What are the best affordable digital video cameras to use to create a “film look” in your independent movies.

So you’ve been shooting video footage with your video camera and you’re not impressed with the quality of the image. Or maybe you are impressed but it still doesn’t seem “like it does in movies”. There are many reasons for why you feel this way. Let us start by talking about the differences between digital video and film and how to create the “film look” and then we’ll recommend a few digital video cameras that handle the job best and we’ll provide you with some test footage so you can see them in action for yourself.

How to get the “film look” with your video camera

If you’re looking to get the film look with your video camera you’ll need to ensure an assortment of features are at your disposal. The good news is that even the most affordable video cameras are now capable of achieving many of the most important elements that make digital video look like film.

For starters, and most importantly, video is video and film is film. These are two totally different tools and both have advantages and drawbacks. One isn’t better than the other. Not only that, but often the film look is nothing more than good cinematography, direction, acting and lighting. A lot of the film look is in the actual performance and composition of the film.



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There are however, many technical characteristics of film that people tend to associate with the film look. For example, film generally has lower contrast and a higher dynamic range. This means that the film image is often “softer” and handles the variations between bright light and dark shadows more accurately. For example if a man was standing in front of a window on a sunny day, the film camera would generally perform much better, exposing both the indoor subject and the outdoor context. A digital video camera on the other hand would likely overexpose (blow out) the sky so all detail is lost in that area. These are some of the most obvious examples of the differences between film cameras and digital video cameras.

Secondly, the saturation (vividness of colors) in digital is often much brighter. For instance a red shirt in a digital film will often look incredibly bright, while the same red shirt shot on film will look less saturated. Default settings on digital video cameras are often not ideal. They make colors unrealistically saturated and vivid. All you often need to do it find the color setting in your menu options and turn down the saturation of the colors. Alternatively you can edit color saturation in most video editing systems.

Likely the biggest visual difference between film and video is how each handles depth of field. Digital video cameras (especially pro-sumer and consumer models) often lack iris control and therefore you are not able to control your depth of field. In film, the filmmakers and cinematographers can often isolate their main object from the background by opening up the iris and slightly blurring the background from the foreground (or vis versa). In video however, making this visual alteration is not so easy. Most digital video cameras under $2000 do not have depth of field control.

But, all is not lost. There are a few tricks you can use to force a shallower depth of field in consumer video cameras.

1. Stand back from your object and zoom in. Using manual focus control, focus on your main object. If you’re standing back far enough, the background will blur slightly while still providing context (assuming that the background is far enough behind your main subject).

2. Move in very close to your main object and use manual focus to focus on the object. If you are close enough the background will blur.

3. Purchase a depth of field adaptor such as the “letus”. These are expensive but they allow you to attach 35mm film lenses onto even the most basic camcorders. This will give you a funny looking camcorder, but also the ability to change your depth of field.

Another major factor to the different looks of video and film is that video records at a much higher frame per second rate (fps). Video camera’s usually shoot at 60fps while film cameras shoot at 24fps (usually just called 24p). The result is that digital looks much “crisper” and “quick” film is softer and slightly slower.

What digital video cameras are the best to achieve the film look with?

The best affordable video cameras to use to achieve the film look with will have a lot of manual features. The more manual control you have over your camera the better. In general you’ll be looking for a 3 CCD chip, with iris control (for depth of field), color control (to handle saturation), the ability to shoot 24p, XLR audio inputs and a good dynamic range. In our opinion the camera’s the meet these requirements are:

Panasonic AG-DVX100 – $4000 – Test footageMovie trailer shot on this camera
Canon XL2 – $5000 – Test footage

The Panasonic AG-DVX100 has been used by many independent filmmakers to shoot short and feature length films. In fact, this was the camera that was used to shoot “November”, which was a Sundance Film Festival Winner. It was also used to film the Oscar awarded documentary “Murderball”.

If you can’t afford either of these two cameras you may also want to consider a few of our runner ups. They are:

Canon GL-2 – $2000 – Test footage
Sony VX-2100 – $3000 – Test footage
Sony PD-150 – $3000 – Test footage
Panasonic DVC-60 – $2700- Test footage

However, the 4 cameras listed above are more commonly used to shoot documentaries and TV series and not films. The footage is still fantastic and you still get many of the “film look” characteristics. They are just a little more scaled back.

I hope this helps!

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One comment

  • tim andrew August 21, 2011  

    I see the article is from 2008. Aren’t the HD cameras the choice now? Which do you recommened? firefighter tim andrew, naugatuck ct

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