The Best Mirrorless Camera Under $600
TL;DR – It’s the Sony A6000.
It feels strange to write this, but the camera is probably the cheapest piece of gear you can buy for your video production kit.
Back in the pre-DSLR days, you would invest in a professional camera for your news, documentary, freelance, or commercial business. It might take a decade to pay off, but it was a simple investment.
The camera sometimes would have an interchangeable lens or wide lens adapter, but for the most and your camera package was a giant, heavy piece of gear that was the core of your video production. So if it cost $40-50k, so be it.
And we’re talking tape based and early digital camcorders, not film or cinema cameras.
Of course, the DSLR revolution changed all that. The first digital camera to record 24 frames per second video with interchangeable photo lenses was only a few thousand dollars (the Canon 5D mkII). Since then, they’ve only gotten cheaper.
Meanwhile, the rest of videography gear continues to maintain their prices or become even spendier, as they become more advanced and in demand.
What Should I Buy?
A typical conversation online begins with: “I’m investing in a new ____, but I only have $500-600. What should I buy?”
Whether it’s a tripod, audio equipment, lights, you name it, the following response always comes. “You’ve already invested in ____, why would you risk the entire production on a cheap ____?”
For example, you want to buy a tripod. You already have some other equipment. You want something good, but you don’t have a lot of money. But of course, why would you risk multiple thousands of dollars by placing it all on top of a dingy little tripod?
Another example: you have a really nice camera, and need some new lenses. Why would you spend all that money on a camera, only to put a crappy kit lens on the front of it?
Why would you place a cheap ND or UV filter in front of all that expensive glass and camera? Why would you use a cheap light kit, which would spoil your production that you’ve already spent a lot of money on? Why would you ever skimp on cheap audio gear, when it’s the most important thing ever??!
It goes on and on and on. And the truth is, the sour grapes are usually right. You shouldn’t skimp on a decent tripod, or lights, or audio, or bags, or filters, and so on. They may work, but you get what you pay for, which usually means low reliability during the times you need them the most.
So ironically, the only thing you really can skimp out on is the camera. The thing that makes the whole video production happen. The thing that determines the look and feel of your film, as well as the entire ease of use and operation of the production.
Basically, your entire filmmaking career is in the hands of the camera you’re currently looking to buy. Which you will be spending less on than your lavaliere microphone.
Yes, it sounds nuts, but despite what seems like crazy advice, you can absolutely 100% skimp on the camera. Because for $500 today, you can buy an amazing camera.
Which leaves you with more money to spend on the accessories and pieces of kit that you can’t skimp on.
Canon vs Sony
I’m very much a Canon guy, through and through. I’ve used most other popular cameras out there, from Sony consumer and professional cinema cameras, to Panasonics, Fuji, and so on. Canon Cinema cameras have the best combination of ease of use, a wonderful image out of the box, working autofocus, and the availability of affordable, high quality lenses.
But with Canon cinema cameras, you pay the Canon tax. You’ve heard of the Apple tax? It’s basically like that. They know they’re good. They know they can’t win with specs. But they don’t have to. Their cameras just work. Simple as that. Just like an iMac or a Macbook just works. So you pay more for that peace of mind.
In some cases, a lot more. Our last two Canon cameras combined cost more than a luxury car. We’re still paying one off. It’s like the old days of investing in a camera.
Except you don’t need to do that anymore. We just chose to do it because the Canon cameras we have make our lives a little easier, we like using them, and well, video production is our business, and so we must have business expenses.
For most people, however, the camera we primarily use, a Canon C300 mkII, is completely unnecessary and probably a lot more camera than they’ll ever need. But you still want a decent camera, and as I mentioned above, you can get a ton of camera for not a lot of money. So what do I recommend?
The Best Mirrorless Camera Under $600
The Sony A6000 has so much going for it, all at under $500. And that’s including a kit lens (!). It really is a steal.
In the pro video production market, there aren’t a lot of users, and so prices for niche equipment can get very expensive, fast. For example, $500-600 is what you can expect to pay for a replacement cable that connects the C300 LCD screen to the camera. Yes, that’s right, a cable, for $600. That’s also what it costs for a spare battery. Sigh.
