Which Camera Is Best? Camcorders vs DSLRs vs Mirrorless

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Whether you are an indie filmmaker, YouTube vlogger, wedding videographer or someone who needs to record your next vacation with your family, you’re going to need a good camera to suit your needs.

And if you are in the market for a new video camera, you’ve probably discovered that there are plenty of options available.

One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is whether to buy a camcorder or a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

But which is the better choice for your needs – a camcorder or a digital camera like a DSLR?

The short answer is: camcorders are easier for filming long stretches at a time, smooth zooms and offer stronger audio options. DSLR and mirrorless cameras ultimately offer better photography possibilities as well as more flexibility and upgradability through features like interchangeable lenses.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at pros and cons of each type and talk about how they each perform in some different scenarios like indie filmmaking, vlogging, weddings and much more.

So let’s dive in.

What is a Camcorder?

An electronic tube that extends comfortably just beyond the edges of your palm, a camcorder is a popular video-recording device, usually featuring an internal long zoom lens.

When camcorders were first invented, they were bulky objects, nearly the size of television broadcast cameras, and recorded to VHS tape. Since then they have gone through various iterations, recording to DV tape, Mini DV, mini DVDs, flash memory, and finally internal hard drives.

Prior to the introduction of decent video options on smartphones, camcorders were the means by which families could record their very own consumer-grade video memories of vacations, piano recitals, and weddings.

One major advantage of camcorders is their size; compact and travel-friendly, they are made with the general consumer in mind.

Does Anyone Still use Camcorders – or are they Obsolete?

While camcorders have become far less possible since the integration of better cameras and video capability into smartphones, this just means their target audience might have narrowed to a certain degree – they are far from obsolete.

For the average consumer, the video capabilities of their smartphone beat out the size and convenience formerly afforded by camcorders.

For anyone planning to use their footage in a project instead of as a mere keepsake or Instagram post, camcorders still offer more power and versatility in a compact package.

A short note on Camcorders vs Action Cameras

While both action cameras and camcorders are meant for point-and-shoot video there are some major differences.

So how does something like a GoPro size up in this competition?

GoPro footage is generally comparable to cell phone video, both are meant to run and gun and produce the best results that can be delivered from a pocket-sized device.

GoPros are smaller and more durable, especially once you put them in a weatherproof case.

If you’re in the market for an action camera have a look at our article 5 Best Budget-Friendly GoPro Alternatives With 4K.

What is a DSLR/mirrorless camera?

DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex.

Before digital cameras became a viable option for photography, SLR cameras were a standard entry point, which could be upgraded by changing to a more powerful lens.

SLR stands for Single-Lens Reflex, and both it and its digital counterpart rely on an internal mirror (the “reflex”) to deliver the image from the lens into the sensor and viewfinder.

Mirrorless cameras have an acronym of their own: MILC, which stands for Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera.

As the name suggests, MILCs do not have an internal mirror, which reflects the light into the viewfinder. Instead, the digital viewfinder presents the same image seen by the sensor.

Because they do not have to accommodate the space needed for an internal mirror, MILCs tend to have smaller and lighter bodies and lenses.

Despite the lighter and quieter possibilities offered by mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are still the most common cameras on the market which offer an interchangeable lens (however this may soon change in the near future as mirrorless cameras have become increasingly popular).

But for the purposes of this article, let us assume the term DSLR to refer to both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

What is the Difference Between a Camcorder and a Cinema Camera?

Cinema cameras are those which essentially function as heavy-duty camcorders yet feature interchangeable lenses.

Some examples of cameras in the higher prosumer range of cinema cameras are the Blackmagic Ursa Mini, Sony FS5/FS7, and RED Scarlet.

As the name suggests, these are cameras designed for use as cinematic filmmaking cameras.

A cinema camera like the Blackmagic Ursa would not qualify as a camcorder because it features an interchangeable lens (and is not exactly travel-friendly).

IBIS stands for In-body Image Stabilization. OIS stands for Optical Image Stabilization. While IBIS happens ‘in-body,’ in the actual sensor, OIS happens inside a lens. While cinema cameras do not have a stabilized sensor – nor stabilized lenses – camcorders often do.

