If you’re a keen videographer and you haven’t already ventured into the world of 4K, chances are that you’re thinking of doing it.
After the 2003 launch of the Dalsa Origin, the world’s first commercially available 4K camera, the technology was slow to grow. It took until 2010 for YouTube to support the format, and until 2012 for the first 4K home theater to be released. But, demand is growing much quicker now, and by 2025 it’s estimated that over 50% of US households will own a 4K enabled TV.
Although 4K technology is becoming increasingly available to consumers, not all cameras have the ability to shoot in this format yet. So, if Full HD just isn’t doing it for you anymore, you’re going to need to look for a model that gives you the pixel count that you desire.
4K Camera Buyer's Guide
The following things are what you should be looking out for if you’re considering investing in a 4K camera:
- Filming style – you’ll need to decide what you want to do with your 4K camera before you choose which one to buy:
Some DSLR’s film in 4K and are handy for location shoots and documentary style filming that requires a small footprint.
Action camera are the best choice for, well, action shoots and are rugged and versatile enough for anything you throw at them.
‘Point and shoot’ can refer to either the classic camcorder design or compact digital cameras. Either way, this type of camera is another good option for guerrilla style filming, but you’ll probably sacrifice some of the cinematic features offered in DSLR’s.
Professional grade cameras will offer most cinematic value, but can be much bulkier than the other options available.
- Skill level – there’s no point in investing in a high-tech camera if you don’t know how to use it and are unlikely to take the time to learn. Be realistic and go for a model that you’ll be able to get the best out of, rather than choosing a camera that will overwhelm you.
- Budget – point and shoot are the cheapest options available, and there are plenty of affordable DSLR’s and action cams on the market now too. You’ll pay a fair bit for mirrorless, but it’s worth the investment if you’re a serious film maker. Professional grade cameras are really only a possibility if you have a significant budget behind you, although there’s always the option to hire one.
- Features – what do you need your camera to do? Will you be shooting fast paced action that requires advanced image stabilization technology? Do you need high ISO ability for shooting in low light conditions? Is connectivity important to you? Write out a list of must-haves to help you narrow down the search for your perfect 4K camera.
- Accessories – think about your entire setup when you’re choosing your camera, not just the actual body. Have you worked additional lenses into your budget if you’re going for an interchangeable option? Will you need external audio equipment and tripods? Don’t blow your money on a brilliant camera if that means not being able to buy the things you’ll need to get the best out of it.
- Editing software – if you’re a serious film maker you’ll want serious post-production software. Adobe premiere Pro CC is our pick of the bunch and their subscription-based packages can be purchased as single apps or as a package of all 20+ apps that they currently provide. Adobe also works for both PC and Mac, but if you’re a Mac user you might want to take a look at Final Cut Pro X, too.
Top 5 Best 4K Video Cameras
5. Panasonic HC-X1000 - Professional Grade
There’s no real end point in terms of budget when looking at professional 4K cameras, but our top pick is one of the more affordable models. The HC-X1000 is Panasonic’s first ‘prosumer’ offering, and is used widely by professionals across a variety of video mediums.
With this beauty in your hands you can shoot up to 60fps in 4K for beautifully smooth footage, and take advantage of the maximum bit-rate of 200Mbps which delivers outstanding quality.
With this beauty in your hands you can shoot up to 60fps in 4K for beautifully smooth footage, and take advantage of the maximum bit-rate of 200Mbps which delivers outstanding quality. MP4, AVCHD and MOV codecs provide the versatility needed by today’s videographers and makes post-production nice and easy. You’ve also got all the connectivity you’d expect from a camera of this caliber, including remote shooting, Wi-Fi, NFC and QR code connection.
The lens barrel is perfectly suited to pros, with separate control rings for focus, zoom and iris. ND filters are built-in for enhanced exposure control, and the 4-drive Leica dicomar lens system allows for 20x zoom without compromising the portability of the camera. If you’re going hand-held, inbuilt gyro sensors detect shaking up to 4000 times per second, and will compensate even the movement made by your breathing. With this handy tool, your footage will stay pin-sharp even at full zoom.
Wildlife videographers will lover the 0 lux night mode that uses infrared rays and IR-LED lighting to deliver consistently clear night-time imagery. The 8MP ½.3-inch MOS sensor is ideal for events, documentaries and sports as it delivers a flat, crisp image. If you’re more of an indie film maker and want something capable of a little more cinematic flair however, the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro is a creative powerhouse when it comes to delivering gorgeous depth of field and imagery that is super-satisfying.
