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                   Friday, May 7, 2021

The sad state of prosumer camcorders in 2021 (or since 2016, really)

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I have been in need of a new 4K prosumer video camera since 2018. I'm still trudging along with my soft-edge-lensed, glitchy-autofocused, noisy-imaged JVC GY-HM170 4K camera that I bought in 2016. I've had the money set aside to do it for years. The problem is that the big camcorder manufacturers (Sony, Panasonic, Canon and JVC) have abandoned any serious development of their product lines. The last new prosumer camcorder releases were in 2019, and even then, there wasn't anything groundbreaking about them. Look for yourself on B&H or Adorama - the catalog of 4K camcorder model specs is simply a travesty.

The cinema camera and mirrorless camera realms seem to be doing a good job of maintaining good specs. But that type of camera - that is, a model that uses DSLR lenses - just doesn't work well in run-and-gun applications. Their main deficiency for standard video work is the lack of capability for smooth, professional zoom control - you're stuck with zooming with whatever DSLR lens you're using (Try doing a slow panning+zoom-out shot on a moving car with a cinema or mirrorless camera).

According to reviews and posts from professional users I've read in my years of researching for a new camera purchase, ALL of the prosumer camcorder offerings available now (under the $4,000 price point) suffer from one or more of the following problems:

  • Glitchy/slow autofocus
  • Lack of an accurate infinity focus setting
  • Lens that does not maintain infinity focus through the zoom range
  • Terrible low light performance: heavy noise, dark image
  • Essential controls moved to a cumbersome touchscreen menu
  • Lack of 60fps and/or 10-bit recording in 4K resolutions
Any of those problems should be unacceptable for any new camera model in our current era. The only video cameras available that don't suffer from these issues (like the Sony PXW-Z280 or Canon XF705) are at or above the $7,000 price point - well over the threshold of ecomonic sense for most part-time camerapersons. To make matters worse, no prosumer video camera on the market today - even among the 7 grand plus ones - offers any competitive native-resolution slow-motion capability, which is 240fps or higher at true 1080p or larger (the models purporting to offer 960fps HD are all interpolating 1080p from a much smaller sensor capture area).

What all of this means is that new cell phones have mostly overtaken camcorders - even the $7,000 models - in basic image quality and slow motion performance. And to make matters worse, prices on camera models that came out years ago have not fallen. Would you pay the full price on a higher-end computer or car that came out 4 years ago? It is simply ludicrous to spend $2,000 to $3,000 or more on a tech-generations-old device that is already several steps behind today's latest cell phones in image quality and framerates. Who cares about the device's form factor and lens if the picture quality and content aren't a step above the hundreds of millions of phones in the hands of nearly everyone in the country?

Partly due to the incessant feet-dragging of the big brands, some crowdfunded cameras are already off the ground with models that offer leaps and bounds of functionality over everything else. Case in point is the Chronos high-speed camera that I began shooting with in 2019. That small Kickstarter effort was able to produce an excellent product that blows away any cell phone and camcorder on the market in terms of slow-motion capability. The point is, today's cell phones and cameras like the Chronos are proof that the technology has existed to economically integrate these functions into name-brand cameras. The big camcorder manufacturers have no excuse for not working these features into their new offerings years ago.

When I drop multiple thousands of dollars of hard-earned money on a camera, I expect and need it to offer me something better than what every person on the street has in their pockets. The big camcorder manufacturers simply aren't going to get my business again until they step up with something truly competitive. At this point, I'd be happy with the guts of something like an iPhone 11 inside of a traditional camcorder casing with the standard zoom lens. I'd bet even that would be a decent seller if that's literally all they did.

I can't speak for every cameraperson today, but the bare minimum I want/need in a new camera is:

  • 4K at 60p
  • 240fps at 1080p
  • Accurate infinity focus that is stable through the zoom range (like every prosumer SD and HD camera used to have)
  • Fast/accurate autofocus
  • Essential functions in switches/buttons/knobs (MF/AF, iris, etc).
  • Passable low-light performance (~1 lux)
And again, those are the bare minimum specs a video camera needs to be competitive in the cell phone world. But look for yourself: no camera available today meets all of those specs, and that's the sad reality in the realm of prosumer camcorders. Will it ever change, or are we doomed to a coming cinema cam, mirrorless and phone-only world?

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