color saturation is more true and is easier to do edits with a camcorder vs a DSLR. Color correction and enhancing with DSLR video imaging can be very problematic.

I strongly prefer a good camcorder with a 3CCD system, or a 3 chip system. The 3 chip systems are usually common in professional grade camcorder cameras, while the majority of DSLR cameras use a single chip to render and process the 3 primary colors used for imaging. DSLR cameras are also susceptible to problems of color bleed, especially in primary colors of red, green and blues. If these colors are abundant, the camera will pick up those colors, and so the camera will have to be carefully color balanced and calibrated in order to shoot true colors. It's less likely to happen with a 3 chip camcorder. Although some color bleed occurs, it's not nearly as problematic in post as it is for a DSLR Single Chip System. The other problem of many DSLR cameras is noise, especially present in dark or subdued lighting conditions. Many higher end and prosumer to professional model camcorders are geared specifically to operate in low light conditions and noise isn't as obvious or difficult to overcome.

I have filmed with a DSLR and found the imaging to be adequate for most applications, but still prefer a quality professional or prosumer 3 chip camcorder for the bulk of my filming, mostly for the reasons mentioned here.

That said, if you prefer using DSLR cameras for your filming, then by all means do so. There are a wide array of quality DSLR Cameras in the market available that shoot videos in varying degree and quality. The choice is solely yours and could depend on several factors. The first and foremost consideration is cost. Do you have the finances to buy a good quality DSLR to suit your filming needs? If not, choose one you can afford. The shooting capacity and functionality varies from one name brand to another. Each have features that the competitors do not, so purchase a camera that best suits your needs or wants. Choose based on how you will ultimately use the camera. Do not choose one based solely on all the bells and whistles it has so-to-speak. You are better off buying a camera that costs less and has features you understand and can use. It will be easier for you in the long run and could save you money as well as a good deal of frustration and disappointment. Good luck choosing...

Sep 07, 2013
Sony cameras
by: Louise

Thanks for the tips so far guys! Does anyone have experience with Sony DSLR filming?

Sep 07, 2013
by: Anonymous


You may want to go to your local camera shop and 'test drive' a sony camera. Most camera shops will allow you to hold one and even power it up. If you let them know you want to test its video capability, they may allow you to do some shooting with it. The only downside is that you won't be able to see how the videos look unless there is a way to hook it up to a computer.

Another option, is to rent a sony DSLR from an electronic equipment rental place. Most places that rent electronics will carry the brand of camera, camcorder or whatever piece of electronic equipment you're looking for. With renting, you can take it home with you, do any shooting or photography you need, then download the photos or footage into your computer. This way you are assured of what you shot and will have a far better understanding of what you're looking for and what you want out of a DSLR camera. I personally have never used a Sony DSLR for video shoots, but have used canons. I still prefer a quality prosumer or professional grade camcorder. I've used both prosumer and professional camcorders and really like the results over a DSLR video...Again, good luck.

Sep 10, 2013
Canon options
by: Preston (via Facebook)

I'm using a canon now to shoot a documentary the Canon 7d. The Canon 5d mark2 and 5d mark3 also have great quality and I use this free software called magic lantern on the camera to make the quality better for shooting footage. But if you don't have enough money to get one of those the canon t2i, t3i, t4i, 60d are good for shooting too and also the audio directly to the canon is not good you will need to buy a portable audio recorder that is good for recording great audio.

Feb 24, 2015
Canon EOS 70D
by: Kiki

I bought Canon 70D after asked recommendation from some people in filmmaking mailing list & discussed with some DPs. It works pretty good for documentary, I even prefer to use this than Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III which I used before.

Aug 26, 2015
Camera and sound recommendations
by: filmmaker

I have shot many films on the 600d and it performs fine. But if I was to buy a new camera I would get a Panasonic GH2 (plus hack) or a later version. The GH4 has 4K. If you are doing a project under tight time restraints consider getting a second camera. It is easier to use a camera which is the same make and preferable model otherwise colour correcting the to cameras to match will be a nightmare.

With lens' you can get affordable M42 mount lens and then use an adaptor. Personally I like the look that old lens give. Go to CEX where you can pick up refurbished 8GB SD cards for £2 and buy maybe 10.

In regards to sound, a Tascam DR 60 and a Rode Ntg2 seem a pretty good combination. Also be sure to have a deadcat windshield and a boompole. Sound is often overlooked but very important.

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