Affordable DSLR that works great with video – or rather something else?

Someone recently asked about buying their first DSLR when their main interest is sports photography and video, at the entry level price-wise. The question also included Canon and Nikon as examples. I’ll try and answer that question here.

First things first – currently, all entry level DSLRs are capable of “professional” quality output. There may be specific applications where these cameras will not be competitive, but image quality is not typically a major problem.

Having said that, Canon is currently lagging behind in sensor technology, with higher noise levels and lower dynamic range. This will also limit the amount of light you need to take “reasonable” photographs, regardless of what personal criteria you may set for considering your output “reasonable”.

However, Canon is also generally held to be the better choice for video. The major challenges for video in a DSLR camera are continuous autofocus and noiseless operation (in terms of auditory noise). Panasonic is generally regarded as having the best video features, but they don’t currently sell any true SLR cameras, but rather opt for the mirrorless format, where your preview is indirect through the rear display or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This may mean that your view of the scene is delayed, so it’s worth checking out reviews that have tested for this.

Principally, the characteristics of photographic output will feature again when recording video, so a camera with good dynamic range (DR) in still image output will also usually have high DR in video. This would be a considerable benefit from using a relatively affordable pro camera such as a Pentax K-5 or K-5 II. Remember that all DSLR cameras currently in production include HD video as an output option at upwards of 24 frames per second, so you won’t need to worry about that too much.

I will, however, add two more points for consideration. You should look not only at frame rates and resolutions when judging video, but also at the compression used. This will tell you how much you’ll spend on memory cards and hard disks to accommodate the length of filming you’re interested in, and it will also tell you whether there are situations where artefacts will show up in your movies. My experience comparing H.264 vs. Motion JPEG suggests that artefacts will occur with fast movement or sudden changes of lighting in the H.264 format, but will be absent from Motion JPEG. However, Motion JPEG will generate huge files by comparison which you should factor into your budget.

In terms of features, you should consider whether you’ll want to do time lapse or high speed video – for high speed in particular, there are no viable workarounds, so you’ll need a camera that can already do this. For time lapse capture, clunky external features may be required on various cameras including current Canon models.

Remember also that there are affordable video devices such as the GoPro Hero set of cameras that in a lot of ways, may be more flexible and fun than a big SLR setup, as well as all-in-one solutions such as Panasonic’s rather affordable FZ200, a superzoom bridge with plenty of video features. What a DSLR camera gives you is the ability to swap lenses, but each new lens will cost as much or more as a new or fairly new compact or bridge camera. If you think you have the discipline to stick with one camera and get really good at using it, then try leaning towards a DSLR, but if you think you’ll always want to keep up with the latest imaging technology, you’ll be far better off cost-wise looking at superzooms.

Eventually, only you can know whether your interest in video is strong enough to merit a choice of Panasonic over Canon, or whether even Pentax or Nikon might be viable choices due to the higher photo output quality, or whether you’ll want to pursue an alternate adventure with a GoPro-type camera or a compact/superzoom.


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