Top 5 Digital Cameras that Shoot 4K Video [Comparison]
4K video is the newest and highest standard in video recording available today. Sometimes called Ultra High Definition (UHD), 4K is the number of pixels (four thousand) of width displayed on screen. So, a video with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels is rounded up to 4K. This is twice the width and height of Full HD at 1920 x 1080, the next highest standard of video.
For a camera user that wants good video quality, it’s important to understand the levels of quality available. The lowest commonly available is 640 x 480, or Standard Definition (SD). From there, we go up to High Definition at 1280 x 720, and then Full HD at 1920 x 1080. Almost all digital cameras on the market today are capable of shooting at Full HD. Everything below 4K is classified using the vertical screen dimension. A Full HD video display has a vertical height of 1080 pixels, and a width of 1920 pixels. A 4K video has a height of 2160 pixels, and a width of 3840 pixels.
To muddy the waters slightly more, there are actually two versions of 4K recording. UHD 4K is used by televisions, consumer digital/video cameras, the newest smartphones, and computers. UHD streaming from websites such as YouTube and Amazon also display at this quality. The other kind is DCI 4K (Digital Cinema Initiatives), which has a slightly higher resolution of 4096 x 2160. The aspect ratio for DCI 4K is 19:10, rather than the 16:9 of UHD 4K. DCI 4K is used mostly by the film industry, but several of the cameras here offer this standard as well.
Table of Contents
- Why do I want a 4K digital camera? Isn’t Full HD video enough?
- Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- Nikon D500
- Panasonic LUMIX GH5
- Sony Alpha a99 II
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
- 4K Digital Camera Comparison
- Final Thoughts
Why do I want a 4K digital camera? Isn’t Full HD video enough?
Full HD is still the most common recording quality, as not everyone has a 4K display yet. But every year, more television and computer monitors with 4K resolution are released, and prices continue to fall. And more and more videos are recorded at 4K resolution to maximize use of that increased resolution. Thus, the gap between 4K and the lower quality formats is growing over time. A viewer used to 4K content will see either a smaller sized movie or an obvious loss in quality when a Full HD video is displayed on a 4K screen.
Also, shooting in 4K and then downsizing to 1080p will actually give a better video than recording at 1080p to begin with. This is because each pixel is oversampled in the conversion to Full HD. Oversampling is taking more information than required, and then averaging the results to achieve the best quality. 4K down to 1080p means the Full HD pixels are the result of 4x oversampling. This results in an increased level of quality in sharpness and color precision compared to Native Full HD. So even if your display or audience cannot use 4K video, it’s still a very useful option to have in order to create better Full HD videos.
So now that we’ve established what 4K is and why it is a great format to use, which digital cameras offer this feature? Nowadays, several cameras do. However the vast majority of cameras are either excellent photograph cameras with poor video capability, or vice versa. We have narrowed our selection down to five of the best 4K digital cameras available.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- MSRP: $3,499 body-only, with two kit lens options: EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM (MSRP of $4,399) and EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM Lens (MSRP of $4,599)
- Sensor: 30.4 Megapixel Full-Frame sensor (sized 36 x 24 mm). This sensor is the same size and ratio as standard 35 mm film. With no crop factor and the second highest resolution of these five cameras, the 5D Mark IV takes incredibly rich, detailed images in addition to 4K video.
- Number of Autofocus Points: 61, with 41 cross-points. Cross-type AF points detect features in either the horizontal or vertical axis; the remaining 20 are vertical-only AF points.
- ISO Range: 100-32,000, with digital boosting to 50 and 102,400.
- Video Recording Capability: 4K Motion JPEG format (4096 x 2160 DCI 4K) at up to 30 fps.
- Bitrate with 4K video: 500 Mbps (megabits per second). 1 minute of 4K video will use roughly 4 GB of space. With this high of a bitrate, a CompactFlash card capable of writing at 100 MB/sec or faster is necessary. Or an SD card capable of writing at 90 MB/sec or faster is required. Anything slower and the camera will buffer and then stop recording, as the card cannot write incoming data fast enough.
