A photo may be worth 1000 words, but video can tell a whole story. Whether you're after a camera that can capture your baby's first steps, film highlights from a once-in-a-lifetime trip or help you achieve your dream of becoming the next Spielberg, this guide will get you rolling.
There are dozens of digital camcorders on the market and although your smartphone or still camera will probably take videos a dedicated videocamera is still a great option to get the best possible footage. Deciding on your best option can be a daunting task, but our tips and comparative reviews and tests will help you work out whether a separate video camera is worth it.
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test video cameras.
Smartphone vs camcorder
Smartphones currently capture more video footage than any other device, producing results that will satisfy most people most of the time. However, a good camcorder will still deliver better quality video, particularly under less-than-perfect conditions. The traditional avenues for showing video have also realised that we often want to watch our video on a screen larger than a few inches wide and as such, HD quality video produced using a dedicated videocamera comes into its own.
Unlike most smartphones, a camcorder:
- has an optical zoom glass lens that gets you closer to the action
- offers easy access to the removable memory
- has a menu system that's focused on video rather than on messaging, Facebook or phone calls.
So once you've decided to buy a camcorder, the questions to ask are: "What is my budget?" and "What do I want my camcorder to do?"
Features to look for
A good video camera might have some or all of the following features:
External battery charger
Allows you to recharge one battery while recording with another, and is particularly handy for models with a shorter recording time.
Lets you access most playback functions plus additional functions which may only be available via the remote. However, many will let you use your smartphone to not only control your camcorder's functions but also preview your video composition live.
Allows you to attach things to the camera such as an external microphone or a video lamp.
Video lamp/photo flash
Allows you to film or take still photos in low-light conditions.
Using the viewfinder rather than the LCD monitor when recording can save battery power. Some viewfinders may be black-and-white, while more and more models don't have one at all.
A viewfinder may be awkward to use if you're wearing glasses. However, most models that have a viewfinder are diopter-adjustable to your eyesight (similar to binoculars), so most people will be able to use it without glasses.
Which recording format?
When it comes to recording formats, there are really only two options:
- removable memory
- internal flash memory.
Tape is no longer an option and hard drives are now rare due to durability issues and the higher capacity and more affordable flash memory. DVD media was used for a short time but turned out to be a dead end.
All video cameras should have as standard:
- play, fast forward, rewind, stop, pause and search
- LCD colour monitor with adjustable brightness and the ability to swivel, so you can easily film yourself
- instruction manual
- rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- AV cable
- USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 connection for transfer of video to a PC
- Bluetooth or WiFi Direct so you can use your smartphone as a remote control and preview away from the camcorder.
- HDMI connection to view video on a TV or other display
- memory card slot to record photos and video on a memory card
- volume adjustable speaker(s)
- stereo microphone
- wind filter.
In our most recent test, video cameras ranged in price from $249 to $2000.
While action cameras, like the GoPro Hero series, offer extreme performance and some pretty stunning videos online, our tests show they can also be difficult to use.
Thankfully, this may not be a big issue if you own a smartphone, as most new models now offer an app to control the camera as well as acting as a remote monitor, so you can mount the camera on your car bonnet and monitor the video from inside your car on your phone.
They really aren't an everyday option – but we've all seen people waving around $900 tablets trying to capture video, so a $170–650 action camera is a pretty sensible option by comparison.