Why do so many YouTube vloggers use DSLRs instead of camcorders?

If you’re wondering why stills cameras such as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are sometimes used for video rather than video-centric camcorders, there are a few reasons.

The biggest by far is the larger sensor size in most stills cameras. My cheap Canon camcorder has a 1/4.85″ sensor which results in a “crop factor” (a number used to represent the reduction in size relative to a full-frame 35mm sensor, so 2x crop means 1/2 the surface area) of 11.68x, while my Canon APS-C DSLR has a crop factor of 1.6x, over ten times larger than the camcorder’s sensor. As a general rule, larger sensor surface area results in more accurate sampling of light hitting the sensor, which in turn means less image noise and higher image quality, though the details of sensor size are more complex than we have room to discuss here. Larger sensors also make it far easier to obtain shots with shallow depth of field, where the background elements are heavily out of focus and the in-focus subject “pops out” by comparison, an effect which is generally pleasing to the eye and is very common in portrait photography.

Another reason is access to interchangeable lenses. Camcorders have permanent optical systems that can’t be changed, so the user is stuck with the engineering trade-offs made by the company when designing the system. Interchangeable-lens cameras like DSLRs allow the user to change the entire optical system beyond the sensor to achieve different results. One huge advantage of this is access to “fast primes” which are lenses with a fixed focal length and a very wide aperture, letting in tons of light and enabling extremely shallow depth of field effects. Prime lenses generally have superior image quality over zoom lenses, and all camcorders tend to be zoom lens systems with a very large zoom range. Primes can also be very cheap despite this high image quality. The “tack sharp” look of a properly utilized fast prime lens is an extremely attractive feature and is considered by many to be mandatory for anyone using a DSLR for filmmaking. Beyond the fast primes, the ability to change to different types of zoom lenses is also useful because (as a general rule) longer range between the widest and longest focal lengths on a zoom results in lower image quality overall. For those with thousands of dollars to spend on a lens, a DSLR enables the use of lenses manufactured for exceptional image quality such as the Canon “L” lenses, which tend to be over $1,000 each. Camcorders rarely have optical systems with the level of quality that such premium lenses provide.

A third reason is simply that of trends. DSLR filmmaking has been a big trend since the release of the Canon 5D Mark II included decently useful video capability in a relatively common full-frame camera for the first time. As this excellent video capability filtered down to lower and lower lines of DSLR, the ability to use DSLR cameras to make professional videos reached more people and the other features mentioned above made these cheap DSLRs very attractive to aspiring filmmakers. It was a novelty when the 5Dmk2 landed that caught loads of attention and today it’s largely fueled by the momentum of the trend. Which leads me to…

Why is a camcorder still a good choice? Why do I often recommend camcorders over DSLRs to so many people with $1,000 and the need to shoot videos? Why would you want to AVOID DSLR or mirrorless cameras for video work?

Camcorders are designed for video first and photography a distant second. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are still photography-centric devices despite being more and more video-friendly. The ergonomics of a camcorder are set up with video shooting in mind. Camcorders are generally more compact than DSLRs and some mirrorless camera setups. Camcorders tend to have long zoom ranges already built in and the lenses used tend to be quite good since they’re permanently installed. The smaller sensors in most camcorders tend to result in more in-focus area and much more forgiving and accurate auto-focus, making focusing dead simple compared to most DSLRs. Camcorders have smaller sensors which means longer battery life and no risk of sensor overheating from prolonged shooting. Stills cameras often have a 30-minute video recording time limit thanks to an extremely stupid EU tax on video camcorders that desperately needs to be repealed. Crucially, video camcorders have full control of the zoom system through a small rocker on the camcorder body itself AND if the camcorder has remote control functions, the zoom can be controlled remotely. DSLR cameras can’t control lens zoom due to the nature of the camera: every lens has a different zoom capability (or none at all.) There are “remote servo” kits that add electronic zoom control to a DSLR video rig, but they’re not exactly user-friendly things to configure and they’re not cheap.

There are a lot of people using DSLR cameras that should be using camcorders, but the combination of trendy momentum plus access to shallow depth of field, lower image noise, and interchangeable lenses means that the DSLR video craze is here to stay.

10 Replies to “Why do so many YouTube vloggers use DSLRs instead of camcorders?”

  1. Hi, I hope you are well. Amazing article.

    You recommended a camcorder in the case of someone who has video shooting in mind (zoom etc much better). But what about if we only intend to shoot content videos (i.e. all videos shot close up with 1 individual speaking, always the same scene behind (an office), and just giving tips, etc.)

    Would you sway towards DLSR/mirrorless in this case?

    1. Yes, use a DSLR/mirrorless setup. There is no practical advantage to a camcorder for low-budget studio work with a largely fixed camera, especially when a Panasonic G7 with 4K video and a decently sharp kit lens is so cheap. I use Panasonic mirrorless for all my video work now because I got the G7 for its cheap 4K capability, amassed a heap of nice MFT lenses, and then sticking with MFT bodies made a lot of sense. I now use a Panasonic GH5s because I got one for crazy cheap for what was originally a $2,500 camera–in fact, as of this reply, there’s a used one at KEH Camera in “Bargain” condition (read: looks beat up but is fully functional) for $1,153. All my lens investments are reusable on the new body, so it makes good financial and creative sense to buy a second body rather than a video-centric camcorder, especially since I usually do what you’re talking about: controlled studio-style tripod shooting.

