This article comes courtesy of sales associate Kevin Felts. Kevin’s vast experience shooting professional video has taught him a thing or two about video cameras, and while the HDSLR may get all the attention today, he makes a compelling case for the tried and true camcorder of olde.
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Until a few short years ago, a camcorder was the only way to record video. Today, the vast majority of digital cameras shoot HD video regardless of their size, type, or price point. Even the least expensive point-and-shoot cameras have motion recording capabilities.
This technological revolution has quickly changed the landscape of image capture, and what consumers and professionals alike expect for their camera-purchasing dollar. We all want it all, and for less today than we paid for it yesterday. If it doesn’t cost less, we insist that it does more, and for the most part, camera manufacturers have delivered.
At Pro Photo Supply, we cater to professionals and amateurs alike, and carry a comprehensive set of imaging tools from cameras and tripods to software and lighting. Every day we get customers looking for the latest and greatest in imaging tools, and many need to combine as many features in one product as they can: high-quality stills, high-definition video with various options, etc. They want the “Swiss Army Knife” of cameras. Fortunately, we can deliver on that promise. But just like the Swiss Army Knife, a camera, no matter how versatile, has its limits.
Let’s take the now-lowly camcorder for instance. Once the one and only king of video capture, it has been relegated to the back of the imaging bus. Camcorders, whether they are consumer models or spendy sophisticated units preferred by pros, are now considered a one trick pony.
Unlike its new upstart cousin the HDSLR, interchanging lenses on the vast majority of camcorders is not possible. Also, if a camcorder is capable of recording a still image, it’s at a vastly smaller pixel count than its counterpart, and the imaging chip is smaller. With most camcorders, it’s a challenge if not impossible to get that yummy shallow depth of field (aka “bokeh”) that everyone clamors for. And the single lens limits how wide and how narrow the field of view can get. So why would anyone want such a limiting imaging device? Oh, let me count the ways!
First, I admit that I am biased. I’m an ‘old school’ video shooter. I got my video chops lugging around cameras with separate recorders, each nearly the size and every bit the weight of a microwave oven. They were big, bulky, heavy, produced passable images at best, and cost more than house. To top it off, they suffered (so we did too) with spotty reliability, and required lots and lots of regular maintenance. I don’t miss the “old days” at all. But from the beginning, video specific cameras and camcorders had and have features and tools built into their DNA that makes them much, much easier to use than a still camera pressed into service as a video camera.
First and foremost is the audio recording component. Good audio is just as critical in video production as the images themselves. In a camcorder, it’s easy; just plug in the microphones, get the VU meters dancing properly, and roll. You’re done thinking about audio at that point. It will join you in the edit suite, right along with the picture, synced and ready to go. There’s no sync clap necessary; no need to double-triple check that an off-board audio recorder is recording. No software to buy or download in order to sync audio with video before editing. It’s just there. That is a comfort, and one less thing to worry about.
Then there’s zooming. Now, I don’t zoom a lot. In fact, this is one of the most annoying features I see in amateur video. But, for quickly and effortlessly framing a shot, nothing beats a smooth, fast zoom lens designed specifically for video shooting. The one-lens-fits-all circumstance means I know what my parameters are, and I have to work within them. I don’t have to stop production to find another prime lens, or worry that I didn’t bring the ideal one. I’ve got what I’ve got. It does what it does, and it’s up to me to get the most out of it.
As for viewfinders, nothing beats sticking my eye up to a rubber cup that seals all extraneous light out so that I can properly frame, focus and expose my subject. Yes, I can add an eyepiece to my still camera. But they don’t swivel. Oh wait, I can add a small LCD on a flexible arm, and put my DSLR eyepiece on that…more stuff to buy, more stuff to manage, more stuff to track and maintain. On a camcorder, it’s all there and ready to see up close and personal.
Form is another huge issue. Hand-holding and shooting a video capable still camera while recording video is a challenge without—you guessed it—adding more stuff to the mix. Now I need a shoulder rig. They’re expensive. They’re bulky. They work great and help tremendously (even in stabilizing today’s smaller camcorders.) But, it’s yet another separate piece of equipment that takes time and effort to use. Camcorders are generally designed for holding by hand without any additional hardware, although nothing says you can’t build out a rig for one if you so desire.
Good follow focus with a video-capable still camera demands even more hardware. Still lenses aren’t designed to focus while in motion. So, a follow focus rig has to be attached to the ever-growing amount of stuff that resides on my shoulder rig. I have to set it up for each lens I use. With a camcorder, the lens is designed for steady follow focus. No assembly or adjustments required.
By now you may think I’m just another old school shooter bashing the new tools, favoring the old-fashioned camcorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. I like them both. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. It’s a matter of picking the right tool for the job. The level of the buzz surrounding video capable still cameras is drowning out another very capable tool in video, and that’s a shame. Here are some situations where a camcorder will outshine its still cousins every time:
- 1. Video for news: Still cameras simply do not have the rapid flexibility of the camcorder. When every second counts, a camcorder is up and running almost instantly. Capturing the moment both near and far happens with a quick flick of the zoom button, and audio levels can be monitored in the viewfinder. Just plop the unit on a shoulder and run and gun. Also, the same reasons camcorders are superior for news make them a serious contender for documentary work as well. Yes, shallow depth of field is beautiful; yes, a cinematic approach is often more visually appealing. However, lots of docs even with those cinematic touches, require footage that must be captured quickly and effortlessly, with a minimum of muss and fuss. Besides, in those situations it’s the scene that compels; not the craftsmanship.
- Training Videos: No one cares about bokeh here. One lens will suffice. The picture needs to be clear, understandable, and repeatable. Moving fast and accurately are the keys. It’s much easier to do so with a camcorder.
- Home videos: Want to get good, in-focus video of your child running around like crazy? Good luck with an HDSLR. A camcorder will focus faster, and the powered zoom lens will help you keep a moving subject in the frame more easily. For birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions, keeping fuss and adjustments to a minimum means more time to get the good stuff.
- Technically challenged operators: I would much prefer to hand a camcorder to Kyle from purchasing to record a company meeting than send him out the door with a still camera that does video. Why? Because all I have to do is show him how to turn it on, check the audio, and roll. He doesn’t have to worry about off-board recorders, cabling, or checking every 20 minutes to insure the camera hasn’t reached its recording limit.
- Court Proceedings/Depositions: Here again, easy operation is the key. Set it, start it, and forget it. Everything is captured by simply pressing the “rec” button to start, and pressing it once again to stop. Another issue is power. While most still cameras don’t come with an AC adaptor in the box, most camcorders do. Once it’s plugged into the wall, the concern over monitoring and changing batteries becomes moot.
Finally, camcorders are an easy buying decision. While accessories are always an option and may benefit certain users, the rigs, viewfinders, audio recording devices, and focusing aids common to HDSLRs are not required ad-ons for camcorders. All the critical stuff is built in to one easy-to-use, portable piece of equipment that’s ready to go in an instant. Before you succumb to the buzz, consider taking another look at a camcorder. It’s not the tool for every video job, but it fills far more bills than we currently give it credit for.