5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking

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Documentary Filmmaking –  When it comes to shooting video for documentaries, regardless of the genre, a documentary filmmaker needs an outstanding documentary camera to help you capture the atmosphere needed to capture an audience’s attention.

Documentary filmmaking requires a unique set of needs, skills, and demands to shoot a documentary right. One of the needs that demand attention on a documentary film set is having the right camera system to get the job done right the first time.

With so many cameras on the market today having the ability to be equipped with the right filmmaking tools to be used as a documentary camera, this article is for the documentary filmmaker looking for the best out-of-the-box choices on the market to get you started.

When building a documentary filmmaking camera package, the following camera accessories are requested the most from documentary cinematographers:

  • Built-in ND filter
  • High ISO performance
  • XLR/audio capabilities
  • Strong camera features (high-speed, in-camera IS)
  • Ease of use

If you are looking for the right Documentary Filmmaking cinema camera to help you create the next runaway hit on the film festival circuit or create a hit documentary series for Netflix, then you should keep reading to see some of the best documentary cameras today!

5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 
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Features Need In A Documentary Filmmaking Camera

Before we start, there are certain elements that make a camera suitable for documentary filmmaking, and certain drawbacks that doc filmmakers need to be aware of before purchasing.

Here is a list of examples to keep in mind when you’re deciding on a camera for documentary filmmaking:

Audio Inputs

5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 

Documentary filmmakers often need to use boom microphones or lav microphones to record their subject’s dialogue to get the best sound in the environment they are in.

But, if you are a run and gun documentary filmmaker with a limited crew, finding a cinema camera with Mini-plug microphone or XLR audio inputs, which is common on video-enabled DSLR & Mirrorless camerasallows for a shotgun microphone, like the Rode VideoMicto be attached via the camera’s cold shoe.

Size & Weight

5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 

Documentary filmmakers often find themselves following subjects for an entire day capturing a day in the life of the subject. This means hauling gear around from shot to shot needs to be lightweight and compact for easy transport.

Compared to narrative filmmakers that have a larger crew to transport equipment around at a more leisurely pace, documentary filmmakers are usually a one-person crew on set and responsible for carrying all the equipment.

This means a documentary filmmaker who is looking for the right documentary film camera, needs to find a compact and lightweight design that can be easily carried from one place to the next. Or, camouflaged in situations where video recording isn’t welcome.

Low Light Performance

5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 

When it comes to shooting documentaries, documentary filmmakers often find themselves in situations where there isn’t adequate light to shoot in.

This might happen when you’re following your subject down a dark alley, or sneaking around to get footage of a corporation polluting in the middle of the night, and using an on-camera LED light just isn’t an option.

So cameras with large size sensors that can capture more of the available light (even if it is low) can come in handy.

In this regard, DSLRs or Mirrorless cameras for documentary filmmaking like the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5S or Sony A7S iii can be a blessing, because their ISO can often be cranked up quite a bit and still provide usable footage.

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Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro

Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro is a full-featured, compact Super35 camera that packs a punch for the documentary filmmaker.

The 6K Pro camera uses a Super35-size sensor, 13 stops of dynamic range, and a dual native ISO up to 25,600 to capture rich images at resolutions up to 6144 x 3456 up to 50 fps.

Video capture multiple resolutions include 6144 x 3456 (6K), 6144 x 2560 (6K 2.4:1), 5744 x 3024 (5.7K 17:9), 4096 x 2160 (4K DCI), 1920 x 1080 (HD), and more.

With dual mini-XLR ports, built-in ND, and a super-small form factor, this camera is a favorite among documentary cinematographers to simply grab and go.

Because of its form factor, it can easily sit on handheld gimbals, nearly disappear during vérité work, and travel lightly in a backpack.

Result: With the sheer variety of settings you can control, and the ergonomic design of the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro is enough to make this the clear choice for a low-budget documentary filmmaker.

Want more filmmaking content? Then check out our guides to the best skills needed to excel in the film industry, tips to become a better director, or smartphone filmmaking 101.

Canon EOS C70 Cinema Camera

Incorporating key Cinema EOS video tools in a mirrorless-style body, the Canon EOS C70 Cinema Camera features a Super35 DGO (Dual Gain Output) sensor for capturing nuanced images with up to 16+ stops of high dynamic range. 

The innovative DGO system combines two separate gain readings for each photodiode on the sensor, emphasizing saturation in bright areas of your image and lowering noise in darker areas. Video resolutions include DCI 4K capture at rates ranging from 23.98 to 60 fps, plus high-speed options up to 120 fps in UHD 4K and 180 fps in cropped 2K.

