Smartphones put 4K video in our pockets — but there’s still a lot they can’t do. Try finding a 50x optical zoom in a smartphone. Or a one-inch sensor. Or advanced manual settings. And with a dedicated video camera, you won’t ever have to delete apps to make room for more footage.
The number of new video cameras launched each year, however, is slowly dwindling — if you exclude the growing but nascent 360-degree category, that is. But as the options decrease, the feature list increases — because a video camera better have a long list of features not found on a smartphone if it’s going to attract anyone.
Chances are, a smartphone may be enough for you, but if you’re ready to step up to a real camera, here are the best video cameras you can buy right now.
Why should you buy this: Beautiful 4K footage from a large, one-inch sensor and bright, zoom lens.
Who’s it for: Those who aren’t afraid to drop some cash for great image quality.
How much will it cost: $1,800
Why we picked the Sony AX700:
Sony’s one-inch sensors have dominated the compact camera market for years. And while those same sensors are much newer to video, the larger sensor shows promise for video quality that’s way above the average camcorder. The 14.2 megapixel one-inch sensor gathers more light than traditional 1/2-inch and 1/3-inch sensors common to camcorders, bringing a serious image quality boost over the typical consumer camcorder. 4K is recorded at 30 frames per second and 100 megabits per second.
However, the larger a sensor is, the harder it is to put a long zoom lens in front of it. Fortunately, Sony still managed to tack on a 12x zoom to the AX700. The f/2.8-4.5 aperture is bright for the category, and a built-in neutral density filter will assist when the surroundings are too bright, helping to keep the shutter speed down so that your video doesn’t look too jittery.
The sensor and lens work together with a 273-point phase detection autofocus for smoother focusing with more accurate subject tracking. Advanced features like HDR, a 960 fps super slow motion mode, hot shoe connection, and S-Gamut and S-log color grading give the AX700 professional-level features.
On the exterior, the camera offers a handful of manual controls including a multifunction lens ring that can control focus or zoom. Dual SD card slots allow for plenty of storage and uninterrupted recording.
The $1,800 price tag is nothing to blink at, but a handful of video cameras with similar features sit at even higher prices. Canon also has a video camera series with a 1-inch sensor and 4K, but it starts at $2,500. For a compact, high-resolution fixed lens video camera, the AX700 is the one to beat.
Best consumer 4K video camera
Why should you buy this: 4K resolution without the four-figure price.
Who’s it for: The serious consumer that wants solid video quality without spending a fortune.
How much will it cost: $800
Why we picked the Panasonic HC-VX1:
The Panasonic VX1 packs in both 4K 30 fps videos and a solid 24x zoom lens, so the video camera earns big points for versatility. The 1/2.5-inch sensor is smaller than the one-inch sensors on the market, but better than the average smartphone. The lens, besides the wide zoom range, also has a bright f/1.8-4 aperture. And if zoom is more important than resolution, a 48x intelligent optical-digital zoom combo crops the 4K down to plain old HD.
Besides the high resolution sensor and bright zoom lens, the VX1 also boasts three different types of stabilization for smoother handheld shots. Two shooting modes are designed specifically for tougher high-contrast scenes, with Active Contrast and HDR Movie options.
Those features are wrapped up in a standard camcorder body, with a 3-inch, touch-enabled screen. For around $800, the VX1 is a good bridge between cheaper HD options and $1,000-plus models.
Best cheap video camera
Canon Vixia HF R800
Why should you buy this: Record an entire little league game with enough zoom to get up close to your favorite player.
Who’s it for: Consumers who want the zoom and long recording times that they can’t find on a smartphone.
How much will it cost: $250
Why we picked the Canon Vixia HF R800:
The Canon Vixia HF R800 may not have 4K or a huge sensor, but it plops a huge 32x zoom lens on the front that can be expanded all the way to 57x using the advanced digital zoom option hidden in the manual settings. The 1080p HD at about 60 fps probably isn’t going to win any contests for image quality, but it’s a good video camera for recording family memories and outings.
Despite the cheap price point, the HF R800 brings a lot to the table. Dynamic image stabilization controls camera shake on three different axis, slow and fast-motion options can create slow-motion or time-lapse sequences, and the Highlight Priority Mode will keep clear skies and other bright objects properly exposed.
The HF R800 also uses a touch screen and stores video to SD cards, but if you want built-in storage, look at the slightly pricier Canon Vixia R82 or R80. Arguably, the best part about the R800 is its $250 price.
Best action camera
GoPro Hero6 Black
Why should you buy this: Great image stabilization and 4K/60 fps video.
Who’s it for: Anyone with a love for POV videos or who needs a camera small enough to fit anywhere.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the GoPro Hero6 Black:
“Action” camera is becoming a misleading title. These tiny cameras can be used in a much wider variety of settings than the name entails, from (yes) nabbing extreme sports shots to recording Netflix-level movies. The GoPro Hero6 can handle pretty much anything you can ask of a tiny camera.
While GoPro is seeing more competition than ever before, 4K at 60 fps and incredible electronic image stabilization help keep the Hero6 at the front of the pack (the $100 price reduction since launch doesn’t hurt, either). 4K/60 is saved in the HVEC format, which requires a newer phone or computer to process, but even the more approachable 4K/30 footage is quite good. The Hero6 also records better color and dynamic range than earlier models, and offers up to 240 fps high-speed recording for super slow-motion playback.
Even with the enhanced tech inside, the Hero6 still feels familiar for users of earlier GoPro models. The body is waterproof without a case (though deep dives will require one) and a touchscreen makes the camera easier to navigate. GoPro is also doing some unique things with software; its QuikStories feature will automate the editing process and select the best moments from your videos to cut together. The Hero6 was out top pick for action even before the company dropped the price, and now it’s an even better buy at $400.
Our full GoPro Hero6 review
Best hybrid camera for serious video work
Panasonic Lumix GH5S
Why should you buy this: A professional video camera in a still camera body.
Who’s it for: Serious videographers that want the flexibility of multiple lenses and high-quality 4K video
How much will it cost: $2,500
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5S:
While all still cameras today have decent video modes, most limit recording time to 29 minutes and 59 seconds or less, making them not so ideal for recording long events like little league games, weddings, or school plays. The Panasonic Lumix GH5S (as with its more photo-oriented cousin, the Lumix GH5) has no such limitations — you can keep shooting video until the memory card is full or the battery dies (which is around 120 minutes of continuous recording).
Unlike the GH5, the GH5S even has the option of recording in cinematic DCI 4K, at 4,096 x 2,160 pixels — wider than the Ultra HD standard of 3,840 x 2,160. More impressive, the camera can shoot both versions of 4K at up to 60 fps. Because the GH5S only has a 10-megapixel sensor, it doesn’t produce the highest quality still photos, but it is considerably better in low light than the standard GH5 when it comes to video.
The GH5S also packs in several extras that pros and serious enthusiasts look for — including V-LogL and Hybrid Log Gamma along with LUT displays. It can also use time code sync to record with other cameras.
Users looking for a photo-video hybrid may want to consider the standard GH5, which offers twice the resolution and 5-axis image stabilization. As a pure video camera, the GH5S is tough to beat without moving into the world of true cinema gear.
Our full Panasonic Lumix GH5S review