With so many camcorder options available, it can be difficult to pinpoint which one rules supreme. Truth be told, the best camcorder out there is the one that's best for you.
For some, the act of shopping is a thrilling experience. For others, the mere thought of the activity is enough to cause an outpouring of groans and a gnashing of teeth. Regardless of which category you fit in, shopping is inevitable. As a beginner, or even a seasoned videographer, shopping becomes a necessary function since it provides an opportunity to acquire the gear you need to make a video.
Perhaps one of the most nerve-racking aspects of buying a new camcorder is spending a load of money without knowing if you will be ultimately satisfied; a fear of being disappointed or let down by your new pricey purchase. In order to help negate any ill feeling towards buying a new camcorder, preparation and research is key. Videomaker's 27th annual All Camcorders Buyer's Guide can assist you in making an informed decision, which will help make your camcorder shopping experience exciting - as it should be.
Preparation: Knowing Your Budget
If you've attempted to do any online shopping for a video camera you might already know that a simple Google search for "camcorders" will turn up countless retailers, brands, models and price points. The abundant search results can leave some feeling overwhelmed. One way to narrow the results is to figure out your budget ahead of time.
When budgeting for a new camcorder there are several things you may want to take into consideration - for example, the cost of extra batteries, additional memory (i.e. SD or CF cards), and a camcorder bag to keep your new camera protected. Also consider whether your budget is only for a new camcorder, or if other gear you gotta have will need to be covered by the same budget (a tripod, mics, etc.) - this factor alone will make the available funds for a camcorder shrink significantly.
If budget is your number one determining factor, the process of elimination should start here. Take a look at the accompanying buyer's guide grid and cross out the camcorders that exceed your budget. This will reduce the time it takes to research camcorders that will satisfy your needs while fitting within your budget. Additionally, including a price in a Google search (e.g. camcorders under $500) can help narrow the search results.
Knowing Your Needs
Asking someone which camcorder you should buy can be helpful, but it can also be misleading. Not everyone uses a camcorder in the same way or for the same type of work. For example, someone who makes commercial, corporate or wedding videos may suggest a higher-end camera due to the fact that these cameras come equipped with a plethora of external manual controls, which can lend to increased flexibility in a wide range of shooting environments. Indeed, these are great camcorders, but they're not for everyone.
For many beginner videographers and hobbyists, consumer cameras are completely acceptable to use. They are generally compact, easy to use and have settings that will allow you to shoot in several types of environments. If you're brand new to making videos, consumer cameras are a great way to learn what you like and what you need in a camcorder without having to invest a lot of money right away.
An important step in finding a camcorder that will suit your needs is to ask yourself, "What is the main purpose of this purchase?" Determining what type of videos you plan to make will help you decide what type of camcorder you will need. If you're looking for a recommendation from someone, ask people who are making the same type of videos you would like to make, whether it's professional or just a fun video to commemorate your favorite pastime.
Research: Knowing Your Camcorders
Knowing what you're looking for in video equipment is half the battle. Decide what features you absolutely need and which features you'd like, but aren't completely necessary. Make a list. As you look at the accompanying buyer's guide grid you can easily see which cameras have the features you desire. If you come across a camera function you aren't familiar with, research it. Take this opportunity to educate yourself on the gear you will be buying and using.
Reading camcorder reviews can also be helpful since they provide valuable insight to the functionality and real world usability of the video camera you are looking to purchase. Videomaker has some great reviews on camcorders of all types - from consumer to professional.
What Features Will Your Budget Allow?
Once you have prepared a budget and list of needs, shopping for a camcorder should be a much smoother and time-efficient activity. At this point, you should already know what you're looking for. Now you just need to find it. Let's take a look at some of the camcorders that are available.
The Low Budget Range (Less than $500)
If you have said things like, "I want to find out if I like making videos before I spend a lot of money" or "I don't have a lot of money to spend, but I have a desire to make videos for a hobby" then this is probably the price range you will want to look at initially.
Samsung HMX-H300BX - $350
If you're looking for a camcorder to chronicle your travels with, or to record your children scoring at their big game, the Samsung H300 may be a good option. Weighing in at only a half pound, this petite camcorder is considerably lightweight and small enough to take anywhere. Additionally, its 30x optical zoom will allow you to get close to your subject while shooting at a distance. It records 1920x1080/60i video with an option for 60p at 1280x720 resolution. Features can be accessed with the 3.0-inch LCD touchscreen along with white balance, shutter and focus. However, the H300 must record to an SD/SDHC card. To skip the card, 16GB internal memory is available with the next model up, the Samsung H304, for about $100 more. This camera has no input for external mics.
The Mid Budget Range ($500 - $1,500)
If you have said things like, "I need a camcorder that will give me better image control, while being moderately priced," this could be a good range to shop in. At this price range, you'll start to find larger image sensors than in the lower-priced camcorders. Additionally, camcorders in this range will tend to have more features allowing for more flexibility.