- Storage: Three memory card slots; one CompactFlash card and two SD card slots.
- Battery Life: Approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes of video recording or 900 images per charge.
- Weight: 890 g (1.96 lb / 31.39 oz) with battery
- Dimensions: 151 x 116 x 76 mm (5.94 x 4.57 x 2.99 in)
Advantages of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Dual Pixel AutoFocus: The 5D Mark IV has the lowest number of AF points of these cameras. However, it more than makes up for it with an exceptional Dual Pixel AF system. When using AutoFocus, the 5D Mark IV splits each pixel in two and uses phase differences between each half to best decide how to keep a subject in focus. The main advantage is that the same pixels are being used for both AF and imaging, rather than a separate AF system like other DSLRs use. The speed and accuracy of the AF system is much faster as a result of the combined system. Dual Pixel AF also allows for autofocus usage in both live view and video capture mode.
Large Storage Capacity: The 5D Mark IV can hold a single CompactFlash card and two SD cards. When shooting in 4K video, storage will be used rapidly, and having three card slots is a great feature. This is essential as the 5D Mark IV does not allow for HDMI output in 4K mode.
In-Camera downsizing from 4K to Full HD: As explained earlier, downsizing from 4K to Full HD (1080p) will result in a higher quality video compared to native Full HD. The 5D Mark IV has this feature in-camera as a time saving feature. If you know you need Full HD, it’s better to create it before it gets to your computer. 4K video takes additional resolution and processing power to edit properly. You will have a smoother time using Full HD if 4K isn’t necessary.
Disadvantages of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Crop Factor: The 4K video recording of the 5D Mark IV has a crop factor of 1.74x. To briefly explain this crop factor, let’s say we are using a lens with a focal length of 50 mm. Remember that the 5D Mark IV is a full-frame sensor, the same size as 35 mm film. Shooting in 4K, our field of view shrinks to the same as looking through an 87 mm lens with our full-frame sensor. This negates the advantage of a full-frame sensor compared to the other cameras here. Your lens may require you to back up further from your subject or even change lenses. You lose some options in composing the scene.
High Bitrate: The 5D Mark IV has a 4K bitrate (number of bits of data used per unit of time) of 500 megabits per second (Mbps), which is much larger than any of the other 4K cameras here. The Sony a99 II records 4K at 100 Mbps, for example. Recorded 4K videos from the 5D Mark IV take up much more space on a memory card compared to other cameras.
No Zebra Patterning: Zebra patterns are a tool found in “prosumer” and professional video cameras to help ensure proper exposure. When activated, slanted lines appear in the LiveView panel over the parts of the image nearing overexposure. These lines allow you to adjust your settings appropriately until the lines go away. While a histogram is also used for judging exposure, zebra patterns are much more intuitive.
4K Videos are Compressed: Motion JPEG is a compressed video format, meaning there is a loss in quality to save space when recording files. The difference is similar to taking photos in JPEG vs RAW. Many videographers want uncompressed files so that they have the most video data available for editing.
No HDMI output to 4K: The Mark IV can record Full HD but not 4K video onto an external drive. If you want to record in 4K, then you have to use the in-camera memory. Every other camera here can record compressed or uncompressed video from the HDMI port to an external drive.
Price: The 5D Mark IV is the most expensive camera on this list. It’s extremely powerful, but it’s more of a camera that can also shoot 4K, rather than a true videographer’s camera. Everything listed above is addressed mostly or completely in the less expensive cameras below. But losing access to Canon’s immense line of lenses can be a problem. Especially for someone who has years of lenses already purchased. For the dedicated Canon user, the 5D Mark IV is the clear choice for 4K video.
- MSRP: $1,999.95 body-only, $3,069.95 with 16-80 mm f/2.8-4.0 E ED VR II kit lens.
- Sensor: 20.9 MP APS-C sensor (sized 23.5 x 15.7 mm) with a crop factor of 1.5.
- Number of Autofocus Points: 153, with 99 cross-points. Cross Detection senses phase differences on both the horizontal and vertical axis. The other 54 points only detect along the horizontal axis.
