The sheer variety of camera options available is both the best and most daunting aspect of today’s camera hunt. So, how does one dive into this veritable haystack of possibilities and emerge with that one shining needle just right for you? Well, as with all blind reachings for needles, one should proceed carefully.
The good news is that just about any video capture device you pick up today is capable of producing some pretty good results — some more than others of course, but at least adequate in most cases. Here, we’ll look at a number of current offerings ranging from introductory to not-quite-pro level across several broad categories. We’ll talk about what qualifies a particular camera for its category and, who knows, you may just find your next camera purchase right here.
The camcorder form factor has been around forever it seems. It lends itself particularly well to handheld use, and pricier models will bristle with buttons, dials, inputs and outputs for maximum manual control. The consumer models we’ll be exploring are more likely to sport a 1/8” port for external mic hookup — if any — and manual controls will be found by drilling down through menus on the device’s display. Camcorders tend to have smaller sensors than other camera types and, with very few exceptions, have fixed lenses.
JVC Everio GZ-R70
The GZ-R70 is Quad Proof, meaning it is rated as dirt/dust, shock, freeze and water proof down to 16.4 feet, making it suitable for all sorts of adventurous outdoor activities. It also has 40x optical/60x dynamic zoom, built-in image stabilization and is time-lapse capable, with recording intervals from one to 80 seconds. It records 1920 x 1080 footage at either 30 or 60 fps onto 32GB of internal memory or removable SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. See here for the full Videomaker review.
This camera is capable of shooting up to 600 frames per second for great slow motion footage. It also features a fast f/1.2 lens for better low light shooting, a great looking tiltable 3-inch LCD monitor, a pair of shoe slots and an optional viewfinder. I/O possibilities abound with a microphone and headphone jack as well as HDMI, AV and USB ports. It records at 1080/60p to SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. See here for the full Videomaker review.
The Panasonic AG-AC8 has a stable shoulder-mount form factor that shoots great HD video and stills in various resolutions and frame rates up to 1080/60p, complete with focus peaking and histogram. A button/lens ring combination lets you easily cycle through various white balance, shutter, iris and zoom settings. It also features an effective optical image stabilization system, a ⅛-inch microphone port with separate headphone port and an HDMI output. It records to dual card slots with options for auto switching and simultaneous recording. See here for the full Videomaker review.
Sony’s FDR-AX100 Handycam boasts a large one-inch sensor, three built-in ND filters and an adjustable viewfinder — and it shoots in 4K! Resolutions include 1080/60p and 24p and 2160/30p and 24p, and it records sharp, vibrant video to both SD and Memory Stick PRO Duo cards. It features stereo and headphone jacks with HDMI output. Pro features include focus magnification, peaking and zebra stripes for achieving proper focus and exposure levels, and manual control over iris, gain and shutter speed. Its microphone records 5.1 channel surround sound with manual audio levels and wind noise reduction. See here for the full Videomaker review.
How does one dive into this veritable haystack of possibilities and emerge with that one shining needle just right for you? By proceeding very carefully.
The DSLR form factor started life as still photography cameras that also shot video. As technology improved and the design began to catch on with video producers, DSLRs quickly made great strides toward becoming the favored device for shooting video. While the DSLR form is more awkward for handheld shooting, its advantages are considerable: larger and even full frame sensors, interchangeable lenses, beautifully shallow depth of field and better low light performance, to name a few.
$650 (with 18-55mm kit lens)
The D3300’s 24.2 megapixel APS-C sensor records good looking video — even in low light — to a single SD media card at 1080/60p. The three-inch display is bright and reasonably visible in sunlight. In manual and semiautomatic modes, a full range of options are available for metering, flash and exposure compensation, autofocus areas, ISO, white balance and image quality and size. Wi-Fi is optional using the Wireless Mobile Adapter dongle.
Canon Rebel T5i
$900 (with 18-55mm kit lens)
The Rebel T5i, comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens featuring stepping motor technology, which allows for silent autofocus operation while recording. The camera also features an 18 megapixel sensor, recording in 1080p at frame rates of 30, 25 and 24, DIGIC 5 image processing, several autofocus options, a three-inch articulating touch screen display and manual audio controls.
