Best Cinema Cameras for Your Next Documentary

No matter what documentary genre you’re working on, here’s a look at some outstanding cameras for documentary filmmaking.
Documentary films learn more frequently require a unique set of needs, skills, and demands. This is especially true when it comes to the camera system that you choose to utilize. Having the best camera for the job is an age-old adage that’s especially important for the documentary filmmaker.

Due to the often fast, unexpected nature of documentary filmmaking, there are a few particular questions you should ask about your camera system.

You’ll want to think about things like:

  • Does this camera system offer a solid auto-focus system?
  • What’s the weight of this camera package?
  • What camera will offer a codec with the least amount of file storage space?

While nearly every camera on the market today can be outfitted and used as a documentary camera, we’re going to look at our best out-of-the-box options on the market.

Some of these common requests and needs of the documentary cinematographer are:

  • Built-in ND filters
  • High ISO performance
  • XLR/audio capabilities
  • Robust features (high-speed, in-camera IS)
  • Plus, general ease of use

A good documentary camera package will perform highly in each category and capture gorgeous footage, given a smart and creative plan for cinematography.

Whether you’re filming the next hit docu-series for Netflix or a film about your eccentric neighbors, let’s look at some documentary cameras today!

Sony FX6/FX9

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Sony continues to mark itself as a premiere documentary camera maker with its new FX6 and FX9 line. These cameras feature a full-frame sensor and cover all the needs of the documentary filmmaker, including built-in ND, XLR, and an ergonomic form factor.

These ultra-reliable cameras have found themselves shooting many high-end documentaries and reality TV shows.

The FX6 offers a 10.2 megapixels BSI-CMOS, full-frame at 4.2K. While the FX9 offers a 24.5-megapixels 6K HDR sensor.

The FX6 doesn’t provide certain features like dual native ISO, locking E-mount, and Super 35mm mode (only in HD), yet it’s still regarded highly in the cinematography landscape.

Both have solid ergonomics, image quality, and similar video feature sets, but choosing between them is dependent on what you need.

If battery life and shooting in low-light is a priority and you want the best bang for your buck cinema camera, the FX6 is a solid recommendation.

Sony FX6 key spec notes:

  • 4K 10.2MP full-frame back-illuminated CMOS Exmor R sensor
  • Recording up to 4K 120p / HD 240p, 10 bit 4:2:2 color depth
  • 15+ stops of dynamic range
  • ISO up to 409,600
  • S-Cinetone profile (also used in FX9)
  • Sony FX9 key spec notes:

6K full-frame back-illuminated CMOS Exmor R sensor (can only internally record in resolutions of up to 4K DCI)

  • Locking E-mount
  • DualBase ISO 800/4000
  • ISO range up to 102,700
  • 4K Super 35mm mode

Canon C300 Mark III / C500 Mark II

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You’re looking at the image above and thinking, “That’s the same camera!” And, yes, I’d say the exact same thing, but there’s a huge difference. Still, design-wise Canon has stuck to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach.

The C500 Mark II offers a full-frame CMOS sensor at 5.9K with up to 15+ stops of dynamic range in CineLog-2, while the C300 Mark III offers a 4K Super35 sensor with 16+ stops of dynamic range.

The C300 Mark III trumps the C500 Mark II in low-light capture. This is due to the C300’s Dual Gain Output (DGO) which offers even better performance at higher ISOs, more dynamic range, and an ability to erase any noise in the shadows completely.

Even though the C500 Mark II offers 60fps in 4K and 120fps in 1080p, the C300 is faster. Offering 120fps at 4K and 180fps at 1080.

From experience, I can say the C300 Mark III is a well-rounded camera that’s a joy to use, producing some of the richest and most dynamic footage I’ve taken to date.

C300 Mark III key specs:

  • Super 35mm dual gain output (DGO) sensor 4K 120fps, 2K crop 180fps HDR
  • Cinema RAW light and XF-AVC H.264 codec
  • EF lens mount, DIG!C DV7 image processor
  • Dual pixel CMOS AF and face detection
  • LM-V2 4.3″ LCD touchscreen monitor
  • 12G-SDI and 4-channel audio recording
  • 2x CFexpress slots, Canon Log 2 and 3
  • Electronic image stabilization
  • Proxy recording, anamorphic lens suppor

C500 Mark II key specs:

  • Full-frame CMOS sensor, DIG!C DV 7 chip
  • Full-frame, Super 35, and Super 16 modes
  • DCI 4K/2K, UHD 4K, and HD modes
  • User-changeable lens mounts
  • DualPixel CMOS AF
  • Internal Canon RAW light recording
  • Internal XF-AVC recording
  • 2 x CFexpress card slots, SD card slot
  • Canon Log 2 and Log 3 gamma
  • 4-channel audio recording

Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K

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This beast of a camera is nothing short of incredible. The URSA Mini Pro 12K camera from Blackmagic design has been the go-to camera for feature films and commercials over the past few years, with its 12,288 x 6480 12K Super 35 sensor and 14 stops of dynamic range.

This camera offers a vast range of shooting resolutions and frame rates—from 12K 75fps, 8K 160fps, and 4K Super 16 up to 240fps—four-position ND filter wheel, user changeable lens mounts, Dual Cfast or SD card recording, and even direct SSD recording via its built-in USB-C connection.

Made from lightweight magnesium alloy, the URSA Mini Pro 12K is a decent lightweight, yet robust build of a camera, solid for handheld work or tripod-based shots.

Other features to mention are the 12G-SDI input and output, 48V phantom power XLR audio, timecode and reference input, ergonomic controls, and a 4″ fold-out display.

URSA Mini Pro 12K key spec notes:

  • 12,288 x 6480 12K Super 35 sensor multiple high speed frame rates (12K/60fps; 8K/120fps; 4K/160fps; 4K Super16/240fps)
  • Recording direct to a flash disk or SSD via USB-C
  • Interchangeable lens mounts
  • 14 stops of dynamic range
  • Dual Cfast 2.0 / SD card recording

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