Whether you just want a handy device for casual shooting or you earn a living producing broadcast-quality professional video, you can find a camcorder that’s right for you. Camcorders span the gamut from pocket-size devices to shoulder-mounted professional models to twin-lens 3D models. We have recommendations based on our own camcorder reviews at the bottom of this article.
While it's common for people to carry a smartphone with fairly advanced photo and video capabilities, the latest generation iPhones particularly, we're going to concentrate on dedicated camcorders for now.
Throughout the year we have looked at a variety of camcorders for all levels, so there's no question that you can also find something to match any size wallet: Camcorder costs range from less than a hundred pounds to thousands. Here’s what you’ll get in each camcorder class.
Types of camcorder
The darlings of the YouTube set, pocket camcorders are great for anyone looking for low cost and convenience in an HD camcorder. These camcorders are popular because of their supreme convenience and portability: Stick one in your backpack or purse, shoot some video when inspiration strikes, plug the camcorder into your computer, and upload your work to your favourite sharing or social networking site.
Many pocket camcorders use the MPEG-4/H.264 codec; it requires relatively little horsepower, so you can pipe video into your computer very quickly. Most pocket camcorders have a flip-out USB jack that you can plug directly into your desktop computer or laptop; you don’t need to fiddle with a cable.
Pocket camcorders are only slightly thicker and taller than a smartphone, and they cost well under £100, which makes them practical stocking stuffers for Christmas. Just don’t expect too much from them. Their small lenses, “lossy” MPEG-4 codec, lack of manual controls, and tiny on-board microphones yield inferior video and audio quality compared to conventional camcorders. Also, be sure to check whether the pocket camcorder you're considering uses fixed internal storage or lets you use a removable memory card to store your footage.
High definition (HD) is all the rage, so should you even bother considering a standard definition (SD) camcorder? If you’re looking ahead to the future, no. But if you need something inexpensive but still full-featured right now, maybe.
SD is slowly fading from the scene, but for budget-conscious buyers who want to shoot decent-quality video, it can be a cost-effective option. Plenty of good-quality SD camcorders are available reasonably priced; that’s about half the price of the equivalent HD models. Standard definition video files are smaller and easier to work with, and you can render them quickly on a less-powerful computer, store many more hours of SD than HD video to your hard drive, and back up to DVD more easily. Nearly all current SD models use flash memory.
HD consumer camcorders
If you want better HD video quality in a camcorder and more options, but also want a unit that's portable, reasonably priced, and easy to use, the traditional consumer camcorder may be for you.
These models are bigger than pocket camcorders, but not by much—you can easily slip one into a large coat pocket. Besides capturing video of much better quality, these camcorders offer more options and controls, and they
Most HD consumer camcorders use AVCHD, a codec that imposes heavy demands on your computer but preserves most of the original video's richness and crispness. Most of the components are scaled up from the pocket camcorder: You get more memory, bigger lenses and sensors, and sharper, more spacious LCD panels—sometimes with touchscreen controls.
The pricier conventional cams offer features similar to what you find on professional and other high-end (prosumer) models, such as mic jacks, hot shoes for accessories like external video lights and microphones, and manual controls for focus, shutter speed, aperture, and other settings.
One feature that has largely disappeared from the conventional lineup is the eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF). LCD panels have become remarkably crisp and vivid, but many experienced users prefer EVFs because they cut down on glare and save on battery power. With the increased power demands of an always-on LCD panel and with the camcorder recording data-rich HD video, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to battery life.
HD prosumer camcorders
You’ve used conventional camcorders for some time, learning their ins and outs while shooting birthday parties and picnics. Now you’re ready to take the next step—maybe even taking on paid jobs such as shooting weddings or shooting B roll for a professional videographer. In those cases, a prosumer camcorder may be for you.
Prosumer camcorders offer a few advantages over mainstream consumer models: higher quality components (especially sensors and lenses), extensive manual controls and shooting modes, and in many cases true 24p (24-frames-per-second progressive) shooting to produce video that closely resembles motion picture film.
Prosumer models also provide better audio quality and audio options. Audio often gets short shrift in lower-end models, but many experienced users value clean, crisp audio as much as top-notch video. During a corporate shoot, for example, it’s important to be able to hear the speaker clearly.
Most prosumer models let users add adapters to upgrade to professional XLR audio connections. These balanced-audio connections dramatically reduce line noise and hum, even if you run long cables from a tripod-mounted camcorder at the back of the auditorium to a microphone positioned near the stage.