Canon VIXIA HF M52 - $750
One of the newer camcorders in the Canon VIXIA lineup, the HF M52 comes equipped with 32GB of internal memory and an additional SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The 1/3-inch CMOS image sensor will help you maintain image quality in a lower light setting than smaller sensors. The HF M52 records 1920x1080/60i video with options to shoot in 30p and 24p, which are great settings for Web video or a more cinematic feel, respectively. And since one of the first steps to a more professional video is professional sound, a plus on this camcorder is the 1/8-inch input with manual audio controls, and a headphone jack to monitor the incoming signal. Manual control of exposure, as well as a wide range of white balance adjustment is also available.
Panasonic HC-X900M - $1,200
Unlike many similar looking camcorders, the Panasonic X900M contains three ¼-inch MOS sensors (3MOS). 3MOS allows for better color reproduction at lower light levels, which improves the overall image quality. This camcorder comes equipped with 32GB of internal memory and the option to use SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards for additional recording time. Video can be recorded at 1920x1080/60p/60i. Manual controls like focus, zoom and exposure settings can be set using a manual ring, much like the higher-end camcorders. The camera features a built-in 5.1ch mic that allows audio to be recorded in surround, zoom and focus. When an external mic is desired, the X900M also provides a stereo 1/8-inch audio input and a headphone port for monitoring.
The More Budget Range ($1,500 - $5,000)
If you have said, "I would like to upgrade my existing camcorder, so I can take my videos to the next level" then this is probably the price range you are looking at. Camcorders in this range tend to have features that lean more towards professional equipment. These camcorders will give you more control over the audio and visual aspects of making videos, as well as features like multiple image sensors, XLR inputs and dual memory card slots.
Sony HXR-NX30U - $2,300
Sony's HXR-NX30U is compact, yet offers many desirable features. The camera touts 96GB of internal memory with room to expand with an SD card slot, a large 1/2.88-inch CMOS image sensor, two detachable XLR inputs with manual audio controls, and it records 1920x1080/60p video with additional frame rate options including 60p, 60i, 30p and 24p. While the large 3.5-inch LCD monitor is nice, the icing on this cake is the built-in projector that will allow you to shoot-then-show your video by projecting it onto any flat surface for an image size as big as 100-inches diagonal.
JVC GY-HM600 - $4,700
One of JVC's new ProHD cameras featured at NAB 2012 was the GY-HM600. This camcorder is great for independent productions as it is still relatively affordable and will give you the control you need to produce professional-looking and sounding video. The HM600 features three 1/3-inch CMOS sensors, three built-in ND filters for added control of exposure, two XLR inputs with phantom power supply along with one input for a wireless receiver and two SDHC/SDXC slots for a dual-backup or continuous recording. It can record in a vast amount of resolutions including 1920x1080/60i/30p/24p, 1440x1080/60i, and 1280x720/60p/30p/24p. It also has several options for media format compatibility including MOV (FCP), MP4 (XDCAM EX) and AVCHD, as well as multiple encoding formats (HD MPEG-2, AVCHD, SD H.264). Video can be output via HD/SD-SDI or HDMI.
The "What Budget?" Range ($5,000+)
If you have said, "I would like to make videos while keeping up with the professional video standards in my field," or "I need a camcorder that blows the rest of them away, regardless of cost and required expertise," then this is the range you should be looking in.
Canon XF305 - $8,000
While professional camcorders get much pricier, the Canon XF305 provides an exceptional amount of great features that just aren't found at the lower price points. In addition to three CMOS image sensors, XLR ports, a 4-inch rotating LCD monitor, multiple recording resolutions and frame rates; features like hot-swappable CF memory cards, 4:2:2 color sampling, file-based MPEG-2 compression with an MXF file wrapper, HD-SDI output, genlock input and SMPTE timecode input and output terminals make this camcorder ideal for an array of professional platforms from event videography to independent filmmaking.
A Match Made in Heaven
At the end of the day, buying a new camcorder is exciting. Once you set a budget and realize your needs, finding a video camera that will help you accomplish your goals should be a snap. Take a look at the accompanying buyer's guide grid - we've already done half of your homework for you. Good luck and happy shopping!
Sidebar: When Action Meets the Cam
While many camcorders provide plenty of features, sometimes you need one that can go with you anywhere - from the surf to the snow, without concerning yourself with its possible damage and destruction. POV (point of view) cameras let you capture the action as your create the action, by strapping it to your bike, kite, or body. The GoPro HDHERO2 - $300 provides a more stylized, POV video. It is easily mountable to many surfaces, the optional waterproof casing protects it from the environment, and it stores your adventures on an SDHC memory card (up to 32GB). It has a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor and can record HD video at multiple frame rates. The fixed focus lens allows you to capture a wide 170-degree FOV (field of view), a medium 127-degree FOV, and a narrow 90-degree FOV.
There are tons of wearable and POV cameras, more than we can include here, but another company we've explored has a great little professional unit. The Contour+2 by Contour Inc. has a water resistant cylinder-shaped body, shoots HD video on a 2GB microSD card, connects wirelessly to a mobile for monitoring and has a wide angle lens shooting 170-degree field of view and loads GPS tracking for $500.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's All Camcorder Buyer's Guide
Julie Babcock has worked in all areas of video production.