East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

Best budget video DSLR (550D vs 500D vs HV30/other camcorders)

Danno wrote in asking about upgrading his SD camcorder for making music videos for a budget of £500. I've compared three of the best budget camcorders currently on the market, all three of which i've used personally. Those are Canon's 500D, 550D and HV30. I've included the HV30 in the comparison because it has some features that the DSLRs do not which some people would consider a necessity. (There are notes on cheaper camcorders at the end of the article)

Very important note: Most camera limitations can be worked around. Remember, content and professionalism is more important than your camera's quality - Learn your industry, know your job inside and out, know your equipment (RTFM - Read The _____ Manual!), get good actors and learn to direct them well - communication is KEY, prepare for and set up your shots well, practice, practice, practice. - (Upgrade your equipment when possible..)

Canon 500D (T1i / Rebel Kiss X3) This camera wins for budget compared to quaity. £350 on ebay.
It has nice image quality but it's not perfect.

Pros: •    Decent (not perfect) image quality.

Cons: •    Limited options and settings •    Only shoots at 30fps @ 720p (or 20fps at 1080p which is useless) •    No mic input •    Not amazingly sharp •    No manual control over exposure (except exposure lock - which means you have to point the camera around until you get a correct exposure and then press the exposure lock button. Do this before every video or the camera will vary the exposure during shooting.)

I shot these three Diskeeper videos with a 500D:

Canon 550D (T2i / Rebel Kiss X4) For much higher quality but still at a good price go for the 550D for £460. Pros: •    Sharp image •    Full manual controls •    1080p @ 24p or 30p - 720p @ 50p or 60p (for slow motion) •    Mic input - you will need to add the Magic Lantern firmware hack in order to cancel out the camera's automatic gain control get decent audio (at your own risk of course)

Cons: •    No headphone jack for monitoring. Use an external recorder for the best audio. You can output audio from the audio recorder's headphone jack into the camera but you must use. •    No articulating screen

For video 550Ds work just as well as higher end DSLRs with the exception of a few features such as the 60D's articulating screen, manual audio control and headphone output and the 5D's full frame sensor.

With both of these cameras you will need a lens. Thea absolute minimum you will need to spend on a (used) lens is £50 - A Sigma 18-50mm f3.5-5.6 DC is a nice starter lens. Make sure you get a Canon-fit one, they make them with other mounts. A better lens is recommended, such as the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM - but that's an issue for another article.. You will also need memory cards. An 8GB 'Transcend' brand SD card will give you about 20+ minutes of recording time.

Notes about both DSLRs: •    They will not shoot long scenes over about 12 minutes in length. •    They wont autofocus whilst shooting video. •    Both cameras have good battery life. They will last for an hour+ of shooting per charge. (Extra batteries are about £5 from ebay.) •    Both of these cameras are near-useless for shooting yourself due to the lack of autofocus or articulating screen, but you can simply add an external 3.5" monitor to the DSLRs for about £20 or even less. •    Neither of these cameras are built for hand-held video shooting but there are many cheap solutions to this. •    These two cameras will give you the ultimate in performance compared to price. •    Both will shoot very decent still images too.

Camcorders: If there are limitations to DSLRs you simply cannot work with, or if you don't have the budget for them, you can always get a decent camcorder from about £200 and upwards to £400. Some shoot to DV tape and others to hard drives or SD cards. I'm going to be comparing the Canon HV30 at £400, because it is the only one I have used extensively.

HV30: Pros: •    The image quality is not as good as the DSLRs, but it does produce a clear, crisp image under good lighting conditions - in fact, I've had footage from this camera (as well as footage from a Canon HF11) air on TV with no complaints whatsoever from the broadcasters. (Good content kicks the ass of good image quality) •    It can autofocus! And does it pretty well. •    It has a fantastic minimum focus distance of 1cm. •    It has a nice zoom range (which, in my opinion is highly overrated unless you're shooting documentaries, sports or wildlife etc) •    Shoots to MiniDV tape so you can record for just over an hour at a time. •    Tapes are cheap too at a pound or two each. They are reusable just like a memory card, however, copying the footage to a computer is tedious because you have to play the footage while the computer is recording. (Note, for most DV and HDV camcorders you need a computer with a firewire connection. DSLRs and camcorders that record to hard drive or SD will be fine with a USB connection.) •    Decent audio but nothing to write home about.

Cons: •    This camera (as well as most camcorders) lacks good manual controls over exposure. •    It has an almost useless manual focus thumb-wheel. -Many camcorders will not even have this. •    Does not go as wide angle as many DSLR lenses do - And forget about wide angle adapters if you want decent image quality. •    Lacks the out of focus background that many filmmakers want. (You can get a pleasing background when you zoom in a lot) •    Like most HD camcorders, the HV30 shoots at 1080i only. The 'i' stands for 'interlaced', this means that each frame is split into two frames called 'fields'. DSLRs shoot progressive (1080'p') which means each frame is captured and recorded whole. See the example below. Interlaced footage can look really bad when there is motion in your video.

In the two images below, you can see two examples of interlaced footage, the lower image is exaggerated by speeding up the footage on a computer. You can convert or 'deinterlace' interlaced footage to progressive footage using most video editing software, but it still doesn't always look perfect.

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Consumer Camcorders: If your budget really is low, you can get a decent or what I would call a 'semi-decent' HD camcorder on ebay. Starting at £70, you can get half-decent mini camcorders made by companies like Flip, Sony and JVC. At that price you won't get much but it's a good starting point. If you want something with better image quality I'd say any known brand camcorder at or above £200 - at this price range the cameras can be compared to the HV30's quality. For example, Samsung's HMX-100 has been getting good reviews, and I've seen some neat looking footage from it. Or you could choose one of Canon's camcorders starting at £200. I recommend sticking to Canon's 'HVxx' range (20, 30 and 40) because there is a big community of filmmakers (Both pros and hobbyists) that use or have used these cameras extensively, so most problems can be solved with a simple google search. The same thing goes for the DSLRs, there is a huge online (and offline) community of people willing to help each other.

Conclusion: If you can afford it, get the 550D. It's a fantastic camera even with it's limitations. It's image quality is incredible compared to what you could get just two or three years ago, it also gives you great creative control over the image. Most if not all of the 550D's limitations can be handled with some pretty simple and cheap solutions - Some cheaper than others, depending on how 'DIY' you're willing to go. :)