Looking for a video camera or camcorder? If you’re an amateur and don’t aspire to be a cinematographer, you probably want a camera that will handle exposure, focus, and other adjustments for you. We suggest you start by looking at camcorder or sport camera… and this post is for you.
We’ve broken these down by price, but before you figure out your budget, remember to leave some room for accessories. A few memory cards, an extra battery, a carry bag, and a decent tripod or camera mount are all important parts of any camera system.
Camcorders (sometimes called palmcorders), differ from sport cameras in one key respect. They offer a zoom lens. They are usually designed to be handheld or mounted on a tripod. Most of them aren’t meant to get wet or be dropped, either.
First things first, you get what you pay for. Anything around this price is going to be a bit difficult to use, and not give the greatest image when compared to the bigger-budget cameras. We feel the Sony HDR-CX-220 is about the only camera worth looking at in this price range. Plan on spending another $100 on memory cards, batteries, a bag, and other accessories. Mediocre in low light, and pretty close to impossible to use with manual settings. If you want to set up a camera to record sporting events in adequate light, this might just do the trick. If you’re shooting indoors on a stage or general indoor lighting, your footage will end up grainy and not so easy to watch. It’s still light years better than most older consumer camcorders. And this camera, like every one on our must-have list, doesn’t need tapes or other difficult media. Just feed it memory cards and save yourself time at the computer later. If you have a standard definition camera, this will seem like a real upgrade in both image quality and ease of use. Just remember, you’re not going to win awards with any camera around this price point.
The Canon Vixia HF R40 is our favorite in this category. You’re still going to have the limitations of the budget camcorders, but at least you get a touch screen, wifi, and some improved optics. If you’re shooting in daylight, this camera will get the job done. Indoors and in low light, you’re going to see some noise. This camera has enough built-in storage for about 30 minutes of video, but a 32GB memory card will only cost you about $20 and record for an extra two hours.
This is the point in pricing where you can finally start to get the image quality in line with some older professional cameras. Our favorite in this category is the Canon Vixia HF G20. Even grandpa should be able to get an adequate image out of this camera, most of the time. It’s designed for the amateur but offers some features for the aspiring professional, including the option of full manual settings. Your extra money is being spent on a much higher quality sensor, a better lens, and a near-pro feature set (despite being crammed in a consumer-looking camcorder body). If you’re an amateur trying to record indoors, or a young filmmaker who wants to dabble with manual controls, this is a great option. Most organizations, clubs, and groups we talk with end up going with the HF G20 for recording concerts, dances, and other performances, since it looks and sounds good, and can be operated by almost any volunteer. If you invest in a fluid-head tripod, you can get very watchable footage without much practice or technical know-how.
This category of camera is all about action. Usually designed to be worn, strapped, or clamped to something, they tend to be resistant to water and other hazards. They use wide lenses, which means that things up close will look great, with a lot of perspective. Things far away will look impossibly small. Mount the camera on your head and even your feet will look small! These are the cameras to use while skydiving and snorkeling, not for a dance recital. Sound varies between mediocre and terrible, but that shouldn’t matter for your motorcycle ride or deep-sea dive, anyway, right?
If you’re thinking about getting a sport camera and don’t need high framerates, the Go Pro Hero 3 White Edition is easily our favorite option under $200. With wifi, the best image in its class, and the huge library of Go Pro mounts and other accessories, this sport camera stands out. And when your buddy leaves it at the bottom of the lake, at least it was only $200!
A recent price drop on the Go Pro Hero 3 Black Edition brought it to around $330. If you want to use the money you save to buy some accessories, we suggest a 32GB micro SDHC card and extra batteries. Video from this camera is used on major broadcast networks and in commercials, and is some of the most incredible footage we ever see. The only downside is the price drop means a new one is probably on the way. Our crystal ball says the Go Pro Hero 4 series will be here in time to put under the Christmas tree.