DSLRs in documentary film: Canon 5D or the Panasonic GH2?

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Answered by: Jonathan, An Expert in the Documentaries Basics Category
The trend towards using DSLRs in documentary film is so established at this point that we can't really call it a trend any more. Among the 2 most talked about options (for good reason) are the Canon 5D and the Panasonic GH2. Both are capable of shooting full HD, both can be used in a variety of editing environments, both are small, easy to set up and use and both shoot great video.

The differences between them, however, are significant, and of concern to anyone who is serious about making films Full disclosure - I use the GH2, and what I'm going to do here is make a case that you should too. Which isn't to say that the Canon isn't a great camera - it is. But to say that, for documentaries (and perhaps any other film application) the cons of the Canon and the pros of the GH2 make it a slamdunk - there's no competition.

First and foremost to us documentarians (unless you're Ken Burns, and if you are, what's up Ken? Love ya!): cost. Canon comes in at around $1800. It's a Canon - it has a long and storied history in the world of SLR photography, and you're going to pay for it. The GH2 is about a $1000 less than the Canon. Not much history there, but history doesn't necessarily make good films. Good cameras and good filmmakers make good films, and if you can buy one of these for a grand less, well...

Second: capabilities. The Canon and the GH2 are very similar in a lot of ways, from low-light shooting to pre-sets. Where the GH2 wins is in, of all things, battery functionality. The Canon has this problem - it overheats. This takes place, depending on the situation, every 10 minutes or so, requiring that the camera be turned off and cooled. Imagine sitting in a blind waiting for baby eagles to hatch and, just when the little bugger is about stick his head out, having the camera ask for a time out. I've shot with the GH2 for 3, 4, 5 hours straight - no problem.

Third: optics. Canon has great optics - no question. The Panasonic lenses are only so-so. Some are good, some not. But Panasonic has, brilliantly, not patented the mount on the camera, so places like RainbowImaging have created a whole range of adapters. You can use Leica, Contax, Nikkor - even Canon lenses on the GH2. You can get virtually any 'sensibility' that has been ground into glass in the last 50 years on the GH2, from Bruce Weber to Ken Burns (hey again Ken).

DSLRs in documentary film? A no-brainer. Which one? I'd argue that the exact same answer applies. With the GH2, you can get everything you want (except the Canon name) for less, plus fewer bugs and a huge range of optics. Save a thousand dollars, buy more lenses, take a vacation, eat a few good meals out. I'm pretty sure you can find something to do with that extra dough.

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