$1,100 (body only)
The Pentax K-3 has a magnesium alloy shell on a metal chassis and is sealed for weather resistance. An interesting feature is the adjustable anti-aliasing filter simulator which allows you to simulate turning the low pass filter on or off to see in advance the effect each setting will have on resolution and sharpness. The K-3 also has built-in image stabilization, uses a 24 megapixel APS-C sensor and fires off stills at a burst rate of 8.3 frames per second for up to 60 frames. Video is captured at 1080/60i in the MOV format. See here for the full Videomaker review.
Canon EOS 70D
$1,200 (body only)
The 70D utilizes a 20.2 megapixel APS-C sensor with DIGIC 5+ image processing. Stills can be fired off in bursts at 7fps, while video is captured in the H.264 MOV format at resolutions up to 1080p30 onto a single SD card. The 19-point Dual Pixel phase detection autofocus system is fast and accurate. The display is a fully articulated, nicely responsive three-inch LCD touch screen that gives good visibility in most conditions. Wi-Fi is built in.
Mirror, mirror on the…oh, wait! — Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are sort of like a point-and-shoot/DSLR mix with the small size advantage of the former and DSLR-like features. While performance is similar to DSLRs, their smaller size makes them more portable and concealable — even fitting in a pocket — and they’re quieter. Mirrorless cameras offer interchangeable lenses for greater versatility in shooting but without the bulky hump that houses the mirror in a typical DSLR.
$699 (body only)
The X-M1 sports a classic, retro design and no viewfinder of any kind, which aids in achieving its svelte proportions. It does, however, have a multi-angle, tiltable three-inch rear display. Its 16.3 megapixel, X-Trans APS-C CMOS sensor is designed to minimize moire and false color while delivering sharper results. The autofocus system uses 49 points and incorporates focus peaking to achieve sharp focus. Video is captured in 1080/30p and is recorded onto SD memory cards.
Nikon 1 AW1
$800 (10mm f/2.8 kit lens)
The Nikon 1 AW1 should appeal to the outdoorsy video adventurist, as it’s an interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera that is rated shockproof from up to a two-meter drop — about six feet — and waterproof to a depth of 15 meters or about 45 feet. Full HD video is captured with a 14.2 megapixel sensor, EXPEED 3A processing and high-speed autofocusing. See here for more information from Videomaker.
Canon EOS M
$900 (22mm kit lens)
Canon's EOS M features an 18 megapixel APS-C sensor that delivers a beautifully shallow depth of field, great low light images and a wide dynamic range. Video may be recorded in various standard and high definition resolutions and frame rates up to 1080/30p. An input for an external microphone, manual audio level adjustments and manual exposure controls enhance its ability to acquire great visuals and sound.
The Sony a7S delivers excellent high quality images, fantastic low light performance and has a very wide dynamic range of 15.3 stops. Its full frame 35mm sensor uses fewer but larger pixels — 12.2 megapixels — to achieve such impressive performance levels. It can also record in uncompressed 4:2:2 full HD and 4K to an external recorder using HDMI output. Controls are well placed and user friendly, and the LCD display is of the tilting variety. Focusing assists come in the form of magnification and three levels of peaking. See here for the full Videomaker review.
Action cameras are a special breed designed to meet the needs of sports enthusiasts in particular. They are quite small, inconspicuous and can be mounted virtually anywhere. Lens angles are very wide in order to catch all the action and the results are often bouncy, gritty and in your face. These cameras typically do not have a display. Instead, they may provide a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to a separate device — such as a smartphone and app combination — for viewing and making various adjustments.
The Contour ROAM3 action camera is waterproof up to 30 feet (10 meters) with no external waterproof case required. A locking instant on/record switch assures continued recording. Regardless of how the camera is oriented when mounted, the lens can be rotated up to 270 degrees for level shooting. Not sure if it’s level? Laser alignment is built in. The ultra wide lens covers 170 degrees while recording up to 1080/30p, with up to 120 fps possible.
