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Choosing a camcorder for vlogging (video blogging)? I get it—it’s confusing. There are so many, brands, prices, features, and choices, all of which seem to be calling your name when the inevitable GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) kicks in. I wrote about a similar topic, briefly, in my “Video Solutions for Vloggers” article, which also discusses other essential tools for vlogging. However, in this instance, I want to delve a little deeper into the world of camcorders.
"Since so many people are involved in the “vlogosphere,” having good production values can help set your videos apart, helping you attract an audience."
It goes without saying that a camcorder is essential to any vlogger’s kit. After all, the camcorder is what enables you to capture content—e.g. your beautiful visage—for presentation on the World Wide Web. However, not all camcorders are created equal. Since each person has different requirements, skill-sets, and ultimate expectations, to say one camcorder is objectively better than all others regardless of situation would be missing the point (although if that were possible, this article would be shorter). So, I will try to address a spectrum of users, beginning with those who are just starting out, and moving on to more experienced vloggers and special-use cases.
Vlogging (a funny sounding word combining “video” and “blogging,” and not to be confused with the homonym “flogging”), is all the rage these days. And while you could save some money and passably sustain a decent vlog using the camera built into your smartphone, at a certain point stepping up to a dedicated camcorder can really boost the quality of the videos for your vlog. Since so many people are involved in the “vlogosphere,” having good production values can help set your videos apart, helping you attract an audience. So, with which camera do you start out?
The “Jack-of-All-Trades” Option
Panasonic’s HC-V770K Full HD Camcorder is an excellent place to start, for just about anyone. It’s affordable, and it offers high-quality 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second (fps) and even a slow-mo 120 fps mode. A 20x zoom lens gives you many framing and perspective options when composing your shots. This camera is a great starter because it offers solid video quality and ease of use with its automatic exposure modes. When you are ready to introduce a greater degree of exposure and aesthetic control into your content, an easily accessible dedicated manual exposure wheel is located at the front of the camera. A microphone input is also available for when you decide to take the step up into dedicated audio equipment. Accessories such as lavalier and shotgun microphones offer much improved audio quality over the camera’s built-in microphone. When you’re finished recording, videos are stored in the MP4 format to ubiquitous SD cards. This way they will work with PC and Mac in most editing applications. In the interest of quick uploading, untouched MP4 files will work with most video hosting services, such as YouTube and Vimeo, right out of the camera.
As far as action cameras are concerned, GoPro has already become a household name by producing tiny cameras that capture good-quality video with the potential to be mounted on almost anything, anywhere, for capturing your intense sporting adventures. What makes the HERO4 Silver model an attractive choice for the budding adventure vlogger is that it strikes the balance between price, quality, and accessory availability. GoPro cameras are well known for their versatility. Accessory options bolster the GoPros’ versatility, making them waterproof or allowing you to place them in hard-to-reach locations while you control and monitor them remotely. As an aside, the familiar form factor also allows the accessories you buy for them to be compatible with both standard and higher-end models from GoPro, should you choose to upgrade your setup in the future, or add another camera to your arsenal.
When recording musical performances or quick ideas, pristine audio is of the utmost importance. While the camera does record HD video, it’s the audio-recording features that are the main focus of this camera. The Zoom Q8 Handy Video Recorder captures audio by way of two condenser microphones that dominate the top of the camcorder. They are arranged in an “X/Y” pattern for stereo recording without phase cancellation. If your vlog revolves around music creation or promotion, this camera will faithfully reproduce the audio-visual experience of concerts, jams, sessions, or just about any other musical scenario in which you may find yourself.
If you want your vlog to be centered around filmmaking, check out the Canon EOS Rebel T5i. Since the T5i is part of the EOS family of cameras, you can buy (or rent) compatible EOS-system lenses. Having extra lenses gives you options affecting composition and fine aesthetic control over your images not offered in regular camcorders. Using the photography modes can also serve to help you learn proper exposure technique, essential for any aspiring filmmaker. Another advantage to buying into the EOS system is that you can upgrade your camera and retain lens compatibility all the way up to Canon’s professional Cinema EOS line.
A little experience can go a long way. So you’ve already cut your teeth on entry-level gear, and you want to upgrade. That’s understandable, considering that understanding video recording more in-depth will allow you to take advantage of the more advanced functionality inherent in higher-end gear. Gear purchased at this level should still prove useful, even at professional levels. So with that in mind, let’s move on up to some more expensive stuff.
