Types of Camera Explained
I may be a biased but I think cameras are really cool. It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that I spend a lot of my time thinking about them and talking about them. One of the things that often gets a conversation started is, when I’m out on a shoot, I’ll often put my main camera down to pick up some other type of camera to do a specific task within the production process.
To me cameras are tools. In much the same way that a craftsperson might use a hammer to hit a nail into a wall but then use a spanner to tighten some nuts, I’ll do the same thing with cameras depending on what I’m trying to achieve.
In the spirit of helping others understand what each type of camera does, and just to generally share some nerdy thoughts on these devices, I thought I’d create an article (and video) that goes through some of the different cameras that we have available to us, what I use them for and how they fit into the video production process. You can watch the video above, or continue reading…
Aside from ENG style news cameras (the shoulder-mounted style you see on TV), this type of camera is what most people typically think of when somebody refers to a professional video camera.
The main benefit of this style of camera is that they’re fairly simple to use. They have a fixed lens which means the lens can’t be removed, and this comes with the advantage of usually having quite a good zoom range with motorised “servo” mechanisms.
This makes these types of camera really handy for live event work and “run and gun” style filming (like documentaries) where you need to quickly get to the action and follow it, wherever and whenever it’s happening. There’s no faffing around to switch lenses because the one you’re currently using doesn’t zoom in far enough. (Or zoom out far enough!)
These cameras were quite popular in the corporate world until fairly recently. They’re not quite as common these days because they don’t typically come with much control over the depth of field. This means that the foreground and the background both remain in focus. You don’t really get the “blurry background” effect with these cameras, which is a style that is more “in” at the moment.
In short, if you’re looking to produce news bulletins “in the field” or you intend to film a lot of live events (but not interviews, where you’ll want blurry backgrounds) this would be a good style of camera to invest in.
The next type of camera we’re looking at are cinema cameras. I use this type of camera for the vast majority of my client work, and we use these types of cameras for our own videos for Vimsy too. (Like the video at the top of this post!)
The thing with these cameras is, as it says on the tin, the image is quite cinematic. The reason for this is that a filmmaker who uses one of these cameras has a lot more control over the image.
One of the main differentiators of this style of camera compared to professional camcorders is that the lens on these cameras can be replaced. This means that you can place a zoom lens, a wide angle lens, a macro lens, or whatever ever else takes your fancy onto one of these cameras. This allows for some really creative shots.
The other thing is that these cameras tend to have large sensors. The sensor is the device that converts the light that comes into the lens into the video clip that you see when you play it back later on. Having a big sensor means that (generally) you can film in low light, and it also means that you get a lot of control over the depth of field. So you can make an image look very blurry while keeping the foreground very crisp. The image looks great.
Another benefit is that you can pack these cameras down very small thanks to being able to take the lens off, which makes them ideal for travelling with.
DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) and Mirrorless cameras are traditionally stills cameras with a video mode available as a secondary option. From a videographer’s perspective this makes them very versatile because they’re the sort of camera that can handle situations where a client might ask you to “take a couple of photos as well while you’re here.” You can’t do this with any of the previous types of camera we’ve mentioned, which can only record video.
Despite being primarily for photographers, some of these cameras have video specific features like flip-out screens. (These are handy for photographers too, but they’re mainly for us video folk.)
As for image quality, these cameras also have quite big sensors and create the shallow depth of field look (a blurry background with a sharp foreground) much like cinema cameras. You can take the lenses off, like cinema cameras, and the lenses are usually interchangeable with their bigger counterparts. When you consider that cinema cameras were largely based on DSLRs, this makes a lot of sense.
In my opinion, DSLRs make a great B camera option. In fact, the image quality is usually good enough for DSLRs to be A cameras in their own right — but they do have some limitations.
Specifically, capturing audio on these cameras is generally quite difficult. DSLRs don’t typically have professional audio inputs and there are quite a few of them that don’t have a headphone jack for monitoring what you’re listening too. This might not sound too preposterous in the age of smartphones without headphone jacks, but in the world of video production that’s really not very good as sound is incredibly important and it’s very easy to mess it up if you’re not paying attention.
Overall DSLRs are really useful cameras and good all-rounders if you’re looking to do a blend of photo and video, but they’re not my preference as my main camera for filmmaking because I find myself running into too many barriers with them.
Action cameras are small, lightweight cameras typically used for capturing action. (As it says on the tin.) One of the most common types of action camera is a GoPro camera. These were really popular a few years ago as Christmas gifts, so most people tend to know the brand.
Unlike most people who bought these, we don’t use our action cameras for skiing or snowboarding. We use them for scenarios when our bigger cameras wouldn’t be appropriate or safe to use. For example, you can’t really put a big camera on the back of a sports car, a boat, or the inside corner of a big CNC machine. A bigger camera would fall off and break, or potentially get in the way of the process we’re trying to capture.
Action cameras are small, light, and easy to mount to things. They have wide, fixed lenses which lets them pick almost everything that’s in front of them. We use them a lot at things like conferences where we need a reference for what our main camera is capturing later on in the edit.
