In the past, a fixed-lens camera often limited you to a smaller image sensor and lower quality of optics in the lens, but with advancements in technology, that has been changing. While an interchangeable lens (ICL) camera body may be affordable, you can easily spend twice the cost of the body on lenses and still not have the same coverage of focal lengths offered by many fixed-lens cameras. Additionally, a camcorder-style body offers much greater ease of use for shooting video than most ICLs.
Deciding which fixed-lens camera best fits the work you do can be a little tricky. There are many variables to evaluate such as ease of operation and image quality. You also need to consider how that camera’s footage will effect your post-production work. You can narrow down the field by looking at the needs of your current and future projects, your budget and your personal preferences. Additionally, by exploring the camera features and examining some the of the latest models, you’ll make your purchasing decision a lot easier.
Ease of Operation
Professional fixed-lens lens cameras tend to have in common many of the same features that make them easy to operate such as powered (servo) zooms, fold out LCD screens and XLR audio inputs; however, there are other attributes that are not so universal that can impact a camera, making it much more desirable. Shot assist features, for instance, can affect the ease of operation. The size and weight of the camera can also have great effects on the individual operator and their production workflow. Here are some aspects to consider.
Size and Weight
What is the optimal weight and size of a fixed-lens camera or camcorder? That’s a personal question for an operator that will be easier to answer the longer you’ve been operating. Your personal preferences will largely depend on your shoots. Do you want a camera that is light and easy to maneuver, or do you prefer a little bit of weight to help keep shots steady? You also have to consider camera support. Some rigs and tripods only work with certain sized cameras. If you already own a lot of support gear for small cameras, replacing it all to accommodate a heavier camcorder could be costly. You’ll want to keep size and weight in mind when making your decision.
Shot Assist Features
Shot assist features can help you set proper exposure or focus to your frame. Waveform monitors, histograms, zebra, focus peaking and magnification can help you operate your camera with greater ease and can also help speed up post-production. Exposure in high contrast settings like shooting outside on a sunny day can be tricky; a waveform monitor or histogram will offer the most help because they graph the luminance of the whole video signal. Another option is zebra, which only isolates the brightest highlights. Focus peaking highlights high contrast areas in the video image, and magnification zooms in on a selected area of the frame to make seeing focus easier. With these production tools, you can often decrease or even eliminate the amount of footage on your projects that is not exposed or focused properly.
Keep in mind that exposure is partially a creative choice, such as allowing your highlights to lose detail to show more depth in the shadows. To get the most out of your cameras assist features, you’ll want to test them out in the field and see how that test footage reacts in post before you take your new camera on a shoot.
The image quality you can get from a camera is most affected by the lens, the camera’s image sensor and the file format it records to. By focusing your attention on these three camera features, you’ll have an easier time finding a camcorder that best suits you.
Since you can’t change the lens on a fixed-lens camera, you should ensure that it will meet your needs. If you’re only using a camera for sit-down interviews or large crowd reaction shots then a wide to medium zoom lens is fine. If you need to get tighter shots while further away from your subject, you’ll need a lens with a broader zoom range.
Since you can’t change the lens on a fixed-lens camera, you should ensure that it will meet your needs.
As you look at information on cameras, it’s important to keep in mind some of the ways that lenses are often described. Zoom ranges are often noted by a ratio such as a 30mm to 300mm lens being a 10x zoom. Since the size of the image sensor, and not just the length of the lens, affects the angle of view of the camera, a conversion of the wide and tight focal lengths to the 35mm format is often given to make it easier to compare models. These conversions often take into account the area of the image sensor that is used in different camera modes, so a single camera may have more than one 35mm equivalent zoom range listed. It’s important to note that the 35mm format referenced is typically that of Full Frame 35mm stills, which is larger than that of the Super 35mm format of cinema cameras.
The maximum aperture setting of a lens is also very important. The more light that reaches the image sensor, the less noise the image will tend to have. An iris on a camera set to an aperture of F2.0 lets in twice the light than if it were set to F2.8. A larger maximum aperture (smaller F number) will also give you a smaller depth of field at the same focal length. It’s easy to see how having a camera with a wide aperture range can be valuable for projects that vary in their lighting.
