DSLR or camcorder?

Should I buy a DSLR or camcorder? This could be one of the toughest questions facing anyone producing video content for the web today.

Portable shooter: Panasonic’s GH2. Photo: Panasonic.

For the last decade or so, there was only really one choice for self-shooters or editorial teams without a dedicated AV crew: a low-end professional or semi-pro camcorder. Plenty of interviews, and even some documentaries, have been made with kit such as Canon’s XM1 or Sony’s equally consumer-friendly VX1000.

Solid-state video recording has allowed manufacturers to create some very compact cameras that are capable of very good results, at least as far as the image goes. But they often lack many of the features that journalists need, especially for recording sound. And companies such as Canon and Sony have not always released semi-pro versions of their lower end pro cameras, at least not in the UK (see the Sony AX2000E – which is harder to track down at a dealer than the pro version, the NX5).

Over the last year, a handful of higher-end semi-pro, or low-end pro, camcorders have come to the market. But these are all over £1000 (plus VAT – all prices on this site are quoted ex VAT). This leaves the choice of just a handful of high-end consumer “palmcorders”: the Panasonic SD900, the Sony CX700, and the Canon HF M52.

But do DSLRs offer a viable alternative? Potentially they do, although the price of a DSLR kit is likely to equal, or even be higher, than a video camera with a similar specification. And each device has its pros and cons:

Our ‘pimped’ Sony CX550V consumer camcorder

Pros: Camcorder

  • Small sensors, making sharp focus easy; no need to worry about depth of field
  • Autofocus usually works
  • Compact size
  • Longer battery life
  • Able to use mains power or battery
  • Choice of additional, long life batteries
  • Designed for tripod mounting, with battery covers accessible on a tripod
  • Articulated and reversible viewfinder
  • Electronic viewfinder/eyepiece (EVF) on most higher end models
  • Solid auto controls
  • Vibration reduction/steadyshot
  • More generous zoom length
  • Audio input for external mic and headphone socket (most high-end models)
  • Choice of recording media (hard drive or card)
  • No limits on recording time
  • Few issues with overheating
  • HDMI out (most high-end models) for playback
  • USB or Firewire streaming (some models)
  • Looks like a consumer product

Cons: Camcorder

  • Limited creative control; fiddly or absent manual controls
  • Small sensors: not usually “broadcast” quality
  • Small sensors: little creative control over depth of field
  • Not always great in low light
  • Heavy compression (typically AVCHD)
  • No uncompressed audio
  • Fixed lenses (except Sony NEX VG20)
  • Limited audio controls on some models
  • Lack of proper wide angle and telephoto options on most models
  • Limited video frame rates and recording modes (not all camcorders record in Progressive mode)
  • No useful stills capability
  • Looks like a consumer product

Pros: DSLR

  • Greater creative control over shutter speed, aperture, framerates and the option to vary depth of field
  • Larger sensors with generally superior low-light performance
  • Choice of models using AVCHD or MPEG2 formats
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Audio controls (on some models)
  • Uncompressed audio (on some models)
  • Designed for shooting stills
  • Large ecosystem of DSLR users so large range of accessories
  • Acceptable, in some circumstances, for broadcast
  • “Pro” appearance – if you want it
  • Part of a system: users can start with a small investment and build up

Cons: DSLR

  • Greater control over depth of field, and large sensors, makes critical focusing essential
  • Autofocus ranges from basic to unusable, depending on model
  • Some models have limited audio controls
  • Some models use AVCHD
  • Some models have low recording bit rates
  • Generally more expensive than a camcorder with “pro” lenses
  • Overheating (on some models)
  • Short recording time (from 12 minutes to 29 minutes: DSLR recording times are limited in the EU to avoid a higher import duty charge)
  • Not all models have articulating screens
  • Short battery life (on some models)
  • No long life batteries; mains power an option, if available.
  • Onboard audio is mostly useless

Looking at this as a list, the camcorder does seem to edge ahead. In the field, it is not that clear cut, however.

The small camcorder is the more versatile tool for most journalistic shooting requirements, but the DSLR has three big trump cards: its image quality, its creative control, and its ability to shoot stills. There’s a growing range of news footage being shot on DSLRs, as well as dramas (House, for example) and even parts of movies and adverts.

The DSLR gives that more “cinematic” feel, and works well as either a “B” camera, or as a camera for the creative, “beauty” shots alongside a more conventional (broadcast) camcorder. And they are small enough to slip in a kitbag.

DSLRs have proved to be a hit with consumers as well as professionals, and the result is that more video-friendly features are trickling down from cameras such as Canon’s 5D Mk II to lower end models. For around £600, there is the choice of the Nikon D5100, Canon Eos 550D and the Panasonic GH2 and Sony Alpha 77 (although the latter two use AVCHD, the Sony has a higher than average bit rate, and the Panasonic can be “hacked” to record in professional modes). Supply shortages have pushed Nikon’s D7000 close to £1000, more with an upgraded lens.

Another factor in the DSLR’s favour is the decline in the usefulness of small-format camcorders for pros. Manufacturers have dropped essential features including mic inputs and EVFs from many of their models. The replacement camcorders are cheaper and can produce good images but are not as suitable as older models for working journalists or producers. JVC and Sony’s higher end consumer models are now hard to come by, although Panasonic and Canon maintain suitable models in their current line ups.

The range of video-capable DSLRs, on the other hand, seems to grow each quarter. And if a user buys, say, a Nikon D5100 or Canon 550D now, with a pro lens, that lens will carry over to a D7000 (or even D4) or 7D later.

The picture – literally – changes again in the £1500-£3000 budget range, where lower-end pro camcorders start to gear up in terms of capabilities as well as price. We will look at the entry-level pro camcorder market in another article, but for journalists serious about video, the DSLR is worth a long, hard look.