Best low light camera which isn’t the Sony A7s for those on a lower budget?

Shooting in low light is a very common question, and often people will respond “just use lights!” Yet there are also valid reasons to seek out a camera body which is excellent at low light instead, such as shooting a documentary or you are using lights already but want to keep your lighting kit minimal (to list just a couple of the reasons). So which to go for?

Obviously the best option would be an A7s, as it as downright insanely good low light capabilities! As this video filmed out in the countryside with only moonlight demonstrates:

But for many people this camera is complete overkill! You want good low light, but don’t need it to be *that* good! And as one of the most pricey mirrorless cameras, you’d like something cheaper. Which to go for?

Go for a Sony A5100 (I got mine for a mere US$310 like new from Amazon some months back. Go for the A6000 though instead if overheating could be a serious concern you wish to avoid) plus a focal reducer (another hundred bucks) plus a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (which would be a few hundred dollars second hand). Won’t be as good as an A7s of course, but is the next best thing on a budget!

A5100 is the A6000 but with XAVCs added in as a bonus, and at a cheaper price too!

And the A6000 is the D5200 (they share the same sensor), but with a mirrorless mount and more features. Which allows you to double the light with use of a focal reducer! And the D5200 already compares very favourably vs the Canon 5Dmk3 (which was the former “King of Low Light” before the Sony A7s came along and crushed it). You can see how the Nikon D5200 performs at ISO 6400 and even 12800:

And the A5100 is a two steps ahead from the D5200 in terms of features/performance. A bargain low light filmmaking machine indeed!

A priced out gear kit for a newbie to filmmaking, using the Panasonic GH2.

Was talking to friend online about what first camera he should get, he is looking at a Panasonic GH2 so I thought I’d go and cost up what the total cost would be for a small starter’s kit (obviously, you don’t have to get everything all at once! You could just start with a camera and one lens, thus I’m listing this in rough order from most important to least important of the items to get first. Although, this ordering can be debatable depending on a person’s needs):

  1. Panasonic GH2 (US$418, but if you look at past sales on eBay you can see a common sale price for the GH2 can be closer to mid US$300-ish and less, so won’t be hard to find it cheaper than US$418 with a little patience and bidding in auctions)
  2. SanDisk Extreme 32GB (US$23)
  3. Nikon F to Micro Four Thirds Adapter (US$14)
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.8 (US$92)
  5. RJ Lens Turbo (US$129)
  6. Couple of spare batteries (2x US$12.50)
  7. Yunteng Y288 (US$57)
  8. Vivitar 28-90mm f/2.8-3.5 in Nikon F mount (US$90)
  9. Zoom H1 (US$100)
  10. UltraDisk 4016 (US$21)
  11. EM-320E shotgun mic (US$21)
  12. Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 (US$200)
  13. Feelworld FW759 (US$126)
  14. Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (US$390)
  15. Vivitar 135mm f/2.8 ($65)

Even though both him and I are New Zealanders, I’ve priced it up in US dollars to make it easier to read for an international audience.

To get the first 7 items on this list to get yourself out the door and start making a movie, it would just cost US$758 (418+23+14+92+129+2*12.50+57)

To get the first 11 items on this list (so you’ve then got a few more choices in focal length, and you’ve got capturing sound covered in the most basic way) the total would be US$990 (418+23+14+92+129+2*12.5+57+90+100+21+21)

To get everything on this list would cost US$1771 (418+23+14+92+129+2*12.5+57+90+100+21+21+200+126+390+65)

You can see a large chunk of this cost is in the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, which is phenomenal lens but also a bit of a niche item as an ultra wide angle lens and thus why I put it right near the end of the list to get. Another large chunk of the cost is obviously in getting the GH2, so if you’re really looking to save costs I’d suggest the Panasonic GH1 instead at only US$150-ish on eBay. As in many ways it is nearly as good as the GH2 except for the big one of lacking live HDMI (but this can be viewed as a good thing when saving money! As now you’re not getting the monitor either…. because you can’t use it at all! Bingo, saved another US$126).

These are just the prices I could find from just a few seconds of searching for each item, I’m 100% sure a patient person could with only a little bit of luck get this kit for much cheaper.

Not at all coincidentally, I own all these items on the list (with the exception of the GH2, I started with the GH1. And the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8, I went with the better but much more expensive Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 instead), thus I’m recommending them on the basis of my own hours and hours of research in deciding to buy them for myself!

Obviously this is just a starting out kit, and much much much more can be spent on many areas. Such as in particular audio is a weakness in this list (it is after all mainly aimed to be a starting camera kit, for an aspiring future DoP to start out making their first short films). And you can always get more lenses! Haven’t even listing a single piece of lighting equipment at all! Another huge hole, of many.

But as a completely entry level introduction to filmmaking on a very small budget, I think this would be a brilliant collection of kit to begin with!

I’ll finish this off, with a few other camera body options to consider (but the rest of this list basically remains the same, no matter what camera body you choose out of these. With the exception of if you get the monitor or not, you need a camera with live HDMI out to use that):

  • a) Panasonic GH1 (if you’re not planning on getting a monitor then I’d recommend the GH1 over the GH2, as it is a lot cheaper and will be for your needs 95% as good)
  • b) Panasonic G6 (another one to consider if you aren’t not getting a monitor, as like the GH1 it lacks live HDMI out, but in just about every other way it is better than the GH2)
  • c) Sony NEX-5N (the only camera that can rival the GH1 in terms of bang for buck! It too is available for US$150ish on eBay)
  • d) Sony A5100 (this is actually my preferred choice, and the best camera currently on the market that is underneath the NX1/GH4/A7s price point)
  • e) Sony A6000 (basically the same as the A5100, but is more expensive and lacks XAVCs or a touch screen. But has an EVF, and doesn’t have the minor overheating issue that the A5100 sometimes has)