About once a week, I'm asked probably the most common question a video producer can ask: What's a good camera to buy? I always answer with, "What's your budget, and are you looking for something more professional- or consumer-oriented? Are you shooting digital films, event videos, commercials or all of the above?" That's where the answer lies, but there are so many good units in both classes, it makes me long for the late 1990s/early 2000s when my answer would have pointed to a small number of cameras. How things have changed!
There are many factors involved with picking out a consumer camera, and they can be broken down into format (DV or HD), media (whether it records to tape, drive, SD card or DVD disc), ergonomics (how the camera feels in your hands), features (does it have film-like features, such as 24p, or perhaps only one CCD or CMOS image sensor), and budget (a consumer camera can cost as little as $100 or as much as $3,000). When it comes to editing, most software can handle all the latest formats. A word of advice, if you're planning to shoot family events or vacations, a low-cost camera is for you. Trying to shoot your child's football game with a $20,000 Panasonic DVCPRO HD camera is like swatting a fly with a nuke. That falls under usage, what you're shooting.
What's Your Format?
Many of the consumer cameras out now are high-definition-based (HD), whether it's HDV, AVCHD or one of the other flavors. A few are still only standard definition, but, as prices continue to drop with new releases, there are too many great reasons to go HD.
One other factor to consider is that tape-based camcorders are going the way of the dodo bird. Many of today's cameras record to hard-disk drives (HDD), to DVD or Blu-ray discs or to flash or SD cards. There are even hybrid cameras that record to multiple media, like an HDD and a DVD disc. In the consumer HD camcorder market, you have basically two format choices: the tape-based HDV format or the AVCHD format on disc, memory card, hard drive and internal flash memory.
Comfort and Chips
Other things to consider are how the camera is built, settings, ergonomics, features, and more. Do you want one CCD chip or three? Three image sensors will result in more accurate color reproduction than one sensor. How about the newer technology kid on the block, CMOS? A single-CMOS camcorder gives colors and picture quality that closely compete with a 3-CCD camcorder, but it consumes less battery power. Manufacturers are also putting in full-resolution, 1920 x 1080 sensors, giving video producers more resolution and a better picture. Even the professional siblings don't offer that yet.
How does the camcorder feel in your hands? Is it comfortable? Since all consumer cameras are made to be handheld (unless you use a tripod), checking for comfort and weight should be a consideration. Some of the newer camcorders are coming with film-style features, like 24p. Is that something you're looking for in a camera?
Consumer video cameras range in price from $150 for the Flip Video Camera (standard definition) to $299 for a SANYO Xacti HD700, which records in 720p HD, all the way up to around $3,000 for the Sony HDR-FX1 or FX7 HDV camcorders. Those last two cameras share much with their professional HDV twins, the HVR-Z1 and V1, which means you're getting very professional results for a consumer camera. By the way, the FX1 and FX7 are among the very few consumer cameras that have three chips, CCDs in the FX1 and CMOS in the FX7.
Once you know your needs and budget, you'll find the right camera. One more thing: if you find that the consumer camera's fewer manual controls, XLR-audio inputs and other limitations don't fit your needs, consider a professional model or at least the Sony FX1 or FX7. But if you're shooting your son or daughter's soccer game, an affordable unit with a stable shot and great optical zoom is all you need.
Most, if not all, video editing software support the capturing, editing and outputting (to tape, DVD, web, etc.) of the newest HD and DV formats, including HDV, MPEG-4 and AVCHD. So, if you buy a consumer or professional video editing application (or something in between like Apple's latest Final Cut Express version 4), you can be confident that you can edit what you shoot. I remember living on the bleeding edge and not being able to capture and edit HDV without a lot of difficulty for almost two years. The AVCHD has finally caught up as well, but you'll always want to double check that your software and computer system are capable of handling the complexities of the AVCHD video format.
You can pretty much consider the same factors in choosing a professional camera as in buying a consumer camera: format, ergonomics, features, budget, usage and software support. With the explosion of digital filmmaking, nearly all professional cameras on the market support 24p shooting, more image controls and more manual support. These cameras can also shoot commercials, weddings and other video-related events. But it all boils down to those factors and how they fit your needs. There is no mention of DV/SD professional cameras in this article, because I believe support will soon drop, since all HD cameras support DV and SD recording. Prices are competitive among cameras like the Panasonic DVX100 and Canon XL2 DV line of cameras.