Camcorders are Great for Run and Gun Situations

Then there is ‘run and gun’ shooting; any situation that requires the guerilla-style ability to get in, get your shots and get out.

Cinema cameras like URSA and REDs are not meant (and would basically be impossible to use) in run ‘n gun scenarios. They require time to set up properly and are primarily designed for use in studio work with controlled lighting.

However, Sony FS5/FS7s prove an exception to this rule and can easily be used as run and gun cameras.

With in-built image stabilization, camcorders are fully intended for run and gun. Cinema cameras generally are not.

The Sony FS-series is somewhat unique in this regard, as they are cinema cameras intended for documentary-style shooting – they are similar to ENG cameras in this respect.

A short note on ENG Cameras

ENG stands for Electronic News-gathering. ENG cameras are portable cameras somewhere between camcorders and cinema cameras.

ENG cameras are designed to record high-quality in a compact and stable package, though not intended for creating artful images – they are meant for capturing documentary footage.

What is the Difference Between a Camcorder and a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera?

The basic difference between a camcorder and a DSLR or mirrorless camera has to do with how much the user is able to customize when it comes to the camera.

Camcorders are far less flexible and customizable, with the biggest difference pertaining to lenses.

While DSLR and mirrorless cameras revolve around the idea of removable and changeable lenses, camcorders usually feature a single, unchangeable lens, typically with a long focal length variability and smooth zoom function.

Unfortunately, DSLRs do not include in-built ports like XLR for sound or SDI ports for sending output to other systems (video village, for instance), and require more gear and setup time for these kinds of add-ons.

Another major difference affecting DSLR and mirrorless cameras in Europe is that some models are limited to record only up to 30 minutes at a time, so as not to legally qualify as camcorders, and therefore be assigned a different tax bracket.

Camcorders typically produce far lower quality still photos than DSLRs (if they produce stills at all). This is because DSLRs have much larger sensors than camcorders at a similar price point. These larger sensors are primarily intended for photography.

Larger sensors offer the possibility to take in more light, and therefore offer a shallower depth of field, as well as images of greater detail and at higher resolutions.

What are the Benefits of Using a DSLR vs Using a Camcorder? 

While camcorders are reliable and easy to use, with a far gentler learning curve, DSLRs offer greater color depth and more visual versatility for those willing to put in the time and effort to learn how to push their gear for stronger results.

Ergonomically, DSLRs also win out, as they are shaped to be held comfortably for long periods of time on the right side grip. Camcorders can be comfortable, but do not conform to natural hand shapes quite as comfortably.

When it comes to extras like audio and filters though, camcorders have the upper hand to a certain extent, as some models in the price range of a DSLR will offer direct XLR inputs for microphones, or other handy preamps, as opposed to the necessity for external recorders with a DSLR.

Camcorders can be major time savers, and time is as important to a filmmaker as it is to a client. Rigging up a DSLR with gear like external sound, monitor, extra batteries, a cage, and external NDs can require a lot of prep time.

A camcorder on automatic settings can be ready to record seconds after it is turned on.

Also, the convenience of skipping the sound synchronizing step in post-production can save a lot of time in some cases.

Camcorders also often come with built-in ND (neutral density) filters, where DSLRs will need external filters added for sunny shoot days.

This can be extremely convenient in the case of camcorders, though adding an external filter to your DSLR is hardly a hassle, especially if you invest in a variable ND filter, which you can rotate to achieve different degrees of filtration.

If you want to learn more about variable ND-filters, you should definitely read our Guide: Best variable ND filters for video.

Closing the Gap Between Camcorders and DSLRs

Over the past few years, the gap between camcorders and DSLRs has been slowly closing, as DSLR producers continue to add features that were previously superior (or only available) in camcorder equivalents.

What used to be cameras aimed primarily at the photography market has developed into compact hybrid monsters with powerful video capabilities.

What Storage Media (Memory Cards) do a DSLR and a Camcorder use?

There are myriad storage media, which range across different types and models; internal SD cards, CFast, external SSDs (Solid-State Drives), and depending on the type of camcorder or DSLR, you will be faced with different possibilities.