The HDR-AS20 sports a super wide 170 degree field of view and electronic image stabilization to smooth out the bumps and grinds of adventurous activities. The 16.8 megapixel Exmor sensor captures footage at 1080/60p and 30p with 28mbps high bit-rate recording and performs well in low light scenarios. Connectivity options include built-in Wi-Fi, USB and HDMI.
Ion Air Pro 3
The Ion Air Pro 3 action cam delivers very good video quality with excellent color reproduction and sharpness. Its sturdy, sealed case is waterproof to a depth of 49 feet and has a variety of mounting options available. Video is recorded in full HD at up to 1080/60p and up to 120 fps at 1280 x 720. The 16mm f/2.8 lens is fog free and offers a variable field of view from 140 to 160 degrees. See here for the full Videomaker review.
GoPro HERO4 Black Edition
The GoPro Hero4 comes in two colors: Black and Silver. The two share similar features, such as capturing high-quality 12MP photos and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. The Black sports a processor that is 2x more powerful than the HERO3 — enabling it to capture ultra high resolution, high frame rate video at 1080p120 and 4K30 The Silver model captures video at 1080p60 and 720p120 and has a built-in touch display. See here for more information from Videomaker.
While lacking many of the features of dedicated cameras, virtually everyone has a smartphone today and they are most often the closest thing at hand when those memorable moments appear. Here are a couple you’ve probably heard of.
Apple iPhone 6
Apple has two versions of this phone: the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, both using the new iSight camera technology. The camera sensor allows for highly accurate continuous autofocus for video, shooting in up to 1080/60p and super slow 240 fps footage. The camera’s f/2.2 lens aids in achieving greater noise reduction and the Plus model includes optical image stabilization. See here for more information from Videomaker.
Samsung Galaxy S5
The S5 features a brilliant, high resolution, 5.1-inch display, excellent battery life and is IP67 certified, meaning it is dust proof and capable of being submerged under three feet of water for up to 30 minutes. It records in various resolutions up to full HD — and even UHD 4K (3840 x 2160) — in multiple video and audio formats. Color reproduction and dynamic range are very good, as are textures and fine details. Low light shooting produces impressive results, rolling shutter is very minor and there are even three slow motion settings which produce smooth, fluid results. See here for the full Videomaker review.
There you have it — a broad array of popular video capture devices. We’ve given you the haystack; now it’s up to you to find that one shining needle that’s just right for you. Let your decision be guided by the type of projects you intend to shoot, and of course, your budget. Happy shooting everyone!
All I’ve Got Is This Point-And-Shoot or Smartphone Camera! Now What?
At the beginning of this article we made the point that it is crucial that you acquaint yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of your device and how to get the most out of it in order to achieve the results you desire. Point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones make great cases in point, as both are capable of producing some pretty decent footage, in spite of having far fewer features and manual controls than their photo and video dedicated cousins. Here are five tips to help you get the most out of your Smartphone or point-and-shoot camera.
Steady as she goes: You’re much more likely to get sharp, well-focused images by keeping the camera as still as possible. Hold it with both hands close to your body with your elbows tucked in to your abdomen and control your breathing. Alternatively, prop it on or against a stable object, or you could even buy an inexpensive table top tripod.
Loads of light: Phone cameras have very small sensors and therefore require lots of light to produce great photos and video. Try to shoot outside in the daylight when you can; otherwise, turn on as many lights as necessary to light the scene adequately. If those options don’t work or aren’t available, then see if your phone has a high dynamic range mode (HDR) and give that a try.
Learn — and use — the settings: As with any camera, take the time to become familiar with how focus, exposure, ISO, white balance and other settings are accessed and adjusted. Then, take the time prior to shooting to set them up properly for optimal focus, exposure and so forth.
Explore related apps: Apps exist that will extend the functionality of your camera such as shallow depth of field simulation, color manipulation and much more. Take the time to locate and try out a few.
Take a class: A class in basic photo/videography will teach you much about proper lighting, framing, editing and so forth. Such classes abound in adult schools and community colleges. Heck you might even be able to find some online training or even face-to-face weekend workshops you can attend.
Contributing Editor Mark Holder is a video producer and trainer.