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Choosing a Camcorder

Looking for a camcorder to shoot your next 
documentary, web video or independent film?

What are the key features to look for when choosing a camcorder?

It’s easy to get caught up (and confused!!) with all the specs and techno jargon when trying to find the best camcorder.

The choices can be mind boggling!

What tends to make things complicated when choosing a camcorder is that it's not a one-size-fits-all.  So let's try to keep things simple and help you narrow in on the factors that will be most helpful in finding the best camcorder choice for YOU. 

Since this website is about documentary filmmaking, we'll gear our questions and answers toward that angle 

Important Questions When Choosing A Camcorder:

  • How will it be used? Do you need something small and rugged that you can throw in a backpack or purse? Will you be conducting interviews and need an audio input for a plug-in microphone?  Is the final output for web only or will it be shown in theaters on a big screen?

  • What format do you want to record your images to? Hard drive, tape, flash drive or DVD? If you have no idea, that’s okay, click here for a beginner’s guide to video formats.

  • High Definition (HD) or Standard Definition (SD)? Basically, HD takes up more space on your camcorder’s hard drive, but if you want the best looking footage, choose HD. Standard Definition was long the standard, if you will, but HD is now considered the new standard and it’s the way to go if you’re buying new. Basically, HD allows more pixel lines per screen and therefore provides a much more stunning image. However, if you’re on a tight budget, you can find some great deals on standard definition camcorders which work fine for simple web videos.

  • How does the camcorder shoot in low light? These days, most camcorders do generally well in low light. The thing to look for is the “lux rating”. The lower the number, the better the camera will perform in low light. So a camera with a lux rating of 2 will perform much better in low light than a camera with a lux rating of 10.

  • Price - This is a biggie. Again, depending on your budget, this narrows your choices considerably. For $150 bucks, you can start shooting basic HD tomorrow, but forget about decent audio. For $5,000+, you are rockin’ with every extra you could dream of including XLR mic inputs, manual settings, primo lenses and the highest quality HD footage!  

2014 Camcorder Top Picks!

Below is a quick reference guide for some of the best camcorders offered in the various price ranges.  We researched across the web (industry review sites, surveys, forums, etc) and narrowed down the choices below.

For documentary filmmaking, if at all possible, you want a camcorder with an audio input (XLR input is best) to record professional audio. Otherwise, if you're using an iPhone, DSLR or low-budget camcorder, you need an external recording device such as the Zoom H1 to capture professional audio.  

Low Budget (less than $500)

Go Pro Hero

Samsung HMX-H300

(yes, you can use your
iPhone to shoot video!)

Mid-Budget ($500 - $1500)

Canon VIXIA HF M52

Panasonic X900MK

More Budget ($1500 - $5,000)
**these cameras have XLR audio inputs!

Sony HXR-NX30U Camcorder

Sony HXR-NX30U


Super Budget ($5,000+)

Sony PMW EX3

Canon C300
(rated most used video camera by professional documentary filmmakers in a 2013 PBS survey) 

For super high-end documentary filmmaking ($10,000+ cameras), check out our interview with filmmaker and two time Emmy award winning cinematographer Jeffrey Farrell.  

Filmmaking Tools Quick Links

Important Things To Look For When Choosing A Camcorder:

  • Video format - Most camcorders are now all-digital using hard drive or flash drive, but tape isn’t dead yet.  You can get some great deals on used camcorders.

  • Video quality -- How exactly do you figure out if a camcorder will bring in the most crisp, clean and beautiful images possible? Buying an HD camcorder is a great start, but it’s not all you should look for.

  • Must-Have Features -- If you want to be a serious documentary filmmaker, there are some must-have features for your camcorder including a microphone input, manual focus and headphone jack.

  • Touch and Feel -- How does the camcorder feel in your hand? If at all possible, go to an electronics store and hold the camera you want to buy in your hand. Test all the buttons and the menu. Do you like the way it operates? Don’t rely on a camcorder review. Decide for yourself if you like it.

Filmmaking Tools Quick Links

YOUR advice!

Do YOU have a favorite camcorder? Got camcorder advice or experiences you'd like to share?

Click here to jump to the bottom of the page and submit a comment.


When choosing a camcorder, decide which features are important for YOUR situation.

Yes, do your research. But at some point, you’ve got to move forward and pick a camera.

If you’re a documentary filmmaker, the best camera is the one in your hand. If all you can afford is a FREE hand-me-down VHS camcorder from your uncle, then use it! You can always transfer the footage to a digital format later. But at least you’re shooting and you can brag later how you produced a documentary with your uncle’s crappy camcorder. You could even make that part of the story. "Look at me, shooting this movie with a crappy 1980's camcorder!"

Remember, it’s the STORYTELLING that matters.

Of course, beautiful footage helps and it’s certainly more convenient to be able to plug your camera straight into your computer to edit. But in documentary filmmaking, creativity RULES. Never, EVER say.. “If only I had a better video camera, I could make an amazing documentary.” The questions is, “What do I have available to me so that I can start making a documentary?”

Maybe your local high school will let you borrow equipment?

Maybe a friend of a friend will let you borrow their camera.

Even if you had to scrape pennies for 5-months to buy a $150 el-cheapo camcorder, at least it gets you shooting!

There are also amazing opportunities right now with iPhone movies

Believe it or not, making documentaries is all about problem solving. I promise, figuring out which camera to buy is just your first of a thousand problems you will have to solve before you have a finished film. If you are easily discouraged, don’t waste your money or time choosing a camcorder. But then again, a shiny new video camera sure would be cool.. and could in fact be just the thing you need to get you started. Only you can say for sure.

What's YOUR advice
for choosing a camcorder?

Had good or bad experiences with a camcorder? Let others know what you've learned. Share!...

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