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Not Your Grandfather’s Prosumer Camcorders

28 Feb , 2010  

Written by David Pierotti | Posted by:

What should you know about the prosumer camcorder market? An overview with a detailed chart of popular cameras with their features and purchase and rental costs.
Loyal readers know that I spent time at Rule Camera Rental awhile back, sitting in on a couple of classes and having my technical ignorance exposed for all to see. I also had the opportunity to sit down with general manager Brian Malcolm about some general trends in the digital filmmaking world, specifically in the prosumer class of equipment.

Prosumer, a combination of professional and consumer, basically describes cameras that can be pricier than those typically used to film graduations and birthday parties. However, the mantra of technological progress – smaller, cheaper, faster, better – has reshaped the definition of prosumer and who might be interested in using them.

Malcolm says, “Professional cameras are at a price point now that makes them available to a lot more people. They generally range from $3,500 to $9,000. Many are cheaper but lack additional functionality.”

This new generation of less expensive models may not have all the bells and whistles James Cameron might need but the visual quality is astonishing and the price is opening prosumer up to new groups of people such as “Independent filmmakers, corporate people doing web commercials, all kinds of Internet material.”

Seeing a couple of these cameras at work during a class convinced me of their viability as movie cameras and not just as home movie cameras. Digital had always been easy to spot, with a kind of flat look to it. Malcolm explained this was a depth-of-field issue and a clear advantage of film but depth of field adapters changed all that. They attach to the front of a camera and allow the camera to get the same depth-of-field as 35mm. Or as Malcolm says, “They get a prosumer back with a high-end front, which allows the production value to be seriously upgraded.”

However, in a clear display of the incredible pace of change, depth-of-field adapters may already be obsolete. Cheaper cameras are entering the market with large enough sensors that they may eventually erase the distinction between digital and film.

This dramatic increase in quality and decrease in price has already changed how low to moderate budget films are made. According to Malcolm, “Prosumer cameras have become so good and film budgets have dropped, so people have started to make difficult decisions as to what kind of equipment they are going to use. More and more they are turning to smaller cameras for their price point but they are realizing they are not giving up much.”

This in turn has sent shockwaves throughout the industry as a once profitable market has dried up. As Malcolm says, there is a “schizophrenia in the marketplace right now and frankly it’s not clear how this is going to play out. The film business was very conventional but we’re seeing significant changes in under a year. We’re seeing the mid-range drying up. People are buying Sony and Panasonic’s prosumer models instead of buying their $40,000 and $50,000 models.”

One caveat for prosumer models is that although the video quality is sprinting forward, audio quality remains troublesome. The built-in microphones are insufficient for most professional purposes, so Malcolm warns that “a versatile prosumer unit will need the ability to connect to an external audio system.”

An irony in this new generation of prosumer cameras is that our love of small isn’t necessarily better. Cameras, like everything else, have gotten smaller and smaller, but professionals were used to holding cameras on their shoulders. It was relatively stable, secure and comfortable. This is almost impossible to do with a camera that fits in the palm of your hand. Also, audio attachments are challenging to work with when the camera is too small for them. Panasonic was aware of this inconvenience and placed their new HDX 300 in an older, larger body.

Ultimately, in a market full of inexpensive options, the greatest thing that an aspiring filmmaker can do is to rent or simply test drive plenty of prosumer camcorders in order to discover which one will achieve desired results. New cameras are released on a regular basis, so it’s important to stay on top of industry trends and most importantly, not to compromise on your vision.

The following chart was provided by Rule/Boston Camera Rental.

Sony EX-1R $275p/day $6,299
1/2"-Type CMOS Sensors
1080p, 720p, 1080i
Wide Angle 14x Fujinon Lens
HDMI Output
Sony EX-3 $300p/day $8,320
1/2" Exmor CMOS Sensors
1080p 24p
HD/SDI Interface
Interchangeable Lens Mount
Sony PMW-350 $475p/day $17,500
Full HD 1920 X 1080
4-Channel Audio
2/3" Exmor CMOS Sensors
Sony NXCAM $150p/day $3,999
Native 1080/24p, 720/60p AVCHD
Wide Angle 20x G-Lens
Dual XLR Inputs
Panasonic HMC150 $175p/day $3,995
AVCHD with H.264 Compression
13x Zoom Lens
HPX170 $250p/day $5,695
P2HD Camcorder With 1/3" 16:9 Progressive 3 CCD
Advanced Progressive Technology
HPX300 $300p/day $8,495
1/3" CMOS Technology
High Definition Viewfinder and LCD
Fujinon 17x Lens Featuring Chromatic Aberration Correction