While film still exists in a realm of its own (although that gap is quickly closing), the world of pro video continues growing and thriving at a record pace. Many pro filmmakers are turning to video gear to get the job done.
Those who put their eyes to any camera's eyepiece for a living cannot deny the revolution that has taken place in the video industry over the last several years.
It used to be that if you wanted to shoot anything approaching a "quality" broadcast standard you were resigned to a world dominated by Beta and all the expense that went with it. But now 4x3 is all but dead and the reality revolution has broadened the acceptability gap (although not for the better some might argue). Lights and post production aside, you can now shoot broadcast-worthy HD for a cost practically unheard of just a decade ago.
This guide will focus on a variety of camera options, the capabilities and limitations of each and the price point for entry into the world of professional HD acquisition devices. So get out your checkbook, or in some cases your credit card, and use this guide to help pinpoint your next camera purchase.
This Buyer's Guide includes pro cams in the $1,000 to $10,000 price range. As of press time for this story, RED's camcorder lineup had no full kit within this price range, as Scarlet is being revamped and Epic is not yet available in RED's online store, so RED is not represented here this year.
Define Your Purpose
You're about to leave the world of $299 "convenient cams" and enter a new world of production possibilities. This is both good and bad. While the options available on the market are vast and varied you will also find that this is not necessarily a world where one size fits all. Therefore, it's crucial for you to pinpoint your purpose. What is your end product going to do? Are you shooting weddings for the occasional home viewing? Maybe you're delivering quality corporate training and informational pieces for web delivery. You might be producing commercials for broadcast throughout your region or maybe you've decided it's time to take the plunge and make that movie you've always dreamed of producing. No matter your reason for taking the pro-plunge, the wisest first step is to define your purpose. The last thing you want is to wind up with too much camera for the job or even worse...not enough.
$1000 to $5000
Clocking in at the $1K to $5K price range are a number of pro models designed to fit your creative needs. Canon delivers a number of camcorder models in this range that are well suited for the discriminating professional. Canon's name is synonymous with pro gear and ground-breaking technology. In 2008, Canon broke the still-cam vs. video-cam barrier by offering full HD video from an SLR camera when it introduced the EOS 5D Mark II HDSLR, a category that now includes several manufacturers. Because the field has grown tremendously since then, we've created a new category specifically for them. Watch for a Videomaker Buyer's Guide on HDSLRs coming soon.
With Canon, from the popular XL series of camcorders to the XH and XF models, there's enough loaded onto these cams to keep you experimenting for a long time. The Canon XH A1S delivers on its promise of 1080 HD with variable frame rates of 60i, which is essentially the same frame repeated twice every 30th of a second and the normal frame rate for TV, 30p for internet video or display on a progressive scan monitor and 24p for that softer look of film.
This camera comes with a 1/3" chip and records 1440 x 1080 to Mini DV tape. You can also record to HDV tape if you're concerned about the occasional dropout. Manual features also allow selection of 16:9 SD video acquisition and 4:3 SD. The 1/3" CCD delivers great picture quality with minimal color noise, even in low light.
The XH A1S has two XLR terminals as well as an on-camera mic. The XLRs breakout to channel one and channel two can be adjusted independently and each terminal also supplies phantom power to external mics. Probably of greatest importance to many shooters is the Canon lens. The 20X red stripe lens offers independent manual focus, iris, and zoom control and delivers a focal length of 4.5 to 90mm. Its 72mm thread can accommodate a vast array of filters and the optical image stabilizer uses a gyro sensor rather than an electronic stabilizer. This means when activated, elements inside the lens housing counteract shake. This is especially nice when pushing this lens to its 90mm max.
Two more cameras designed to give you maximum flexibility in the pro cam $1K to $5K range come from Panasonic. Panasonic's AG-DVX100B and AG-HVX200A deliver great results. Both of these models boast many of the same capabilities as does the Canon XH A1S, yet there are a few dramatic differences. For starters, the HVX model records to solid state P2 cards in addition to a standard MiniDV. In fact, the HVX requires P2 acquisition for recording in HD, leaving the MiniDV option solely for SD acquisition.
