You can get a camcorder with headphone and microphone sockets for less than $300 ($100 if you buy used)
A used mirrorless camera or DSLR is the best option for creative filmmaking
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 2019. 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 6S 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 electronic stabiliser for well under $200.
Avoid very cheap camcorders with unfamiliar brand names: most are poor quality and have fixed non-zoom lenses (they only have digital zooms).
The Canon HF-R800 can record in a range of AVCHD and MP4 formats, including the 24fps that filmmakers like.
The zoom doesn’t go that wide – only 32.5mm equivalent – but there’s a filter ring so you could fit a wide angle adapter. It has a fairly large 3 inch touchscreen. Most importantly, it’s the cheapest good-quality camcorder you can buy with a microphone input socket. The older HF-R700 is almost identical.
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. If you use a Mac 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.
If you want an SLR or mirrorless camera in this price range, you’ll need to buy used.
The Canon EOS T4i DSLR has a large 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 SLR lenses, and you can fit other makers’ lenses with adapters. It’s the first entry-level video Canon DSLR with a tilt-and-swivel touchscreen. It can shoot slow-motion, but only at 1280×720 rather than Full HD 1080. Like the other two cameras in this category, it doesn’t have a headphone jack.
You may be able to find the similar, more recent within the budget.
You can install free Magic Lantern firmware (at your own risk) to add more video features.
It’s bigger and heavier than the camcorders, though it’s relatively light for a DSLR. Battery life is better than mirrorless cameras.
The original Canon EOS-M was the first mirrorless camera with a Canon APS-C sensor. At around $200 or less used, it’s the most affordable camera you can buy for creative filmmaking.
As with Canon SLRs, 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 adapters enabling you to mount any current Canon lens (or older manual focus lenses). It has a solid metal body, but it’s much smaller and lighter than an SLR. It has a fixed million-dot touchscreen.
I own one: it’s really small and neat and produces lovely images. Downsides: the touchscreen interface is slow to use, there’s no eye-level viewfinder, and battery life is poor so you’ll need spares.
It has the same range of video options as the T4i, and you can install Magic Lanternfirmware for extra video features.
If you can afford a bit more it’s worth seeking out the newer EOS M3 (review). It has a tilting screen, better controls, and the option to add an electronic viewfinder.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education.I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.