"Must-Have" Camcorder Features
for Documentary Filmmaking
Things to consider when choosing a camcorder

Below are some essential camcorder features to look for if you have the budget and want to transition from a video amateur to a serious documentary filmmaker.

I've also included some enticing "extras" to look for in a camcorder for the cool factor. 

Essential Camcorder Features

  • High Definition – If you’re buying new, buy HD.  But realize that all HD is not created equal.  Learn why.

  • 1920 X 1080p – This gives you great looking footage on both TV and computer screens. (If you can't afford 1080p, 720p is next best thing)

  • Microphone inputs and audio level controls – For any kind of professional shoot, you MUST be able to plug in an external mic and have control over the levels. Higher end mics have XLR connectors, so if at all possible, make sure the camcorder has one, or better yet TWO, XLR inputs. At the very least, the camera should have one stereo (two channel) mic input.

  • Headphone jack – You always want to be able to monitor sound coming in.

  • Manual control over focus – This is especially important in low lighting situations. I’m sure you’ve seen this in amateur footage where the auto focus goes in and out in a low light setting.

  • Manual zoom – I almost didn’t put this one on the “must have” list, but being able to control the speed of your zoom comes in handy when you are trying to capture a certain style or mood. For example, for an MTV type shoot with fast moves, you may have a reason to do a “snap” zoom shot.

  • At least a 10X optical zoom - Make sure to choose an optical zoom. Digital zoom makes your image look grainy.

  • Manual exposure (aperture and shutter speed) - Determines how much light enters the camera. Comes in handy in various lighting situations.

  • Manual White Balance – Gets the colors just right.

  • Image Stabilization – Assuming you’ll be shooting hand-held footage at some point, this is a must-have feature, which keeps your footage looking smooth even when the camera is a bit jittery.

Beyond Essential Camcorder Features | Adding The Cool Factor!

  • Timelapse – This feature adds the cool factor to any project.  The GoPro is a fun little camera that shoots timelapse.  

  • Film Look/24p – I almost put this feature in the “must have” section, because for me, this is a must-have. If you want your footage to have that warm “film look”, make sure the camera you get has the ability to shoot in 24p (that’s 24 frames per second which is the same speed as film). Ability to shoot in 24p and 30p is ideal.

  • Infrared Night Shooting – I do not have this feature on my camcorder and I wish I did.  

  • GPS – Yep, video footage that automatically records where and when it was shot.

  • Face Recognition – This is a feature for digital cameras that can "remember" a person’s face and allows you to organize clips of just that person during video editing.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The BEST video camera is the one in your hand.

It’s fun to have all the cool gadgets, but ultimately, making documentaries is about STORYTELLING.

So do your research, buy what you can within your budget (or BORROW a camera) and start shooting!

Want some specific advice on what camcorder to buy?

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