The compact, light design means that the HC-X1000 is equally as well suited to the studio and on location. And, wherever you are, if you’re recording audio the 2-channel input terminals and +48 V phantom power supply are capable of handling professional, high-spec microphones for unbeatable audio quality.
There are very few downsides to this 4K stunner, although we noted that the build quality doesn’t feel premium enough. That aside, you’ll probably need external lighting to counteract anything but a perfectly bright setup, but you’ll have plenty of money left over to buy external kit, thanks to the surprisingly low price tag.
4. Sony Alpha A9 - Mirrorless
Sony’s flagship Alpha A9 is head and shoulders above the rest in the mirrorless category, and will astound you with its pure brilliance.
Ideal for action videographers, the lightning fast 693 point AF covers 93% of the image area and is almost unbelievable in its ability. Backed up by 5-axis image stabilization and two dials and a joystick for selecting an AF point, there’s no excuse for soft footage. It’s this technology that is tempting even the most hardcore Canon and Nikon fans over to Sony.
The 24.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor delivers the crystal clear imagery that you’d expect from a camera of this quality, and the A9 shoots in 4K across the entire width of the image sensor which allows the camera to collect 6K of data and turn it into superb quality 4K footage. 35mm recording is also available, if you prefer. The dedicated position on the mode dial provides full manual control, and you can record files in a second, lower resolution format simultaneously if required.
This is a solid bit of gear that can take anything you throw at it. The body is constructed from magnesium alloy and is weather-sealed, which again is perfect for outdoor action videography. If you’re venturing outdoors though, you might want to consider investing in an external mic. Although there’s one onboard, it’s fairy susceptible to wind noise so you may have trouble getting crisp audio if you’re up against the elements.
Looking further afield than Sony, Panasonic is proving itself to be big in the mirrorless game, and the GH5 is at the forefront of this movement. A 20.3MP micro four thirds sensor and a Venus Engine image processor give you a lot of bang for your buck, but it lets itself down on being bulkier than other mirrorless options.
But, back to the A9. The 3” tilting touchscreen isn’t the best when it comes to taking control, and there are no XQD card slots, but frankly who cares when performance is so blindingly spectacular. You’ll need to save up for this beauty though, this is not a cheap option.
3. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – DSLR
This beauty is widely regarded as the best 4K DSLR for shooting video that’s available on the market right now. Canon’s EOS 5D series has a pretty impressive history, and the first model brought full-frame photography to the masses.
Mark II stepped up its video credential by delivering Full HD for the very first time on a DSLR, and although it wasn’t the showstopper that its big brothers was, the Mark III became a bit of a cult classic in the video production world.
What the Mark IV offers is basically everything that the Mark III does, but better.
As expected, the 30.4MP CMOS sensor is full-frame and delivers spectacularly sharp imagery. The advanced 61 point Auto Focus (AF) system operates over a wider area, so can cover even the most erratic movement across more of your frame. It might not measure up to the Nikon D5’s incredible 173 point AF, but it more than gets the job done.
With 4K filming capabilities you can really take your videos to the next level and can be confident that this camera will stand the test of time. The machine itself is also built to last, and the advanced weather sealing will keep you shooting whatever the conditions. The usability of the Mark IV is a dream, thanks to the 3.2” touch control LCD monitor, USB 3.0 connectivity and built in Wi-Fi and NFC.
Looking a little broader than this particular model, Canon are widely regarded as the masters of color science in the DSLR market, so if vivid and accurate tones are important to you, it’s wise to stick with Canon over other brands offering similar options.
Nikon’s D500 is a strong but cheaper 4K contender, and if you’re loyal to this particular brand then this is a great option for you. Excellent low light performance and a weather-sealed body makes this camera the perfect partner for all-weather shoots, but it’s not full-frame so you’ll lose some quality there.
Cannon’s DSLR dynamo comes with a price tag to match, but it’s still cheaper than going mirrorless in most instances. The MJPEG codec irritates some users, but stunning performance and cutting edge tech more than make up for these minor short comings.