The size and the amount of detail that an image sensor produces are the two factors that affect a camera’s image quality the most. A larger sensor will give you a smaller depth of field and generally produces less noise. While a low noise image is almost always preferred, a small depth of field can make maintaining focus in your shots more challenging.
Detail in digital sensors is often only talked about in terms of resolution; because of this, people sometimes erroneously believe that if they are working on projects that are only mastering in HD, then there is no benefit to shooting in 4K. The improvements made to many 4K image sensors are not limited to pixel count alone. UltraHD uses the rec. 2020 color space, which is much larger than rec. 709 used by HDTV; the ability of the sensors to capture greater color detail is improved. Many of the new 4K sensors are able to capture a much larger dynamic range than older HD sensors. These new sensors can often show detail in shadows and highlights that older units could not, which can really help if you’re shooting in low light or high contrast locations.
The file formats a camera uses determine the bitrate or range of bitrates that it’s able to record in. Higher bitrates typically lead to better image quality, and most codecs are more efficient at higher resolutions. It’s not uncommon to see footage recorded at 4K in 24 fps at 100Mbps that has less noticeable compression issues than footage recorded in HD in 24p at 50Mbps, even though a frame at 3840 x 2160 has four times the pixels as one at 1920 x 1080. Higher bitrates do lead to larger files; however, with storage prices continuing to fall, it’s not as big of an issue as it used to be. Uploading large video files to an online server with a slow connection may be your only issue with higher bitrates.
When working with film cameras, there are a limited number of formats like 35mm Academy or Super 16, but with digital image capture, there are numerous formats and codecs that can all greatly affect your post-production workflow. Fortunately, most current camcorders record with the H.264 codec, often held in a .mov, .mts or .mp4 container, which are all very broadly supported. The AVCHD format developed for consumer equipment has gained popularity in pro gear, in part, because of its near universal compatibility with recent post-production software. The same can not be said for newer formats like XAVC and XF-AVC even though they both use the H.264 codec. If the camera you’re considering uses a format or codec that you haven’t worked with before, it’s best to get some test footage and try it out in your post workflow. Even if the publisher of your software claims the format is compatible, it may not perform to your needs or liking.
Don’t forget about the audio.
By today’s standards, audio files are small. There’s not much use in saving that tiny amount of storage space by recording compressed audio. If you’re looking to buy a camera as your primary or A camera, you are going to want it to record uncompressed audio in WAV format (PCM, Linear PCM) so the files are easy to use in post production, and you maintain as much audio quality as possible. This is especially true if you’re delivering content in a compressed format like that used by YouTube because whenever you upload to their server, your audio and video files are compressed for streaming, even if you already compressed them prior to upload.
There are two different types of audio inputs commonly found on cameras: a mini audio input (3.5mm or ? inch) or an XLR input. A mini audio input can be okay for on camera mics and wireless microphone receivers but can cause problems with some camera setups. For example, XLR inputs on cameras typically offer phantom power, which many shotgun mics require in order to operate. XLR ports are also grounded, which reduces the chance of picking up noise, especially in longer cable runs. While mini ports are smaller, they can’t hold up to the strain of repeatedly connecting and disconnecting cables. For these reasons, it’s worth the money to invest in cameras with XLR ins whenever possible.
What Are Your Options?
Here are some of the more interesting fixed-lens cameras currently on the market. For simplicity, resolutions lower than 1920×1080 and interlaced frame rates have been omitted from the camera details.
This JVC has a small size and small price but big features. It has built-in ND filters, optical lens stabilization, 4K capable HDMI out, XLR ins, dual SD card slots and a large maximum lens aperture. The HM170U has all the standard features you’d expect from a professional camcorder, but the standout is its ability to record HD with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling. This gives you four times as much color data per frame as 4:2:0, which is normally used in recording with camcorders.
