We may carry a video camera in our pocket now, but the best camcorders leave smartphones in the dust when it comes to professional-level features and sheer audio and video quality.
So if you want high-quality footage of your travels and adventures, it can help to have higher-quality equipment, whether it’s holidays, extreme sports (some of the best action cameras might be more appropriate here), or family events you’re trying to capture. They can even replace your webcam.
The advantages of using one of the best camcorders to shoot video rather than a smartphone are huge. The dedicated video camera will have a larger sensor and a proper optical zoom lens, as well as the ability to capture video at higher bit-rates and resolutions - up to 8K - than a phone can. They’re also larger, with better ergonomics and handles so you can hold them more easily and not put your finger over the lens.
Then there's the extra features. External microphones are an essential part of video production, and the mics on smartphones are often not up to the job. Then there are things like dual memory card slots, fast storage, and manual controls you can operate with gloves on.
As you go up the hierarchy of video camcorders, you’ll see the prices rise too. This is unavoidable, but hopefully you can strike a balance between price and features that keeps you happy. If you’re happy with 1080p HD footage you’ll be able to pick something highly professional up for a reasonable price, but if it’s 4K or even 8K you’re after, you’ll need to increase your budget to compensate.
The cameras we’ve assembled in the guide below represent the best camcorders across the spectrum, from stunningly high-definition premium shooters like the Panasonic HC-X2000, to budget-friendly options like the Sony HDR-CX405, and video cameras that are ideal for active lifestyles such as the GoPro Hero8 Black. And if you want to take your photography beyond film and video, then check our guide to the best camera in 2022.
1. Panasonic HC-X2000: Best camcorder overall
The Panasonic HC-X2000 is the best camcorder out there right now. As such it's not cheap but that's because this is what's called a prosumer model – straddling the lines between professional quality and consumer usability. This does it all, from 4K image quality at 60 fps to 24x optical zoom. You can enjoy relatively easy use with the removable handle which comes with a really useful LED light that's diffused for a professional lighting finish, even in a rush.
You also get five axis hybrid optical image stabilization meaning this is a very forgiving camera even for those newer to this level of quality. The 1/2.5 MOS sensor works with a Leica Dicomer lens for optimal quality. When it comes to audio there is a microphone attachment option in the handle and two XLR pro mic inputs. You also get dual SD cards for continuous recording and a 3.5-inch color touchscreen to view and control recordings.
Expect impressive details with true to life color from this 18.9 megapixel camcorder that comes in at 3.31lbs which isn't bad when you consider all that this semi-pro video camera offers. Not cheap but this justifies every cent it's worth.
2. Sony HDR-CX405: Best budget camcorder
The Sony HDR-CX405 is a great budget option for anyone that is happy with 1080p video quality and wants a video camera that's super compact and portable. Despite the handheld form factor this camcorder offers 30x optical zoom with the Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar lens. You get intelligent features like optical SteadyShot and Intelligent Active mode to offer a smooth finish.
Onboard editing is even an option using the Highlight Movie Maker. This can be saved on the memory card with both XAVC S and AVCHD recorded simultaneously if you want. The USB cable is tethered for easy file transfer as well as recharging and you get 5.1 audio with the built-in microphone.
3. GoPro Hero8 Black: Best action camera
The GoPro Hero8 Black is the ultimate action camera with a tough build that can withstand water and knocks. Under that outer shell is a super powerful system that can capture up to 4K footage at 60fps. This comes with some of the best image stabilization out there and offers lots of pre-set modes to suit what you're filming.
Granted there is no front facing screen and despite having voice controls these aren't the most reliable. But with that super strong build that doesn't even require a case for underwater use, this does it all for the price. The supporting app is excellent for easy file transfer, video editing and sharing of footage. Onboard GPS, triple microphones and a 1220mAh battery all add up to a complete video solution in a very portable package that's amazing for the price. This will even let you live stream via the app.
4. Sony FDR-AX700: Best portable high-quality 4K HDR camcorder
The Sony FDR-AX700 takes a lot of high-end professional camera specs and crams them into a palm-sized camcorder. That means you get 4K resolution and HDR so that when played back on a top-end TV this will push it to its limit. And that's easily done thanks to built-in WiFi that makes exporting footage simple. In fact this is easy to use in general with clear menus, useful physical buttons, and ergonomics that are spot-on.
This highly portable camera still manages to cram in a 3.5-inch viewfinder, dual SD card slots and built-in microphone. The Sony FDR-AX700 can record both SDR and HDR using the HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) format thanks to its one-inch Exmor RS CMOS sensor smarts backed by XAVC S. That means you get 100 Mbps at 4K and you can even shoot at 120fps when in 1080p quality.
Expect a sharp and crisp image thanks to Sony's BIONZ X image processing smarts paired with that 14.2 megapixel sensor.
