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DSLR vs. Camcorder for Video

Joel Reinke - Thursday, January 05, 2012

Comparing HD Video of DSLR to Camcorders

Being a big DSLR user myself, I see the marketing hype towards using Digital SLRs for HD Video. It is true, they do provide many benefits, but the excitement surrounding this may make you miss the fact that today’s HD Camcorders have a contrasting set of features that may better serve your needs (or not). I hope to address the strengths of each in this article so you can decide what is best for you (or use both in the right applications).

In the past few years there have been many HD Camcorders from entry-level to mid-prosumer that have sullied the name of the quality of HD. This has definitely fueled the push towards DSLRs being looked upon as the go-to for semi-affordable quality HD Video. Issues such as abysmal low-light performance and noise in the video quality have made people think of HD Camcorders as poor substitutes for strength of DSLR’s video.

But in the last year or so, some new Camcorders (in the entry to mid level) have arrived that are leveling the playing field for these issues. So now the real comparison can begin! How does the core aspect of using a DSLR for video compare to using a Camcorder for video?

Using a DSLR for video is more comparable to the experience a film maker would have. It has a more cinematic feel and quality. Depth of Field is more controllable and you are still more likely to be able to have the best low-light performance due to larger sensors. However, you may be stuck with manual focus. A Camcorder will definitely handle better for action, less pre-planned shots, much easier auto-focusing, walking around without bumps (with the right Image Stabilization), easier to zoom in while shooting, and a ton of other convenient features.

[Side Topic: Yah, well doesn’t the Sony A55, A65, and A77 solve those DSLR issues?!?]

Here is a more in depth comparison chart on the pros and cons of each and what scenarios each could be best for: 

Topic

DSLR

HD Camcorder

Controllable Focus, Depth of Field (useful in Cinematic presentation)

A clear winner in this category. Deferent lenses can further enhance this

Not as good. Some have focus rings but not any entry level. Plus smaller sensor size makes the shallowest depth of field impossible. On the flip side, if you like everything in focus then this is the way to go.

Low Light Performance

Used to be the only way to go but now Camcorders are much better and may have even caught up

This used to be a deal breaker but now depending on the unit, many have exceptional low-light

Noise

Still a winner, but even some earlier DSLRs with Video have bad/moderate noise.

Much better than ever for Camcorders. Depends on model. Smaller sensor size can cause issue but many models have totally fixed this

Auto Focus

Really bad. You just need to use Manual, except on Sony’s dSLTs but even those have a slight issue. For DSLRs with some Auto Focus in Video - they use Contrast Based Auto Focus which hunts a bit and would be unusable for real video (more below)

Very Good. Even though some use contrast based detection, with the smaller sensor size the focusing can happen quickly and accurately. Many camcorders also have an autofocus sensor by the lens which works great.

Zoom During Video

Depends on your lens. A Quality lens will give a nice smooth zoom ring but a cheap one can have a sticky, plastic feel that makes smooth zooms impossible. Other issue: Focusing while zooming can be a problem, whereas many Camcorders can handle this

Most have a comfortable lever switch. The level of resistance varies and good ones have a slow zoom and fast zoom depending on how far you make the lever go. Also, settings can adjust the speed of the zoom.

Image Stabilization

You may think if your lens has Image Stabilization you’ll be ok for video but Lens Based Image Stabilization wasn’t meant for video, it was meant for making one photo at a time better able to account for hand shake. So if you are walking around doing video and expect it to be free of bumps, you will be disappointed. Sony’s dSLTs are better for this because the I.S. is in the camera but it still is built around being a photo camera. Best get a rigging system or steady cam ($$$)

The best kind of Image Stabilization for Video is built into Camcorders. It can make a video where you are walking around carefully free of bumps. Add a little rigging and it can be extremely smooth.

Motion

There can be issues with motion in panning and other fast moving objects, called the Jello Effect, which I won’t get into here.

Sharp, super smooth motion - but some are better than others.

Lens Consideration

DSLRs give you access to a range of lenses that give you flexibility and will help convince you to part with your money J

You better be happy with the lens in your camcorder ‘cause you won’t get another. A major thing to look for is how wide-angle the lens goes (usually quoted in 35mm terms). A 28mm Wide Angle lens in a Camcorder is about as wide as it will go. Many more like 43mm which may not get everything into the picture without excessive panning. One nice advantage of many camcorder lenses is that they have a F1.8 aperture (the lower the larger the hole to let light in). It would be ridiculously expensive to get a DSLR lens with F1.8 and 20 times optical zoom, but affordable in a Camcorder.

Best Uses

-Photos in Motion

-Cinematic Clips where shallow depth of field is a priority

-Action Video

-Everyday Video (don’t miss your kids first…)

-Sharp, Crispy Videos where everything’s in focus

More about Auto Focus - Why can’t DSLRs just autofocus? Its because they use the mirror inside to focus using Phase Detection for photos. When they shoot video, the mirror locks up to constantly let the sensor “see things“, so the regular autofocus can’t work. Newer models use the sensor and contrast based auto-detection, but I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work very well. So why don’t they fix that? My idea is they should add a sensor like camcorders have for autofocus as a plug-in attachment to sit on the end of the lens for Canon or Nikon DSLRs (or make Translucent Mirror cameras like Sony).
Another point - I’ve heard the argument that: Just use Manual Focus like they do in the movies… Ok, in the movies they have a guy called a Focus Puller and all he does is focus on the subject and they usually preplan all shots taking measurements for reference. Does that sound realistic for everyday shots? Years ago Nikon lost the format war to Canon when Canon introduced quality AutoFocus lenses and Nikon sat back for some years. This is video, not photo, but its possible something like this could happen with Sony now. We will see. Using Sony’s Digital SLT cameras, the auto focus is very good, the only issue is that the focus happens so quickly that it is quite an abrupt change in video to see focus shift from one subject to another this way (kind of jerky).

Contrastingly, Camcorders have nice, fast auto focus built in and it is very easy to use. Some high-end models have a focus ring which allows some creative techniques that may give their videos a cinematic quality. Even more have touch screens that allow you to touch what you want to be in focus - which may be a better option still.

In Summary: for most Video purposes, HD Camcorders seem to be the winner. New improvements in the technology in the past year have made the old objections to Camcorders a thing of the past. However, DSLRs can be better for cinematic work, artistic work, and photos in motion. The best option is to have one of each to cover all applications, but HD Camcorders can cover the bulk of your video needs.

[ There are definitely still a lot of bad camcorders out there. I’m not saying they’re all good. Find out the few, the proud that changed the game in my opinion HERE]