Image Sensor: 1/2.3-inch CMOS
Video Formats: 3840 x 2160 (Standard for UHDTV) at 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (70 or 150Mbps), 1920 x 1080 at 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (17 to 50Mbps)
File Formats: 4K and HD 4:2:0 in H.264 in a .mov wrapper, HD 4:2:2 in H.264 in a .mov wrapper, HD in 4:2:0 in AVCHD in a .mts wrapper
Lens: 5mm to 56mm (35mm equivalent: 30mm to 354mm), maximum aperture F1.2/F3.5
Image Stability: Optical
I/O: XLR x2, mini audio, 2.5mm remote in, HDMI, AV (mini), mini audio and mini headphone out
Assist: Histogram (firmware v 2.0)
Size and Weight: 153mm X 112mm X 299mm, 1.11kg (2.4lbs)
The XC10 combines a DSLR sized camera with 4:2:2 UltraHD(4K) recording, making the camera a unique option. The camera also comes with built-in Wi-Fi for remote camera control. Additionally, this Canon can record in Canon Log or Canon Wide DR Gamma to fully utilize its 12 stops of dynamic range. The XC10 can also record time-lapse sequences in JPEG format. If your projects require exacting color correction or include a lot of effects shots, then the XC10 is worth considering.
Image Sensor: 1-inch CMOS
Video Formats: 3840 x 2160 at 29.97p, 23.98p (205 or 305Mbps), 1920 x 1080 at 59.94p, 29.97p, 23.98p (35 or 50Mbps)
File Formats: 4K in XF-AVC Intra (H.264) in a .mxf wrapper, HD in XF-AVC Long GOP (H.264) in a .mxf wrapper
Lens: 8.9mm to 89mm (35mm equivalent: 27.3mm to 273mm), maximum aperture F2.8/F5.6
Image Stability: Optical and digital
I/O: Wi-Fi, mini audio in, HDMI, mini headphone out
Assist: Zebra, peaking
Size and Weight: 125mm X 102mm X 122mm, 1.04kg (2.3lbs)
Don’t let its size fool you, the XA35 is loaded with features. It has built-in Wi-Fi for remote control as well as FTP file transfer, XLR ins and an HD-SDI out. The camera has an impressive 20x optical zoom range with the ability to keep a large constant F2.8 aperture, which is something not found in many lenses.
Image Sensor: 1/2.84-inch CMOS
Video Formats: 1920 x 1080 59.94p, 29.97p, 23.98p (17 to 35Mbps)
File Formats: AVCHD (H.264) in a .mts wrapper, MP4 (H.264) in a .mp4 wrapper
Lens: 3.76mm to 73.4mm (35mm equivalent: 26.8mm to 567mm), maximum aperture F1.8/F2.8
Image Stability: Optical and digital
I/O: Wi-Fi, XLR x2, mini audio, 2.5mm remote in, HD-SDI, HDMI, AV (mini) and mini headphone out
Assist: Zebra, peaking, color peaking, 2x magnification
Size and Weight: 109mm X 84mm X 182mm (body only), 0.77kg (1.7lbs)
The HM260U offers the ease of focusing a small sensor camera with a great zoom range. While small image sensors tend to produce more noise, this JVC helps eliminate video noise by allowing you to operate with negative gain values (-6, -3). The Fujinon lens also helps control noise with it’s F1.6 max aperture. The lens also has an amazing 23x zoom range. If you need an HD camera with a large zoom range, the HM620U is worth taking a look at.
Image Sensor: ?-inch CMOS x3
Video Formats: 1920 x 1080 at 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (18 to 35Mbps)
File Formats: HD 4:2:0 in MPEG-2 in a .mov or .mp4 wrapper, HD in AVCHD (H.264) in a .mts wrapper, HD 4:2:2 output via HD-SDI
Lens: 4.1mm to 93.4mm (35mm equivalent: 29mm to 667mm), maximum aperture F1.6/F3
Image Stability: Optical
I/O: USB, XLR x2, mini audio, 2.5mm remote in, HDMI, AV (mini), mini audio and mini headphone out
Assist: Focus assist, face detection, zebra, expanded focus assist (magnification)
Size and Weight: 178mm x 198mm x 416mm, 2.4kg (5.3lbs)
The Z150 has features seldom seen in a fixed-lens camera, like 3G-SDI, adjustable gain from -3 to 33dB, and 3 stages of ND filters. This Sony also features Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity allowing for file transfer, remote control and even HD video streaming. The Z150 has an impressive selection of frame rate and bitrate options as well as 4:2:2 HD record options.