Prosumer camcorders tend to be larger and heavier than their consumer-oriented cousins, and for good reason. A large, well-balanced camcorder is much easier to stabilise than an ever-shrinking consumer camcorder, resulting in less-shaky video. The increased size also accommodates a larger number of manual controls, such as rotatable rings for focus and aperture controls, and dedicated buttons to set white balance. It’s much easier to have a physical control at hand than to waste time poking around for it in the LCD screen menu.
Most prosumer models retain the electronic viewfinder—useful for avoiding the sun’s glare during shooting—and it’s often easier to hold the camcorder steady when you’re holding it up to your eye.
As you take more and more jobs, video archiving becomes more important, both to build your own portfolio and to keep backups of work shot for your clients. For these reasons, many prosumer models still use DV tape, often in addition to removable flash memory. Because of its reliability and durability, DV tape remains one of the most popular video archive media, but robust forms of flash memory such as Compact Flash are making serious inroads.
Twin-lens 3D camcorders
If you'd like to boldly go where few home-video enthusiasts have gone before—the third dimension—then you might want to check out a 3D camcorder. While it's possible to recreate a 3D effect in still images with a single lens, you'll need a twin-lens setup to record 3D video. A few options are available now: Full HD camcorders with two built-in lenses, detachable 3D conversion lenses for high-definition camcorders, and pocketable models with two built-in lenses. Sony's Full 3D Handycam camcorder (HDR-TD20V) and the JVC 3D Everio GS-TD1B are two current examples.
Just remember, 3D is a different beast altogether. Here are the major things to consider if 3D sounds enticing. First and foremost, you'll need a 3D TV or a 3D-capable computer setup for playing back your footage in full, three-dimensional glory. Second, in order to play back your 3D footage, you'll likely need to connect your camcorder to your 3D TV via HDMI and use it as a playback device. And third, you'll need to make sure that your video-editing software supports 3D footage if you intend to edit your clips.
At this stage, we'd recommend a 3D camcorder only for the unintimidated. If you're up to the challenge, you could become a true 3D video pioneer, because there isn't much competition out there in terms of 3D-minded directors. Besides, all the 3D video-capture devices on the market also shoot 2D video, so you're not locked into the third dimension if you don't get the hang of it.
Video-capable digital SLRs
Use a still camera to shoot professional-quality video? It’s not as crazy as it seems. The latest DSLR cameras are video-capable, capturing HD video as well as excellent still images. For the money, video-capable DSLRs offer exceptionally large sensors and very good lenses, so users can produce excellent video.
The video is so good, in fact, that DSLR-shot video is cropping up in TV and film productions. HD video DSLRs offer a combination of small size and strong depth-of-field control, so users can shoot from locations that are too cramped for a bulky professional camcorder.
HD-capable DSLRs are not for everyone, though, especially for people interested in shooting and editing long footage. Most of these cameras shoot MPEG-2 video, which can choke home-editing station setups once file sizes get larger than a few gigabytes (only about 10 to 15 minutes of full HD video). TV and film producers rarely feel limited by this size restriction, because they shoot short scenes, but casual shooters sometimes want to shoot longer footage. Many of these cameras offer only manual focus in video mode, which everyday shooters may find too much of a hassle to operate.
Pro-level camcorders are very pricey, but they're an essential investment if you want to make video production your life’s work. You'll find a vast array of models designed for different types of shooting environments, but in general you'll get the highest quality components available in camcorders, especially lenses, and you can customise operation in many more ways than you can with less-expensive camcorder types.
Many pro-level camcorders let you swap lenses, so you can optimise your video acquisition for the shooting environment. For example, you can switch to a wide-angle lens for tight camera work in a small room or set, and then swap in a zoom lens for greater depth of field in outdoor shoots. Most pro camcorders are larger than other models, and they permit extensive customisation via a wide range of programmable buttons, dials, and rocker switches that let you tailor the camcorder controls to your needs.
Pro camcorders offer redundant controls arranged around the camera body and handle so that you have convenient access to your important controls—whether you mount the unit on a tripod, set it on your shoulder, or hold it low for ground-level shoots. Most pro models come with built-in XLR connectors—no adapters needed—for clean, noise-free audio.
In the pro-video world, video archiving is critical. Many of these camcorders use hard-disk drives and tape for archiving and data durability, but camcorder makers are adding Compact Flash (CF) slots, too. CF cards are bigger than SD cards, and they’re easier to handle, faster, and more durable.