- ISO Range: 100-51,200, with digital boosting to 50 and 1,640,000.
- Video Recording Capability: 4K H.264 format (3840 x 2160 UHD 4K) at up to 30 fps. The D500 has a recording limit of 29 minutes and 59 seconds at 4K before a new video has to be started. Using an external recorder via HDMI, removes this limitation.
- Bitrate with 4K video: 144 Mbps. 1 minute of 4K video will use roughly 1GB of space.
- Storage: Two memory card slots; one XQD and one SD card slot. XQD cards record data far faster than either SD or CompactFlash cards. Currently the speed ranges from 125 Mbps to 500 Mbps. Future XQD cards may feature storage as high as 2 TB, but current cards max out at 128 GB.
- Battery Life: Approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes of video recording or 1,240 images per charge.
- Weight: 860 g (1.90 lb / 30.34 oz) with battery
- Dimensions: 147 x 115 x 81 mm (5.79 x 4.53 x 3.19 in)
Advantages of the Nikon D500
Electronic Vibration Reduction: While the D500 does not have in-body Image Stabilization, it does offer Electronic Vibration Reduction when shooting video. Electronic VR uses software to achieve the same effect as IS. This also works with any in-lens Vibration Reduction (such as the kit lens) for even better performance.
Low Light Capability: The D500 is very powerful in this area. The sensor has a Native ISO of up to 51,200, which is a level that many DSLRs require digital boosting to achieve. This is further expandable to an incredible ISO 1,640,000. This level of ISO could be used for framing a potential long exposure scene. But the noise levels at ISO 1,640,000 are far too extreme for usable video or photography.
Disadvantages of the Nikon D500
Crop Factor: Shooting in 4K mode gives a 1.3x crop on top of the 1.5x crop the DX-format sensor already has. As a result, lens selection and scene composition are greatly affected in 4K video mode.
Time Limit: The Nikon D500 can only record up to 30 minutes using the two memory card slots available before needing to stop or risk overheating. With only two card slots, the D500 will fill both memory cards relatively quickly. A dedicated videographer can use the HDMI port to write directly to an external drive instead of using a memory card. There is no overheating issue when using the HDMI port because the external drive takes the load off the camera’s processor and memory buffer. The only limit then is the recording capacity of the external drive and the battery life of the camera.
The Nikon D500 is a powerful DSLR but not for the dedicated videographer unless budget is the main factor. Even then, the LUMIX GH5 or Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II are probably better options for the budget videographer. But if a large lens collection keeps you loyal to Nikon, the D500 is the video camera of choice.
Panasonic LUMIX GH5
- MSRP: $1,999.99 body-only
- Sensor: 20.3 MP Micro Four-Thirds sensor (sized 17.3 x 13 mm) with a crop factor of 2.0. Micro Four-Thirds is specific to mirrorless cameras. “Micro” describes the lack of pentaprism and mirror box inside the body, which makes the camera body smaller than a DSLR.
- Number of Autofocus Points: 225. The GH5 uses Contrast Detection instead of the Phase Detection used by the previous two cameras. Contrast detection tends to be slower but more accurate than phase detection.
- ISO Range: 200-25,600, with digital boosting to 100.
- Video Recording Capability: 4K H.264 format (4096 x 2160 DCI 4K at up to 30 fps and 3840 x 2160 UHD 4K at up to 60 fps). It can also record to an external drive using either the HDMI or USB-C output.
- Bitrate with 4K video: 150 Mbps. 1 minute of 4K video will use roughly 1 GB of space.
- Storage: Two SD memory card slots.
- Battery Life: Approximately 2 hours of video recording or 1,240 images per charge.
- Weight: 725 g (1.60 lb / 25.57 oz) with battery
- Dimensions: 139 x 98 x 87 mm (5.47 x 3.86 x 3.43 in)
Advantages of the Panasonic LUMIX GH5
No additional crop when shooting in 4K: Designed with 4K video in mind, the LUMIX GH5 does not suffer additional cropping when shooting in 4K mode. The crop is always 2.0x so you don’t need to reconsider your lenses or scene composition with 4K video.
