Shooting stars for motion artists

There has never been a better time to capture your own video for your projects. While there are a wealth of truly professional camcorders out there – capturing in high-end formats such as Sony’s XDCAM EX and Panasonic’s P2 – there are great models for less technically demanding creatives.

These include top-flight AVCHD consumer models that are more than good enough for motion-graphics artists and web designers who want regularly capture video to include in their work – and they’re pretty affordable too.

Many of these have a variety of manual shooting modes, which are ideal for those wanting more creative control over their footage. They also ape, or are inspired by, features included in digital cameras, such as face detection to multi-megapixel image sensors.

Accompanying this is a massive improvement in image quality. The shift towards 1,920 x 1,080 recording sounds as though it should offer an increase in picture quality, but lots of other factors come into play, too – image sensor resolution, the video processor and lens, to name but three.

Camcorder manufacturers are pushing these boundaries, too, chiefly by incorporating larger image sensors that capture more light and detail, but also by beefing up with higher bitrates and better processing.

Some HD camcorder-makers (most notably Canon) are making a push towards internal flash memory instead of hard disk drive storage. This helps make camcorders lighter and more robust, while also using less battery power; flash memory storage is now available in large enough quantities and capacities to make it affordable and worthwhile.

All the camcorders in this test give you the option to record or copy to removable flash memory cards (chiefly SDHC) or, in some cases, to take advantage of both. This means you can switch seamlessly between internal and external storage without needing to tell the camcorder which one to record to. This allows you to keep shooting even if one storage device runs out space. Some even offer dual recording modes – enabling you to shoot both video and still images at the same time.

To help you discover which HD camcorder best meets your needs we’ve picked six flagship models from Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Sony. Each one has plenty to offer both newbies and experienced amateurs. So let’s dig right in.

Camcorders featured in this group test:

- Sony HDR-XR520VE

- Sony HDR-CX520VE

- Panasonic HDC-TM300

- Panasonic HDC-HS300

- JVC Everio GZ-HM400

- Canon Legria HF S10

Buying Advice

It should be evident by now that HD is the future of video recording, even for those with fairly modest demands. It’s part of widespread adoption of high-definition displays, and formats such as Blu-ray.

The benefits are clear, but camcorder makers have to strike a tricky balance between satisfying creatives’ needs for control, and the needs of consumers. Manufacturers are struggling to offer consumers simple user interfaces, while also catering to more demanding users.

It’s a similar story when it comes to recording and storing footage. HD video makes huge demands on physical assets, so the models in this test offer solid-state flash memory or large-capacity hard disk drives.

Of the models we tested, the two Sonys fall first. They’re expensive for the features they offer, and underwhelming in their video quality, specifications, and that crucial day-to-day user experience. What’s more, their most-trumpeted features either don’t work that well, or don’t offer any real benefit yet.

The next model down is JVC’s GZ-HM400EK. Daylight video quality is good, and it has a good range of manual features, but poor low-light performance and the gimmicky Laser Touch let it down.

That leaves the two Panasonic models – the HDC-SD300 and the HDC-TM300 – and Canon’s HF S10 to fight it out. We’re placing the Panasonics in joint second place. They offer great video quality and good manual options, with manual lens ring controls that are capable and easy to use – plus you can choose between HDD or solid-state.

So our winner is the Canon Legria HF S10. It’s not perfect – microphone placement is particularly odd – but this won’t matter if you’re adding sound later. It’s also the only model to offer a balance between auto and full manual controls, with many variations in between.

Its user interface, while it can be tricky, also strikes a good balance when it comes to usability. It’s easily the best all rounder here.

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