Digital Camera Types

Digital camera or camcorder?

Written by Bernard Dery

Most compact digital cameras have the ability to take movies. Learn why you may want a dedicated camcorder instead of simply a digital camera with video mode.

CamcorderDigital camera purchasers who like to shoot video often ask if there is an advantage of using a camcorder instead of a digital camera to make movies. The answer is complicated.

It really depends on which you do most: shot video or shoot stills.

Memory and video recording

Many camcorders come with built-in hard drives, or use mini-DVD, etc. These make recording large amount of data easier, as high-quality movies drink up memory fast. For example, my Canon S2 makes great movies at 640×480 resolution with stereo sound (VGA equivalent), but 8 minutes take up 1 GB of data.

Video compression

Some digital cameras offer a much higher compression rate but always at the cost of quality. The MPEG4 format is generally considered as offering the best balance between quality and size (1 GB of data gives the user around 30 minutes of video). However, editing MPEG4 will always create image artifacts, something that you will not get with a lower compression rate (again referring to the S2, this camera uses the MJPEG format, which is almost uncompressed). Camcorders sometimes use MJPEG, sometimes MPEG4, and some will give you a choice.

Remember that after you have transferred the videos to your computer, processed them, edited them, cropped parts, added titles and more, you can always save the final version in a compressed format to save some memory space on your hard disk or DVDs.

Some free video editing programs, such as Microsoft’s Movie Maker, give you control over compression. Just remember to balance the compression and quality to a level that will be acceptable for viewing.

In general, there is no point in filming a high-quality sequence to downsample it too much afterwards. You can still improve compression significantly. The MJPEG format can be compressed to about 25% of its original size without visible loss in image quality.

Also keep in mind that a suitable level of compression depends on the intended use: a HD TV set will require a much higher quality than posting a video online.

Video camera hardware

The lenses of a camcorder often, but not always, provide a greater zoom range. You have to be conscious of the aperture, which can be limited with a camcorder.

Many digital cameras do not allow you to zoom while shooting video but most camcorders do. Be aware, however, that with both systems, manufacturers will often boost the claimed zoom reach by using digital zoom. Without exception, the use of a digital zoom should be avoided as it decreases image quality/resolution.

Some camcorders have built-in lamps to illuminate a scene, which is very useful for low-light movies. No still camera offers this feature as of this writing. Just remember that as with a camera flash, a lamp will not be of much use if the subject is very far away.

Many camcorders also have a swivel LCD that aids in framing while shooting video. Some cameras (mainly, but not exclusively, from Canon) also offer this feature, which many find very useful.

Hybrid digital cameras/camcorders

Some companies offer true hybrid movies/stills cameras. They take high-quality, high definition video and are also capable of taking satisfactory still shots. Depending on your needs, these might be a good solution. Check the image quality before deciding.

Digital camera or dedicated camcorder?

For occasional movie making, a digital camera may be all you need. Whichever one you decide to but, make sure it has Optical Image Stabilization. Optical IS helps prevent camera movement while shooting.

If you plan to primarily shoot video, a dedicated camcorder offers more relevant features. Whatever you choose, start by making a list of the features that are important to you.

About the author

Bernard Dery

Bernard was born and still lives in Quebec City, Canada. A doctorate candidate in Physics, Bernard works full-time as an optical designer at EXFO, a world leader in telecom tests and measurements tools. His professional interests go from fiber optics to atmospheric data collection and lasers.

His first contact with photography was a Vivitar fixed lens camera that he had purchased at age eight. His interest developed slowly, and for many years Bernard limited himself to family and travel pictures.

Bernard discovered the world of digital photography in February 2004, when he purchased his first digital camera. Developing an interest for composition, he experimented with many subjects: landscapes, nature, cities and architecture.

soon began to invest more time and energy into his new found hobby, finding new and beautiful subjects to capture everyday. His challenge is to capture the mood and emotion carried by a scene as it presents itself to him.

A trip to Italy in
September 2004 fueled his growing interest with numerous magical photography opportunities.

Bernard and his wife like to spend free time near a lake at his family's summer house, where he finds new subjects to capture every day. His interests are varied and include hiking, camping, swimming, boating and reading, as well as most winter

Bernard, known as bdery on forums, uses a Pentax K20D and W80, Canon S2 and a Nikon SQ as a backup.

Thumbnails are of photos by Bernard Dery - used with permission
Copyright Bernard Dery All rights reserved


  • Sony, Panasonic and Sanyo make camcorders with built-in digital cameras. For the best image quality, get one that has a still photo resolution of at least three megapixels. However, if you take a lot of photos, you may want to get a digital camera that also takes video, some with stereo such as those made by Panasonic and Canon. There are so many cameras and camcorders that it’s impossible to recommend one. Visit a store to find out what brands and models are available in your area, ones with features that best meet your needs. Do a search for Camcorder Forum for additional help.

  • Hi, im lookin to buy a digital camera, i had a canon digital camera 5 pixel thing i dont really remmeber any how it broke now im debating between investing either in a camera or a camcorder so can u guide as to what i should invest in? i do make videos occassionally n take lots of pics is there a camcorder out there tat can also take pics? thanks

  • Hello harun,

    the answer to your question is simple, although the details can become complicated. The size of a video file will depend on three things:

    -frame rate
    -compression method

    The compression will have the most impact. For instance, DVDs are encoded in MPEG-2, a low-loss compression format, and many cameras also use that format. However, newer formats, such as AVI, can offer the same quality with a fraction of the size (an AVI file equivalent to a DVD will be around 700 MB, while a DVD typically is around 8 GB, or 8000 MB).

    So there you are : the HD camcorder you refer to probably has a better compression algorithm.

    I hope this helps.

  • How is it possible that a 0.3MPixel (640*480) video taken with a camera takes 4.5GB/hour while a HD camcorder (better video quality) takes only 3GB/hour?