Updated 13 June 2017
- You can get a new camcorder with headphone and microphone sockets for less than $300
- But if you want an SLR or mirrorless camera at this price, you’ll need to buy used
- If you’ve already got a good smartphone you may not need a camcorder
I’ve picked the best camcorders, SLRs and mirrorless cameras you can buy in the entry-level price range in 2017. All of these cameras can shoot 1080p Full HD.
I’ve explained the differences between these kinds of camera, and their advantages and disadvantages here. Basically, camcorders are smaller and easier to use, but SLRs and mirrorless cameras offer more creative possibilities and a more ‘film-like’ look.
If you’ve got a good smartphone (e.g. iPhone 5S or later) I’d seriously consider kitting it out for video rather than buying an entry-level camcorder. You could add a better camera app, a microphone, and a case or mount for well under $300.
Small, wide-angle camcorder: Panasonic V180K
The big advantage of this little Panasonic is its genuine wide angle lens (28mm equivalent). So you can get in close for dramatic perspective and better audio.
It’s the first low-end Panasonic with optical image stabilisation. It’ll shoot in AVCHD and MP4, so it’ll be compatibile with most editing programs; and if you use a Macs and want to save space, it also records in iMovie’s native iFrame mode. You can shoot time-lapse and it can also record full 1080p HD with 50% slow motion.
But there’s no microphone input, headphone socket or viewfinder. The 2.7 inch touchscreen could be fiddly if you have large hands. Low-light performance from the 1/5.8” sensor – and battery life – isn’t great.
Budget camcorder with a microphone input: Canon HF-R800
The Canon HF-R800 has many similar features to the Panasonic, but its larger 1/4.85” sensor should be better in low light. It can record in a wider range of AVCHD and MP4 formats – including the 24fps that filmmakers like – and has a higher maximum video quality.
The zoom doesn’t go as wide – only 32.5mm equivalent – but there’s a filter ring so you could fit a wide angle adapter. The 3 inch touchscreen is bigger than the Panasonic, and I find Canon interfaces easier to use. Most importantly, it’s the cheapest good-quality camcorder you can buy with a microphone input socket. (Only the US model has a microphone input – the HF-R806, sold in Europe, doesn’t.) It’s the same size as the Panasonic but slightly heavier.
SLR or mirrorless
If you want an SLR or mirrorless camera under $300, you’ll need to buy used.
The Canon T3i/600D DSLR has an APS-C sensor, which is good for shallow depth of field, and it has Canon’s excellent color rendition. It’ll accept all current Canon lenses, and you can fit other makers’ lenses with adapters. There’s no touchscreen, but the million-dot high-resolution screen does tilt and swivel. It can shoot slow-motion, but only at 1280×720 rather than Full HD 1080. It has HD crop mode which gives you a 3x digital zoom without losing quality (Canon dropped this feature from later models). Like the other two cameras in this category, it doesn’t have a headphone jack.
You can install free Magic Lantern firmware (at your own risk) to add more video features.
It’s much bigger and heavier than the camcorders, though it’s relatively light for a DSLR. Battery life is better than the mirrorless cameras below.
Mirrorless: Panasonic GH2
The mirrorless Panasonic GH2 has a Micro Four Thirds sensor which is quite a bit smaller than APS-C. So you can’t get as creative with depth of field unless you buy an expensive Metabones adapter, to use APS-C or full frame lenses. Battery life isn’t as good as the Canon SLR. Panasonic video is sharper than Canon but colors aren’t as good. It has a good eye-level viewfinder and a tilt and swivel touchscreen, though it’s low resolution (460,000 dots). It has a plastic body like the Canon SLR, but it’s smaller and lighter. It can shoot Full HD 1080p slow motion.
As with the Canons, you can install an unofficial hack to improve its video capabilities.
Mirrorless: Canon EOS-M
The original Canon EOS-M was the first mirrorless camera with a Canon APS-C sensor. As with the Canon SLR, colors are great and you can get good shallow depth of field effects. There’s a limited range of small lenses devised specifically for the M series, but you can get an adapter to mount any current Canon lens. It has a solid metal body, but it’s much smaller and lighter than the T3i or the GH2. It has a fixed million-dot touchscreen. It has the same sized sensor as the T3i but a newer processor. I own one: it’s really small and neat and produces lovely images, but it’s slow to use. Battery life is poor so you’ll need spares.
It has the same range of video options as the T3i, but a stereo (not mono) microphone. Like the T3i, you can install Magic Lantern firmware for extra video features.
What else you’ll need
Here’s my basic filmmaking kit list.