Reasons to Use a Camcorder Instead of DSLR/Mirrorless Cameras in Field Production

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With the trend of DSLR and mirrorless cameras being released with more video features and recording higher video resolutions, it is tempting to purchase one for field production, since they are portable and can be outfitted easily with numerous accessories. But there are many reasons why one of these cameras might not be the best fit for your production style.

For example, in the golden olden days when I shot some documentary and corporate video, I included a Canon 5D Mark III DSLR alongside my Sony PMW-EX1R broadcast camcorder for a few corporate and event shoots. I found myself needing to stop and start the 5D many times during long sessions because of limited file recording size, limited battery life, limited media, overheating issues, and auto features like focus and ISO not working well in changing environments. It also had limited audio recording features, so I had to rely on external recording, which made things difficult when I was a lone cameraperson on the move.

The Canon EOS C70 camera
The Canon EOS C70 camera

There are some newer cameras that behave more like a cinema/hybrid, such as the Sony FX3 and Canon EOS C70, so they may work for your production, depending on budgets and production format requirements, but let’s look at the pros and cons of using a broadcast-style camcorder for your production rather than a mirrorless or DSLR camera in certain production environments.

First, there are obvious pros of using DSLR/mirrorless cameras for video:

  • Small, portable size
  • Cinema-quality sensors
  • Still image option
  • Lower cost
  • Fine shutter control
  • High-quality imagery in low light
  • Numerous lens choices
  • Many accessory options for handheld and mobile productions
The Sony Alpha a7S III Mirrorless Digital Camera
The Sony Alpha a7S III Mirrorless Digital Camera

However, the cons of DSLR and mirrorless cameras can be:

  • Shorter recording times
  • Frustrating lens changes
  • Expense of purchasing or renting lenses (primes or zoom)
  • No built-in ND filters so you need to change them constantly
  • No servo zoom control
  • Difficulty holding focus with motion
  • Lack of audio recording features
  • Rolling shutter issues
  • Potential overheating
  • Required cleaning and maintenance
  • Potentially overly complex settings
  • Difficulty viewing true image with built-in display/EVF

Situations and environments in which you might not want to use DSLR or mirrorless cameras:

  • Mobile field production
  • Broadcast/event productions that require live output and switching
  • Productions that require long shots such as documentary or live events
  • Scenes that are moving and require different focal lengths and changing light
Sony PXW-Z90V 4K HDR XDCAM with Fast Hybrid AF
Sony PXW-Z90V 4K HDR XDCAM with Fast Hybrid AF

Let’s look at some reasons to use a camcorder in your mobile, field, broadcast, or documentary production. These are cameras with built-in zoom lenses, multiple outputs, redundant recording options, and built-in handheld features. Though you will likely not be getting cinema-quality imagery, newer camcorders, such as the Canon XA40, can capture 4K resolution and rival some of the depth of field using improved dynamic range and built-in lens quality.

  • Long recording times are important when you are recording an event or long documentary sessions. Look for camcorders with dual card slots with continuous recording across cards, small-size recording formats, high card capacity support, and external recording options such as to SSD or hard drive.
The Panasonic AG-CX350 4K Camcorder with dual SD slots
The Panasonic AG-CX350 4K Camcorder with dual SD slots
  • Broadcast video outputs such as SDI are an advantage on camcorders, so you can utilize different streaming and monitoring options that aren’t available to DSLR and mirrorless operators.
  • Many camcorders now feature built-in streaming options via wireless and LAN, not just wireless control that is included in many mirrorless or DSLR cameras. You can livestream directly from your camera to online sites with some cameras, so you can have a full livestream studio in one package. The JVC GY-HC550 is one example of an all-in-one 4K live streaming camera.
The JVC GY-HC550 Handheld Connected Cam 1" 4K Broadcast Camcorder with livestreaming
The JVC GY-HC550 Handheld Connected Cam 1" 4K Broadcast Camcorder with livestreaming
  • Although they are generally larger than DSLR/mirrorless cameras, camcorders can sometimes be lighter and are designed for ENG with their shape and shoulder-mounted form factor, without necessarily purchasing an additional shoulder mount or cage system.
  • Most professional camcorders have built-in XLR inputs, so you can utilize professional microphones by default. They most often provide XLR phantom power for condenser mics, and they also allow you to input signals from an audio board in event environments.
  • Most ENG-style camcorders feature built-in ND filters and/or gain control to make switching locations with different light conditions a quick and easy adjustment.
The Panasonic HC-X1500 UHD 4K HDMI Pro Camcorder with 24x zoom lens
The Panasonic HC-X1500 UHD 4K HDMI Pro Camcorder with 24x zoom lens
  • Servo zoom lenses are an advantage when you’re moving quickly between different scenes, and they are also easy to find ways to relocate your camera’s control grip onto a shoulder rig.
  • Camcorders often feature high-capacity battery options by default and can support additional high-capacity options, as well as more AC, hot-swap, and failover options for long-duration shoots.
  • Larger, built-in LCDs and more comfortable default EVFs allow you to monitor your shots without external monitors when needed. They can also mount external monitors easily, and some feature high-resolution outputs such as SDI or HDMI for additional monitoring options.
The Canon XA40 Professional UHD 4K Camcorder
The Canon XA40 Professional UHD 4K Camcorder