Mirrorless Camera: Unlike the Nikon, Canon, and Sony, the LUMIX GH5 is a mirrorless camera. This newer technology relies solely on the image sensor to deliver images to a electronic viewfinder and live view panel. No mirrors for a complicated phase detection system or pentaprism, means the body size is greatly reduced. The GH5 is larger than most mirrorless cameras but smaller and lighter than most high end DSLRs. In addition, Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four-Thirds lenses can be used on either brand of mirrorless camera body.
Color bit depth 10-bit 4:2:2: The LUMIX GH5 records 4K video internally at an increased color bit depth. Most 4K digital cameras shoot at 8-bit 4:2:0.This means for every 4 horizontal and 2 vertical pixels, color is sampled from two pixels of the top row and zero of the bottom row. Color information from these two pixels is used to fill in all 8 pixels. In 10-bit 4:2:2, 2 horizontal and 2 vertical pixels are sampled instead. This gives us much better color definition at the edges of objects in a video. To compare, the Canon 5D Mark IV records internally at 8-bit 4:2:2 and the Nikon D500 internally at 8-bit 4:2:0. This may not be noticeable unless you’re doing advanced video editing like chroma keying, but higher quality never hurts.
UHD 4K at 60 fps: The LUMIX GH5 has the fastest, smoothest 4K video option available here. 60 fps will ensure nice, clean individual frames with little motion blur. And the camera can also shoot 4K video at 30 fps or the more traditional 24 fps.
Disadvantages of the Panasonic LUMIX GH5
AutoFocus Speed: Because the LUMIX GH5 uses Contrast Detection, the AF system is slower than Phase Detection or Hybrid systems. Slower AF is not an issue when recording an interview. But when shooting fast action scenes, this can be a significant issue.
Sony Alpha a99 II
- MSRP: $3,199.99 body-only
- Sensor: 42.4 MP Full-frame sensor (sized 35.9 x 24 mm) with no crop factor. This camera has the highest image resolution of any of the listed cameras. The a99 II also features a back-illuminated sensor. Most cameras use a front-illuminated sensor. These have a layer of wiring and other components that reflect some of the light that would usually hit the sensor. A back-illuminated sensor is reversed so the components are not in the way. Also, it uses a thinner, semi-transparent sensor that allows light to penetrate straight through instead of stopping at the sensor. This increases the chance of light being captured by a pixel from ~60% to over 90%.
- Number of Autofocus Points: 79 Cross-Point AF points for precise focus capture. In addition, the a99 II has 399 vertical phase detection points. This combination gives the Alpha a99 II some of the best AF capability for video on the market. It excels in low-light levels and is capable of tracking subjects at EV -4 levels (very dim ambient lighting).
- ISO Range: 100-25,600, with digital boosting to 50 and 102,400.
- Video Recording Capability: 4K H.264 format (3840 x 2160 UHD 4K) at up to 30 fps. It can also record to an external drive using the HDMI port.
- Bitrate with 4K video: 100 Mbps. 1 minute of 4K video will use roughly 1 GB of space.
- Storage: Two SD memory card slots
- Battery Life: Approximately 2 hours of video recording or 490 images per charge.
- Weight: 849 g (1.87 lb / 29.95 oz) with battery
- Dimensions: 143 x 104 x 76 mm (5.63 x 4.09 x 2.99 in)
Advantages of the Sony Alpha a99 II
No Crop Factor: The Sony Alpha a99 II captures 4K video, regular HD video, and photographs with no cropping involved. The a99 II’s full-frame sensor allows for increased light sensitivity and composition choices when compared to the cropped sensors of some of the other cameras in this list.
Super 35 mm Mode: This offers a moderate increase in quality using pixel oversampling from the center of the sensor. But only using the center pixels means a 1.6x crop factor is created. In bright lighting and low ISO, there’s little need for the crop. But in difficult light environments such as low-light or complex shadows, the quality is noticeably better. Super 35mm mode can also be used in regular photography as well if the crop is not a problem. And with 42.4 MP of resolution to start with, it shouldn’t be a problem for anything but the smallest crops.