5. Canon Vixia HF G60: Best cheap pro camcorder
The Canon Vixia HF G60 takes the form of a semi-professional camcorder but while keeping the price lower than a lot of the competition. Despite this you still get those pro-level features you'd expect from the top-end. That means a full 1-inch CMOS sensor for 4K at 150 Mbps, meaning 25p. But it's the nine-bladed circular aperture that really makes this stand out with a cinematic feels where the out of focus edges get a circular finish for a better look.
Why get a camcorder?
There is no getting around that fact that smartphones have eaten up a lot of the market that camcorders once used to occupy. Most people don’t need the fancy extra features that the best camcorders offer and being able to record great quality 4K video on a device that fits in your pocket is a dream come true for casual videographers.
But there are still plenty of reasons to consider a dedicated camcorder. Like any jack of all trades device, a smartphone camera will never compete with a specialised device. Camcorders offer features that are simply impossible to achieve with modern smartphones. Optical zoom lenses are the big one here - smartphones have to be thin, which means there just isn’t room for a great optical zoom lens, so they usually rely on digital zoom, which is nowhere near as good. You can also replace and upgrade the lenses in most camcorders, which means you can get even higher quality shots from your device.
Finally, removable storage is a big plus when it comes to camcorders. Most camcorders use SD memory cards which can be swapped out when they get full, meaning you can keep recording without having to worry about running out of storage space. Some smartphones have the option for extra memory cards, but they’re becoming rarer and they can be very fiddly to swap, which isn’t ideal when you’re out and about.
What type of camcorder should you get?
We spoke to a few experts in the field to find out what people should be looking for in a camcorder, and as always it comes down to your experience and what you want to get out of the device. Kelly Johnson is a video editor for the North Dakota broadcasting company Prairie Public. He said people who don’t have a lot of experience with videography or photography should focus on getting a camcorder that is easy to use and practice using it often.
“You get what you pay for sometimes, and you get out of it the time you spend teaching yourself to use the camera,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to buy it and let it sit for a month and a half in a desk drawer, your video is going to look crappy because you didn’t spend time teaching yourself how to use it.”
Cory Erickson has about 10 years of photography and videography experience in the upper Midwest and said it’s important to make sure your camcorder works well in low light for when you’re filming indoor concerts or in the evening. The best way to do that is to get a camera with a large sensor size and small aperture, as the lower the aperture number, the more light gets into the lens to hit the sensor and create a video.
When it comes to a camera’s zoom capabilities, Erickson said to stick to optical zoom if you want a clear image. “Don’t be lured in by the digital zoom numbers,” he said, noting digital zoom merely crops an image instead of magnifying it. “You’re sacrificing something for those numbers.”
If you’re going to be using your camcorder in the great outdoors, then you’ll also want something rugged and built to last. This also applies to people looking to film things like skateboarding and biking videos - one fall or crash could easily smash a fragile camera or smartphone. In this case, we’d recommend something like a GoPro. These devices are often also called action cameras, largely to disassociate themselves with the aging reputation of camcorders. But make no mistake, these are still camcorders, just wearing a new suit.
How Much Do HD Camcorders Cost?
The camcorders we tested cost an average of $400, mostly because the 4K camcorder we tested is very expensive. The average cost of the 1080p camcorders we tested was a little more affordable at $321. For storage, it’s easier to purchase an SD card for most camcorders to store your video on. SD cards with 64 GB of storage cost about $20 while cards with less storage space, like 16 GB, cost a mere $5.
A small aperture number, noted with an “f,” is better than a big one and should be paired with a large sensor, usually measured in a fraction of an inch. If you’re recording in ultra high definition, i.e. 4K, it’s going to eat up more space on your memory card. The lower resolution you’re recording in, the more video one memory card will be able to hold. If you’re going to be shooting in low light, you should also make sure the camera’s white balance function is easy to find. White balance allows you to focus on one area or object that is actually white and the camera will adjust the rest of the colors it takes in accordingly, correcting any overly yellow scenes.
If trying to figure out a camera’s aperture or white-balance function is too complicated, simply focus on its resolution. Most of the camcorders we tested have a maximum recording resolution of 1080p. These high-resolution cameras record an image 1920 pixels high and 1080 pixels wide.
A 4K camera is known as ultra-high-definition and shoots at 3840 x 2160 pixels. Mathematically, that’s four times the resolution though it won’t appear as a four-times-better image.
Most modern camcorders have optical image stabilization and some degree of in-camera editing so you can at least cut your videos before uploading them. Other features vary widely, so it’s up to you to decide what’s important and what you’re going to be using the camera for. Filming a family vacation might call for a second back-facing lens so you get not only a video of what’s happening, but a reaction shot of the videographer as well.
A touchscreen may or may not be ideal, and some cameras are shockproof and waterproof if you’re venturing into the wild. Determining your priorities will help you get a camera that is right for you.