2. GoPro HERO5 Black - Best for action
Action filmmakers everywhere swear by GoPro, and the brand has been a longstanding favorite for anyone wanting to shoot dynamic footage. The newest addition to the lineup is the HERO5 Black, and it has ensured that they stay ahead of their rivals.
GoPro’s signature fish-eye lens provides the ultra-wide viewing angle that is synonymous with the brand, and with 4K footage and the ability to shoot timelapse at 30fps, you can make up for a lack of cinematic depth of field with heightened production value.
The HERO5 is waterproof to 10m without the need for casing, and you can take this tough cookie with you in the snow, sand, rain or dirt without having to worry about it at all. The lack of casing also gives easier access to the 2” touchscreen, but if you choose to use voice commands you don’t even need to touch the camera to set it filming. With a camera designed for action shots, image stabilization is a must, and this model features it by default to put your viewers right there with you.
QuikStories is GoPro’s latest editing technology and copies footage directly to a smartphone where it’s cut together to create a movie. This might not be a huge selling point to film makers that want to take control of their edits, but for anyone who’s style is more ‘shoot and publish’, this will save a lot of time. It also cuts out the need for a computer, making it easier to share videos on the go.
Olympus offers a pretty solid alternative in its Tough TG-Tracker model. It beats GoPro’s underwater performance by 20m without the need for casing, and offers the same wide angle filming style. There are also five inbuilt sensors so you can monitor location and temperature amongst other data. GoPro stays on top though, due to its sheer compact usability.
Battery life isn’t the best on the HERO5, especially with GPS, Wi-Fi and EIS enabled, and the HERO5 isn’t compatible with older batteries so you’ll have to shell out for new ones even if you’re only upgrading. The camera itself is relatively cheap for the quality it delivers, but accessories are all sold separately and can end up costing a fair bit depending on what you want to do with it. But, that’s the joy of the GoPro, you can pretty much achieve whatever you want to achieve with it.
1. Panasonic Lumix LX10 - Best point and shoot
Just because you want a 4K camera doesn’t necessarily mean that you know, or are interested in knowing, how to use a top-end camera. If you fall into this bracket then a small point and shoot model is perfect for you.
Panasonic comes out on top in the compact point and shoot sector thanks to its superior video potential and DSLR-like controls.
The 20MP CMOS sensor delivers high-quality images and the F1.4-2.8 24-72mm lens is perfect for achieving a cinematic bokeh affect. The lens-mounted aperture ring gives you the precision you’d expect from a DSLR, and dual control of the lens ring and the rear dial gives the user much needed manual control of zoom, shutter and focus.
There’s no viewfinder on the LX10, which stands it apart from competitors such as the Sony RX100. Instead, the tilt-able touchscreen can be used to view and adjust your frame. Autofocus is incredibly easy to use and is a key selling point when compared with the RX100: simply choose automatic subject selection, a single point, or for the lens to follow a particular subject, and with just a few taps of the screen your desired area is in perfect focus.
In terms of downsides, the ISO isn’t the greatest, and with a high of 6,400 for video you’re going to need to consider whether you’ll need to shoot in low light. The 5-axis digital and optical stabilization is also only available in 1080p mode, which isn’t useful to anyone buying this model solely for its 4K prowess. Still, for the price, this is a strong camera for anyone wanting an easy to use 4K option.
Wrapping it up
The clear winner here is the Panasonic HC-X1000. Compared to others in our list, this 4K beauty has the advanced manual control options that people who know what they’re doing can really take advantage of.
4K 60fps really is something to write home about, especially when coupled with the maximum 200Mbps bit-rate. Just take a second to imagine the quality of that footage!
The smaller MOS sensor is ideal for videographers who want to keep their entire frame in focus, rather than going for depth of field. 4K 60fps really is something to write home about, especially when coupled with the maximum 200Mbps bit-rate. Just take a second to imagine the quality of that footage! The smaller MOS sensor is ideal for videographers who want to keep their entire frame in focus, rather than going for depth of field.
The smart lens system packs a lot of punch in a pretty small package, and the 20x zoom will come in really handy. What we really love though are those clever inbuilt gyro sensors: your footage will be beautifully crisp even if you decide to leave the tripod at home.
You’ve got all the codes and connectivity you could ever dream of, and the audio connectivity is exactly what you need to achieve brilliant sound to go with your beautiful footage.
If you’re into shooting events, sports, film or wildlife, the Panasonic HC-X1000 is your perfect partner in crime.