But thankfully, Sony consumer/prosumer cameras have a ton more users, and so they can offer remarkable specs for a fraction of the price.
Sony has been killing the pro cinema, DSLR, and mirrorless camera competitors with their A7S and A7R line of cameras. They’re practically on every production now, whether as A-cams, B-cams, C-cams, BTS cams, crash cams, night vision cams, you name it. Currently, the Sony A7R III hits pretty much every spec that pro video and photo shooters have been asking for, and it’s not that expensive.
Sony also has the full frame A9 and A7 line, which are quite amazing as photo cameras, and they can do video as well. I’ve used the Sony A9 for a bit and it’s really, really good. But 10x the price of an A6000 good? I don’t think so.
Sony A6500 vs A6300 vs A6000
In their compact mirrorless camera line, the Sony A6500 is the top of the class, and if you can afford it, you should definitely get it over the A6000. There are a few fixes that have made it more reliable and a better camera overall, like, ahem, no more overheating.
The previous iteration, the Sony A6300, was also a nice upgrade from the A6000, in that it has 4k recording. If you need 4k, then you have no choice but to look at 4k cameras, end of story.
Sometimes clients ask for 4k even if they don’t know why they want it. The unfortunate case is, most of the time there is very little difference in the final product. But you have to invest in a lot more storage and processing power to edit 4k footage. And of course, you need a 4k camera. But hey, if your clients require it, then suck it up and shoot 4k.
But if your work doesn’t absolutely require 4k, and you’re on a budget, the A6000 is an amazing HD camera for under $600.
Sony A6000 Specs
The A6000 features a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor with Sony’s BIONZ X image processor, which can capture low light images up to ISO 25,600. The DSLR we had for Indie Alaska, for example, could only go up to 1250 ISO and it was noisy. And it was a DSLR, rather than a mirrorless, which brings us to the biggest advantage of mirrorless cameras over DSLRs for video…
Because the A6000 is a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder is now a digital, electronic viewfinder, or EVF, rather than a see-through piece of glass that’s only good for framing photos.
With the EVF, you can hold the camera right up to your eye and shoot stable video, since your face is now a point of contact. You can judge exposure, focus, audio levels, and frame the image while the camera is held against your eye. Yes, you could do that with a DSLR too, but you’d have to place a loupe – or maginifying glass – onto the LCD screen, which makes it very bulky, frustrating to use, and well, you still only have one screen.
When you’re not using the EVF, the Sony A600 has a great LCD screen that can tilt, which makes high and low angles quite easy. The camera also has customizable buttons and control dials, so you can configure your exposure and camera settings to the buttons you use most. Sooner or later, you can feel for those buttons while holding the camera up to your eye and shooting with only the EVF.
Along with 24fps, you can also shoot full HD at 30 and 60 frames per second. That’s a treat coming from DSLRs, where slow motion would often get cropped at 720p or less. As a bonus, you can also plug in an external monitor/recorder to the A6000 with HDMI, allowing you to monitor your image, as well as recording full uncompressed video to external media. An Atomos Ninja Blade would do very well with this camera.
Lenses for the A6000
The kit Sony 16-50mm lens does have image stabilization and it can be good enough for most uses. And it’s included in the $500 kit, which is amazing. But chances are, you’re going to want to upgrade to other lenses in the future. Luckily, there are now a multitude of Metabones adapters that allows you to use Canon lenses or other manufacturers on the Sony E mount.
The Metabones E mount adapter is probably the single most important reason why you can get an amazing, fully functioning camera for under $600 today. Not only can you use lenses you already have, but you can browse ebay for extremely cheap, older lenses that only have manual focus. You can get an entire lens kit for a few hundred dollars, if you don’t plan on using autofocus.