You can also put them on a motorised gimbal which keeps the camera steady as you move it around, and in this setup they work well as a lightweight, portable camera for following action as it happens. When you’re splicing the footage from an action camera in with footage from another camera, it can be quite hard for an untrained eye to tell that the footage has been filmed by a different camera. This does require the action camera footage to be colour corrected and treated properly, which is a bit of a skill.
Overall, putting an action camera in the camera bag with your main camera is no issue as they don’t take up much space. They’re just very useful and a handy part of the filmmaker arsenal, but they’re not something I’d consider shooting with as my main camera for most projects. They’re not versatile. They’re for a very specific type of job, and they’re very good at it.
Gimbal cameras are cameras which have a gimbal built in. I’ll be honest — I’m not entirely sure that this is a specific category on its own, as these devices are quite new, but they feel very different to the other types of camera I’ve written about so far.
Previously, getting smooth, complex moving shots would require putting one of the other types of camera on a motorised gimbal. This process would be quite fiddly as it would involve balancing the camera on the gimbal perfectly before turning it on to avoid busting the motors. While certainly doable, the main issue is that it was time consuming and time often equals money…!
The benefit of purpose-built gimbal cameras is that they are designed to be perfectly balanced from day one. You can pick one of these up from the factory, turn it on, and immediately get smooth shots without any configuration at all.
When recording, you can use these cameras to follow someone or something around. I like to use them for following people through buildings to get establishing shots of a location. The footage is usually very steady and smooth, despite making complex movements like turning corners or going upstairs.
Another unique feature of these cameras is that many of them have intelligent features to automate some of the movements they make. For example, using the DJI Osmo Pocket (pictured above), the camera can follow a person or object using image recognition functionality. If the person or object moves, the camera will automatically pan and tilt to keep in in the frame. A “normal” camera would never be able to physically do this because it doesn’t have a motorised gimbal built in; It can only film where it’s being pointed.
Speaking specifically of the DJI Osmo pocket, for a camera this small the picture quality is really good and if it can be colour corrected and treated properly it can blend in with other footage from other cameras. I personally think it’s great, and I look forward to seeing what future revisions bring.
I’ve written and spoken about drones in more detail before in another blog, which you can see here.
The reason drones are included in this post are because, fundamentally, they’re just another type of camera. The difference between a drone and any other camera is that you can take them up in the air and get some great shots from above. That’s pretty much it!
Drones are really exciting because they include a lot of intelligent features, much like the gimbal cameras above. In fact, most drones will contain a gimbal as part of their camera system.
The biggest difference is that the drone holds itself in the air and can move around by itself, so there’s no need for an operator to physically be holding it. As a result, a lot of drones can fly automatically and even follow people or objects around as they move — like following a person riding a bike across a field. Seeing this in action is very impressive!
The biggest downside to drones is that they’re highly regulated. Using airspace is a minefield of legislation in almost every jurisdiction and, as a result, the drone has to stay on the ground for the vast majority of occasions where a drone shot would look great in a video. It’s a bit disappointing, and the penalties for flying a drone illegally are often severe. (It’s really not worth breaking the law to make a video!)
360° VR Cameras
This is the final type of camera in our list. 360° VR cameras are a very specialist type of camera — and really cool!
These types of camera create VR video. The way it works is that the camera sees everything around it and captures it all. When you watch the footage back you can use a VR headset to look around as if you were actually there. (You can get a similar effect by using a phone or tablet, or by clicking around on your computer, but it’s not quite as immersive.)
One of the benefits of these cameras right now is that VR video format is still emerging. There are huge opportunities for businesses who create this type of content because it’s unique and different to what others are doing. If you can “crack” the format you’re far more likely to make something memorable and unique — at least until the format is more commonplace, anyway.
In addition to creating VR footage, there are uses for this type of footage in “standard” video. This can be a bit tricky because the footage is hard to work with (it’s very demanding on most computers) but you can take 360° video footage and manipulate it in ways you can’t with standard video footage. For example, you can reposition the footage and completely reframe it in post-production, which isn’t possible with “standard” video footage.
It’s worth noting that we have a video and blog post dedicated to 360° VR video, which would be worth checking out if you’d like to know more about this format. You can find it here.
That concludes our look at what cameras we use, why we use them and how the influence the video production process. We hope you’ve found it useful!
As with all types of equipment, it’s important to bear in mind that the tool is nothing without an operator — and I certainly wouldn’t suggest rushing out to buy loads of gear if you don’t know how you’ll use it. When it comes to creating video it’s the vision that will bring it to life. The equipment is always secondary to the concept and the story you’re trying to tell.
It’s also important to be aware that we haven’t touched on sound in this article, which is often far more important to get right than how your video looks, and we haven’t spoken about editing either. Once you’ve got your footage you’ll need a way to take it and turn it into something fantastic. If you can’t, you may as well not waste your time capturing any footage, because no-body will watch it!
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