It seems like everything you buy these days has a video camera embedded in it somewhere. Computers, phones, gadgets, even game controllers stare back at you through unblinking, peephole-sized lenses. Whether this is a truly positive trend or the onset of Big Brother remains to be seen, but it makes you wonder how relevant dedicated video cameras are in the current landscape. The great HDSLR video revolution that started in 2008 compounded the problem for traditional video cameras: if you can get cinema-quality footage out of an affordable still camera, why would you ever touch a camcorder again?
The biggest competition the camcorder faces is undoubtedly from smart phones. The form factors of these two species couldn’t be any more different. The smart phone is a flat, compact, rectangular electronic wafer. Camcorders are much more three-dimensional, often featuring ergonomic grips for your hands, articulating displays/viewfinders and generously sized lenses. Smart phones are used as alarm clocks, navigational aids, communicators, point-and-shoot cameras, flashlights, music players, movie screens; the list grows every day. Camcorders, for the most part, are only used for shooting video. Contrary though it may seem, this is a virtue—not a weakness.
Swiss Army Knives grew in popularity in the 1940s when American GI's returned home from Europe with them, following the war. They’re still hot items today; however, it’s not the tool that you want when you need to chop tomatoes in the kitchen, or uncork a bottle of wine. Multi-purpose tools are really handy in certain situations, but they’re not a worthy replacement for dedicated, purpose-built hardware. The same holds true for the camcorder. Mobile gadgets and HDSLR cameras are wonderful to have for certain applications, but they’re not a complete replacement for a classic design.
Both HDSLR cameras and smart phones tend to falter in situations where you need to shoot longer takes. When documenting a play or a musical performance, or capturing a family event—if you want to come away with more than a series of short clips—you’re better off using a camcorder. Using a smart phone requires a great deal of preparation. First, you need to make sure the phone has enough free memory to create and store large files. Second, you need to devise a plan for keeping the phone powered through the entire lengthy session. Third, you may need to figure out how to mount and position the phone, because it would be too fatiguing to hold steady for long periods of time. None of these factors are problematic for camcorders, but their use extends to more than just recording longer takes.
How well a camera performs in low light is a major aspect to consider, because it pertains to most indoor settings. This is where you will invariably be shooting videos of family, friends and events. One factor that contributes to good low-light performance is how wide the aperture on your camera’s lens can open. The camera built into the class-leading Apple iPhone 5 has an aperture of f/2.4, while entry-level consumer camcorders like the Canon VIXIA HF R300 and the Sony HDR-CX190 have maximum apertures of f/1.8, which is considerably larger and more desirable when light is scarce.
When you list the remaining benefits that camcorders give you over competing gadgetry, it really stacks up: motorized zoom lenses, larger sensors, image stabilization, external microphone inputs, shoes to mount lights and audio equipment, easily replaceable batteries—even something as basic as a tripod thread can’t be found on the telephone in your pocket. If you’re filming sports from the sidelines, a good zoom lens is critically important to have. Plus, many camcorders feature the ability to shoot at higher frame rates like 60p, which is useful for effectively capturing fast-moving subjects. Some camcorders even offer specialty features like the ability to shoot 3D, built-in Wi-Fi, GPS tagging, and some even have built-in video projectors.
In contrast to the smart-phone market, where there is essentially a single design that’s shared by every manufacturer and intended for every kind of user, the camcorder market is filled with variety. There’s a wide range of choices to suit many different kinds of users. One style of video camera that features all of the aforementioned benefits is the palmheld camcorder. This category offers every tier of quality from good, better to best, and even the entry-level models (like the HF R300 and the HDR-CX190 mentioned earlier) are packed with nice features, such as the ability to shoot 1080p HD video. Another good entry-level option is the Panasonic V500M, which features 38x optical zoom, 16GB of built-in memory, an SDXC card slot, and a built-in LED video light for shooting in the dark.
