A friend and film director just asked me the nerd’s favorite question: “What camera should I buy?”

Regardless of what’s out there, having owned a plethora of cameras over the years (DSLR, film, cine, and video) I have a few thoughts on what matters when considering a camera package for hire or for purchase.

My first question is ‘how often are you going to be working with a sound person on your crew?’

There is no such thing as M.O.S. (mute) or no sound. And to be honest, there’s no such thing as ‘background sound’ that’s so unimportant that you can rely on a camera’s internal mic.

I’m not just being a pedantic sound snob here – whenever you go out to film, you never entirely know what’s going to happen, or what you need to get done in a hurry. The day you think you can just let the built-in camera mic grab some ambient audio is the day you need to shoot a 3-person interview in a room with a bad echo.

At the very least, if the wind noise doesn’t ruin the audio, the mechanical handling noises of the camera or operator’s breath sounds (dude, hit the gym eh?) will be rather embarrassingly audible.

No one likes to carry too much gear – some camera operators get annoyed at tripods (let’s not even start on “my camera is so sensitive I don’t need lighting…”). Run and Gun or combat camera work is no place to load yourself down with a ton of gear.

So, there’s a balancing act that has to be figured out. Before using your gear in anger.

When I started work it was easy to get a gig as a camera assistant because we had to lug little 6” tube based televisions with us as there was only a black and white viewfinder on the camera that the director couldn’t hog. Most cameras I’ve owned were smaller than the tapes on those Betacam SP camcorders.

But those big old cameras had a built-in shotgun mic holder. Everyone had a mic loaded. Most that sounded decent. Sony’s ECM 672 was super popular, and despite being the size of a modern shotgun mic, it was only hyper-cardioid (often called uni-directional) and was brilliant for interviews and even hand holding. My point is that there was always at least one good quality versatile mic at the ready.

And because there was (nearly) always a camera assistant, someone could be relied upon to pay attention to the sound once they had positioned that monitor, unpacked all the lights and source the cameraman’s coffee.

These days even the mic is ‘optional’ and I’ve seen any number of camcorder users that have real audio inputs and controls on their camera, but nothing in the mic holder.

Even a cheap cardioid (preferably super-cardioid) mic, for example, a Rode M5 or Sennheiser MKE-600, will only be taking up the space that was designed for the mic. And in a pinch, you can unscrew it from the camera’s mic mount and boom or hand hold the mic.

I’ve written separately about how the camera is often the worst place to put a mic, second only to leaving the mic in the car. But an external mic is always going to be better quality and better sounding than the mic buried in the camera’s guts and grudgingly included by manufacturers.

An external mic can at least have proper shock mounting and wind protection. The fact that it’s directional means you will generally hear more of what’s in front of the camera, and less of the operator’s “wind” (whichever the source).

A good camera will have real audio controls and preferably XLR audio inputs with phantom power.

That’s the first thing I look at with a camera. If it doesn’t have them, then I’m going to have to use an external mixer (and that’s always best due to the quality of the mixer’s mic pres Vs the camera’s).

I think it’s great to have the choice to record higher quality audio into a recorder, but that adds syncing issues – either timecode or a slate. This adds lots of time in post-production. Once you’re past the cheap mic preamps with no analog compressor/limiters and high pass filters (low roll off), recording in camera is not a sin. Getting the audio inside in one piece is the challenge. So, my externally recorded audio is often just a backup as I managed to record in camera, so audio and picture are synced in one file and the post-production is much faster.

In my Canon DSLR days, I recorded audio to a digital recorder because I needed phantom power and there was a discernible difference in audio quality from the camera’s internal recording even with a better preamp. I’m much happier with the internal recording quality of my GH5.

Sometimes you just can’t manage extra people or gear. Imagine yourself in a crowded market place in a foreign country. It’s not just the crowds (and the undue attention you’re getting) it’s the dust and weather and the weight.

Good audio is the lifeblood of good storytelling. Good sound, even just good ambient sound, immerses you in the story. It’s the thing that creates the ‘being there’ feeling in your audience.

I once laid a crowd ambiance sound effect under a scene shot in an empty bank. The client asked how we had shot the scene during opening hours. They hadn’t seen anyone other than the actors, but the sound convinced them the bank was open.

Most cameras have stereo sound (and a few have 4 tracks) but life can be tricky trying to swap out mics if all you have is a mini-jack (1/8”) input. You need adapter cables or custom wiring just to plug in 2 radio mics – hence most folk just plug in one radio receiver on their DSLR not realizing they could run 2 directly in if they had to.

