Buying a Camcorder for Documentary Filmmaking

by Anonymous

Question: I need advice buying a camcorder. I'm going to be doing some interviews that I'd like to video record. Initially they'll appear only on the web, but they may ultimately be incorporated into a movie that would be burned to DVD, distributed, etc.

I've been looking at this: Panasonic HDC-HS900K Camcorder but I don't really know what to look for in a model. I'd go less if I could, but I want something "decent". The only advice I've been able to glean, thus far, is to insure that it has the ability to use a lav-mic. Thanks for any help!

Desktop Documentaries: The advice you've been given about being able to use a lav mic is sound advice. When doing interviews, audio is king. Without a good audio recording device, you run the risk of not being able to hear what your interviewee is saying due to a wide variety of environmental challenges.

If you are doing an interview outside at a busy construction site (loud noises in the background) you need to isolate the voice of your subject. A lav mic can do this very well.

In order to use a (decent) lav mic, you'll need a camera that is able to accept an XLR input. (XLR is a term used to describe a particular type of cable and connector.)

Most consumer cameras, like the one you shared, don't have an XLR input therefore making it impossible to use a quality lav mic. I would not recommend using a mic and camera system that allows for a mini input. (Mini inputs are like the inputs you may have on your phone or iPod). Typically, most headphones use a mini connector to plug into the phone or portable music player. While this type of input may be good for listening to audio, it's not the best way to record audio.

If your interviews are going to be inside (or in a controlled environment where you know the microphone won't be challenged by distracting sounds like cars, wind, construction, large crowds, etc) you very well may not need a lav mic. Many consumer cameras do a decent job of recording audio in a controlled audio environment as long as you keep the camera within 2-4 feet of your subject.

At the price level you've indicated, it will be hard to find a video camera that has XLR inputs allowing for a lav mic to be used. In addition to that, you will need to buy a lav mic (if you don't already have access to one).

A decent lav mic will cost around $100 (at the low end price). Of course, if you want, you can spend thousands of dollars just on the microphone itself. But you aren't asking about mic, are you?

Based on the information provided in your questions, you may enjoy something like this Sony camera Sony HXRMC50U. The shotgun mic that comes with this camera may be all you need to record good audio for an interview (depending, of course, on the environment you are shooting in). This camera utilizes a mini input, which is not the best, but will work if you're trying to keep costs to a minimum.

Another great option to consider within your price range is a DSLR photo/video camera. I'm biased to Canon, but Nikon, Sony and others are taking advantage of this growing video market. The Canon Rebel T2i (and others in the Canon Rebel series) offers the videographer the ability to change lenses, have more control over camera video settings and of course, you can take incredible pictures too!

The thing about most of the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras is that you can't rely on the in-camera mic. In most cases, it's not going to give you audio performance that matches the video performance of the camera. You may want to consider buying a DSLR camera (between $500 and $700 at the entry level), a lav mic and an audio adapter that allows for better audio than the in-camera mics will provide. This set up is not as simple as a point and shoot video camera or a video camera dedicated only to video and audio recording, but you do get a bang for your buck in this category.

Here's a Suggested DSLR Documentary Camera Pack:

The cost of this package puts you close to the budget range you have.

Keep in mind that you can buy cheaper microphones and adapters, but from my experience, you truly get what you pay for in this category. You can buy mics for under $50, but you, most likely, aren't going to get a sound that's any better than what your camera's mic will provide.

For super low budget filmmaking, the Flip camera is a great choice. I have used this camera on construction sites and it works well (as long as there are no loud noises happening near the interview). The Flip camera shoots in HD and costs substantially less than $1,200. You can find a Flip camera here Flip MinoHD Video Camera. It's important to note that Cisco, the maker of the Flip camera, has stopped producing this camera. This is why you can find it for such low prices (under $100 in most cases). If you are interviewing indoors, in a controlled environment, the Flip works well. You may also want to check out the Kodak Zi8 point and shoot video camera. They cost a little bit more than the Flip, but still way under $1,200 Kodak Zi8.

In the end, you need to know how and where you will be doing your interviews. If possible, do it inside! (or at least no where near a highway, construction site or at a football game.) If you do your interviews inside or in a controlled audio environment, your need for expensive audio equipment diminishes. But just remember, audio quality and lighting separates the professionals from the amateurs.

For further exploration on this topic, here's a Basic Filmmaking Gear Check List.