Run and Gun
Run-and-gun vloggers should take a look at the recently announced Canon Vixia HF G40 camcorder. It’s lightweight, records full-HD files at up to 60 fps, and has precise manual control by way of a lens ring and a large zoom rocker. Other features on the HF G40 that usually found in higher-end video cameras include exposure zebra patterns, a color-bar generator, an extendable EVF with an eyecup, and manual focus assist with colored peaking. Dual card slots can be used for "relay" recording or for redundancy. Relay recording is great if you want to shoot an entire event. The camera will automatically switch to the second card when the first one fills up, without dropping frames, so you will have a continuous video over multiple cards. Redundant or dual recording records the same footage to both cards. This is important for mission-critical work, because if one of your cards fails, you will have an immediate backup. Audio-wise, the camera features a standard 3.5mm mic-in and a Canon-proprietary hot shoe for compatible microphones. If you are using a wireless unit, a cold shoe on the top of the camera provides a solid platform to hold the receiver within easy reach, without impeding control access.
Now, if you want to move up into the world of “beyond HD” there are some solid options you can consider, even at this price point. Sony’s FDR-AX100 camcorder proudly wears its “4K” badge of honor, offering UHD (3840 x 2160) video recording at bit rates of up to 100Mbps. Currently, a majority of people don’t have screens that can fully appreciate 4K resolution—the high-resolution files will play back at a higher bit rate over the Web, so there will be a noticeable difference in quality on streaming services like YouTube. The 1"-type sensor on this camera is larger than the ones found in most camcorders, and offers a slightly different aesthetic. You won’t be able to achieve the same blown-out backgrounds the way you can on a large-sensor DSLR or mirrorless camera, but the effect is noticeable enough to make a difference if you compose your image properly. However, having a deeper depth of field will help in keeping your 4K images sharp, as focusing errors are more noticeable at such high resolutions. Some notable features included on this camcorder are a nice large lens ring, which can adjust focus or zoom, and Sony’s electronic Multi Interface Accessory Shoe (MIS). This hot shoe is compatible with several useful audio accessories, including Sony's UWP-D wireless system when paired with the SMAD-P3 adapter.
If that’s not enough, Sony also offers the PXW-X70 camcorder which, with a paid firmware upgrade, will also shoot 4K video. The PXW-X70 is like the FDR-AX100 on steroids. It adds a detachable top handle with XLR inputs for pro-grade audio equipment, a larger handgrip, an adjustable ND filter, dual card slots (like the HF G40 above), and a 3G-SDI output for connecting to switchers, recorders, or other pro-video equipment. As an added bonus, if you also plan on making videos for broadcast, the PXW-X70 can also record 10-bit 4:2:2 1080p video, a format deemed "broadcast quality" by most (if not all) television studios.
Outstanding Quality and Artistic Control
If you really want to have the finest possible control over your videos, I highly recommend the Panasonic Lumix GH4. Many successful vloggers have stepped up to this camera when looking for outstanding video quality and artistic control. The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens mount grants a wide selection of lenses from native Micro Four Thirds glass to adapted vintage equipment from the burgeoning secondhand market. The camera settings offer you granular customization of settings to get your image exactly the way you want it (not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced). The large Four Thirds-sized sensor and fast lens options provide a platform for greater control over depth of field in your compositions. Since it doesn’t offer the same audio input options or the internal ND filters as the PXW-X70 camcorder, I would recommend this camera for shooting “studio style” with extensive preparation and double-system sound, using a separate recorder for audio.
If you have the funds, getting the PXW-X70 and the GH4 will give you a setup to tackle nearly any kind of vlog you want to make, whether it’s documentary style on the streets or in the studio. Owning one camera is usually sufficient for most blogs, but aspiring to own more than one isn’t too bad, either!
This list of suggestions is by no means exhaustive. There are vloggers out there who use drastically different equipment than the stuff I suggested here. If you and your audience feel comfortable with the end results that you achieve with your current setup, you shouldn’t have to change it just because you saw something here. But, if you are looking for something new, perhaps to inspire a different way of shooting, none of the above cameras should steer you wrong. As a matter of fact, if you have any alternatives to the suggestions here, feel free to leave a comment below to share your personal experiences and/or gear suggestions.