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Why I shoot video with mirrorless cameras (and not video cameras)

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When Chris and I produce DPReview TV episodes about new cameras, I insist on spending at least a few minutes talking about the video capabilities. This inevitably leads to a few comments on our episode that are variations of this:

‘Why do you care so much about the video features of this camera? Anyone serious about video would buy a dedicated video camera.’

I’ve been creating videos for two decades using camcorders, professional video cameras, and even cinema cameras, but I’ve shot almost exclusively with mirrorless cameras for the last five years. Allow me to share a few reasons why mirrorless cameras have become the best choice for my video work.

This loser from 8 years ago actually thought he looked cool.

The EVF

The conventional wisdom is that few video shooters use the EVF. We’ve seen more video-centric cameras like the Sony FX3 and Canon C70 omit an EVF and only include an articulating LCD for monitoring your video. However, these tend to be quite dim and not terribly detailed. Most video cameras are used with a larger external monitor or EVF, but this adds bulk and additional power requirements.

I find having a built-in EVF incredibly useful. Holding the camera to your eye is significantly more stable than holding a camera away from your body. Also, using the rear LCD is inferior for gauging exposure and white balance, as the ambient light can interfere with your perception. The EVF has no such issues. In terms of resolution, even inexpensive mirrorless cameras have EVFs that are more detailed than their LCDs. This is especially important as most cameras will not allow you to punch in to check focus while recording video.

When preparing to shoot a video clip, I’ll generally frame up the shot with the LCD, then use the EVF while focusing and setting white balance. This way of working is impossible with most dedicated video cameras unless I attach a bulky, inconvenient accessory.

In-Body Image Stabilization

When I’m on film sets with larger dedicated video cameras, I rarely feel the need for in-body image stabilization (IBIS). There are many tools like dollies, gimbals, Steadicams, sliders and cranes to make sure that you can perfectly control how the camera moves. Even when operating handheld, the size and weight of a fully outfitted cinema camera helps prevent that ‘jittery’ camera shake that looks terrible and can distract your audience.

When shooting in the field for YouTube, I’m rarely dragging around a tripod, let alone a dolly with track

However, when shooting in the field for YouTube, I rarely drag around a tripod, let alone a dolly with track. Small, non-stabilized cameras immediately look amateurish when handheld, even if the lens has a stabilizer. IBIS gives me the ‘big-camera handheld’ look when I use a camera without any supports, and when used on a monopod, they can look as stable as if they were on a tripod.

We’re seeing a recent trend of small cameras like the Panasonic GH5S and box cameras, as well as the new Canon EOS R5 C forgoing IBIS. This makes perfect sense on professional sets, but when I’m out shooting by myself in the real world, I’m grateful for the IBIS present in nearly all my favorite mirrorless cameras.

Public perception

This is a huge one for me. For years I shot YouTube episodes on larger cinema cameras like the Sony FS series and Panasonic AF100. While I loved the functionality of built-in ND filters and secure locking ports, it was impossible not to draw attention to ourselves.

No one would be intimidated by this.
Photo by Chelsea Northrup

I can’t count the number of times people would walk over to ask if we were ‘with the news’ and then asked if they could espouse their latest political and infrastructure opinions. Even if we had permission to shoot in a venue, we would regularly be asked what we were doing. It slowed down shoots and kept us from focusing on actually creating that week’s episode.

Since switching to compact (well, in the case of the Panasonic S1H, I’m using that term loosely) mirrorless cameras, no one really seems to care what we’re shooting. We just look like tourists, influencers, or narcissists, and passerby’s generally leave us alone. Chris also likes to ask people for permission to photograph them on the street. Those potential subjects are much more comfortable if I’m just holding a small camera instead of something clearly meant for high-end production.

Durability

Cinema cameras may be pricey, but that doesn’t always mean you’re getting outstanding build quality. Back when I ran the video department at The Camera Store in Calgary, I quickly became aware that $8,000-15,000 professional video cameras were some of the most common tools to go in for servicing and repairs. Sure, these were often used in rugged conditions, but so were the flagship photo cameras that rarely had any issues.

Cinema cameras may be pricey, but that doesn’t always mean you’re getting outstanding build quality

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras, Canon C70 and Sony FX6 are all described in a similar way. ‘The picture quality is fantastic, but this thing feels so cheap’. Many video cameras essentially require you to purchase expensive rigs, cages and accessory grips to feel like something that can withstand being used in the real world.

Conversely, build quality and reliability have been fantastic for most mid-to-high level mirrorless cameras I’ve used for video. Panasonic GH and S series cameras, Sony a7 series, Fujifilm X-T bodies, all these have been able to take a lot of abuse over the years and keep on kicking. It’s an added benefit that most of these are weather-sealed and can handle pretty extreme shifts in temperature. It reminds me of when DPReview editor Dale Baskin filmed a documentary on the Amazon river; his camera of choice was a pair of GH5s, which got banged around, dropped in mud, and soaked by tropical rainstorms.

They both survived.

Photos

Sure, I love shooting videos, but do you know what else I love? Photography. Mirrorless cameras take great photos and video, whereas if a video camera even offers a still photo mode, it’s sure to be underwhelming. Few video cameras will even allow you to take a raw photograph, and usually, the photo quality is no better than just pulling a frame from a video clip. Video cameras also tend to have horrendous ergonomics for shooting photos, but mirrorless camera designs work great as both photo and video tools. If you enjoy both art forms like me, a mirrorless camera makes more sense as an investment.

This will shock some of you, but I also enjoy taking photos.

Even if the camera will solely be used for video work, things like time-lapse and stop motion video are just a series of stills. While video cameras will usually have a mode to allow interval frames of video, a mirrorless camera will offer you much higher quality and more control. If you’ve ever seen a high-end time-lapse or stop motion shoot, it’s always a stills camera on the tripod. Budgets are not tight on that type of shoot, and the team knows that a mirrorless camera is the best tool.

As a side note, I never want to check a bag when I fly. Having a single camera that can do everything means never showing up to a destination to discover that one of my cameras was accidentally sent to another continent: one camera, one set of lenses, one bag.

Everyone’s needs are different.

Just like there are a huge variety of cameras to suit the needs of various photographic challenges, videographers and cinematographers require different tools for various types of jobs. On film sets, a cinema camera makes a lot of sense. But for documentary, event, and YouTube work, a mirrorless camera isn’t a budget option; it just might be the best choice of camera possible. So even if you never use the video functions in your latest mirrorless camera, just remember that they will make someone, like yours truly, very happy.


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