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Looking for a relatively cheap HD camera

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Adam Leonard
Looking for a relatively cheap HD camera
on Sep 16, 2011 at 1:41:58 am

So I'm looking to do some freelance videography while I search for my next job in the TV/Film industry. Although I've been shooting for years, this will be the first serious camera that I've owned myself (as opposed to borrowed or one that's the property of an employer or school). I'm looking for something relatively cheap, since I have no other job right now. By "relatively cheap," I mean that's less than $1,000, but up to $1,300 is acceptable.

Some other things I'm looking for:

-Not total garbage, obviously. It has to be prosumer quality or better. Professional quality is preferred, but I'm not sure that I can get anything good at my price range.
-Tapeless preferred, but not required.
-If possible, it would be nice if there's at least an attachment available for it that will let me mount it to my shoulder, a la the Cannon GL-1.

I'm thinking about the Panasonic AG-AC7PJ or the Sony AG-AC7. I was also thinking about the Sony HVR-HD1000U, but I saw in a lower post that it's probably a bad idea to get a camera that needs tapes in this day and age.

Finally, someone not in the industry did bring up a fairly good point: Does it really need to be professional grade? If I can get a higher-end consumer quality one for half the cost, will it really make that much difference to anything short of something a career event videographer would be doing, like a wedding? Some of the consumer/prosumer cameras that I see in BestBuy have better optical zoom and more built-in memory than some of the pro-grade cameras that I'm looking at.

Do any other camera suggestions come to mind?

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Dave Haynie
Re: Looking for a relatively cheap HD camera
on Sep 16, 2011 at 4:42:42 am

If you really need shoulder mount, get shoulder mount. The problem is, it's only good for shoulder mount or tripod mount -- too bulky, most likely, for use handheld, or on Glidecam/Steadycam. Particularly light ones such as those you're looking for.

I think the Panasonic AG-AC7 is a mixed bag (I'm a Panasonic guy these days, too... but read on). It's definitely a consumer-priced shoulder mount... Panasonic always has one of these. This is an update of the AG-HMC70, pretty much.

And it was the fairly unique property of being a flash-based model that can shoot either in AVCHD or plain old timey DV -- to standard SDxx memory cards. But with all that bulk, you're still stuck with a 3.5mm mic input -- not XLRs (the HMC70s one saving grace: XLRs). It only does 60i, which is kind of retro these days; sometimes you want 60i, but I'm shooting far more 720/60p or 1080/24p these days. If your main target is DVD/BD, 60i isn't a big deal.

Of more concern is the single 1/4" CMOS sensor. Nothing wrong with 1/4" CMOS sensors -- each of my Panasonics has three of them. But just one? That's a consumer imager there, and you will suffer in low light. Curiously, the HMC70 was a 3-chip camera... my main complaint was that it was limited to something like "HG" mode, 13Mb/s or so recording rate. The AG-AC7 also supports Panasonic's HA mode, which is their top-level consumer mode (other than on models that support 1080/60p recording), at about 17Mb/s.

You'll spend a bit more, but I'd definitely take the AG-HMC80 over this. But it's nearly twice the price, about $2200. The advantage: this is a real AVCCAM model... it's 3-chips, XLR inputs, better glass, full range of recording rates and options, including PH mode (21Mb/s VBR), and a bunch of options in SD, as well.

Which brings me around to recommending one of my cameras, the Panasonic AG-HMC40. This is nearly identical (same sensors, modes, lens) to the AG-HMC80, but without the shoulder mount... it's a smaller handle-mount camera, like the Canon GL-1 was in its day. You certainly could put it into some kind of shoulder rig, just like the Canon, but it's not a shoulder camera. And I'm not entirely in love with the viewfinder, though I'm not sure the HMC80 or AC7 win prizes here, either. You can buy the AG-HMC40 for $1700-ish... XLR inputs are an add-on (via dedicated port with lock, not 3.5mm jack).