It’s important to evaluate your production environment needs before you decide which camera to use in field production, since size and weight are not the only factors to consider. Let us know in the Comments below which camcorders you decided to use in your field productions, and what factors you considered when choosing it over a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

7 Comments

I myself are moving into a all 4k video package. So I invested in my professional Canon XF705. But now do I go with another camcorder or DSLR? There's I know pros and cons. I do like working with the all in one camcorder. Everything is there that you need. 

Hi Mike - 

I agree with you Mike.  If you are shooting primarily video and often shooting long sessions, the camcorder form factor, ergonomics, and workflow all contribute to an easier, faster, and more convenient user experience without the additonal expense of cages, adapters, monitors etc., all to allow a DSLR to perform like a camcorder. if you are looking for a  4K camcoder for "B" roll (with no SDI), consider the:
 

Canon XF400 UHD 4K60 Camcorder with Dual-Pixel Autofocus

B&H # CAXF400

Key Features:

  • 8.29MP, 1" CMOS Sensor
  • UHD 4K 60 fps and HD 120 fps Recording
  • HDMI 2.0 Output
  • 1080i50/60 H.264 IP Streaming
  • Integrated 15x Optical Zoom Lens
  • Advanced Zoom up to 30x
  • Dual XLR Inputs, Four Channels of Audio
  • Dual-Pixel CMOS Autofocus Feature
  • 2 x DIGIC DV 6 Processors
  • 2 x SD Memory Card Slots

There is another reason when a broadcast-style camcorder may be appropriate, and it is non-technical.  When I do interviews (studio or field), when I show up with a broadcast camcorder with a large tripod, shotgun mike (even if I use a lav), on-camera light (I often use a cold shoe Y splitter to mount both), and headphones, it seems to increase my credibility as a legit filmmaker or news-gathering source with the interviewee.  I've probably gotten a few extra folks in the field to talk to me by using this rig.  Just my experience, "yours may vary."

Thanks for your perspective, Steven D. We agree that ofttimes, looking like a professional can definitely lend one an air of credibility. It's the same with dressing appropriately for a job interview, isn't it?

Some of the points (specifically regarding the cons of using a DSLR/mirrorless camera) made in this article are outdated. Using the 5DIII, a very old and outdated, photography-first camera as the basis of one’s thesis is unfortunately lazy. Oh well. 

Sometimes, Deedré C., even a piece of "outdated" equipment can yield more than satisfactory results in the right hands. Not everyone has access to the latest and greatest gear. Thanks for your comment!

Maybe Deedre, something don't go out of date, such as the laws of optics. Many of my students are seduced but the idea of huge sensors for super shallow depth of field, but then finding that getting anything more than a 6:1 zoom ratio is super expensive. They are limited to relatively short focal lengths unless buying specific lenses. But then many of the biggest boosters of DSLRS-instead-of-camcorders are YouTubers who never need to be more that 6' from the camera.

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