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Camcorder vs DSLR vs mirrorless

Updated 3 January 2017

  • SLRs and mirrorless cameras are great for the ‘film look’
  • Camcorders are easier to use, and better for news and events
  • Some cameras combine the best features of both

Should you get a camcorder, a DSLR, a mirrorless camera – or something else – for  low budget filmmaking in 2017? The choice isn’t a clear-cut as it was a few years ago: DSLRs are getting better, and you can now get camcorders with DSLR-like features.

What’s the difference?

Panasonic HC-V250

A camcorder is designed specifically for shooting video. Most of them have built-in zoom lenses and tilt-and-swivel screens.  More expensive pro camcorders have good built-in microphones and professional XLR audio inputs. They aren’t great for still photography.

Canon EOS 700D

A DSLR (digital SLR) is mainly designed for still photography. It takes interchangeable lenses. A mirror reflects the image up to the viewfinder, and flips up – blacking out the eyepiece – when you take a photo. So when you shoot video with it, you have to use ‘Live View’ on the main screen instead.

EOS M3

A mirrorless camera is like an SLR – you can swap lenses – but it doesn’t have a mirror. You view the image on the main live view screen, or an electronic eye-level viewfinder if it has one. They’re usually smaller and lighter than DSLRs.

Why would you shoot video on a camera designed for stills?

Most camcorders have quite small sensors and fixed zoom lenses. These small sensors aren’t great in low light, which can give SLRs – which have much bigger sensors – a big advantage.

Big sensors also have much shallower depth of field: so at the same aperture, less of the shot is in focus. That looks more ‘cinematic’ (like cinema films rather than video) and you can make the most of it by fitting wide aperture prime (non-zooming) lenses. You can even ‘pull focus’, changing the focus from one part of the image to another as you film.

If DSLR video looks so great, why doesn’t everybody do it?

Cost

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras aren’t cheap. You can get a Canon, Sony or Panasonic HD camcorder for less than $250 (£200); you’ll need to spend around $400 (£300) for the cheapest new video-capable SLR.

Audio

Many SLRs and mirrorless cameras don’t have headphone sockets, and some can’t record good audio even with a separate microphone. So you may need to use a separate audio recorder.

Focus

Judging focus on a live view screen can be slow. You may need to magnify the image with a separate viewfinder or ‘loupe’.

If you’re trying to hold focus on moving subjects, shallow depth of field can be a nuisance rather than an advantage. SLRs usually have great, fast autofocus for stills, but ‘live view’ autofocus – with the mirror up – can be much slower.

Handling and stabilisation

These cameras can be awkward to hold steadily and to move smoothly for video shots. You may need a tripod, a monopod, or a special rig. Most camcorders have good image stabilisation so they’re easier to use handheld.

Image quality

SLR sensors are designed to shoot high-resolution stills. Most current ones have at least 18 megapixels, but you only need two for HD video. So some cameras, such as lower-priced or older Canons, just record video from some rows of pixels (line-skipping). This can cause distracting interference patterns called moiré or aliasing.

Most SLR video isn’t recorded from the whole sensor at once: instead, it scans down the sensor. This can cause ‘rolling shutter’ distortion when you move the camera sideways or use it handheld.

Size and complexity

SLRs – and to a lesser extent mirrorless cameras – are bigger than equivalent camcorders, and you usually need accessories to get good results. But with camcorders, you can just pick them up and start shooting. Many have such good image stabilisation that you don’t really need a tripod.

It’s getting better

SLR and mirrorless makers – particularly Canon, Panasonic and Sony – have started taking video as a serious feature rather than just an add-on. Panasonic’s GH4 mirrorless camera has a whole raft of pro video features, and the Canon 80D and mirrorless EOS-M5 have fast video autofocus. On the camcorder front, Canon’s XC10  and XC15 cameras look like SLRs but shoot broadcast quality video.

Who should use SLRs?

I use an SLR, a mirrorless camera and a camcorder. I love the shallow focus and the great quality images I can get from the SLR, but when I’m shooting events I find a semi-professional camcorder much easier and quicker to use. (Often, I’ll put the camcorder on a tripod for a ‘master shot’ and use the SLR for closeups.)

SLRs and mirrorless cameras are best if you’re interested in getting that film-like image quality. So I recommend them for film students and ultra low-budget filmmakers. And they are definitely the ones to get if you want to shoot high-quality stills as well as video.

For events and news, good camcorders are better. Audio is easier and they’re easier to pick up and start shooting. And by the time you’ve stopped down the lens on an SLR to give you enough depth of field for a fast-moving scene, there sometimes isn’t that much difference in low light performance. Some pro and semi-pro camcorders like the Canon XC10 and Sony’s PWX70 have large one-inch sensors, which are good for low-light shooting and give scope for some creativity with depth of field.

What else could I use?

griptight

If you’re on a really tight budget, you could pimp your phone: a current iPhone with a good filming app, an add-on microphone and a case or pistol grip can shoot good video and attracts less attention than bigger cameras.

Best of both worlds?

Canon C100

If you want to combine the advantages of camcorders and SLRs, Canon’s professional Cinema EOS cameras like the C100 have large Super 35mm sensors and take interchangeable lenses, but they’re much more ergonomic for filmmaking and have better video and sound quality. They’re becoming a more affordable option: the original version of the C100 now costs about the same as a Canon 5D Mk III/IV.

DSLRs for filmmaking

Canon 80D

This DSLR has fast dual pixel video autofocus, a headphone socket, and a weather sealed body. Its APS-C sensor is good for shallow focus effects

Canon 700D

If you’re on a budget, this entry-level DSLR also has an APS-C sensor and Canon’s great colors.

Mirrorless cameras

Canon EOS M5

This is the most advanced of Canon’s mirrorless cameras, with fast Dual Pixel video autofocus, a built-in electronic viewfinder, and five-axis image stabilisation with some lenses. It has an APS-C sensor and its own range of small lenses, though you can fit ordinary Canon lenses with an adapter. You could also consider the cheaper EOS M3 .

Panasonic GH3

Smaller than Canon’s SLRs and with sharper video, though the colors and lens range aren’t as good, and the smaller sensor makes it harder to get creative shallow focus effects.

Panasonic GH4

Like the GH3 but with 4K recording and added pro video features.

Panasonic G7

Bargain 4K mirrorless camera (though it’s consumer, not pro, 4K).

Panasonic G85 (US)/G80 (Europe)

More advanced version of the G7, with weathersealing and in-body image stabilisation (with some lenses).

Camcorders

Canon HF-R700

The cheapest current camcorder with a microphone socket.

Canon HF-G40

Consumer version of Canon’s useful semi-pro XA30 camcorder.

XA30

Easy-to-use HD camcorder with detachable top handle and pro XLR audio inputs.

Sony PWX-70

4K-capable professional camcorder that can record broadcast-quality HD.

Canon XC10

Easy-to-use broadcast quality camcorder/still hybrid with 4K capability. The more expensive XC15 adds pro audio inputs.

Budget options

I’ve put together a list of camcorders, mirrorless cameras and SLRs under $300/£250. To get a DSLR or mirrorless camera in this price range, you need to buy used.

Tom Barrance