Not sure which Sony you were looking at... maybe the Sony HXR-MC2000U? That's a $1750 shoulder mount AVCHD model, which seems to be exactly Sony's answer to the AG-AC7. This is also a single-chip, 1/4" sensor camera, which Sony's top consumer encoding AVC modes (which go up to 24Mb/s... Sony always quotes peak rates, Panasonic always average, so they're closer than they look, but Sony's got the edge), interlaced-only video modes, 1080/60i or 480/60i, just like the AG-AC7. Also has audio in only via the 3.5" mic input.

As before, I wouldn't personally choose this. If I absolutely had to have shoulder mount, I'd choose the AG-AC7... I think it's pretty similar to the Sony, but cheaper. At the price of the Sony, I'd buy the HMC40, hands down.

Another possible choice in this price range is the Canon VIXIA HF G10. That's about $1500, and yeah, it's a single-chip only model. However, it's essentially the same (consumer version) of the $2000 Canon XA10, lacking the XLR module. This has the same sensor as the XF100 and XF105 (and the even more expensive XF300/305 use three of these sensors), it's a very modern and larger 1/3" sensor that seems to be getting very good reviews. I'd look at it, but it's going to be very small, so maybe not what you're looking before. Prior to the Panasonics, I used a Sony HVR-A1, which was a similar model in its day -- single chip, but pretty good for a single chip camera.


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Brent Dunn
Re: Looking for a relatively cheap HD camera
on Sep 16, 2011 at 1:53:22 pm

If you are looking to get hired by a company, you have to have the proper equipment. If you are shooting for yourself, you can also rent cameras.

I would go with a canon DSLR like the 60D. But, you also need a digital recorder with these. Zoom has a recorder for $100. You can buy a LED light at for $100. Finally, you'll need a tripod.

So, buying just a camera, isn't going to work. You need all the other stuff to be a shooter.

The DSLR's will give you a great look for not too much money. The cost will come with buying the lenses. Canon has a $300 50mm lens that works great. The L-Series lenses are recommended, but out of your budget.

Brent Dunn
Owner / Director / Editor
DunnRight Films
Video Marketing

Sony EX-1,
Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 7D
Mac Pro Tower, Quad Core,
with Final Cut Studio

HP i7 Quad laptop
Adobe CS-5 Production Suite

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Dave Haynie
Re: Looking for a relatively cheap HD camera
on Sep 16, 2011 at 2:48:43 pm

I would not recommend an HDSLR as the primary camera for event work. Hey, nothing against the HDSLR... I have a Canon 60D myself, love it, there's nothing like it in low light anywhere near my budget. But I also have two Panasonic 3-chip camcorders. And crazy bits of sound gear.

The big issue with the Canon is time: it's going to stop recording every 10-12 minutes. You can re-start it, but this is unacceptable for event work. I've shot weddings that had hour-long ceremonies... back in the tape days, 83 minute tapes became my very good friend for event work. I can shoot three+ hours on the Pannys at full quality, without worries about missing something.

You also have other issues... the HDSLRs don't generally auto-focus during a shot. The 60D can be told to auto-focus, or you can manually focus. I'd manually focus from a tripod on a fixed subject anyway, particularly in low light, but in a run-and-gun situation, the HDSLR is going to be out of focus, most likely.

Built-in audio on an HDSLR is like built-in audio on any camcorder... bad. Only more so. For most any event, I put a field recorder or two (Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-1) in a good location, and record the whole schmeggie in high quality, maybe even with external mics, depending on the venue. This doesn't just absolve the camcorder of most audio work (the shotgun on my Panny might deliver better audio on some things), it gives me a sync track for editing time. So I have no issues starting and stopping each camera, any time that makes sense. Even more of an issue once you add an HDSLR to the mix.

And yeah, there are some cameras that deliver 30 minute or even unlimited video. Though be careful... some of these are crunching it as small as camcorders to, 24Mb/s versus the 35-50Mb/s of a normal HDSLR... so you're not necessarily getting full HDSLR quality.

The other thing.. you do need completely different workflow with an HDSLR or two as your primary camera. Adding one to an existing camcorder workflow, I believe, is much less trouble... the 60D just becomes my B/C camera. For now...


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