When I watch a documentary these days, it’s usually on TV or on a DVD, and it’s rare that I can tell what kind of camera was used. That’s a good thing. Technology has become so accessible that the cost of your toys doesn’t necessarily matter, and have decidedly taken a back seat to storytelling acumen.

Independent filmmaking has been a struggle between a tiny percentage of well-funded filmmakers using all the wealth at their disposal and the filmmaking 99 percenters using all the credit lines at their disposal. They may have talent and ambition, but little money. They string together projects from thin funding, or self-funding, or they use their documentary work as a loss leader that serves as a calling card for corporate gigs or work in advertising.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II can be
credited with bringing high quality video
to documentarians with a modest budget.

But, it seems, every time the masses find a way into the game, the game changes.

The most significant change to documentary filmmaking in the last decade was the rise of programs, such as Apple’s Final Cut, that brought editing work out of the rented post-production facility and onto one’s desktop, then laptop. But right up there were the development of HDV — the so-called “poor man’s HD” — and the sudden arrival of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, which put in the hands of people of modest means a camera they could use to make serious films.

Before those products arrived, most people were shooting on Mini-DV cameras like the Canon XL1 and the Panasonic DVX100. Any viewer could tell the difference.

But as we enter 2012, the gap is widening, with the manufacturers themselves ramping back up to more-costly offerings. In the past year, the long-awaited arrival of big-sensor camcorders that would overtake video-shooting DSLRs came at a disappointingly hefty price. The Canon C300 ($20,000), Sony’s PMW-F3 ($14,000), and the new RED Scarlet-X ($18,000) have not created the answer, but rather a carrot-and-stick conundrum: How far you can stretch your budget for definably better results? All of these camcorders deliver better quality, but in my opinion not so much that it’s readily apparent to most viewers. In the end, the HDSLR was not obsoleted in 2011, and so 2012 begins with rumors of what’s next.

The 2012 product season, highlighted by Photokina and NAB, thrills the equipment freaks but leaves many holding their breath. What’s next that will obsolete the equipment you own, and that you’re still paying off? For what it’s worth:

  • With the Canon EOS 1DX body announced already at $6,800 (and therefore implausible for most), the biggest talk is of a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which rumors alternately say will and won’t have a huge leap in megapixels, and which will likely have far better audio capabilities and functions that are already in use by people who’ve downloaded the third-party Magic Lantern hack.
  • The anticipated update to Canon’s EOS 7D is for upgraded megapixels and improved features such as higher ISO. We’ll see.
  • A 3-D HDSLR? It seems that may be the way things go. And then add into that the new infatuation with using side-by-side cameras to create High Dynamic Range, and it seems those could work somehow.
  • Sony may announce a full-frame DSLR, according to some sources. Nikon seems, as always, to lag.
  • Magic Lantern is readying its “Unified Edition” for the Canon 5D, providing the features already in its 550D/T2i, 60D, 600D/T3i, 500D/T1i and 50D models. This free download vastly improves the ability of the camera, and the unified edition stretches it across all models except the apparently impenetrable 7D, which for that reason is falling out of favor with many DSLR filmmakers.

In short, the rumor mills are not looking at anything remarkably different for the lower-budget documentary filmmaker. And that’s good news in that everyone is not going to have to rush out to do an unwanted upgrade just to stay in the game. With HDSLR and even HDV documentaries having found their place in top festivals, broadcast and even Academy Award considerations, lower-budget filmmakers have not yet been priced out of the game.

“99 Percenter” Kurt Lancaster‘s take on that other 99 Percent, shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.