Image Sensor: 1-inch CMOS
Video Formats: 3840 x 2160 at 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (60 or 100Mbps), 1920×1080 at 120p, 100p, 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (17 to 50Mbps)
File Formats: UHD and HD 4:2:0 XAVC (H.264) in a MXF wrapper, HD 4:2:2 (MPEG-2), HD in AVCHD (H.264) in a .mts wrapper
Lens: 9.3mm to 111.6mm (35mm equivalent: 29mm to 348mm), maximum aperture F2.8/F4.5
Image Stability: Optical
I/O: Wi-Fi, NFC, XLR x2, 2.5mm remote in, HD-SDI, HDMI, RCA audio, USB audio, mini headphone, composite video (RCA) out
Assist: Histogram, zebra, peaking, x4 or x8 focus magnification
Size and Weight: 171.3mm x 197.8mm x 371.3mm, 2.3kg (5.1lbs)
The DVX200 is a fixed-lens cinema camera, but it doesn’t lack any of the features of a pro video camcorder. It supports an array of resolutions, frame rates and bitrates, making it easy to fit into almost any existing workflow. The DVX200 supports V-Log gamma and has a 12 stop dynamic range, making cinema style shooting easier. The ability to sync the frame rate to other cameras and recorders via industry standard timecode makes this camera a great choice for multi-cam shoots. The DVX200 also has a 13x powered zoom lens built by renown optics maker Leica. A similar inter-changeable lens to cover the Four Thirds sensor format would cost thousands by itself.
Image Sensor: Four Thirds (4/3) MOS
Video Formats: 4096 x 2160 (DCI 4K, the standard for digital cinema) 24p (100Mbps), 3840 x 2160 (UHD) 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (100 to 150Mbps), 1920 x 1080 (HD) 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 23.98p (5 to 200Mbps), variable frame rates from 2p to 120p
File Formats: DCI 4K, UHD and HD 4:2:0 (H.264) in a .mov or .mp4 wrapper, HD in AVCHD (H.264) in a .mts wrapper, 10bit 4:2:2 output via 3G-SDI
Lens: 12.8mm to 167mm (35mm equivalent in DCI 4K 29.5mm to 384.9mm, UHD 29.97p/25p 30.6mm to 398.7mm, HD 28mm to 365.3mm), maximum aperture F2.8/F4.5
Image Stability: Optical and Digital
I/O: Timecode (BNC), USB (record/playback), XLR x2, remote x2 (2.5 and 3.5mm) In
3G-SDI, HDMI, mini audio, mini headphone, composite video (BNC) out
Assist: Focus assist, waveform monitor, histogram, level gauge, peaking
Size and Weight: 181mm X 216mm X 374mm, 3.1kg (6.8lbs)
On The Small Side
Here’s an option if you’re looking for something not so big but don’t want to sacrifice image quality.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100
While the LX100 was designed as a fixed-lens still camera, it has incredible video features for its size. It has a 3.1X Leica powered zoom and a 4/3 sensor that is very similar to the one Panasonic uses in the GH4 — at about half the price of a GH4 without a lens. The camera lacks any microphone inputs and WAV recording so it’s not what you’d want in a primary camera, but it could work as a B or C camera. The LX100 is just a bit larger than a typical action cam. Its small size combined with its Wi-Fi control option make it a very versatile option.
Image Sensor: Four Thirds (4/3) MOS
Video Formats: 3840 x 2160 (UHD) at 30p, 24p (100Mbps), 1920 x 1080 (HD) at 60p, 30p, 24p (20 to 28Mbps)
File Formats: UHD and HD in MP4 (H.264) in a .mp4 wrapper, HD in AVCHD (H.264) in a .mts wrapper
Lens: 10.9mm to 34mm (35mm equivalent in UHD 26mm to 81mm) maximum aperture F1.7/F2.8
Image Stability: Optical
I/O: Wi-Fi, HDMI, AV (mini), AV (USB)
Assist: focus peaking, magnification, histogram
Size and Weight: 114.8mm X 66.2mm X 55mm, 0.393kg (0.86lbs)
By focusing your attention on the needs for your productions and the camera features that are important to you, you’ll have any easier time finding a fixed-lens camera that’s right for your production style.
Odin Lindblom is an award-winning editor and cinematographer whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.