The other advantage with the Metabones filter is you the Metabones Speed Booster. It not only increases the maximum aperture of your lens, but also its FOV, or Field of View. So a 24mm f/4 lens could become a 18mm f/2.8 lens, for example. And when you combine that feature with the Clear Image Zoom, now you have the ability to take a normal lens like a 24-105mm f/4 for example, and turn it into a 18-210mm f/2.8 lens.
The Clear Image Zoom is one thing that Sony cameras have that is unique to Sony. Yes, other cameras have digital zoom. But somehow, the Clear Image Zoom actually delivers quite usable images on Sony cameras. So whatever lens you’re using, you can zoom in 2x and extend the reach of that lens, without degrading the image or losing light.
So to summarize, a Metabones filter can make your lens become wider, and more low light sensitive. And the Clear Image Zoom can make your lens reach longer than its default zoom. Now that’s a powerful combination.
Finally, the autofocus is what makes this camera perfect for a lot of people, especially if you want to place it on a gimbal like the Zhiyun Crane. Sony has not been able to compete with Canon’s dual pixel autofocus technology with their bigger cameras, but on the little A6000 (and A6300 and A6500), Sony offers quite good AF with Face Detection. If you’re using the kit lens or a wider lens on a gimbal, you will very much appreciate the AF.
In fact, the A6000 is perhaps the best camera out there for dedicated gimbal use. Combine it with a super wide lens, and you’ll be able to fly it easily on just about any gimbal.
Using the A6000 for Professional Video Production
If you’re just looking at a photo camera, the A6000 is perfectly suitable for your needs. It can shoot up to 11 frames per second, with AF and at the highest ISO setting. There’s also a built in flash, which is fine, but who uses built in flashes anymore?
If you’re looking at the A6000 for something more than a run and gun camera, you might want to look at the bigger brother instead, the A6300. You can turn the A6300 into a full fledged documentary or corporate video camera by adding the Sony XLR-K2M audio accessory. It provides a shotgun mic, as well as XLR inputs for a lavalier or boom microphone during interviews. There is also a mic-in port, which the A6000 lacks.
From a professional standpoint, the A6000 is much more than a consumer camera. It’s known for being super sharp, and it features video assist tools such as peaking, zebras, and a magnified focus assist during recording. Apart from the 4k resolution, the A6000 can do as much as the popular Panasonic GH4 or Sony FS700 cinema camera. But as opposed to the GH4, which has a micro 4/3 sensor, the Sony A6000 is a full APS-C Super 35mm sensor. It makes it a lot easier to get filmic or cinematic depth of field, along with low light sensitivity. It’s not often you get this kind of sensor in a small mirrorless body.
Of course you can’t get everything for $600. With the A6000, the main missing ingredient is audio. There is simply no mic-in port, or headphone out port. However, with the multi-interface hot shoe, you can add the Sony UWP-D wireless lavalier system. You can also use it with a shotgun or dynamic microphone. All you need is the SMAD-P3 shoe adapter. Alternatively, you can use Sony’s ECM-GZ1M shoe microphone with the A6000, or their ECM-XYST1M stereo mic, or the ECM-W1M wireless mic system.
Still, the one thing you lose out on with the A6000 is easy audio. And 4k. If you have a little more money to spend, the A6300 or A6500 are worthy upgrades. But there’s something very attractive about spending $600 on a camera. You can use it for a while until your needs grow, and at that point you can keep the A6000 around as a B-cam, or a dedicated gimbal cam.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, it’s ironic that the camera has now become the cheapest piece of the gear puzzle. There’s so much equipment you need if you want to shoot professional video, even on a budget. And logical would dictate that you should spend most of your investment on a really good camera, and then buy whatever tripod, lights, audio, and other accessories that you can afford with whatever money you have left.
But that is simply not the case anymore. You can’t depend on cheap gear that is sold to a niche, pro video audience. But because pro shooters use consumer or prosumer cameras, you can absolutely skimp on the camera and still get something that will be dependable and serve much of your needs.
The Sony A6000 is a wonderful camera that should not be overlooked by any video producer looking for a new camera. At $500, it’s a steal. And that’s coming from a Canon user who happily pays the Canon tax for cameras.