Or this article: How To Choose A Camcorder.

I hope this has been helpful.

Anyone else have ideas or suggestions? Please leave comments below.

Comments for Buying a Camcorder for Documentary Filmmaking

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Nov 24, 2011
by: Anonymous

Thanks so much for the thoughtful, thorough response. I still can't decide, but this gives me some options. I'd really like a dedicated video cam. I anticipate the interviews being conducted indoors with the ability to control sound interference, etc. The rest would be B-roll that would have sound/narration added later. After posting I identified the Canon VIXIA HF S30 as, I think, a solid lower end (but not very low end) candidate. Of course it doesn't have XLR, but I'm thinking maybe that's not an issue. Argh! Decisions, decisions. I will have acecss to more "serious" cameras for anything that might require it, but I'd like something I can haul around for the interviews that will take place away from home. Thanks, again! I really appreciate the response!

Nov 24, 2011
by: Anonymous

I've been reading about the DSLR option and I'm wondering - do you think an $800 DSLR with video option is better than a $1000 videocamera? I don't mean in that it offers the still option, but in terms of image quality. How do they compare? THANKS!

Nov 24, 2011
Yup, me again...
by: Anonymous

I've been reading about the T2i and the T3i from Canon. Would you recommend going with the T3i if I can? Just wondered since you recommended the T2i. If I go DSLR, for the small difference it seems like the T3i packs a bit more punch for the $. THANKS!!!!!

Nov 24, 2011
by: Anonymous

Well, I would have deleted my previous comments if I could! I spent the morning reading about the T2i and T3i, looking at test footage, reading about DSLR videography, etc. and I decided to take the plunge and go with the T3i. Thanks for the nudge to consider the DSLR option. I think that, in the long run, it will be best thing for this initial foray. If, in the future, I decide to go with a dedicated video camera, then I've still got a stellar unit for still photography. Thanks, again!

Nov 24, 2011
DSLR not recommended
by: Carl

I know that the DSLR video is all the rage but they are extremely hard to work with as video cameras. The reason they are popular is because of the very shallow depth of field you get from them and their good low light performance. Those who are getting excellent results are usually skilled cameramen and their "rigs" are heavily decked out with all the needed accessories to make them work like real video cameras.

A better option is to search for a used prosumer video camera. Here's a list of camera's that you can find on the used market:

Panasonic HMC150
Canon XA10

There are many others. Using these cameras allows you to get experience with a more traditional style of camera so if you ever get the opportunity to use a professional camera, they will feel more familiar.

And yes, its all about getting good sound!!!!

Nov 28, 2011
Keep us posted
by: Desktop Documentaries

Great advice Carl! Thank you.

We hope our camcorder buying tips helped provide some guidance. It's really hard to suggest ONE camcorder as every person has their own parameters (price, type of shoot, level of experience, etc).

Please keep us posted on how things go with the T3i and best of luck with your interviews!

When you're done, make sure to stop back by and Submit Your Film.

Dec 10, 2011
Buying a camcorder for documentary film making
by: Barnabas

Thanks for your excellent article. I too am in the preparation phase for a documentary project and am wrestling with the camcorder/DSLR question. As a lapsed film photographer I have always believed that the lens is everything regarding image quality and I favour those manufacturers who make their own lenses (Canon, Nikon) or use top lenses (Leica for example). My sound engineer son would concur with your advice about aiming for the best quality sound and using XLR connections. You can always reduce the quality for file sharing purposes but you can't go the other way. I'm taking baby steps at the moment and all the old lighting tricks are coming to the surface so I am having a lot of fun seeing some good result early on. I anticipate filming whilst sailing and have bought a Panasonic HX WA10 that is 16mp and rated waterproof to 3 metres. I would welcome any advice/direction about this camcorder and any setups to compensate for a yawing boat at sea.

Feb 21, 2013
by: Ali ibrahim,,

Ho!!...thank u guys bcs i got mre ideas n directions 4m dis advice,,i wos js lukin 4 a shot film rit,,but i wos totly confucd abt cinematography of't n' wot type of camcoder i hv to choose..dis directions has contributd me for choosin a bettr camcoder 4 ma film...thanks...thanks...

Oct 16, 2013
How about the Sony HDR FX1
by: Kev

Just obtained one and looks like a decent one. Still tape driven but films in 1080i. They are a few years old but have come down in price nicely, one can be obtained for around 1000

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