Remember the ’90s? This was a huge decade for video production. In 1995, the DV standard was introduced and quickly adopted by all major video camera manufacturers, leading to a unified digital video format for both consumer and professional use. The slimmed-down MiniDV version allowed for smaller-than-ever camcorders to be built, and by the early 2000s, gadget stores across America were filling display cases with inexpensive digital camcorders that could comfortably fit in one hand while packing in long zooms and incredible (for the time) image quality.
Digital video changed everything. The quality was better than analog, you could re-record over the same tapes multiple times without issue (other than mechanical wear and tear), and you could pipe the footage straight into your computer via Firewire (remember that?) and edit it into a Hollywood blockbuster right at home. It was crazy.
Camcorders, in the traditional sense, are much rarer today. Their functionality has been built into everything from high-end DSLRS and mirrorless cameras to phones, leaving most consumers with little need to own a dedicated video camera. Meanwhile, on the high end, cinema cameras are becoming more affordable, providing a better option for independent filmmakers and film students who previously would have worked on camcorders.
Advantages of a camcorder
Camcorders may represent a niche product category now, but there are reasons they still exist and companies continue to churn out new models year after year. Here’s why you may want to consider one in place of — or in addition to — another type of camera.
The number one reason to buy a camcorder today is for the lens. Camcorders tend to make do with very small imaging sensors compared to a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and are sometimes even smaller than what you have in your phone. This leads to poor low light performance, but it allows for much longer zoom lenses. Nowadays, you can throw a rock in an electronics store and hit a camcorder with a 20X or longer zoom, something simply not found on larger-sensor cameras. This Panasonic model even features a 50X zoom, and is just $200.
A long zoom is great for filming everything from little league games to school plays to travel vlogs. While you could technically get similar levels of zoom by using multiple lenses on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a camcorder offers another advantage: powered, variable-speed zoom control. With a camcorder’s rocker switch, you can create smooth, slow zooms to reveal and introduce a location, or quick punch-ins to highlight action. Manually zooming a DSLR lens is much more difficult to do precisely and smoothly.
To avoid tariffs, many camera manufacturers will limit the video recording time of their photography-oriented cameras to just 29 minutes 59 seconds (Panasonic is one exception to this rule). If a camera can record 30 minutes of video, it becomes classified as a video camera and is subject to higher import fees in some markets. But camcorders embrace their role as video cameras and impose no such time limits.
This gives camcorders a clear advantage for event videography. Wedding receptions, live performances, sports, or in anything else where you may need an uninterrupted shot that could last more than half an hour, a camcorder is the easiest way to go.
In addition to having no record time limit, camcorders generally allow you to swap out the stock battery for a higher-capacity version to further extend operating time. Camcorders with “open back” designs are built to accommodate such larger batteries.
Even if an extended battery doesn’t give you enough time, camcorders generally allow you to power them straight from a wall socket, too. This is great for filming interviews, particularly for one-person crews who may not be able to monitor battery life during the interview.
Microphone inputs are common across all manner of camcorders, but most midrange-and-up DSLRs and mirrorless cameras also offer 3.5mm mic jacks. However, if recording professional quality sound matters to you, high-end camcorders bring advanced audio features to the table not found on hybrid cameras, like XLR inputs for recording balanced audio, mounting points for attaching microphones to the camera, and dedicated dials for adjusting volume levels.