And while we are discussing DSLR cameras, let’s mention the irritating audio controls being buried in menus, a complete lack of headphone jack and no power for real mics.

Remember, DSLRs were made for photography – if it wasn’t for Vincent Laforet, we wouldn’t have the DSLR revolution (and did you know Canon ordered a takedown of that video?) Despite stumbling across an entirely new market to sell cameras in, Canon hasn’t done much to make audio easy or higher quality on their DSLRs. Nikon’s made a tiny bit more effort…but really – the form factor and design criteria of a DSLR is barely good for filmmakers. Remember the years of guys with huge rigs to hang all the vital accessories off their tiny cameras, turning the svelte (joke) Canon 7D into a mechanized beast that looked like Tim Burton revisited Edward Scissorhands?

Proper video cameras (and they do still make them) have a shoulder pad, a properly positioned viewfinder, a handgrip that doesn’t send you out for a masseuse after an hour, and 2 XLR audio inputs connected to real physical audio controls and backed by actual meters on the body.

Broadcast camcorders also have wonderful lenses too. I’m not going there because I might not come back.

Despite all that we still hook up a mixer – because even $20K cameras are made to a price point, and audio is always the first to get shut out in the cold. I’m trying not to rant.

Look, audio is hard enough without getting rid of the controls, or making the only connection non-locking (prone to being yanked out) and so small you can get cross talk between L&R inputs (yep, had that happen too).

When you’re buying a camera, remember you need to plug radio mics and shotgun mics into it. Where will they physically mount.? 3’ in the air like the ridiculous C100 or C300 design? How will you cable between your audio gear and the camera? How will you monitor the audio? Do you get separate meters, or are they squirreled away inside the viewfinder where the cameraman is too busy to see them?

I’ll be honest and tell you my last purchase was a Panasonic GH5. Why? Because I can afford one good camera and a cheap(er) backup. Oh yeah, never roll out of bed without a backup. But I already have a great Tascam 701D recorder that mates to the bottom the camera giving me everything I need for higher quality audio than DSLRs or semi-pro camcorders can offer. Plus, I get a lot of work as a photographer. It makes sense to me to invest in good lenses if I can use them for video or photo.

The GH5 has the best (so far) XLR adaptor that has decent preamps and has dedicated A to D converters inside the adaptor. It slides into the hot shoe on top of the camera eliminating a lot of cables. Unfortunately, it’s also heinously expensive and well down the list of things I’ve yet to buy.

For now, the 701D with its 4 tracks of recording and meters and knobs is my solution.

My rig is effective and affordable, and I can shoot stills or video.

But!…

If I made my living shooting news, weddings or any sort of run and gun – I’d buy a video camera hands down. They’re a much better design for integrating accessories likes mics and matte boxes and all the goodness. And their batteries are a metric butt ton longer lasting. And if you need to keep your rig size small, a decent video camera with XLR inputs is going to have much better audio quality than anything with a minijack, meaning you don’t (absolutely) have to use a mixer to get decent sound and phantom power.

If I were shooting documentary style off the shoulder, and I didn’t have a sound guy with me, I would definitely be looking at a rig with balanced XLR inputs, somewhere to attach 2 radio receivers AND a short shotgun, and carry a pair of hard wired lapel mics and cables in my backpack. I would also be wearing headphones.

You can rig a DSLR like this, but it requires a lot of external add-ons.

The Sony FS5/FS7, URSA mini Pro or the Canon C200 are much easier to rig out professionally. You pay for that. In fact, given that the image and audio quality are not too dissimilar to a GH5 or a well-cared-for Sony A7 – it’s ergonomics that you really are paying all that extra for.

My GH5 rig works best off a tripod – but I mostly only shoot video for interviews and then some b-roll. I know that I will have nice pictures (broadcast video cameras have technically better IQ on average) and great audio clarity – everything a YouTube video needs.

You could own both – it might even happen to me lol! But when buying a camera, remember that the audio probably wasn’t foremost in the mind of the designer. You’ll probably have to overcome a shortcoming or two if you’re working the budget end. All I can ask is that you work that out before you buy a camera and discover it’s going to cost as much as the camera to accessorize. Or, you discover like Canon’s C100, C200 or C300 that adding all the audio ruins the sweet lines of your camera and makes your rig at least 6” taller and nothing fits in the bag anymore.

I love my GH5 for attracting far less attention than a professional camcorder (especially a shoulder mounted camera). But in the heat of professional production, a camcorder often makes a shooters life less complicated – and a huge factor is all the audio features (phantom power, XLR, mounting points and physical controls) that a decent ‘video camera’ offers as standard.