Camcorder shopping tips
Are you ready to buy a digital camcorder right now? Here are some lightning-fast tips to help you find a camcorder that's right for you.
Check out the LCD screen in daylight, if possible. Some screens will wash out in bright sunlight, and you'll want to make sure you can easily see what you're recording under all conditions.
Look at the lens' optical zoom ratio instead of its digital zoom ratio. With a digital zoom, the camcorder is merely enlarging the image in the viewfinder instead of giving you a genuinely closer look. The optical zoom spec is much more important—you'll want at least 10X optical zoom.
For longer recording times, buy an extra, higher-capacity battery. The battery that comes with most camcorders may last only an hour or so. You can buy a longer-lasting battery, so factor that into your cost if you think you'll need it. (Remember, though, that larger batteries add to the camera's weight.)
Front-mounted microphones get better results. Top-mounted microphones tend to capture the voice of the person using the camera, drowning out everything else. If you want the best sound on a conventional camcorder, factor in for an external microphone. Make sure, of course, that your camcorder has a place for you to plug it in.
Try out the camera's controls before you buy, which we know can be difficult if you are ordering online. Sometimes the smallest camcorders can be hard to use, especially if you have large hands. A larger model may work better for you if it's more comfortable to handle. Make sure that a touchscreen-based camcorder has a responsive and intuitive interface.
Check out exposure controls. All camcorders offer a fully automatic mode, but some models have manual and semi-manual exposure modes. For example, some models let you shoot at slower shutter speeds than others, or have aperture settings that allow more light in. Many also offer scene modes, which you may be familiar with from digital still cameras.
Low-light options let you shoot in dim settings. Many cameras offer a long shutter mode to help you capture images in darkness, and a few offer an infrared light for shooting in total darkness.
If you’re planning to edit footage yourself, make sure your computer is up to the task. Your computer should have a 2.0GHz or greater multicore CPU and at least 2GB of RAM; 4GB or more would be much better. If you use iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements, you can reliably edit AVCHD formatted video. And of course anything on a higher level such as Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere also works fine.
We tested a number of consumer HD camcorders over the past year and have come up with a few we can easily recommend.
The removable lens nature doesn’t only stretch to the feature set of the Sony VG20, as the image quality reflects. With the amount of manual controls on offer, as well as the inputs and versatility of the extra lenses, the Sony VG20 is perfect for the advancing amateur or aspiring independent filmmaker. We gave it five stars.
If you’ve got the cash, and the desire, the Canon XA10 is a camcorder with few flaws. The zoom is impressively versatile and controls easy to access, with only the small viewfinder a significant negative, dwarfed by the likes of the huge storage capacity and XLR inputs. Another five star camcorder.
With a gigantic hard drive, full manual controls and the ability to shoot in 3D (should you ever need it) the Panasonic HDC-HS900 isn’t a bad purchase.
It goes without saying, but without the correct TV setup the JVC GS-TD1 is largely pointless. The 3D quality is among the best we’ve seen from a consumer camcorder, but the proprietary files means playback is limited to a direct TV connect. It's a decent camcorder.
The best of the rest
We were quite impressed with the quality of the Sony Handycam HDR-PJ760V. This camcorder can intelligently compensate for exposure and minimise artifacts in challenging shooting situations, such as shooting directly into the sun. The device's optical image stabilisation system works phenomenally well with little motion jitter, while the the surround-sound stereo mics did a great job picking up ambient sound.
We were also taken with the Panasonic HC-V700M, a compact, full HD camcorder. It is mostly easy to use, shoots exceptional video, and comes with numerous well-implemented extras. The lens cover snaps open and shut when you turn the device on and off. There's a light for shooting video and a flash for still shots. The camcorder comes with a generous 16GB of internal memory plus a slot that accepts SDXC (up to 64GB) memory cards. It’s also one of the most affordable models we've seen to offer RGB as well as composite video output. The moderately priced Canon Vixia HF-M40 combines ease of use, flexibility, and fine video image quality with its video-specific CMOS image sensor.
In the pocket-sized arena, we were fairly fond of JVC’s Everio GZ-V500, which tries to pack some big camcorder prowess into a pocket-sized case, and mostly succeeds. If you’re looking for a low-cost HD camcorder with awesome zoom, it's hard to beat JVC’s Everio GZ-E200. In the pocket camcorder category, the Sony Bloggie Live is an impressive option, with wireless sharing features that you won't find in any other model.