We pay a price for every feature and capability sought from a pro camcorder but price isn’t always the deal breaker.
Many of the features associated with a professional production unit start at about $1,500. While many lower-priced models may do the job, there’s usually a significant trade off between feature/functionality and price. Likewise, many cameras are available beyond the prosumer and professional outer range of $10,000 for a product ready-to-shoot right out of the box. For the purposes of our Pro Camcorders Buyer’s Guide we’ll stay inside these margins. You’ll find plenty to pick from.
Generally speaking, you’ll want manual white balance, iris and audio control, as well as headphone output for monitoring audio and an external microphone input jack.
What Can I Get for $1,500?
With today’s technology, the short answer is a lot of camera for the buck. All the popular brands offer something worth a second look at this price point along with a few brands focusing on special video production needs as well.
There may be features you’d like to have but can’t get at this starting point, but when the difference makes or breaks your budget, a few sacrifices may be well worth the results of comparison — feature by feature, price by price.
Sony offers a full HD projector-camcorder that provides 96GB of memory for recording 1920x1080 at 24p/60p. Memory is expandable using Memory Stick PRO and SD cards. It has 24.1MP still image capture ability as well. It has a top-mounted 5.1 surround sound mic for audio as well as balanced optical image stabilization to help reduce camera shake. Included are manual control and audio input/output for mic and headphones.
While Canon starts its professional cameras at about $2,000, with the XA10, the VIXIA line has units worth a second look at $1,700 or $1,100. The VIXIA HF G20 offers 32GB internal flash memory and a pair of SD card slots. The CMOS-based unit also shoots 1920x1080 and offers manual exposure control and white balance. You can monitor audio with the provided headphone jack.
The JVC GY-HM70U is due to come in at $1,600. This will be a full HD shoulder supported 1080/60p unit, equipped with a 29.5mm wide-angle lens. It has high speed video recording for slow motion and a focus assist function. An 1/8-inch mic input and an 1/8-inch headphone output are included. It uses SDHC or SDXC memory cards and records in the AVCHD progressive format at 28Mb/s.
Panasonic’s HDC-HS900K HD camcorder also records 1080/60p and has a 220GB HDD. It sports manual features and an electronic viewfinder. As do most units in this price group, external memory card recording capability is also included. Manual white balance and iris are included. Microphone and headphone connections are part of the package, with stereo mini jacks. In addition to manual controls, it also has a focus ring.
What Can I Get for $2,500 to $5,500?
Features and options can nearly double for the discerning shopper seeking the most professional potential and bang for the buck. This price range is, arguably, the sweet spot when it comes to finding a professional production unit that will address most needs, from event to business, commercial and entertainment. As with any tools of the trade, it’s what we learn to do with them more than succumbing to perceived limitations.
Professionally, JVC, Panasonic, Canon, Sony and others have offerings in this range that focus not only on specialty production needs, but great camcorders for solid all-around production needs.
Picking up with Canon’s XA10, in addition to the basic options found at the lower investment level, we move up to XLR audio. It has a detachable handle and optical image stabilization. A 1/3-inch CMOS sensor is featured in this model, for shooting AVCHD format. Connections include headphone and mic, as well as high speed USB, composite, component and HDMI. A dual SD card recording environment is provided along with 64GB internal flash memory.
Slow and fast speed settings come with the Canon XF105 and it offers XLR audio inputs with +48V phantom power as well as a 1/3-inch mic input. The built-in mic and an external mic can be used at the same time. There’s a built-in waveform monitor, color bars and reference tone as well. There’s genlock and timecode capability.
The Canon XF300 uses three native 1920x1080 CMOS sensors and offers 4:2:2 color sampling as well as 50Mb/s MPEG-2 recording. It has dual CompactFlash card slots, two XLR inputs, HDMI, component and composite outputs. Options include shooting at 60p, 60i, 30p and 24p, offering a broad range of acquisition choices. Rounding out the capabilities are slow and fast-motion modes, interval recording, optical image stabilization and instant autofocus. The viewfinder is 1,555,000 dots and LCD 4-inch display with focus assist.
Panasonic’s P2 system unit, the AG-HPX250 handheld camcorder records AVC-Intra 100Mb/s with 10-bit 4:2:2 and comes with a 22x zoom lens. It also offers a choice of recording DVCPRO and HD, as well as DV. In addition to slow and fast-motion effects, you can shoot a variety of frame rates in DVCPRO mode. This unit has more options, controls and adjustments that the average event videographer might want or need but can certainly stand tall as the go to unit in a diversified independent professional’s weaponry. Commercial production values won’t knock the HPX250 out of the competition.
