The 2010 model cameras are offering more great features in every price range than ever before. Better, Cheaper, More Advanced!
If you're reading this article, it means that you are probably in the market for a new video camera or are at least considering the possibility. Perhaps, If you are lucky, you are able to attend the National Association of Broadcasters annual tradeshow in Las Vegas every April, wandering around the NAB show floor looking at the various professional cameras on display, trying to determine the best features for the money. But let's face it, when it comes to features, best is an incredibly subjective term. The fact is that we all have our preferences, and some features are far more important to one shooter than they are to the next. In this Buyer's Guide, we will list many of the features available on professional and prosumer cameras. It's your choice to decide which features of the cameras within your budget are the most important to you.
The 2010 model cameras are offering more great features in every price range than ever before. Benefits such as tapeless media and interchangeable lenses have become more common. It's all about HD this year - there is no such thing as an SD-only camera within the prosumer and professional markets. Besides HD, every camera on the grid allows you to use external mics, whether your needs call for lavaliers or boom mics. And single-sensor camcorders? No such thing on this level of professionalism - nothing but three-sensor cams here. Of course, it's your choice as to whether to go with CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor) or CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) chips. Each type of chip has its advantages and disadvantages and, again, it is a matter of how you shoot, what you shoot and what results you are accustomed to getting when you shoot.
The differences between these two types of sensors is minimal under most situations for the casual videographer, but for those who shoot in low-light conditions or in conditions where they could be shooting into bright lights (such as wedding receptions and outdoor sporting events at night), sensor choice can be critical. The rolling shutter of the CMOS chip can cause problems in very low light situations, but can be advantageous when shooting at night in a brightly-lit stadium or racetrack. CMOS sensors also use less battery power than CCD sensors, and that can be an advantage when operating in the field. Sony is well known for it's low light capabilities, their camera's capitalize on the CMOS sensor. Most of the cameras on this grid, whether they use a CCD system or CMOS, are three-sensor units. The single-sensor prosumer camcorder, just like the single-sensor pro camera, is now a thing of the past.
Professional cameras have recently begun converting to tapeless media (and not a moment too soon, if you ask me). This new media can hold many advantages over videotape, including Mini DV tape. Although Mini DV has been a wonderful development for the industry, it still has some of the drawbacks that tape inevitably has. Fortunately, Mini DV tape has never had the problem with dropouts that most other forms of tape do, but it is still subject to getting stretched or caught in the mechanisms of the tape player and camera.
Solid-state media, on the other hand, can't get caught in mechanisms. And it has two other advantages: it makes reviewing and uploading easier. Because they are non-linear, reviewing a P2, SD, SDHC or SXS card is a simple matter. There is no tape to shuttle through; therefore capturing video is faster, too. Solid-state media also uses less energy than tape-based systems, thus making these cameras even better when being used outside a studio environment. The major disadvantage to recording to this type of media remains the expense. However, this has also begun to change. If you would like to get a glimpse of what the future holds, you can look to digital photography as an example. Four years ago, a 4GB CompactFlash card would cost around $200. Today, you can get a 16GB card (with significantly higher read and write speeds) for less than $100.
Sony has several cameras that offer the CompactFlash option as recording media if you already have invested in CompactFlash for your Photography Setup, Sony is definitely worth a look.
Transferring video to your hard drive is also made easier by solid-state cards. Mini DV tape capture is limited to a speed of 1:1, so every 60-minute tape that you record will take you an additional 60 minutes to capture. And let's face it, if you even think of getting up for a cup of coffee or a shower (an absolute necessity during video editing), your capture will have an issue within minutes and sit there waiting for you to show it some love until the moment you get back.
Final Cut Pro editors will be particularly fond of JVC's GY-HM100 and GY-HM700 cameras, as they are now capable of recording directly to QuickTime (.mov) files, eliminating the extra time-consuming step of converting the files after transfer. These cameras also record in .mp4, so users of Premiere Pro and Avid can relax. Most of the professional camera's on the grid offer tapeless solutions, it defintely will be standard like 3-sensor units.
Another important criterion, as it has been since the days before soundtracks existed, is the camera lens. In the very-recent past, interchangeable lenses were affordable only to studios and others with large budgets, but not any more. Today, a high-quality camcorder capable of interchangeable lenses can be yours for less than $6,000. Although the extra lenses are not included in the prices listed on the accompanying grid, this is a great place to begin.
As those of us who've graduated from the still camera field know, purchasing the body is the beginning of a journey that will cost you lots of money and give you great joy in exploring the capability of each new lens. We are also aware of the fantastic lenses that Canon creates. Canon's XL-H1A and XL-H1S come equipped with 20x HD lenses with an f-stop of f/1.6 as standard equipment. JVC also utilizes Canon's 14x lens with an f/1.4 f-stop lens as the factory lens on its powerful GY-HM700 professional camera. Panasonic's high-end AG-HPX500 also offers a Canon lens as its standard model. All of these cameras are capable of shooting in native 1920x1080 HD video.
One other benefit to using a camera with interchangeable lenses is that, if your production is in need of a lens that you don't have, you can rent them for much less than the cost of purchasing one; this is also a great way to determine the lenses that work best for your needs. Interchangeable lenses are a new and rapidly-developing area, so please keep an eye out for information in upcoming issues of Videomaker.
Nearly all of the pro and prosumer cameras now have XLR inputs built right into them, sometimes along with 1/8" inputs. Digital XLR microphones give a sound that is vastly superior to analog recordings and certainly superior to the sound quality that was the status quo in older models and significantly better than using the onboard microphone. For those who have yet to convert to XLR mics, don't fret: most of the offerings from Canon and Panasonic also come with standard 1/8" jacks for analog recording.
One final criterion that you should take into consideration when purchasing a new video camera is your budget. Unfortunately, we can't all afford to get the exact camera that we desire, but take a good look at the Buyer's Guide. You will see that top-quality camcorders are becoming more affordable than ever. Thanks to the technological leaps forward that have been taking place over recent years, video cameras with features that were once available only to large studios are making their way deep into the public arena. In fact, a $5,000 camcorder in 2010 is vastly superior and richer in exciting features than studio cameras from less than a decade ago - and significantly lighter, as well.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Pro Camcorder Buyer's Guide.
John McCabe runs a small production company that is as dedicated to giving hands-on experience to students as it is to creating video.