Slow-Motion capture: The Alpha a99 II can capture videos at a frame rate of up to 120 fps in Full HD mode. The resulting video is a 5x slow motion capture, and is an excellent creative option. The LUMIX GH5 and a few other cameras also have slow-motion capture.
Low Light Capability: Even more than the Nikon D500, the a99 II offers powerful low-light sensitivity. The D500 has extremely high Native and boosted ISO, but uses a traditional front-illuminated sensor design. The a99 II combines a large number of vertical and cross detection points on a back-lit, full-frame sensor. Also, the ISO can be digitally boosted to 102,400 but that isn’t needed with Super 35 mm Mode available at a decent crop. For preserving the flavor of a dim scene, the a99 II is the camera of choice here.
Disadvantages of the Sony Alpha a99 II
No in-camera RAW Processing: Most high-end DSLRs offer the ability to adjust White Balance and Dynamic Lighting in-camera using RAW processing. For the more photography-oriented a99 II user, the lack of in-camera RAW processing could be a problem. But since anyone owning a camera at this price point also has RAW image editing software (e.g. Adobe Lightroom), it’s just a small loss.
No touchscreen: Every other camera here offers a touchscreen for easy selection of AutoFocus points mid-shoot. The Sony a99 II does not offer this feature, or any touchscreen functions at all. For some, this could be a very large drawback. Being able to touch the part of a scene you want in focus and tracked is extremely useful. It’s surprising a camera of this quality does not include a feature standard at this price level.
Price: With an MSRP of $3,199, only the Canon 5D Mark IV is more expensive. The a99 II offers a much better suite of video options for this price level. Zebra striping, 4K HDMI output, no cropping, low-light capability, and a powerful autofocus are just the beginning. And 42.4 MP is a powerful level of resolution. Although expensive, the a99 II really does deliver a large amount of value for the price tag.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
- MSRP: $1,999.99 body-only
- Sensor: 20.4 MP Micro Four-Thirds sensor (sized 17.3 x 13 mm) with a crop factor of 2.0. Micro Four-Thirds is specific to mirrorless cameras.
- Number of Autofocus Points: 121 Hybrid AF points. Hybrid AF combines the best features of phase detection (speed) and contrast detection (accuracy). More on Hybrid AF below.
- ISO Range: 200-25,600, with digital boosting to 64.
- Video Recording Capability: 4K H.264 format (4096 x 2160 DCI 4K) at up to 24 fps and Ultra HD format (3840 x 2160) at up to 30 fps. The Mark II can record in both formats, which is potentially useful for a videographer. It can also record to an external drive using the HDMI port.
- Bitrate with 4K video: 237 Mbps with DCI 4K; 105 Mbps with UHD 4K. 1 minute of 4K video will use roughly 2 GB of space in DCI 4K or roughly 1 GB with UHD 4K. The difference in memory consumption is attributed to the large difference in bitrates.
- Storage: Two SD memory cards slots; one UHS II and one UHS I compatible. Currently, the fastest UHS II SD cards read up to 300 MB/sec and write up to 260 MB/sec. The fastest UHS I SD cards read up to 95 MB/sec and write up to 90 MB/sec. SD cards that don’t use the UHS bus read and write at around 25 MB/sec. But this varies quite a bit, depending on image and video quality, burst modes of shooting, and other factors.
- Battery Life: Approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes of video recording or 440 images per charge.
- Weight: 574 g (1.27 lb / 20.25 oz) with battery
- Dimensions: 134 x 91 x 67 mm (5.28 x 3.58 x 2.64 in)
Advantages of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
Hybrid Autofocus: The Mark II has a unique AF system that combines the best of phase and contrast detection systems. Because the Mark II is mirrorless, it does not have a space-consuming phase detection system. The 121 phase detection sensors are placed directly on the image sensor. The Mark II first uses these sensors to estimate focus, and then switches to the contrast detection sensor. Normally, a contrast detection sensor is slower. But because the Mark II hits approximate focus using phase detection, contrast detection takes less time to hone in.