Expected Pro Features
I've seen many YouTube videos shot on consumer cameras and edited on affordable but powerful video editing applications, sometimes with really nice (and affordable) visual FX, but the image quality really suffers from automatic control, a single-CCD sensor and poor sound. Heck, I've seen higher-end short films at prestigious film festivals use consumer cameras, and it worked for the story or documentary.
For professional use, three image sensors are a must, though a single CMOS sensor can hold its own (Sony's HVR-A1u sports one CMOS and is still a very popular camera). The advantage of a CMOS sensor over a CCD is lower power consumption, which will mean longer shooting times between battery changes. Another advantage is less light smear, so there isn't a halo or "star" effect if you're shooting with a light or bright spot in your frame. Since the revolutionary Panasonic DVX100 debuted in 2002, most new professional camcorders come with 24p and 30p shooting modes, greater image control (including cinegamma and extended color settings) and more. In some ways, it seems like each manufacturer is trying to outdo the other. With HD really taking over, most new cameras are available in 1080i, 720p and 480i/p. In some cases, all three are part of the camera's feature set.
How Will You Use it?
How does the professional camera feel in your hands or on your shoulder? If you're looking for a lightweight, consumer-like camera, the Sony HVR-A1 is a perfect palm-sized professional camcorder. The price is right, too, for around $2,000. Larger handheld cameras include the Sony V1, Z7 and XDCAM EX1. The Canon XH-A1 and XH-G1 and the Panasonic HVX200 are all excellent cameras that run $3,000 to $10,000.
Are you more interested in shoulder-mount cameras? Canon's XL-H1 is a workhorse that will make XL1 and XL2 owners very happy with its similar styling. Sony's new HVR-S270 is an excellent choice, and the affordable HVR-HD1000 with its single-CMOS sensor is perfect for school and event videographers. All of JVC's ProHD cameras are shoulder-mount cams and have interchangeable lenses, so you can swap in better glass. This gives you more options without requiring a lens adaptor like a Redrock Micro. Other shoulder-mount cameras - including the Panasonic AJ-HPX500, AJ-HPX2000 and AJ-HPX3000, and also the Sony XDCAM HD series - have larger sensor sizes, which allow larger pixels and a better signal-to-noise ratio. You get clearer images and more shallow depth of field. Cameras with smaller sensors have deep focus (everything in the shot is in focus), while cameras with larger sensors require longer lenses that give short focus (the background and foreground are out of focus while the key subject is in focus). TV stations and high-end production houses prefer these cameras, though the prices can reach $35,000 without a lens!
Though HDV is still going strong, many of the newer models are tapeless, using technology like Sony's XDCAM (records to Blu-ray discs or SxS memory cards). Panasonic offers its DVCPRO HD series of camcorders with P2 media. The AJ-HPX3000 uses intra-frame compression, which is new to the line.
To reiterate: knowing your budget will help in choosing a camera. The great news about professional units is that many offer what videographers and digital filmmakers are looking for: HD, 24p/30p/60i and even 60p formats; more image control; plenty of manual control; and more. To break it down further, if you're shooting sports, news or high-end commercials and weddings, shoulder-mount cameras with larger sensors, like the HPX or XDCAM HD series, are a great fit. If you're making smaller videos and films, the more affordable and powerful HVR-V1 and Canon XH-A1 are perhaps a better fit. When it comes to editing, all NLEs support DV, HDV, DVCPRO HD/P2 and XDCAM HD and will continue to support the new "flavors" of video, be it HD or SD (standard definition) and the available frame rates.
Things have changed quite a bit, and they'll continue to do so. Even without a magic ball, it's easy to see both consumer and professional cameras are moving towards tapeless acquisition, and they're moving fast. Sony and JVC provide special portable drives that can record to HDD while also recording to tape. As high definition and tapeless recording edges out the "old" technology, new cameras with features and functions we haven't even dreamed of will become the standard. If you keep your shooting needs in mind, choosing between a consumer and professional camcorder will be much easier. After that, it's just a matter of looking at which unit suits you best.
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Heath McKnight is a filmmaker and writer.
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