The most common means of storage in DSLR cameras are SD cards, though CFs are better for higher quality recording with most Canon models

It is important to know what kind of storage you will be using, as well as researching whether an external recorder of some kind might give you a bump in recording speeds or quality.

Even if you already know SD cards are your best option, pay attention to the recording speed! Different models of the same type of card will offer different recording speed bitrates.

If you plan to buy one of each type of camera it is a good idea to buy cameras, which can share the same type of memory cards.

If you want to learn more about memory cards and storage capabilities, I recommend you read our Ultimate Guide To Memory Cards And SSDs For Video Recording.

When Should You Use a Camcorder?

In my personal experience, camcorders served as an important stepping stone from filmmaking as a hobby to using DSLR cameras for professional purposes.

However, they can still serve as indispensable tools in recording events, as a B-roll camera, etc.

Typically camcorders have an advantage in terms of storage capabilities, filming for extended amounts of time, or just ‘capturing the moment.’

When it comes to documenting events in longer and unbroken takes, camcorders are a great tool to use. Weddings, sports, lectures, workshops, long interviews; these are all events in which a camcorder is probably a safer choice.

For live streamed events, some broadcast video cameras do not include traditional storage capabilities but instead transfer the information as it is being filmed to a separate control panel for streaming and storage.

Camcorders add the benefit of being able to also record while streaming. So if you’re shooting an event or conference an SDI port on a camcorder gives the ability to stream and record simultaneously. This is an advantage over recording and having to upload after the fact for streaming, which is often the way to go if you use a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Camcorders excel at filming wide shots of large events for extended periods of time.

In the case of a wedding, you might want to have both a camcorder and DSLR on hand, so you can combine the best of both worlds by capturing lengthy sequences on the camcorder and weave in more artful footage shot on the DSLR.

Also, since weddings and events often have periods of time with only little light available, the ability to change to a fast lens with a large aperture on a DSLR or mirrorless cam is a must.

And let’s not forget about wireless capabilities! Many cameras (both camcorders and DSLRs and mirrorless) now offer apps that can be used to control the camera directly or live-stream straight through the app.

When should you use a DSLR/MILC?

Any time you are looking to create more carefully composed shots, where you control the focus and depth of field, a DSLR is the best choice.

Using lenses with a large aperture allows you to achieve a shallow depth of field, a key component of what is generally accepted as the cinematic look (at least in the commercial space of TV ads). This ability is rarely available on a camcorder.

Choosing your own ISO, white balance, and f-stop are all a handy click (or wheel-turn) away on a DSLR.

Having quick and manual control of the different elements manipulating light while filming means being able to forge the image, you want to see, from the light, you have to work with.

Are DSLRs good for Filmmaking?

DSLRs are excellent for filmmaking especially if you’re on a tight budget.

A lot of DSLRs like the GH5s and Canon 5D MkIII are used in big Hollywood productions – for scenes like car crashes, or B-roll where their compact size is useful for squeezing into cramped spaces.

Worth considering is how much more powerful a DSLR can become when affixed with a proper cine-lens. While renting such lenses can quickly break the bank, they more than pull their weight.

This is a category where DSLRs truly shine in what they can offer in terms of independent filmmaking. Slap a cine-lens on your average DSLR with some gear for external focus pulling and you have a powerful image-making tool that most camcorders cannot begin to compare to.

When it comes to stabilization, keep in mind that most DSLRs require a gimbal or Steadicam/glidecam to achieve smooth motion.

If you are in the market for a gimbal check out our article Best Gimbal Stabilizers For DSLR And Mirrorless Cameras.

Likewise, if you’re looking to learn more about glidecams and get some good recommendations, check out our article 5 Best Glidecams For Mirrorless and DSLR Cameras.

Camcorders, on the other hand, have largely had in-built stabilization as a standard feature for some time.

Newer DSLRs competing with camcorders have started to feature smoother stabilization than ever before though, especially the Panasonic GH5, the Panasonic S1H, and Sony A7iii.

Are Camcorders good for Photography?

The short answer is no!

