What Features do you Need on a Pro Camcorder?

In a world of $100 FlipCams, why would you buy a video camera that costs thousands? Features, of course and your personal shooting situation often determines the features you need and the price you’ll pay.

The professional camcorder market is not as intimidating as it was several years ago. These days, a shooter can find a professional-quality camcorder with cutting-edge features at a reasonable price. The video quality of these camcorders continues to improve, while the price continues to drop. Now is a good time to be thinking about an upgrade to a professional camcorder.

Micro Segmentation

Camcorders can be broken down into a myriad of categories. In fact, there are several consumer-level camcorders that can be tweaked to meet the needs of a professional shooter. For example, the Canon HV20/HV30 with a 35mm adaptor can acquire beautiful images for the guerilla filmmaker. So, the term professional camcorder is up for a wide range of interpretation. But, for this Buyer’s Guide, we’ll look at prosumer camcorders, categorically. In the television and film industry, the term professional usually has a $20,000 entry-level price tag. That’s unnecessary for most of us. The demarcation point between consumer and professional camcorders is approximately the $2,000 mark.

Absolute Requirements

Let’s look at some of the features you’ll absolutely need for your next professional camcorder. New camcorders come fully loaded with all sorts of whiz-bang features. The truth is, a good professional camcorder doesn’t need much.

I challenge you to try to find a new prosumer camcorder that’s not HD. Standard-definition camcorders are still out there, but they are the least-expensive models in each manufacturer’s lineup. Most, but not all, HD camcorders can also shoot in SD modes, so, if this is an important feature to you, do a little research first. For the sake of future-proofing your next purchase, make sure your camcorder shoots HD. Yes, it’s gotta be HD.

Professional shooters also need manual control of the lens, specifically the focus. A pro camcorder will not only allow you to selectively focus, but it will also have a manual focus ring on the lens. This is ideal for maximum tactile control. You do not want manual focus to be controlled by a dial, toggle or button. Professional shooters need to be able to quickly set the focus on their camcorders.

Next up is manual exposure. A professional shooter will want to control the camcorder’s iris and shutter speed . An iris ring on the lens is a nice touch, but not absolutely necessary for every professional. Most, if not all, camcorders have a dial or button to control shutter speeds. Typically, shutter speed is kept fairly constant during shoots.

A camcorder’s audio features are also a critical component to a professional rig. At the very least, the camcorder should accept a stereo (2-channel) mic input. There are mainly two types: a 1/8″ stereo mini input or XLR input. Pros tend to prefer the latter. You should also have the ability to manually change the audio levels. This function is usually in the menu of the camcorder, but it’s preferred to have audio ports on the body of the camcorder that will allow you to directly control the audio gain. It’s also preferable to be able to selectively control that channel of audio. Some camcorders will allow you to change only the gain of all channels, universally.

That’s it. To sum it up, you want an HD camcorder with a focus ring, manual exposure controls and a mic input with audio gain you can adjust. We’re done, right? Oh, but, you’re a professional shooter, so you’re picky. Let’s get into the particulars of professional camcorders.

Tactile Control, Part 2

The best of professional camcorders have a great feel to them. The way the manufacturer lays out the buttons and controls can make your shooting experience a joy or a nightmare. To some degree, this is subjective to every shooter, and specific bias comes from the type of shooter you are. If you do a lot of run-and-gun shooting, you’ll gladly sacrifice some tactile niceties for a lightweight camcorder. With that said, there are some common camcorder features that make shooting much more enjoyable for the pro.

As we mentioned, a focus ring is key. It’s also ideal to have a manual zoom ring. Some entry-level prosumer camcorders omit a zoom ring. Try to find a camcorder that has both. If you’re really up for some fun, you can find a camcorder with an iris ring on the lens as well. The Canon XL series recently updated its stock lenses to include the iris ring. This series is a good example of a professional camcorder that has great tactile control built right into the lens. The XL series even has an interchangeable lens system that allows the shooter to put different types of lens to use. You will also find these features available on the JVC GY-HD110/HD200 models.

When we talk about these types of camcorders, we’re looking at body types that are a little larger than the average prosumer camcorder. A larger camcorder is ideal for tactile control, and it gives the shooter some level of authority. However, you will need to consider whether or not you need all this control or if a smaller and lighter camcorder will give some much-needed flexibility in the field.

1-Chip, 3-Chip

It’s ideal to buy a camcorder with 3 imagers (i.e., 3 CCDs or 3 CMOS imagers). However, in many cases, a single, larger imager is better than three itsy-bitsy imagers. For example, a single 1/3″ CMOS sensor may produce better-looking images than three 1/6″ imagers. This concept is up for debate, depending on the application and which camcorders you’re comparing. As a general rule with imagers, always aim for three big ones if you can.

Acquisition Format and Media

Here’s where new technologies are making an impact. Many professionals looking at prosumer camcorders are also looking to edit what they shoot. As such, this is an important topic. Ideally, you will choose a camcorder that will record to a video format and a medium that’s easy to use and easy to archive.

Tape-based solutions are easy and inexpensive to archive. Yet video formats such as HDV need to be captured by your editing application. This could add some additional time to the process. If time is of the essence, this might not be the best solution.

Solid-state memory, such as Panasonic’s P2 media (e.g., Panasonic AG-HVX200/AG-HPX170, etc.) records several video formats to an advanced memory card. Some of these formats are very edit-friendly, meaning you do not need to transcode them, and you can import them just as quickly as you can transfer them to your editing workstation. Sony also has entered this market with its SxS memory cards. On Sony SxS camcorders (e.g., Sony PMW-EX1/EX3), the video format is an advanced MPEG format that may work seamlessly with your editing software, or you may need to transcode it.

No matter what format you choose, check your editing software to make sure it will edit what you shoot. Additionally, check some user forums to see if members are using this camcorder with the software you plan to use. Ask them what their experience has been. You’ll learn a great deal more about how the camcorder’s footage works with the software from these users.

Final Shot

There’s one thing we haven’t talked about yet, and that’s price. It will be the biggest factor in your decision. Price was a much bigger hurdle in the professional market before the prosumer camcorder market matured. Today, with much more competition and new emerging technologies, price has gone down. But don’t underestimate your costs. A camcorder’s price tag typically doesn’t include the cost of additional batteries, camcorder bag, media, filters, microphones, etc. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s not a bad idea to have a look at camcorder packages that include necessary accessories in the price. You might be able to save a few bucks in the end.

Contributing editor Mark Montgomery is an independent video producer.

Manufacturer’s list

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