There are many things to consider when shopping around for an entry level DSLR. You are looking for a product that will suit your needs, and have just the right amount of features while staying within your budget. To make matters worse, technology is always changing and improving.
The straight facts…
Your first camera isn’t the camera that will make you the big money. Your first camera is the one that you will learn the in’s and out’s of shooting video on – it is where you will get your bearings. You aren’t looking for a camera with the most amount of features in it or a camera that can shoot in 4K resolution. Below are the features that should be in any first camera that will make you well-rounded in the business of shooting good videos.
Manual exposure settings
Having a camera with manual exposure settings as opposed to “auto” settings will get you comfortable with what is known as “The Exposure Triangle.” Filmmakers utilizes aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to control how much light hits the camera sensor, with the goal being “the perfect exposure.” Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect exposure in different ways.
How aperture affects exposure
Aperture is adjusted either from the camera lens by rotating the lens’ aperture wheel, or through your camera. It is also known as your “F-stop.” In addition to letting in different amounts of light, your lens’ aperture also determines what is known as depth of field or “DoF” for short. Depth of field determines what can be in focus in a “frame”.
If you’ve ever seen artsy photos of a close-up of someone’s eyeball but the rest of the photo is blurred out, the photographer used a “shallow” depth of field. With this technique, only one thing can be in focus while the rest of the frame is blurred.
Your depth of field can be as small as an eyeball, or as wide as miles and miles of landscape. In the photo below, the photographer used a “deep” depth of field resulting in everything in frame being in focus. Everything from the tent, all the way to the mountains in the background is sharp. This is possible by being able to manually adjust your aperture.
How shutter speed affects exposure
In photography, shutter speed controls how long the camera’s shutter remains open, thus exposing the sensor to light for longer or shorter amounts of time.
In night sky photography, photographers typically use extremely low shutter speeds. This means that the camera’s shutter remains open for a long time in order to take in as much light as possible in the dark night. Using this technique, the light from the stars and moon are exposed properly in the photo. The effect you get from using low shutter speeds like this is that you capture the movement of the stars in the night sky. The stars will appear to leave “trails” and create the illusion of spinning around.
Sports photographers on the other hand often shoot at extremely high shutter speeds in order to capture fast-moving athletes. Otherwise, the fast-moving athletes will appear to have ghost trails behind them.
Shutter speed isn’t as much of an issue for videographers although we do need to know how it works. Video people will often keep it at 1/50th or a multiple of whatever frame rate we are shooting at which most likely is 24 frames per second. If this sounds technical, it is, but don’t worry about it too much for now.
How ISO affects exposure
An electric guitar amplifier often has an option called “Gain” which changes the clean sound of the guitar to a louder, more distorted sound. This is the effect that ISO has on your camera’s footage. Never owned a guitar and don’t know what I’m talking about? Think of ISO as steroids for your camera sensor.
Bad lighting can make your footage underexposed. ISO is used to digitally “amplify” the little amount of light hitting the camera sensor to make the footage appear to be better exposed. This might seem like a good idea, but ISO must be used with caution. The downside to a high ISO is grainy or “noisy” footage that does not look good at all. You probably don’t ever want to raise your ISO above 800 or 1600 on an entry-level camera.
The ability to remove and change lenses on a camera is another feature you will want. I could write several entire articles on the different types of lenses you can use and when and how to use them, but for now, we are simply concerned with having a camera with the option to use different lenses depending on what “look” you are going for. There are two types of lenses: prime lenses and zoom (or “telephoto”) lenses.
Microphone input jack
Audio is an often overlooked component of a video, yet it is just as important if not more important than the actual visuals. People are more likely to watch a video with shakey, slightly out-of-focus footage, but if the audio is horrible, loud or disorienting for the viewer, they will hit the back button or close your video. Having a camera with a microphone input jack gives you the option to plug in an external microphone or an on-camera microphone like the Rode VideoMic GO that will pickup better audio than the built-in microphone on your camera.
Other things to know about entry-level cameras
Regardless of whether you choose to go with Canon, Sony, or Nikon for your first camera, all of the entry-level cameras have the same basic features and shortcomings. I will break down two things that will come into play as you become more familiar with entry-level cameras: crop sensors and low light performance.
Crop sensors and what that means for you
Just about all entry-level and some mid-range video cameras come with APS-C crop sensors with a crop factor of 1.6x. What this means is that the size of the sensor, and therefore the field of view that you are able to see and capture, is smaller than the more expensive “full frame” cameras like the Canon 5D or Nikon D750.
This graphic illustrates the size differences of the various types of sensors.
Low light performance in entry-level cameras
One common drawback to entry-level cameras is that their performance in low light situations does not produce the best images. Their sensors will struggle when you increase your ISO, producing grainy and unusable footage. Always be thinking about how to use available natural light. If you are smart and resourceful, the low light shortcomings of entry-level cameras shouldn’t be a big issue.
Canon T7i Low Light Test via Youtube
Take a look at this test footage of Canon’s T7i camera in low light:
Tip: Watch test footage from the camera you are researching
You can’t just look at a camera’s specs on paper or take someone’s word that it’s a good camera. You have to see the footage that actually comes out of the camera. Fortunately, there are a ton of people uploading test footage videos from just about every camera there is. Go to Youtube and search for the model of the camera you are thinking of buying.
The video below came up when I did a search for “Sony a6000 test footage.”
Sony A6000 video test by Wesley Cordeiro
What I like about this particular video is that the filmmaker is using the standard 16-50mm zoom lens that is often sold as a kit lens with this camera, proving that you don’t always need the best or most expensive lens to get great-looking footage.
Searching for your first camera can be overwhelming. Hopefully this article helped boil it down so you can make an informed decision that you are happy with. Your first camera is the camera that you will be learning with and playing around with. Don’t feel pressured to splurge on an expensive camera just yet.
Have any questions or need help? Let me know in the comments.