Professional camcorders are often smaller, lighter, less expensive, and have more controls than other camera options. With so many choices on the market, from affordable cinema cameras to DSLRs to mirrorless cameras, the advantages of a fixed-lens camcorder may not be as easy to see as they once were, but they’re definitely still there.
At the end of this article, we’ll go over some of the special considerations unique to this form factor. But first, here are the best camcorders currently on the market.
Best beginner camcorder
The Panasonic HC-VX1 is an affordable camera with a good looking image, better than average low light performance and UHD 4K recording. With loads of light, the image quality of the Panasonic HC-VX1 is impressive, especially for its small sensor. Add in its 25mm to 600mm zoom and three optical image stabilizer systems, and the HC-VX1 shines above the rest. The 1/2.5-inch back-illuminated MOS sensor offers impressive image capture even at 12 decibels (dB) of gain. Although at that level there is significant noise, it still has good color reproduction. This means that if you find yourself in a less than ideal lighting situation, it’s likely you will still be able to capture something worth watching.
Overall, with a top resolution of UHD 4K at 30 fps and the ability to capture up to 26-megapixel stills, Panasonic crams a lot of value into the HC-VX1 — all for $800.
Best enthusiast camcorder
The Sony NXCAM HXR-NX80 offers all the features you want and need out of a camcorder. From hybrid autofocus to Hybrid Log-Gamma, the NX80 is feature-rich. Shooting up to 960 frames per second in Slow and Quick mode and up to 120 frames per second in HD, the camera shoots up to 100 Megabits per second in UHD 4K and offers SLog3/S-Gamut3 picture profiles. It also features built-in neutral density (ND) filters preset at 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64.
Paired with the NX80’s one-inch Exmor CMOS sensor is a 12-times optical zoom lens with a good maximum aperture of f/2.8 – f/4. The 35mm equivalent focal range is 29mm to 348mm. Dual SD card slots allow you to either extend your record time or record proxies simultaneously. Overall the NX80 offers solid usability and delivers good quality images for around $2,300.
Best professional camcorder
The Sony PXW-Z190 has three 1/3-inch CMOS sensors. It can capture up to 8-bit 4K video at 60 fps and 10-bit HD 4:2:2 to SD cards. It has a 25-times optical zoom, giving it a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28.8mm to 720mm. Sony also includes their electronic variable ND filter first released in the FS5. Seven stops of variable ND gives outdoor shooters loads of latitude. This means you can keep the f-stop low and the depth of field shallow. The camera also supports the HLG HDR workflow — HLG is the only HDR standard that is backward-compatible with SDR viewing.
One of our favorite features on the Z190 is that you can assign each one of the two record buttons to a different SD card. The dual card slots also allow for simultaneous 4K recording and HD proxy capture. In addition, the camera has built-in 2.4/5 GHz Wi-Fi. This allows for remote control of the iris, zoom, focus and white balance from your smartphone.
If you’re a content creator who needs a camera with a fast workflow and you don’t have control over the situations you shoot in, the Z190 is a great choice. Newsgathers, documentarians and event videographers would all benefit from this camera’s toolset. The Sony Z190 goes for $3,750.
Special considerations for camcorders
You can get an overview of the important tech specs to consider before any camera purchase in our article on How to buy a camera. However, there are a couple of considerations that are unique to this particular form factor.
On a fixed lens camcorder, the lens is custom-designed for that camera. While this may not greatly affect image quality, it does typically improve things like autofocus and image stabilization. These features can make a camcorder much easier to shoot with.
Cinematographers are known to stick with certain lenses that reproduce color and contrast exactly as desired. Lens makers have caught on. They strive to keep the look of their lenses consistent over their entire line, from cinema lenses to still camera lenses to camcorder lenses.
For example, Zeiss lenses are known for producing high contrast images with cool colors; Canon is known for lenses that produce warm colors with less contrast. Leica lenses produce images that have more balanced color and contrast. If you’re trying to match the look of footage shot with lenses from Canon, Zeiss, Leica and others, finding a camcorder with that glass is a good start.
Just keep in mind that a lens is not a magic wand, it’s just a tool.
Just keep in mind that a lens is not a magic wand, it’s just a tool. That tool combines with others including your camera, lighting design, and production design to create your final look.
There are a lot of lens options on the market. Why would you choose a camera with a fixed zoom lens? Many ENG camera operators choose to shoot with the same zoom lens on their camera, even though the B4 lens mount offers many other lens options. Perhaps, this is because the focal range is sufficient to get the shots that they need and the aperture range is also adequate. They really don’t need any other lenses. This approach holds true for many other types of shooting. It’s not uncommon to see all the Steadicam shots on a feature film captured using a single zoom lens. You might find that the same is true for your production workflows.
Often, it’s easiest to compare the focal range of camcorder lenses by referring to their equivalent zoom range in 35mm full-frame. Many cameras have a 10X optical zoom. This often translates to covering a 35mm FF equivalent of approximately 30mm to 300mm.
Beware of zoom ranges that include digital zoom. When an optical zoom is used to push from a wide to a telephoto shot, the camera still captures the full active area of the image sensor. When digital zoom is used, the camera is actually cropping the active area of the image sensor. For this reason, a digital zoom can often degrade image quality. The camera is actually looking at a smaller number of pixels than the output resolution.
For example, a camera with a UHD 4K image sensor may have an active sensor resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels. However, if you use a 4X Digital Zoom, your active image area will then only be 1920 x 1080. This will then be scaled back up to 3840 x 2160 causing a significant loss of detail in the image. Depending on the scaling capabilities of the camera, you may see a shift in color and contrast as well.
External controls and connectivity
One of the main advantages of using a camcorder over a DSLR or mirrorless camera is access to manual controls. You’ll also get more input and output ports on the camera. Many smaller cameras lack video outputs, audio outputs and even microphone inputs. While most controls are accessible through the menu, many controls on smaller cameras, such as audio levels, are not there at all.
Likewise, not many zoom lenses have powered zoom controls built-in. This type of control can make your lens a lot easier and faster to adjust. Additionally, many new camera lenses lack manual iris control, which can make certain operating situations very challenging. These features are standard on most fixed-lens professional camcorders.
As you shop for a new camcorder, consider which features and settings you’ll need to access most frequently. Do you often move between indoor and outdoor shooting locations? Quick access to white balance control will speed up production. Exposure changing with every shot? Make sure manual iris control is an option. Customizable function buttons are another feature to look out for.
Also, consider what additional accessories you’ll need to support your workflow. If you need to connect an external microphone (or two), be sure to check what audio inputs are offered. If you want to use an external recorder, note whether the camcorder features HDMI output, SDI out or both.
What do you want your audience to see?
Your stylistic choices and your practical needs will dictate the gear you’ll want to shoot with. If you want your audience to see vivid images on a big film festival screen, you’ll want a camcorder with great color. Need to stream your video live? There are cameras built for just that. If you want a camcorder that can give you a cinematic look but is still good for run-and-gun shooting, a versatile model is your best option.
With a fixed-lens camcorder, you’ll save the expense of buying multiple camera lenses. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about leaving the one you need most at home. Whether you’re web streaming live events, creating YouTube videos, shooting indie films, or doing a little bit of everything, there’s a professional camcorder out there to suit your needs.
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