Riding this price range with a number of models worth considering is Sony. From the HDR-AX2000 to popular XDCAMs, PMW-EX1R and PMW-EX3, a lot of decision making is in order when comparing the sometimes minor differences in features. Check what is offered in these units to ensure that you get exactly the features you want at this budget level and that you don’t miss something crucial to your production requirements.
The 4k settings allow for 3840x2160 at 60p, 50p and 24p with VBR and an approximate maximum of 144Mb/s. Video outputs include four Mini HDMI for 4k, one for HD. There are two XLR mic inputs with phantom power and a 1/8-inch jack for headphones.
A couple thousand dollars more gets you the compact shoulder mount ProHD, though 4k resolution goes away, JVC’s GY-HM750U, for many video producers is arguably all the camera they’ll ever need. It utilizes the 1/2-inch progressive scan 3CCD sensor for those who just don’t want to go CMOS yet. A bayonet lens mount system allows for choices in optics. Shutter speed ranges from 1/6 to 1/10,000. This model uses SDHC memory cards in its two slots. Video recording is in MPEG-2 Long GOP and it offers the ability to use a QuickTime file format.
What Does Spending More Get Me?
For many of us a camcorder for $10,000 is a dream and something close to that is all we can hope for, whether or not we need it for our production operations. There is more, plenty more in the stratosphere that takes a budget close to $15,000. What does technology in this bracket offer us? Mostly, it’s going to be near-cinema-level lens quality, interchangeable lens options, sensor size, and a boatload of settings, recording modes and more.
JVC’s ProHD solid state media camcorder, the GY-HM790U, comes with a Canon 14x 4.4mm-61mm lens bringing the best of two worlds of excellence to a production company. It is designed to be a modern broadcast and production facility camera and offers HD picture quality in 720p and 1080p formats. It is suitable for electronic news gathering, field production and as a primary studio unit. The camcorder nudges $10,000 in price and is feature-laden to the point of outrageous.
There’s the interchangeable lens option with the industry standard bayonet mount, 4:2:2 processing, built-in genlock and 3CCD sensors along with many custom image modes including gamma, matrix, knee, detail and more. All packed in a compact shoulder mount system.
The LCD monitor is a 4.3-inch flip-out and it also has a high resolution viewfinder. There’s a pre-record function and also variable frame rate for over or under-cranking. JVC offers studio options such as a large, 8.4-inch studio viewfinder and a broad range of lenses and other accessories, if studio production is your primary focus.
Sony offers studio configured packages that start at the $15,000 price range and go up from there. In addition to camera and lens, however, the extra cost has more to do with the accessories you want in order to establish a studio environment. The base camera is a HVR-S270U with 1/3-inch HD 3CMOS with a shoulder mount design. A zoom controller and studio tripod adaptor round out the package. All the connections and I/O are solid here, including four XLR inputs and HD/SD-SDI output.
What Budget Should I Target?
Without a doubt, today’s offerings will allow any video producer, regardless of budgetary range to spend whatever is available. There may be a law of diminishing return where features wanted or needed don’t necessarily equate to total costs for getting the best. “Best suited” might be the more logical approach, so check the features against those wonderful camcorders you’re eyeing but conserve your bulging budget for those extras you might like the looks of to beef up what the camera unit can do for you. Balance what you want against what you need, and pocket the difference.
Contributing editor Earl Chessher is a full-time video producer, freelance writer and published author.
What is Pro?
Drawing the line between consumer and professional is easy. If we're talking about a camera designed with the home-user in mind, i.e., someone whose primary use will be making video for fun, it's consumer. If it's designed for someone who relies on their camcorder as a primary tool of revenue generation, it's pro. Where things get foggy is the hobbyist level camera, or what we like to refer to as prosumer. Where does prosumer end and professional begin?
In reality, prosumer isn't really a thing. What we're really talking about is low-cost professional. It used to be that you could look for the XLR ports. If a camera had them, it was pro, if not, it was consumer. In the era of the DSLR, of course, that rule is thrown out the window. At Videomaker, we've typically drawn line in the sand at price, but that line has always been somewhat arbitrary. Heck, GoPros are being used right and left for broadcast TV at only $400 a pop! That said, here's a good litmus test for determining whether or not a camera can be considered professional:
1. Does the camera require prior skill and knowledge to navigate the menus and work the controls?
2. Is the image quality high enough that you're willing to sacrifice otherwise essential features?
3. Does it support professional tools? (like XLR microphones, HD SDI Monitors, LANCs, etc)
4. Would the average person have to take out a bank loan in order to purchase it?
For this buyers guide we've started with cameras priced at $1500, but that doesn't mean there aren't sub-professional cameras above that price, and cameras with professional applications far below that price. Just keep the above in mind the next time you're talking shop with fellow videographers about all your professional equipment. - by Mike Wilhelm, Content Director
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Pro Camcorder Buyer's Guide