Adam wrote in

I have recently graduated from college having completed a degree in Television production. I am mainly interested in making short films.  I wanted to get my own gear but I don’t have the resources available to buy a lot of gear so I am looking into buying a decent DSLR and build up my kit up from there.

There are a few things to think about when moving to filming with DSLRs that can save you money.

  1. Does the camera have on-board audio inputs without AGC? This can spare you the cost of a field recorder.
  2. What Lenses can be adapted or made compatible with your camera? The more old manual focus lenses you can adapt to your camera, the more money you can save on glass.
  3. Has your camera been hacked? Hacked firmware can add many high end features to your camera, making it an even more cost effective film tool.
  4. Is there a clear upgrade path in the future? Once you choose a camera brand and invest in compatible lenses and gear, it’s easier to upgrade your camera body then it is to sell off all of your lenses and start over.

Looking at the list there are 2 main Cameras that come to mind. The Panasonic GH1 and the Canon T2i, both have pros and cons. The Canon t2i (ruffly $600 used) has better low light performance, higher build quality (IMHO), and less crop factor. The Panasonic GH1, on the other hand has a lower price (ruffly $350 used), adapts to a wider range of lenses, and has that nice flip out screen.

When you add the Magic Lantern Hack to the T2i and the Tester13 Hack to the Panasonic GH1 it unlocks a number of great features (including audio metering) that make these cameras even better. But before you make your decision on which low price camera you want to spend your money on you should really think about what you plan to film and what your needs are.

The Panasonic GH1 is part of the micro 4/3 class of cameras which means the crop factor is two times the lens’s advertised focal length. So if you’re shooting with a 28mm lens for example, your equivalent focal length will actually be 56mm. The good thing about this is that you can pickup a 50mm f1.4 lens and effectively have the reach of a 100mm lens at f1.4. The down side is that when you try to get wide shots you’ll have trouble finding low price lenses that are wide enough to get the job done. The micro 4/3 design also creates a smaller distance from the camera sensor to the flange of the lens mount. This basically means you can adapt the GH1 to most older manual focus lenses, a good example is the Canon FD mount lenses. These lenses don’t adapt well to most cameras (I don’t recommend them for Canon DSLRs) so they aren’t very sought after, but they work great on the GH1 and you can pick many of them up for under a $100 a peace on ebay. These FD mount lenses have great manual focus rings and do a good job optically for the price.

The Panasonic GH1 doesn’t do as well in low light and most consider 800 iso to be the usable limit. The Canon T2i, on the other hand preforms well tell about 1600 iso giving it an edge in the low light department. The T2i however is missing the very handy flip out screen, and doesn’t work with as many types of lenses. In fact, the older lenses that do work well with the T2i, like the Nikon Nikkor and Pentax PK series lenses have tripled in price over the last few years thanks in large part to the popularity of video on Canon DSLR cameras.

The Canon T2i does have a smaller crop factor of about 1.6, so that 30mm f1.4 sigma I use ends up working out to about 48mm on the T2i body. The smaller crop factor also means it’s a bit easier to achieve wide shots. Add a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens to your T2i and you shouldn’t have any problems filming in an elevator or car.

Both cameras have a clear upgrade path. With the T2i, you can always upgrade to the T3i, 60d, or 5d mark II, and with the GH1 you have the GH2 (which has recently been hacked) to look forward to. The GH1 over all is probably the better price to performance ratio for video if you can live with the crop factor and low light short comings. If your pockets are a little deeper starting out, and you plan to focus on both photo and video work the t2i might be a better choice.

If you decide to go with the Canon T2i, I recommend starting out with the Sigma 30mm f1.4, the Canon 50mm f1.4, and either the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 (wide angle) or the Canon 85mm f1.8 (medium telephoto).  Expect to spend around $1600 or more by the time you’re done with that list.

If you decide to go with the Panasonic GH1, I recommend starting out with the Panasonic 20mm f1.7, the Nikon Nikkor 35mm f2, the Canon FD 50mm f1.4, and down the road (if you can afford it) the Panasonic 7-14mm f4. Expect to spend about $800 without the 7-14mm f4 lens and remember those manual focus lenses aren’t very handy for photography.

I own the T2i and use it almost daily, but if I were just starting out and didn’t have a large investment in lenses, I might very well have ended up with a GH1 & GH2 in my bag.  That’s my two cents on the lowest price options available in the entry level DSLR video market.

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