Pro video functions include unlimited video recording, Dual Pixel CMOS AF autofocus control, a motorized ND filter wheel tucked into the shallower RF-mount flange depth, a BNC timecode input/output connector, and built-in dual mini-XLR audio inputs. 

The EOS C70 is also the first Cinema EOS camera with an RF mount that enables you to use Canon’s line of fast, reliable RF lenses with advanced coatings and image stabilization.

This lightweight cine camera also incorporates a 3.5″ Direct Touch Control LCD panel for quick, easy setting changes, and both auto-ISO and auto-gain functions for on-the-go adjustments to changing light levels.

To provide greater flexibility in lens choices, the EOS C70 camera is also compatible with the separately available EF-EOS R 0.71X EF to RF lens mount adapter. 

This adapter converts your full-frame lenses to Super35 format while also providing a handy aperture speed boost of around one stop. The EF adapter passes all the EF lens data through the RF mount, providing full Dual-Pixel Auto Focus and metadata information for select lenses. 

The EOS C70 is also the first Canon EOS cinema camera to feature the EOS iTR AF X autofocus function, which uses a head-tracking algorithm developed with deep-learning technology for improved distance measuring and tracking reliability.

This digital cine camera records up to DCI 4K resolution video to dual slots using widely available and more affordable SD cards. High frame rates can be recorded in 4K up to 120 fps and up to 180 fps in a 2K cropped Super16 mode. 

This cinema camera for documentary and narrative filmmakers features one HDMI Type-A output, a BNC timecode input/output, and a USB Type-C port for control or linking to an external Wi-Fi adapter for streaming. 

It supports up to 4-channel audio using dual mini-XLR ports, an internal stereo mic, and a 3.5mm mic input. The EOS C70 body comes with a detachable handle unit, a mic holder, a shoulder strap, one BPA-30 battery, a battery charger, an AC adapter with a power cord, and a port cap.

Result: This mid-tier, entry-level camera features all the needs of the documentary filmmaker with 4K, built-in ND, and mini XLRs, with the ever-reliable Canon color science, built right in. 

Sony PXW-FS7M2 XDCAM Super 35 Camera System

5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 

Sony’s PXW-FS7M2 XDCAM Super 35 Camera System is a flexible 4K camera system. Designed as a camera that is at home on productions as diverse as “Cinéma Vérité”-style documentaries, reality TV, commercial, and corporate applications It features a Super 35mm sized sensor that allows you to capture images with cinematic depth of field. 

The camera incorporates a stronger locking E-mount that is fully compatible with E-Mount lenses, and supports all electronic connections. The locking mount reduces lens play, and allows you to use most 35mm lenses including PL, EF, Leica, and Nikon via optional adapters. This stronger E-mount is ideal for using heavier-long cine-zooms without the need for additional lens support.

Just behind the lens mount sits an electronic variable ND system that provides a clear filter and 3 user-definable presets. The variable ND can be adjusted to provide between 2 and 7 stops of ND. The camera can capture footage to optional on-board XQD media cards in either DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) or UHD 4K (3840 x 2160) at up to 59.94 fps or HD at up to 180 fps.

The camera records in your choice of XAVC-I, XAVC-L, or MPEG-2. However, MPEG-2 recording does not support the high data rates the camera can generate when shooting in UHD, and is limited to recording HD video only. The camera incorporates Dual XQD media card slots that support simultaneous or relay recording. An ergonomically designed handgrip provides control of many of the camera’s functions and features an adjustable length support arm.

The 4K Super 35 EXMOR sensor features 14 Stops of latitude and a wide color gamut. It offers a choice of XAVC or MPEG-2 codecs. The XAVC codec can be used for 4K and HD recording, while MPEG-2 is limited to HD recording. XAVC comes in two flavors, XAVC INTRA, and XAVC Long, allowing you to encode from HD to UHD using Intra-Frame or Long GOP compression with 10-bit 4:2:2 for HD and the choice of 10-bit 4:2:2 or 8-bit 4:2:0 for UHD. XAVC intra compression is very efficient, recording at modest bit rates and XAVC Long also substantially extends the recording time while attaining very high quality and low noise.

Result: If you are looking for a cinema-style camera for documentary filmmaking, this camera doesn’t disappoint. The Sony FS-7 has been used in serval award-winning documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and can use both Sony E lenses for still cameras when we want big apertures and those shallow DOF and the 18-110 Sony zooms to chase reality. There are so many 3rd party accessories for this camera too, making build-outs a breeze. 

Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5S Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera

Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5S is a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera optimized for movie recording and low-light performance. Revolving around a 10.28MP Digital Live MOS sensor, DCI and UHD 4K video recording is possible at up to 60p and the large individual pixel size also affords impressive low-light performance to an extended ISO 204800, along with Dual Native ISO technology at ISO 400 and ISO 2500. 

Coupled with an updated Venus Engine, the sensor and processor combination also enables faster readout speeds along with 1.3x less rolling shutter distortion compared to previous GH-series cameras. 

Internal DCI 4K30p recording is available with 4:2:2 10-bit sampling and a full-size HDMI A connector can be used to simultaneously output to an optional external monitor or recorder. The sensor’s extended sensitivity range has also been used to promote working with V-Log L and Hybrid Log Gamma HDR modes for effectively increasing your dynamic range and affording more flexibility when color grading during post-production.

Beyond its video prowess, the GH5S is no slouch when it comes to stills shooting, either. The sensor and Venus Engine combination enable recording 14-bit raw files with a top continuous shooting rate of 12 fps with single-shot AF, or up to 8 fps with continuous autofocus. 

Borrowing from the video side, 4K PHOTO modes are also available for shooting 8MP stills at up to 60 fps. Benefitting stills, the Depth-From-Defocus AF system works quickly and accurately using 225 dedicated AF areas, and is sensitive to -5 EV luminance for working in extreme low-light conditions.

Beyond imaging specs, the GH5S retains the professional build quality the GH-series is known for. The magnesium alloy body is fully weather-sealed for working in inclement conditions, and physical controls have been enhanced for easier tactile control. 

A large 3.68m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder is featured, for high-resolution eye-level monitoring, as well as a rear 3.2″ 1.62m-dot LCD touchscreen with free-angle movement, to suit working from high and low angles. Dual UHS-II SD memory card slots are available for flexible file recording and built-in Wi-Fi with NFC and Bluetooth wireless connectivity enable seamless image sharing and remote camera control from a mobile device.

Results: If you are looking for a cinema-looking camera for your documentary filmmaking, this camera will go beyond your expectations! Your work will look cinematic. The stability control on the camera is top-notch! You can shoot in any low-light condition. 

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Become a better filmmaker with the MasterClass Annual Membership. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by film masters, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Jodie Foster, James Cameron and more.

Sony A7S III

Optimized video, optimized sensitivity, optimized speed, the Sony Alpha a7S III raises the bar for what a full-frame mirrorless camera is capable of. A revised 12.1MP Exmor R BSI CMOS sensor and updated BIONZ XR image processor offer faster performance, improved noise reduction, and a wider dynamic range, along with UHD 4K 120p video recording and internal 10-bit 4:2:2 sampling.

Video is the primary application of the a7S III, and improvements to the sensor and processor enable faster readout speeds and greatly reduced rolling shutter, along with high-bitrate internal recording, 16-bit raw output via the full-size HDMI port, and flexible control over motion with variable frame rate selection. The a7S III also does away with recording time limits and incorporates HLG for direct HDR production as well as S-Log2/S-Log3 gamma profiles for advanced HDR production with editing.

The updated sensor design also brings improved autofocus performance via 759 phase-detection points, which offer intelligent subject tracking and Real-time Eye AF to ensure critical focus on moving subjects in all recording modes. 

The sensor and BIONZ XR processor also facilitate impressive sensitivity, with an expanded range from ISO 40-409600, as well as fast 10 fps continuous shooting for up to 1000 consecutive raw frames. Additionally, 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization is available, too, which minimizes the appearance of camera shake by up to 5.5 stops.

Complementing the imaging assets, Sony has also made some changes to the a7S III’s physical design, including a rear LCD with a side-open articulating design and an impressive 9.44m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder.

The camera’s menu system has also been updated for more intuitive navigation and the body design helps to promote better heat dissipation for improved continuous recording capabilities. Additionally, dual memory card slots both support working with CFexpress Type A or SD UHS-II memory cards for flexible and high-speed file storage.

Result: As a cinema-style camera for documentary filmmaking the Sony a7RIII is so versatile: autofocus, improved color, dynamic range, gyro or active stabilization, low light, battery life, little overheating, dual recording, efficient codec, EVF, custom buttons, no crop at most recording modes, ergonomic, tons of full-frame E-mount third-party lenses at near-native performance.

What is missing, and not deal breakers is an internal RAW, waveform, anamorphic mode, time code, hybrid articulating screen, internal ND, pixel shift, higher burst shooting. But if you are looking for a documentary filmmaking camera for run and gun shooting, vlog, b-roll, gimbal work, it’s a fantastic choice.

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5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking 

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