While camcorders have evolved to frequently feature an option to ‘photograph’ a still during recording, it is usually just that, a still from a video.

As such, it is stuck at the resolution of the camera’s video limitations, that is to say, 1920 x 1080 in high definition or 4096 x 2160 in 4K.

DSLRs are primarily intended for photography use, and take photographs at a higher resolution than their video recording is capable of.

So if you go the route of the DSLR, as an added bonus, you have the opportunity to learn about photography along the way, much of it highly relevant to capturing quality video.

Are DSLRs good for YouTube? Are Camcorders good for YouTube?

Both DSLRs and camcorders can be effective tools for making YouTube videos or vlogging, depending on what you plan to film and how you want it to look.

And no matter which type of camera you end up choosing, it won’t be the only piece of gear you will need.

It’s easy enough to get started though, just grab a camera and start recording.

Consider what kind of content you plan to produce and start from there; do you plan to travel frequently with your camera?

Maybe size is an important consideration. Do you need strong stabilization or do you plan to mostly shoot on a tripod?

If you’re an aspiring YouTuber or vlogger, you should read our Ultimate Guide To The Tools And Equipment Youtubers Use.

Are DSLRs or Camcorders Better for Audio?

Audio is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a camera. After all, audio is half of the experience of watching a video.

However, native audio quality in a camera – be it a DSLR or a camcorder – is generally subpar and requires an external microphone to make it usable for semi-professional projects.

While simple 3.5mm microphone input jacks have become commonplace in most DSLRs and camcorders, they are not generally offered as a feature for cameras on the lower end of the spending spectrum.

If your budget is tight, do not aim so low price-wise as to prevent yourself from upgrading the camera later – be sure that the camera you want does have a microphone input. If it doesn’t, then move one rung up the price ladder and look at the next equivalent camera to see if that one does.

Professional sound-quality requires XLR cables

If you are already serious about recording audio and have professional microphones just waiting for a camera to be paired with, consider how you will want to connect them to your future camera.

If you plan to use an external audio recorder anyway, then this is less of a concern. But if you want to be able to run your heavy-duty phantom power microphone directly into your camera for synchronized sound, consider how.

With a DSLR, this likely means purchasing an extra preamp box which allows for XLR microphone inputs and in turn connects to the camera.

Keep in mind that this will effectively increase your final costs for the camera purchase. If you decide on a camcorder, some heftier models will allow for direct XLR inputs straight out of the box.

Others will allow for the possibility, but require the additional purchase of equipment like a handle grip with 2 XLR inputs.

While this will add to the final cost, it is not likely to cost as much as a pre-amp box. But audio technicians agree; if you have the time and money to record your audio separately with an external audio recorder, you should.

Zoom and Tascam have established a strong reputation for reliable products in that department.

Conclusion

To sum up, MILCs or DSLRs are a far better tool for photography, improving your artistry with a camera, and independent filmmaking. Be it for a vacation, sporting event, wedding or concert, camcorders are ideal for quick documentation.

Both are great for simple and relatively undemanding tasks like making videos for YouTube.

And while camcorders are more useful for slow and steady zooms or direct audio inputs, remember that DSLRs offer more room for the camera to grow with you as you hone your technique: you can add external audio ports and monitors, upgrade your lenses, add external focus pulling or zoom mechanisms… the possibilities are nearly endless.

A DSLR style camera can theoretically support your image-crafting habits all the way up to feature filmmaking with proper cine-lenses.

Camcorders will hold you back if you are hoping to hone your video craft continuously over time. But they still dominate as the ultimate in run and gun documentation. Camcorders are ready to go any time anywhere.

So now that you know all you need to know, get out there and choose the camera that is right for you.


About the author
Maximilien Luc Proctor (+MLP+) is a French-American filmmaker, musician & writer living in Berlin. He holds a B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated with honors. He is an Eagle Scout and National Merit Scholar. He has been a contributing writer for Photogénie (photogenie.be) since participating in their Young Critics Workshop in 2015, has been running Ultra Dogme (ultradogme.com) since its inception, and his short films have played in festivals around the world.

Photo by: Alex DePew

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