Why would you choose a camcorder over a mirrorless camera? Here’s why.

In a YouTube comment chain, there was a lively discussion about auto-focus on mirrorless cameras in which I suggested that anyone needing good auto-focus would be better off using a real camcorder than a camera in the “stills camera” style of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I wrote the following in response to the question “why do most vloggers use mirrorless cameras then? I have never seen a vlogger with a camcorder. My [Panasonic] G7 has actually been serving me very well, partly because I don’t know much about video.”

Why do so many coffee drinkers buy Starbucks? Why do so many editors use Apple computers to run Premiere when PCs are objectively a better value and have much lower total cost of ownership? Ever since the Canon 5D Mark II made inroads into Hollywood (which, incidentally, is why Technicolor CineStyle exists and why normies shouldn’t touch CineStyle) it has been fashionable to buy a Canon DSLR and use it as a video camera. When mirrorless cameras came out, they simply offered a metric ton more advanced features than Canon cams at the same price point because Canon artificially segments their camera market by literally turning off features in software on cheaper cameras (my old T1i got focus peaking with Magic Lantern, for example).

The Panasonic GH4 was the first mirrorless camera with 4K and it was way cheaper than Canon’s full-frame lineup which had no 4K but still had lots of momentum, so we saw a lot of people jump ship to Panasonic’s GH4 for the cheap 4K with interchangeable lenses. No one cared about Sony mirrorless cameras until they came out with the first mass-market full-frame mirrorless bodies, which somehow magically made their cheap mirrorless cameras seem amazing by pure name association; everyone ignored Sony’s garbage highlight rolloff and heavy video noise reduction that kills most of the fine detail in your shots.

Mirrorless cameras are a trend and the sheep follow the trend. Full-frame mirrorless across the major manufacturers that aren’t Sony was an inevitable trend too, and people are starting the trend, flocking largely to the EOS R system for full-frame mirrorless video. What’s the EOS R system, really? Well, it’s a 5D Mark IV designed with the flange distance of a mirrorless lens system rather than that of a standard DSLR lens system. They had a neat idea to add a general-purpose on-lens electronic control ring to the EOS R system which was very smart, but other than that, it’s ultimately nothing more than a repackaged 5D Mark IV core, and it’s crippled to avoid cannibalizing the market very expensive Canon C-series digital cine camera line. People would get far more features and value out of Panasonic’s FF mirrorless system just as they did with Panasonic’s MFT cameras, but…Canon’s a big name, Canon’s still got 5D Mark II momentum, and Canon announced a little earlier, so the sheep continue to follow the trend.

Smaller sensors and camcorder ergonomics are extremely useful. Small sensors require smaller, lighter optics. Small sensors have a much larger depth of field which means you can’t easily shoot a bokehlicious shot like on a big camera, but you will rarely (if ever) miss focus. Backgrounds are important and DSLR shooters tend to blow the backgrounds too far out of focus chasing that “film look” shallow DOF that usually doesn’t look as cool as they think it does; camcorders don’t do that, so you don’t have to worry about the context provided by the background being lost (if you’re walking around in a city, don’t you want people to see more than just your face and a blur of mush around it?) Small sensors are much easier to stabilize because they’re lighter. They don’t overheat easily. They use a lot less power and their rolling shutter (aka “jello”) tends to be far less pronounced. Because camcorders are sealed optical systems that’ll never be changed, the glass inside all but the cheapest ones tend to be very high in quality.

Camcorder ergonomics are a big deal because they’re designed explicitly for video first. You can comfortable hold a camcorder at the height of your neck for a long time thanks to the right hand strap and the way it conforms to your hand when your arm is locked upright, but you’ll have a pretty hard time doing the same with the grip style of a photo camera. That’s why so many people end up buying handles and grips and cages for stills cameras used for video, which constitutes an added expense and an imperfect solution. Camcorders have a zoom lever at your gripping hand’s fingertips; all stills cameras have those controls as rings on lenses and you’ll have a very hard time zooming on a non-rigged stills camera without wobbling the shot, never mind that it’s hard to move non-electronic lens rings both slowly AND with a fluid motion at the same time.

Camcorders also have a unique advantage when you want to use remote control: if I use my Panasonic G7 in the Panasonic app, I can control the camera and the aperture and focus in the lens, but I can’t control the zoom on the lens at all. There are expensive remote lens servo systems that can do this but again, that’s an added cost over just getting a camcorder instead. The same Panasonic app connected to my Panasonic VX870 4K camcorder can control the zoom remotely. I have actually used this; I mounted the VX870 on top of the floating ceiling of a bar area in a restaurant to point it down at both the dance floor and stage. I needed to change the shot to be closer during the show because it was too wide, but I couldn’t get the 12 foot ladder back out during the show. The remote app let me punch in further and tighten up the shot from the ground, greatly improving the footage.

I’d also like to point out that both action cameras and gimbal-camera all-in-one units like those made by DJI are camcorders, not stills cameras, and are used by quite a few vloggers. I’d also point out that many other people just use a flagship phone on a stick because they already have a fancy phone with a fancy internal camera in their pocket. Sometimes the camera choice just doesn’t matter that much and it’s all about what you can do with what you already have.

Trying the Z Cam E1: image quality good, everything else bad.

I own a lot of cameras. The vast majority of them are old digital cameras that I bought for a web show idea that I came up with, but I obviously have several “new” cameras too. They run the gamut from the heights of awesomeness to the least configurable cheap old point-and-shoot bricks ever manufactured. One thing that I can safely say about even the most crappy-seeming camera I own is that it can take decent photos within its obvious limits. However, there is an annoying but growing trend towards offering nearly non-functional equipment for a vastly cheaper price and the Z Cam E1 has fallen into that sad niche. It fell from a price tag over $600 all the way down to $199 on sale. As soon as that happened, its place as the tantalizing cheap entry method into the 4K micro four-thirds video market was etched in stone.

I made a video review of the Z Cam E1 but the short version is this: almost none of the most useful features are functional. The auto-focus is basically useless and no focus distance guide or focus assistance is available in manual focus mode. It doesn’t work properly with some lenses despite being advertised to the contrary. Photo mode suffers from the same issues as video mode. While it’s easy to hand-wave these concerns when you’re emotionally invested in this camera due to the promise of a $199 MFT 4K camera, it won’t fix the serious flaws that make it difficult or impossible to use. The remote app freezes up easily which doesn’t help.

There is one situation where this camera is perfectly usable: you can set it up fully manually in one spot on a tripod and then leave it alone. I shot almost all of the review where the Z Cam E1 isn’t seen in the shot using the Z Cam E1 itself, in fact! I got some good shots, but I had to draw on my extensive experience in manual video camera operation to do it. For a beginner that is interested in video, this camera is a very seductive trap. For an experienced videographer, it’s a practical camera for static shots and can deliver great images within its limitations, but it’s hard to justify the purchase when a used Panasonic G7 body is almost the same price and offers a feature-rich fully functional MFT 4K camera, the polar opposite of the Z Cam E1.

I spent six months considering whether or not to get an E1 but the plethora of issues kept me from pulling the trigger. When someone I knew bought one and asked me for lens suggestions, I took the opportunity to put the camera through the wringer and examine it from the perspective of both a beginner and a video professional. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t buy one, but if I could get one for free I’d definitely use it. There are a couple of features like slow-motion and crazy high ISOs that I’d be happy to have in a little camera, but those features don’t do anything to fix the Z Cam E1’s severe problems.

Watch this review and don’t say I didn’t warn you.