Streaming producers have an array of camera options, from the cameras in their smartphones to professional models costing four figures or more. In this article, we’ll identify the major camera categories; discuss their strengths, weakness and best use cases; and features to look for when choosing a camera within the category.
While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of cameras that we could have mentioned, we tried to choose models that personified the sweet spot of the selected category. Unless otherwise noted, assume that camcorders in the more expensive categories include features described in previous categories.
We’ll focus on camcorders you can use for both live and video-on-demand (VOD) production, which means we won’t cover digital SLRs or large sensor camcorders. We also won’t discuss 4K cameras, which are overkill for most bread-and-butter streaming production tasks.
Smartphone Cameras, Free
Smartphone cameras are easy to carry and use, and can produce good image quality under the right conditions. Streaming services like Livestream and Ustream typically offer iOS and Android apps, so you can use a smartphone for live streaming. Using video editors on both platforms, you can easily trim, title, and encode and upload your VOD clips.
A Klyp+ case, light, and lens for the iPhone 5S
If you’re serious about smartphone video, invest in a few peripherals, like a microphone adapter for plugging in an external 3.5mm microphone, a case with a tripod mount, portrait and wide-angle lenses for additional shooting flexibility, and perhaps even a video light. For the last three, the Klyp+ line of products from Manfrotto is a great place to start.
Smartphones perform best for stable, well-lit shoots like interviews, but don’t offer the controls or stability for fast-moving shoots under low light or varying lighting conditions, such as concerts and other dramatic stage performances.
Inexpensive Consumer Camcorders, Under $800
As with smartphone cameras, low-end consumer camcorders can produce credible quality under the right shooting conditions, though the smallish (1/6” to 1/2.3”) imaging chips on these devices generally produce a flat, unnuanced look. There are several must-have features for cameras in this range, including a 3.5mm microphone input jack, a headphone jack, and the ability to set white balance and exposure manually.
The Panasonic HC-V750
Many new consumer camcorders, such as the Panasonic HC-V750 ($597.99), offer Wi-Fi, which you can use to control the camera, or stream live to services like Ustream. To this the Canon 32GB VIXIA HF R52 camcorder ($449) adds dual-codec recording, which lets you record in full-quality AVCHD format to internal memory, and in MP4 format to an SD/SDHC/SDXC card, which you can then upload to YouTube or a similar service.
Most cameras in this price range let you manually set white balance and exposure, though the controls are typically accessed via a touchsreen menu on the LCD, which slows setup and complicates adjusting to changing conditions. Cameras in this class also lack exposure or focus aids like zebra stripes or peaking indicators. Most offer HDMI output, however, so you can connect them to a video mixer or capture device for live production and streaming.
Expensive Consumer Camcorders, Up to Around $1,400
Cameras in this price range feature larger imaging chips than their lower-cost siblings, like the 1/2.84” CMOS sensor on the Canon VIXIA HF-G30, which should deliver better quality, particularly in mixed lighting scenarios where there are both bright and dark regions. Equally important is control over aperture, shutter speed, and gain adjustments via limited function dials or buttons on the camera body, and the availability of zebra stripes for configuring exposure.
The high-end consumer Canon VIXIA HF G30
Camcorders in this class typically feature expanded Wi-Fi capabilities that enable remote camera setup, uploading videos to remote FTP sites, and connecting to the camera via a browser to play recorded videos. Also look for dual-codec recording, and two on-board SD slots for longer recordings, or to create a backup copy that you can instantly give to a client. The HF-G30 comes with a 20X optical zoom lens which can prove remarkably handy when shooting conferences or concerts from the back of the room.
Camcorders in this class can deliver excellent video quality, though not quite as high as the three-imager camcorders to follow. They may also lack XLR connectors for high-end audio connectivity, and output via HDMI rather than HD-SDI, which is rapidly becoming the preferred format for live webcasting.
Prosumer Camcorder, $2,500
When spending $2,000 or more for a camcorder, XLR input should be a given. Briefly, XLR is the format used by most high end microphones and soundboards, so having XLR inputs simplifies connecting to this audio gear, which is critical for high-end event work. Beyond XLR, you can go in one of two directions, choosing a camera with three imaging chips, or one with HD-SDI output.
The JVC GY-HM150U has three 1/4” CCDs, the requisite XLR inputs, and exquisite controls on the camera body for zebra stripes, iris, gain, and other critical controls, and costs $1,895. This makes the camera simple to operate and adjust to changing light conditions. The downside is that it lacks Wi-Fi capabilities and offers only HDMI for digital output.
The Canon XA25; one of the least expensive cameras with XLR inputs and HD-SDI outputs.
In contrast, the Canon XA25 (around $2,500) uses similar single-chip imaging and optics hardware as the high end consumer model HF G30, but comes with XLR input and HD-SDI output. For multiple camera events produced with a video mixer, HD-SDI is preferred over HDMI because the cable locks securely into the connection, cable distances can be much longer, and because the cables are cheaper. For many producers, it’s worth an extra $250 to $500 to buy a camera with HD-SDI output. On the other hand, one downside of the XA25 is that the programmable buttons for many camera controls are not as intuitive as the HM150U.
If you’re looking for a single-chip camera with similar specs but also genlock, which is useful for synchronizing cameras in multiple camera shoots, consider the Sony PMW-100 XDCAM ($2,899).
Professional Camcorder, Around $6,000
All the camcorders discussed to this point have had one or more limitations; spend $6,000 or more and you can eliminate them all. Cameras in this category also come with larger image sensors, higher recording data rates,and other features that deliver more quality. One example is the JVC GY-HM650 ($5,995), which features three 1/3” imaging chips, XLR audio inputs, HD-SDI and HDMI outputs, dual-codec recording and a USB port which can support either a Wi-Fi or 3G/4G dongle and live streaming directly from the camera.
The Sony PMW-200 delivery excellent quality, but lacks Wi-Fi.
Another option in this price range is the Sony PMW-200 XDCAM HD422 camcorder ($6,299), which features three 1/2” imaging chips that deliver superb quality, XLR-input, and genlock. In contrast to most other camcorders discussed, the PMW-200 records in MPEG-2 at data rates of up to 50Mbps, rather than an H.264-based format (either MP4 or AVCHD), and requires proprietary SxS-1A memory cards, which are more expensive than SD cards. About two years old, the PMW-200 also lacks the Wi-Fi connectivity that is now offered on most more recent models.
Both models capture outstanding quality while providing extensive configuration options, making them both capable of even the most demanding event shoot.