When you jump up to the midrange of palmheld camcorders, you typically find models with even larger image sensors. Not only do bigger sensors provide better image quality, they improve the low-light performance of the camera as well. The Sony HDR-CX260V is a good example of a mid-range palmheld camcorder. It features a 1/3.91” Exmor R CMOS imaging sensor, and has more extensive optical image stabilization as well. Similarly, the Panasonic HC-V700M offers a larger 1/2.33” high-sensitivity MOS sensor, and the separately available VW-CLT2 lens can be added to capture immersive 3D footage.
Built-in Wi-Fi is a great feature to have these days, because it lets you share your footage wirelessly with computers, TVs and social media sites. The Canon VIXIA HF M50 features 8GB of internal memory, a 3-inch touch screen display and Wi-Fi. If you like those features, but you want more built-in memory, the VIXIA HF M52 has all of those goodies and 32GB of flash memory. If you want to achieve a more cinematic quality in your videos, the Sony HDR-CX580V features the option to shoot with a movie camera’s 24p frame rate, and you can manually control focus, exposure, iris and shutter speed. The Sony HDR-PJ580V does the same, and it includes a built-in projector as well, so it can act as your personal movie theater.
Top-of-the-line palmheld camcorders are outfitted with feature sets that will satisfy every kind of user. They are essentially fist-sized professional video cameras that anyone can easily operate. The Panasonic HC-X900K features three big 1/4.1” 3MOS image sensors, a fast f/1.5 Leica lens, and it too can shoot 3D footage with the separately available VW-CLT2 lens. The HC-X900M has the same features, plus 32GB of built-in memory. The Canon VIXIA HF G10 also has 32GB of internal memory, as well as dual SDXC card slots, so you can shoot incredibly long takes, or make two copies of everything you shoot. The Sony HDR-PJ710V not only features a built-in projector, it’s also equipped with a generously-sized 1/2.88” back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor, a Carl Zeiss Varios-Sonnar T-lens and 32GB of built-in memory. The Sony HDR-CX760V ups the built-in memory to a whopping 96GB, and features impeccable image stabilization. The Sony HDR-PJ760J does the same with a built-in projector to boot.
Flip Video cameras used to be the tool of choice for users that wanted a simple, pocket-sized camcorder. However, this brand was abruptly shut down in 2011. If you were a fan of these shoot-and-share camcorders, similar models are still available. Cameras like these plug directly into your computer via USB, and supply your computer with both the videos you shot, and the software required to edit and share them. One option is the Sony MHS-TS20 Bloggie Touch, which features 8GB of internal memory and a 3-inch touch screen LCD. The MHS-TS55 Bloggie Live has similar features as the MHS-TS20, but also has the ability to stream your videos live to the Internet. Another option is the Kodak Zi10 PlayTouch, which features an SDHC card slot and an external microphone/headphone combo jack that improves the sound quality and your ability to monitor the audio track.
If you’re going to be shooting lots of live music-related videos, and you want something that’s easy to use, you should check out the Zoom Q2HD Handy Video Recorder. It’s an HD video camera in a pocket-sized form factor. What sets the Q2HD apart is its ability to capture excellent-quality sound with its higher caliber, built-in microphones. The Q2HD records uncompressed audio at 24-bit 96 kHz. Another similar option is the Q3HD, which is a little larger, but features the same microphones as the popular Zoom H4n audio recorder.
Certain kinds of camcorders have witnessed a tremendous amount of growth in recent years. Action sports cameras are now tremendously popular for athletes who like to take chances. This kind of video camera is ultra compact, and can capture HD footage at high frame rates, so you can really see detail at high speeds. They can also be mounted easily in unusual places, such as on a helmet, a surfboard, handlebars of a bike, etc. Because these cameras are so lightweight, they’re popular for use in aerial videography with remote-controlled helicopters. You can learn a lot more about Action Cameras in this B&H InDepth article.
