Although I love my Sony NEX-7, it’s not ideal for the sort of videos I’ve been recording for Foskett Services. So I recently picked up a pair of decent HD camcorders to add to my road video kit. The Canon Vixia HF M50 was ideal for my needs: A good sensor and optics in a compact and affordable package. But the extras, especially the built-in WiFi, offer little value.
My Perfect Camcorder
I do both short and long video sessions for Tech Field Day and Foskett Services clients: Some are on-the-spot “show floor” videos while others last hours and take place in quiet conference rooms. The NEX offers fantastic video quality but overheats after 20 minutes or so, and tiny recorders like my Kodak Zi8 aren’t good in low light.
Whatever I bought would have to fit in a carry-on sized Pelican 1510 case, leaving plenty of room for a pair of tripods, a monopod, and assorted audio recording gear. Although I’d love to replicate the PrimeImage Media setup used at Tech Field Day, I just couldn’t handle lugging that much equipment everywhere!
After using the Sony NEX for a few years, I’ve become spoiled on optics and video quality. I really wanted a camcorder with a nice, large sensor (for low-light recording and depth of field) and quality optical zoom.
The camcorder had to record to solid state (no hard drives) and at true 1080p. I also wanted a clean full-resolution output, since I inherited the BlackMagic ATEM 1 M/E switcher when PrimeImage upgraded to a Tricaster. SDI would have been nice, but that’s a non-starter below $2k, so HDMI would have to do.
The Canon Vixia HF M50
After a week or so of research, I settled on the Canon Vixia HF M50 as my workhorse. It’s near the middle of Canon’s consumer-grade lineup, using “prosumer” guts but without the expensive extras.
Canon’s lineup (and indeed that of every camcorder manufacturer) is laughably complex, but I finally figured it out. The M50 is a middle triplet, along with the cheaper M500 and pricy M52. Unlike lower-end models, this trio uses a full 1/3″ sensor and quality 10x zoom lens. The difference between the models is built-in storage (none, 8 GB, and 32 GB, respectively) and WiFi (lacking on the M500).
I picked up the M50 for just $435 at B&H Photo, only a few dollars more than the M500 but $100 less than the M52. This is a good price for the pro-level optics and large sensor, with little competition. Note that the M50 is currently much more expensive at B&H.
The M50 is very small and light, about the size of a standard Coke can. Two easily fit in my Pelican case, and I can even carry one in the lens slot of my Kata backpack! It’s quite self-contained, not really requiring an external mic as long as the surroundings are reasonably quiet.
Video quality is excellent. The 1/3″ sensor is 1080p native (unlike most other camcorder sensors) making it truly remarkable indoors in poor light. Colors are nicely saturated, there’s good contrast, and the all-optical zoom doesn’t lose any detail. I love that Canon didn’t bother with any kind of digital zoom feature!
Now For The Bad
Overall, the Canon Vixia HF M50 is ideal for my uses: Super portable and with high-quality video. But it’s far from perfect.
The touch screen is, disappointingly, resistive, requiring a firm punch. There’s a weird little clip-on stylus for finer control. The menu system is odd, requiring frequent presses of the Home button rather than a fully touch-enabled experience. And it’s not at all obvious where various settings are located.
The WiFi system is pretty much unusable. It was painfully difficult to get it working, and even then isn’t really useful. It is supposed to be able to transmit photos and video to a computer of smartphone, a-la Eye-Fi, but it really doesn’t work well. For one thing, there’s no Mac OS X application. Once I found the maddeningly-mislabeled iPhone app I discovered that it’s laughably clunky and takes so long to “discover” the camcorder even when properly configured that it’s worthless.
I also dislike the proprietary connectors Canon chose. The hotshoe is “Canon camcorder standard”, meaning not standard at all. I picked up a Pearstone adapter for $20, though I’m not sure it’s really necessary. Canon uses a proprietary charging port rather than USB like many competitors, so one has to carry their MiniDV-sized power brick. Even the USB port looks non-standard, though it turns out that any Mini USB cable fits. At least the Mini HDMI output isn’t proprietary.
Ergonomics are OK for a “beer can” camcorder. The “record” button is too close to the palm but reachable. Though the zoom buttons are nicely placed, they’re plasticky and not at all precise. A troubling powered-off rattle was attributed to the optical image stabilizer.
Overall, the Canon Vixia HF M50 is a good choice for the sort of videos I’m making. Just don’t bother with the WiFi and try to stay out of the menus!
- Large sensor and quality 10x optical zoom
- Compact and light
- Good price
- Great image quality
- Worthless WiFi
- Frustrating partial-touch menu system
- Proprietary hotshoe and charger