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.
Professional versus consumer models
Camcorders cover a wide range of prices, from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars. What separates a professional model from an entry-level one is as much to do with features and functionality (like enhanced audio options) as it is image quality.
If you’re concerned about low light performance, the most important specifications to look at are the sensor size and lens aperture rating. Higher-end models generally have larger sensors, with make them more sensitive to light and tend to improve image quality overall. Unlike DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, there aren’t named formats like “full frame” or “APS-C”. Rather, a camcorder’s sensor is usually just identified by it’s diagonal measurement: 1/2-inch, 1/4-inch, etc.
When it comes to lenses, apertures are also measured in fractions, but look a little different: f/1.8, f/3.5, etc. Here, “f” is the focal length of the lens, but we tend to just ignore that and look at aperture ratings as the number alone. This poses a problem, as it may lead you to think that 3.5 is a bigger aperture than 1.8. In fact, the opposite is true — so just remember the smaller number is better or, for the mathematically inclined, remember that an f-number is the denominator of a fraction.
Professional models may also offer higher quality codecs; that is, the filetype and amount of compression they apply to the video. These are measured in bitrate, so a camera that advertises 25 megabits per second (Mbps) is recording less data than one offering 100Mbps. For casual use, the difference may not even be noticeable, but if you want more flexibility in post production, a higher bitrate will provide better results.
Consumer models do usually have one advantage, however: zoom range. As they tend to use smaller sensors, the lenses can get effectively longer. And this is usually all done within an overall product size that is much smaller than professional models.
For about $1,300, the Canon XA11 offers a 1/2.8-inch sensor, XLR audio inputs, a microphone mount, and much more — but just a 20X zoom. The $200 Panasonic with the 50X zoom we mentioned earlier, the HC-V180K, uses a much smaller 1/5.8-inch sensor and comes with no mic mounts, XLR inputs, or extra direct access control. Digital Trends uses a pair of Sony PXW Z150s for our own daily livestream, which offer considerably larger 1-inch-type sensors but with relatively modest 12x optical zooms.
So, should you buy a camcorder?
This depends entirely on if you have a specific need that only a camcorder can meet. Even as they have improved tremendously over the years, camcorders are no longer the one-size-fits-all video recording solution for the masses. Other devices — from phones to action cameras — better fill that role today. A camcorder, then, isn’t something you buy because you want it — you really need to need it.
While not an exhaustive list, here are some reasons to spring for a camcorder: If you have kids and need to record their games, recitals, or theater performances; if you’re a standup comedian and need to record your sets; if you shoot documentaries and need to record long interviews; if you produce a podcast or livestream and need to run a camera for a long period of time.
Without one of those specific needs, you’re probably fine continuing to get on with your phone, action camera, or DSLR.
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