One attribute that most Acton Cameras share is the ability to be used underwater, either with or without external waterproof housings. There are more options available if you’re in need of a video camera that can join you for a dip in the pool or tag along with you on any adventure. The Kodak PLAYSPORT is shockproof, dustproof and waterproof in depths of up to 10 feet (3 m), and it's available in Black, Aqua and Red. The Sony Bloggie Sport is another shoot-and-share camcorder that’s also shock-, dirt- and water resistant in depths of up to 16 feet (4.9 m), and it too is available in Black, Blue and Red. The Panasonic HX-WA2 is a pistol-grip-style HD camcorder that’s waterproof in depths of up to 9.8 feet (3 m). If you like the pistol grip form factor, but you want a higher performance waterproof camera, the Sony HDR-GW77V can shoot Full HD with a frame rate of 60p. Plus, it has a 1/3.9-inch Exmor R CMOS image sensor and 16GB of built-in memory.
Shoot Like a Pro
Recording family memories and vacation footage is a great pastime and wonderful for posterity, but there comes a point where some users wish to create productions that fulfill grander visions. If you want a camera that can handle all of the recreational duties, as well as be used to make professional-looking projects such as documentary or narrative films, then a prosumer handheld camcorder is the way to go. These cameras offer large image sensors, more dedicated hardware controls and larger bodies that help you achieve steadier-looking shots.
Even though recording video to flash media is king these days, some people still prefer the workflow that tape-based camcorders provide. Physical tapes can be easier to manage, and having all of your footage on tapes is useful for archival purposes, too. The Sony HDR-FX7 gives you the best of both worlds, because it records HD video footage to either MiniDV tapes and/or Memory Stick Duo media. This camera features three ¼-inch CMOS sensors and offers selective control of exposure and the iris.
The great appeal of shooting video on HDLSR cameras is the extra-large sensors, coupled with the ability to use different lenses. However, there are also many drawbacks. One of the main issues is the form factor. It’s just not comfortable to shoot video with an HDSLR camera, and many users invest heavily in rigs that attempt to reconfigure them into more traditional camcorder forms. The new Sony NEX-VG30 supplies you with all of the benefits of HDLSR shooting—without the drawbacks. It features a huge 16.1MP APS-C sensor, the ability to change lenses, and it’s housed in a traditional camcorder body with a viewfinder, a microphone input, a headphone output and a power zoom. The VG30 is compatible with E-mount lenses.
In the world of HDSLR video, there are camera models that feature APS-C-sized sensors, and then there are cameras with larger, full-frame sensors. When you move up to a full-frame sensor, you can achieve more selective depth of field, and there’s no need to calculate the crop factor of the focal length of a lens. The recently unveiled Sony NEX-VG900 has brought a full-frame sensor to the camcorder for the first time. Like the VG30, the VG900 is compatible with E-mount lenses, and it includes an adapter for A-mount lenses as well. Its 35mm Exmor HD CMOS sensor captures 24.3MP images, and the separately available XLR-K1M adapter gives the camera dual XLR line/mic inputs with phantom power. The XLR-K1M adapter is also compatible with the VG30 and the a99 DLSR.
Even with all of the recent changes in the marketplace, the full-sized handheld prosumer camcorder is alive and well, and the Sony HDR-AX2000 is a great example of this. With built-in features like a top handle, dual XLR audio, and multiple ND filters, coupled with its excellent low-light performance, wide-angle G lens and dedicated rings for focus, iris and zoom, the HDR-AX2000 proves to be a winning combination of form factor and capability for home movies, wedding videography and creative productions.
Smart phones are really handy for shooting short, impromptu video clips. HDSLR cameras are useful when outfitted with proper rigs and external audio recorders. In many circumstances, dedicated camcorders are still the best choice for documenting the important events in your life, whether it’s a child’s first birthday, or the first time you’re BASE jumping from a cliff.
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