Like the Canon, the HVX also offers variable frame rates. The major difference here is that the HVX isn't limited to just 24 and 30fps. Panasonic takes a bow to those willing to commit to in-camera under- and over-cranking by allowing VFRs in 720p from 12fps all the way up to 60fps.
Then there's the lens. The HVX comes with a 13x Leica Dicomar 30mm wide-angle zoom lens (35mm equivalent), which is enough to cover most shooting situations. And like many cameras in this price range, the HVX gives its user the option of going manual or fully auto, ultimately putting you in the creative driver's seat.
As for the DVX, shooters are limited to SD Mini-DV for 4x3, letterboxed or squeezed picture acquisition but depending on your needs, and SD notwithstanding, the DVX delivers a stunning 24p image while clocking in at under $3500 new.
With a "Stop the Presses" moment, right at press time, Sony informed us about a few new additions to its NXCAM family: a super 35mm cam priced around $7,000, and a 3D camcorder, and compact waterproof/dustproof camcorder, each expected to sell for less than $3,500 (not including lens). We had few details as this information came on the same day this issue went to the printers, but they sent us the Sony NXCAM super 35mm unit to check out, and we have an exclusive "First Look Preview".
$6,000 to $10,000
If you're looking to cross that $5,000 threshold that so many shooters find to be their comfort zone you will find that the doors open a little wider and in some cases... all the way.
Clocking in close to the $6K price range is JVC's GY-HD250U. This little gem weighs just a bit more than eight pounds and comes with a compact shoulder option which is great for anyone doing a lot of hand-held work. It also boasts a handy ear-cup mounted directly onto the camera's handle for quick monitoring of audio while working from the shoulder. This is a real benefit for run-n-gun shooters who don't have time to wear bulky headphones. Like many of its less costly competitors, the GY-HD250U records directly to DV or HDV at 24p, 25p, 30p, 50p and 60p, native 1280x720 utilizing three 1/3" CCDs. However, it will only record 720 at 30p, 25p, and 24p. If you want the benefit of 60i you are resigned to 480i acquisition.
The great thing about this model is its adaptability as a studio camera. Genlock and TC in/out capability means you can easily sync with an external device or another camera for live switching or to ease the process of post syncing. Other models aren't devoid of this capability, but the JVC models adapt well to the studio environment as opposed to primarily being a field camera. And if you tend to be a bit rough on your gear, the two-year parts and one-year labor warranty is a nice extra.
One more feature of the GY-HD250U is the 1/3" bayonet mount for swapping out lenses. Of course the Canon XL series have offered this option for some time, however if your budget allows for a set of lenses, you now have options on which camera you would like to use. And lastly, if you're willing to go up in price, JVC offers up its 700 model which records full 1080 Final Cut Pro files directly to SDHC memory cards. This option can be a real time saver in post.
And then there's Sony. Like those mentioned before, Sony has partly built its reputation on being at the forefront of professional video applications. Its line of HD pro cameras is proof of that. The Sony XDCAM EX PMW-EX1R gives shooters maximum flexibility with a series of "one-push" options like auto iris control, and records to refreshingly large 1/2" CMOS sensors, each at 1920x1080. This results in remarkable moving imagery in 1080p, 720p and 1080i. Tapeless recording has never looked so good.
Like its competitors the XDCAM also allows in-camera creativity with maximum shutter control, yet it goes one step further with variable frame rates from 1fps to 60fps. And if the Fujinon lens isn't quite enough, the XDCAM comes with image inversion capabilities for those of you shooting with a 35mm adapter. All this for a price tag just shy of $8,000.
While all the bells and whistles may seem a bit overwhelming, don't despair. All of these manufacturers have come to market with the goods. In the price ranges from $1000 to $10,000 and up, there's a lot to choose from. These cameras are expected to last a long time, so research well, you won't regret the purchase.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Pro Cam Buyer's Guide
Michael Fitzer is an Emmy award-winning commercial and documentary writer/producer.