Powerful Image Stabilization: The Mark II has in-body 5-axis Image Stabilization that balances the sensor to compensate for strong camera shake. It also uses software that further stabilizes the image when shooting video. And many Olympus lenses also have Image Stabilization built into the lens itself. Between the three image stabilization technologies, the Mark II shoots 4K video handheld with very smooth tracking compared to many other 4K cameras. The Panasonic LUMIX GH5 also has in-body Image Stabilization, however the Mark II’s Image Stabilization is usable with any lens. The Image Stabilization of the GH5 only works with compatible lenses.
Mirrorless Camera: Like the LUMIX GH5, the Mark II is a mirrorless camera. The lack of internal mirrors keeps the body size very small relative to a DSLR camera. At 574 g in weight, the Mark II is the lightest camera here, yet offers full weatherization and a sturdy magnesium alloy construction. The mirrorless line of lenses is currently smaller than DSLR lines, but is slowly growing. Also, a Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds lens can be used on any Olympus Micro Four-Thirds body, and vice versa.
Disadvantages of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
DCI 4K at 24 fps: Not quite hitting 30 or even 25 fps is noteworthy for the dedicated videographer. The vast majority of people can’t tell the difference between 24, 25, or 30 fps. 24 fps is the standard for the film industry, and the Mark II meets this level. However, some videographers want more options with 4K video, like less motion blur using a faster fps. For them, 30 fps or even the 60 fps of the LUMIX GH5 is nice to have.
No DCI 4K from HDMI output: This is another small detail missing from this otherwise extraordinary camera. If you want to record to an external drive with no compression, you must use UHD 4K. DCI is very slightly higher resolution, but unfortunately can only be recorded in compressed H.264 format.
4K Digital Camera Comparison
|Model||Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||Nikon D500||Panasonic LUMIX GH5||Sony Alpha a99 II||Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II|
|Sensor||Full-frame (36 x 24 mm)||APS-C (23.5 x 15.7 mm)||Micro Four-Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)||Full-frame (35.9 x 24 mm)||Micro Four-Thirds (17.3 x 13 mm)|
|Burst Rate||7 fps||10 fps||12 fps||12 fps||15 fps|
|Video Recording||DCI 4K at 30 fps||UHD 4K at 30 fps||DCI 4K at 30 fps, UHD 4K at 60 fps||UHD 4K at 30 fps||DCI 4K at 30 fps, UHD 4K at 60 fps|
|Battery Life||1 hour and 20 minutes of video recording or 900 images per charge||1 hour and 20 minutes of video recording or 1,240 images per charge||2 hours of video recording or 1,240 images per charge||2 hours of video recording or 490 images per charge||2 hours of video recording or 1,240 images per charge|
|Dimensions||151 x 116 x 76 mm (5.94 x 4.57 x 2.99 in)||147 x 115 x 81 mm (5.79 x 4.53 x 3.19 in)||139 x 98 x 87 mm (5.47 x 3.86 x 3.43 in)||143 x 104 x 76 mm (5.63 x 4.09 x 2.99 in)||139 x 98 x 87 mm (5.47 x 3.86 x 3.43 in)|
|Weight||890 g (1.96 lb / 31.39 oz)||860 g (1.90 lb / 30.34 oz)||725 g (1.60 lb / 25.57 oz)||849 g (1.87 lb / 29.95 oz)||725 g (1.60 lb / 25.57 oz)|
All of the cameras here offer a variety of powerful video and photography features. Many users want a powerful camera with the option to shoot good quality video. For them, the 5D Mark IV and D500 are the best choices. Others prefer to focus more on the video side of things. The videographer should consider either the Panasonic LUMIX GH5 or Sony Alpha a99 II. For a balance of strong photography and excellent video, the Olympus Mark II is the clear winner. If you already own a lens collection, you may find your choice easier to make. However, all of these cameras shoot incredibly detailed 4K video and are worthy contenders.
Are you ready to jump on the 4K bandwagon? Use the links below to find the best deals on these fantastic 4K digital cameras.