Reports | Technology

MiniDV on a Mini Budget: A Guide to Cameras

1 Sep , 2004  

Written by April Gardner | Posted by:

Finding the right digital camera for an independent filmmaker can be daunting with so many choices. Here is a guide to top cameras and general definitions, as determined by film community, to get you started.

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a camera? There are a host of stories and scenarios out there that deserve to be forever caught on film, so you’ve made a great decision. But you’ve got your work cut out for you — there are many, many cameras out there. Let’s start with a general overview of digital cameras first.

The Sony HTWF900 started it all, as George Lucas and Sony struck a deal to design the first digital camera to unleash a fury of filmmaking. Now, the technology has taken on a life of its own in its quest to become evermore cinematic in quality. Digital is indeed an amazing equalizer, allowing access to moviemaking like never before. Though 35mm film is still the golden standard against which all other media is still compared, digital is steadily evolving in quality to approach the same soft, warm, and slow feel of film that helps to accomplish a viewer’s removal from reality.

Choosing a digital camera is like wading into a sea of compromises. Cost will guide you into a certain tier (consumer, prosumer, and professional) and category (miniDV, DVCPro & DVCam, DVCPro 50, and DVCPro HD). For the purposes of low-budget indie filmmakers, we will concentrate in the sub $5,000 range, placing us squarely in the prosumer and miniDV range. Note that you may want to research the next level of cameras if your project may need more power. However, miniDV has a multitude of capabilities that will serve a wide range of needs. The movie "28 Days Later" was shot with this quality of film, so great imagery can happen with miniDV.

According to John Rule of Rule Broadcast Systems, there are three crucial aspects, the "three R’s," to consider when buying a camera: Rate, Ratio, and Resolution. The aspect ratio is the width to the height of the screen that the viewer sees. 4:3 is the standard aspect ratio of NTSC and PAL and is the most commonly used aspect ratio in broadcasting today. 16:9 is the recently set world standard aspect ratio for HDTV. The frame rate is what gives a scene the look of a TV sitcom, a sports action shot, or a film. 24p is the highly celebrated capability of the latest HD cameras, as this is the rate of used in mainstream films. The resolution is pretty self-explanatory; the higher resolution, determined by the number of pixels, the larger and more detailed your pictures will turn out. Resolution can be expressed in terms of lines, where 250 lines represent standard VHS quality and digital quality is typically over 500 lines. A good camera has excellent specs in these three areas, so be sure to look for these.

If your budget is challenged, try to get yourself a camera with the most manual overrides you can afford. Consumer cameras tend to be designed with the home holiday videomakers solely in mind, and consequently have "auto-everything." As a filmmaker, the ability to control your camera is key, so look into any cameras that let you manually control the focus, aperture, and shutter speed.

While you can save money initially by using a MiniDV camera, it shouldn’t be your main reason for choosing the format, especially if you plan to transfer your video to film. A low budget alone should not determine the use of MiniDV, because the cost of printing to film will eat the money saved from the camera choice anyway. While there are cameras out there that are even cheaper, the quality and flexibility in features starts to suffer. You can always rent before you buy, where you can test-drive a myriad of different options before committing. Renting equipment is always an option that may allow you to step up to the next level of features, if necessary.

Another important consideration is how to get your video into your PC for editing. More expensive cameras will come with Firewire (Sony calls this "i-link"). Firewire allows you to literally "copy" your video straight into your PC without the need for expensive capture cards — though you must have a Firewire port, of course.

Cameras are generating more interest with their abilities in 24P, particularly the offering from Panasonic. The quality of the 24P image resembles 16mm film, but without the scratches and hairs in the gate (you can add those in post production, if you like). Also, all of the choices are three-CCD, an important feature that replicates professional camcorder quality. Three-CCD, or charge-coupled device, allows for professional-looking color reproduction — one CCD is devoted to each primary color, red, green, and blue.

The following are some specs and comments on four of the top cameras, as deduced by discussions with various filmmakers and production companies in the area. Let this be a guide to determining the criteria you’re looking for. There are many cameras out there, and even more images of beauty and turmoil that is waiting to be filmed. So let’s get started!


Canon GL2

Sony DCR-VX2100

Panasonic DVX100A




30P; No 24P

60i, 30P, 24P, 24P Advanced



4:3, 16:9

4:3, 16:9

4:3, 16:9 letterbox, 16:9 digital squeeze

4:3, 16:9


525 lines

530 lines

525 lines

525 lines

Cost (Suggested Retail)

$4999 (with lens; a lensless version will be available for $3999)





Image stabilizer good for handheld; 20X optical zoom; two-channel audio control; 1.7-megapixel still image capture

Great interlaced video quality; outstanding low-light performance; impressive battery life; smart lens cap

Array of frame-rate options; advanced image and audio settings; great viewfinder and control layout; wide lens

Excellent low-light; Pleasing image quality; wealth of controls; interchangeable lenses; many optional accessories available


Too many controls per button; mediocre battery life with included cell

No 24P or HD video; no professional audio connections or controls; no focus marks

Limited battery life; lens is short for some applications; lacks true 16×9 chips; moderately tough learning curve; not the best in low light

Front heavy and difficult on a shoulder-mount – not the best for handheld work


2.5 lbs

3.3 lbs

3.7 lbs

3.7 lbs

Note that the Canon XL2 is the improved version of the XL1S, but filmmakers haven’t had the chance to use this brand new offering, and many rental companies have not yet ordered it. As it trickles through the film community, it is assured that the XL2 will receive excellent ratings.

Ultimately, the most powerful factor in the success of your film will lie in aspects outside of the camera’s abilities itself — the story, flow, and editing will decide the fate of your story. So, get into the story and get out there!

There are many quality rental companies that can provide cameras: (see below). Countless websites abound when you’re researching which camera is best for you. Start with these sites:,  and

For Film/Video Camera & Equipment Rentals, go to:
star.gif (203 bytes) Boston Camera Rental Company
star.gif (203 bytes) FilmShack
star.gif (203 bytes) Rule Broadcast Systems
star.gif (203 bytes) Talamas Broadcast Equipment