Does it still make sense to buy a camcorder?

That smartphone in your pocket already shoots HD video, so do you really need anything more? All signs point to no--but there are times when the real deal is better.

The Sony Handycam HDR-PJ50V.
The Sony Handycam HDR-PJ50V. Sony

I love making movies. If I could have a do-over, career-wise, you'd see my name in film credits instead of on blog posts (not that I don't have equal love for the latter, of course).

That's why I've always been drawn to camcorders, which let me indulge my inner Spielberg--even if it's just to create music video-style family montages. I've purchased several over the years, always relishing the improvements in resolution and image quality.

But, let's face it, things have changed. Now that most smartphones and many tablets can shoot video--in some cases extremely sharp, high-definition video--there's considerably less incentive for users to spend extra money on a standalone camcorder.

And therein lies my question for today: Does it still make sense to buy one?

Obvious answer: it depends. For starters, let's clarify our terms. By "camcorder" I mean a standalone, handheld video camera, one that records on flash memory or a built-in hard drive. Something like the Panasonic HDC-TM900 or Sony Handycam HDR-PJ10 . You know, a camcorder (emphasis mine).

Of course, for purposes of our discussion, let's not discount pocket camcorders like the Sony Bloggie Duo. Although this category is shrinking rapidly now that Cisco and Kodak--makers of the Flip and Playsport series, respectively--have exited the market, there are still pocket 'corders to be had.

The "problem" with any camcorder is that it's one more thing to buy, one more thing to learn, and one more thing to bring along. For everyday shooting needs, like the kids doing something cute or grandma blowing out the birthday candles, a camcorder is just an extra hassle. It's way easier (and more convenient) to just whip out the iPhone or Droid.

And speaking of convenience, think how incredibly easy it is to share that video on Facebook or YouTube--the end game for so much of what we record nowadays. Very few camcorders incorporate Wi-Fi for direct uploading to social networks, and none (that I know of) offer 3G. If you want to share your clips, you'll need a PC. And probably a USB cable. And perhaps some editing software.

On the flipside, a smartphone or tablet camera can take you only so far. If you crave features like optical zoom, manual focus and exposure controls, support for external microphones, and potentially limitless storage on flash media, you need a camcorder. In other words, for anything beyond basic home movies, a camcorder is probably still the best option.

Still, some filmmakers have accomplished amazing feats using little more than an iPhone. I've found that as long as there's decent lighting, my iPhone 4S can capture gorgeous-looking video. You can also jury-rig an iPhone to work with external mics (Google it), mount one on a tripod , and even set up multi-camera shoots , controlling up to four iDevices cameras with one iPhone.

(Of course some Android devices fare equally well at videography; I'm just sharing the iDevice stuff because that's where my experience lies.)

Much as I still love full-fledged camcorders, I must admit that 95 percent of the shooting I do these days happens on my iPhone. For the other five percent, I break out my old Sony MiniDV camcorder--and then rummage around in search of a blank tape. The process of copying video to my PC for editing is agonizingly slow, and often impossible now that so few machines have FireWire ports.

So, would I ever buy another camcorder? It's very, very unlikely. At this point I'm more interested in leveraging my iPhone and seeing what videography tricks I can pull off with it.

Your thoughts?

 

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