Today, everything shoots video. Your digital camera shoots video, your phone shoots video, your iPods even shoot video. In many cases, these devices actually shoot pretty good video. So why, when your digital point-and-shoot takes 720 or 1080p video, do you still need a camcorder?
Master of Its Trade
One big reason: Just like your iPod was made to play music, and your phone was made to make calls, your digital camera was made to shoot stills, and every step of its design is ultimately focused on that goal. However, even the most affordable camcorders were designed from square one with the moving picture in mind. This means a lot when it comes to features, usability, and quality.
First, just think about using your digital camera. You turn it on, you point it at your smiling friend, you push that shutter button halfway down, and you wait for a second. During that wait time, your camera is doing a lot of thinking and trying its best to make a beautifully focused photo. For freezing single moments, this is great.
But when you're shooting video, you’re not setting out to capture politely posed portraits. You want to catch the action: the running, the dancing, the kite flying. This is where the much faster, much more advanced auto-focus abilities of a camcorder come into play. Some camcorders, like at the higher end of Canon’s Vixia line, have “Instant Auto-Focus” systems, where two sensors work together to instantaneously track your subject, even in low light. This means there's no waiting for the camcorder to catch up, and even if your subject won’t stand still, they’ll at least stay in focus.
Another system that’s far more advanced in camcorders than in digital cameras is the image stabilizer. For the most part, your digital camera is designed to assume that you and your subject are both standing still. This means that the image stabilizer only needs to perform well enough to counteract some shaky hands. Camcorders, however, know that you might want to move a little while you shoot, and that your subject will be moving too. While they may not give you steady cam-smooth results, the more advanced image stabilizers in camcorders will definitely allow for some walking, stepping and crouching while you shoot. Also, many camcorders use dynamic stabilizers that compensate more as you zoom in. If you’ve ever tried to take steady video at full zoom on your digital camera, you know that extra stabilization can be very valuable.
Speaking of zoom, you may be finding a lot of digital cameras (that shoot HD video) with zoom ranges comparable to those of HD camcorders: around 10-15x. The thing is, zoom isn’t all about the numbers. A good zoom is smooth and steady and a good zoom control is just as sensitive as the fingers that work it. Camcorders use smaller image sensors than digital cameras. Using a smaller sensor means they can use a smaller, lighter lens. This in turn leaves more room in the camera housing for more complex, fine-tuned zoom motors. With a camcorder, you don’t end up with jumpy, wild zooms; you get smooth, professional results. You also don’t have annoying sound of the zoom motor-whine intruding on your audio. And, if HD isn’t that important to you, standard def camcorders offer extremely long zoom ranges, sometimes up to 60x.
On top of all this, camcorders are ergonomically designed for comfortable shooting, with controls like zoom, record, and stop right at your fingertips. When it comes time to review and export your footage, video-minded camcorders offer easier-to-navigate menus, and more efficient compression codecs. And, where digital still cameras offer little to no consideration for audio (why should they?), camcorders offer higher quality microphones, audio monitoring options, and quiet audio controls to capture sound as clearly as they capture the image.
Ultimately, if you’re focused on quality video, camcorders offer the features and functions that you need to capture the action. Video functions on digital cameras are a fun, convenient add-on, but they can’t do the job of a purpose-built video machine.