Updated January 2018
Professional camcorders give you a lot more creative control than basic or prosumer camcorders. Most will let you plug in pro XLR microphones and use dials and buttons rather than menus. This lets you work faster once you’re used to the camera. This page features cameras with fixed, zoom lenses: you could also consider digital cinema cameras which take interchangeable lenses.
The cameras here all have fairly large one-inch sensors and can shoot 4K Ultra HD and slow motion HD. The XF400 can shoot 4K in slow motion.
The XC10 and XC15 (bottom) don’t have power zoom lenses, but they’re the only cameras here that can shoot ‘broadcast quality’ HD.
Canon’s XF400 can shoot 4K at up to 60/50fps, and 1080p at up to 120 fps.
Its one-inch sensor is bigger than previous compact Canon pro camcorders, for better image quality and low light performance. It has five-axis image stabilisation and a 26-383mm zoom range. It’s the first news-type camcorder with ultra-fast Dual Pixel autofocus. Its pro features include three optical ND filters for more control over exposure in bright light, and a top handle with an extra zoom button, XLR audio inputs and manual audio controls. You can detach the handle when you need to make the camera less conspicuous.
Downsides? It’s not a ‘world camera’ (it’s either PAL and NTSC), and the eyepiece is small. It’s not really broadcast quality (see below) as it only shoots HD at 35Mb/s. 4K is 150Mb/s, but both are 8-bit 4:2:0 rather than the 4:2:2 required by broadcasters.
But at around $2999 (£2760) it looks like a very good option for events and news shooters. It’s one of three new Canon camcorders with similar features. If you need an SDI input, go for the more expensive XF405; if you don’t need the top handle and XLR inputs, choose the cheaper HF-GX10.
Check XF405 price Adorama
The Sony PXW-Z90 has a fairly similar specification to the XF400 (one inch sensor, 4K and fast autofocus) at a slightly lower price, but with the addition of an SDI output. Its 4K bitrate is lower than the XF400 (100Mb/s rather than 150) but its 1080p output is higher (50Mb/s rather than 35). It doesn’t do 4K slow motion. Unlike the Canon it’s a ‘world camera’, combining NTSC and PAL. Its main touchscreen is similar, but the eye-level viewfinder is bigger. Zoom range is a bit narrower at 29-348mm. Like the Canon, it’s not really broadcast quality as it’s only 8-bit 4:2:0.
There are also two lower priced variants. The HR-NX80, at around $2299, lacks SDI and records in the XAVC-S format rather than XAVC-L. The AX-700, at around $1899, omits the top handle and comes in separate PAL and NTSC versions.
Check PXW-Z90 price Adorama
The innovative Canon XC10 (review) is the best value camera for starting with events, news and documentary. Costing under $2000/£1650, it can record broadcast-quality HD, 4K at 305Mb/s, and 12MP stills. Its zoom lens covers a useful 27.3-273mm range. It has very good image stabilisation so it’s easy to handhold, it’s good in low light, and it’s fairly compact: it looks more like an SLR than a professional video camera. The controls are a little bit fiddly – it relies a lot on the touchscreen – but that’s partly down to its small size.
The XC10 doesn’t have XLR sockets. But its more expensive replacement, the XC15, ships with an audio adapter. This adds an XLR input, plus physical switches and dials which allow quick, easy level adjustments.
What is ‘broadcast quality’?
There’s no single definition, but many broadcasters want HD footage shot at a bit rate of at least 50Mb/s, with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling (that’s twice as much colour information as the 4:2:0 you get with many camcorders and SLRs). They also specify a minimum sensor size: 1 inch for a single chip, or 1/2 inch for three-chip cameras.
- Good image and sound quality
- Lots of creative control
- Quick to use once you know what you’re doing
- Can be big
- Fairly expensive
- Take time to learn
- Images may not be as pleasing or ‘film-like’ as those from cheaper SLRs or mirrorless cameras
- News, documentaries, and events such as weddings where you need to be able to set up and make adjustments quickly