      1. Thank you so much!!

        What would you say about the Canon M50 mark ii. I’m a little concerned about the 4K issue with it. How about the M6 mark ii in 4K mode?

        1. I say stick to Panasonic. Canon and Nikon have a history of crippling their cameras in software, as shown by Magic Lantern being able to basically just “turn on” features from more expensive cameras that already existed in the cheaper cameras, but were disabled. Sony is the other big name in the game, notorious for being first to market with a full-frame mirrorless camera, but I would avoid Sony for a variety of reasons, including the poor design of the E mount, the terrible highlight roll-off, and the aggressive noise reduction that makes images seem good at first glance, until you realize all the fine detail was smudged out. The Panasonic G7 is the way to go for entry-level 4K@30fps; the GH5s is pretty much the king of mirrorless video cameras and can do 4K@60fps and slow-mo 1080p up to 240fps.

  2. What I am reading is: if you videotape a lot of still shots then get a DSLR camera…if you want to move and do creative shots go with a camcorder? And if this is true, which camcorder do you recommend.

    1. That’s about right. These days, most of the best sensor tech goes into stills-style video-centric cameras like the Panasonic GH5S, so a new camcorder will often produce an inferior image relative to a new DSLR/mirrorless camera setup of the same price, but the ergonomics of a camcorder are definitely superior. The article is a bit old and the only camcorders with imaging tech on par with a stills-style camera today are very expensive (relative to the cheaper cameras out there like the Panasonic G7); for example, the Panasonic HC-X1 is basically the modern equivalent of the venerable Panasonic DVX100, but it isn’t much cheaper than the DVX100 was 20 years ago, at about $2,300 “on sale” as of this reply. Meanwhile, you could spend that money on the DSLR-style setup I currently use and get far better video quality: Panasonic GH5S + Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens = about $2,300.

      Of course, the larger sensor means much higher video quality and the lens is tack-sharp, but you lose a lot of camcorder features: several built-in ND filters, XLR mic inputs, powered zooms, tons of real buttons to control camera functions without menus, a top handle with controls, a built-in shotgun mic holder, and a lot more. The stuff that is packed into a single pro camcorder justifies the price because you either have to manually add all that crap on top of a stills body yourself at extra cost and inconvenience OR you have to do without it.

      The video quality loss between a 1″-sensor camcorder and a 4/3″-sensor camera is acceptable when you only actually need good quality instead of fantastic quality and the included features are far more helpful. I especially find included ND filters available with the flip of a switch to be insanely useful when moving around outdoors, and there is no practical way to add this to a stills-style camera. Power zooms are smooth while manual zooms by twisting a lens ring are rarely smooth, and while power zoom lenses exist, they are bulkier and require their own separate batteries to power the servo. Being able to press a button and spin a small wheel to change your iris (aperture) from automatic to manual can also be quite useful.

      There is no good answer. You can definitely assemble a cheap camera setup with better quality if you start with a stills-style cam (the Panasonic G7 is by far my favorite in this regard) but if you have the money for either a pro mirrorless setup or a pro camcorder, the answer becomes “it depends.”

      Maybe this will help you: if I had to choose between the GH5S + 12-35mm f/2.8 or the HC-X1 for general videography work today, I’d go with the HC-X1. If I was shooting video in a controlled environment such as a studio or on the set of a film, I’d absolutely go with the GH5S setup–no exceptions. If I wanted to take high-quality stills either by themselves or as frame grabs from 4K video, I’d pick the GH5S. If video was only a nice-to-have for me and I would primarily be doing photography, I’d get a G7 + 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit (if I had $500) or a GH5 or GH6 + 12-35mm f/2.8 if I had enough money. If I was only interested in stills…well, then it becomes a whole different ball game because my favorite stills camera for non-low-light scenarios is a weirdo: the Sigma sd Quattro + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art…and we’re no longer dealing with video production, so that’s where I’ll stop it.

  3. I’m vlogging and I use my cellphone. Certainly there are things I dislike about using a cellphone for vlogging but the image quality is good enough at 1080p and 4K. People are after content first – viewers are going to stop watching videos because of some perceived imperfection in the lens.

    I have looked at other solutions and rejected them all. The Canon V10 – nice little toy but it’s not $400 better than my cellophone. The only thing I would like is a second screen on my cellphone but haven’t bothered yet. That’s coming though.

    1. If your phone works fine for you then that’s great. Phone video is fine for some purposes. I’ve whipped out a phone to make a quick video more times than I can count. Phones produce objectively inferior video, however, and if someone is trying to present professionally, it certainly helps to have the polish from the far higher quality of a “real camera.” The physical controls of a camera also make shooting a much easier task. There are many types of photo or video that simply can’t be shot with a phone camera at all, and others that are very difficult.

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