Camcorders for chasing: 2019 edition

Jan 7, 2006
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I'm considering a camcorder upgrade this season, and there don't seem to be any threads over the past year, so why not?

General camcorder questions, advice, and discussion is all welcome.

My personal situation: I'm a stills-first guy, and that's unlikely to change. My current camcorder is a Panasonic HDC-TM90 purchased in early 2012; even back then, it was among the more budget-oriented options. It does 1080/60p, but image quality is just OK and craters in low light.

I'm definitely looking for another "consumer" camcorder, as opposed to a video-oriented DSLR or anything bulky. I keep my camcorder dash mounted a lot of the time, but it's always nice to have available for more serious use on the occasional close intercept. Regardless, most of my attention goes to DSLR stills, so I just want reasonably high quality video with as little fuss as possible.

Some questions that may also be pertinent to others in the market:
  • What is the current state of 4K vs. 1080p in the consumer market? Is it still a situation where you can get a vastly better sensor (and other features) at X price point by forgoing 4K, or has 4K become so ubiquitous in the latest generation that it's a no-brainer?

  • Has image quality (other than just the FHD-UHD jump) improved markedly for the money over the past 5-8 years? Or do manufacturers just keep pumping out rehashed versions of the same thing with fancier tech (e.g., LCD screens) added on top?

  • What are some of the most popular options (appropriate for chasing) at a few common price points: $300? $700? $1000? $1500+? And is there a point of diminishing returns, ignoring bulkier pro-oriented options?

  • On the whole, as of early 2019, are we at a point in the tech cycle where things have stagnated for awhile and a big jump is likely coming with the next generation? Or is this a perfect time to buy, having just experienced such a jump within the past 12-18 months?

  • Among the most popular models nowadays, how many feature a generous wide end? My TM90, for all its flaws, zooms out to 28 mm equivalent. It would be very hard to justify giving that up for 35-38 mm at the wide end, no matter the other benefits of a new model.
Oh, one more thing: if you have chase footage shot with a newer camcorder over the past couple years, don't be shy about posting/linking samples!
 
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Dan Robinson

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In my opinion, the big brands have fallen way behind with their prosumer/consumer camcorder offerings. It's a travesty, really. When I look at the current specs of new models, it's appalling. They're barely ahead of the latest cell phones in many aspects. Phones are probably going to make the consumer camcorder obsolete in a few years, if not sooner. While phones have their drawbacks for video, the advances in tech are simply incredible, and these are devices every person on the street is going to have in their pockets.

Camcorders, on the other hand, have suffered from painfully slow development and disappointing feature sets with each new release. There are really none that impress me at this point. The ones that are far enough ahead of phones to be worthwhile are too expensive to consider. Case in point is the new Sony Z280, which is the first prosumer to have passable low light performance in 4K thanks to three 1/2" chips. But it costs 7 grand! Simply crazy to have to spend that much to just be one or two steps ahead of cameras every single person on the street has. The a7's are the other option for decent low light for a little less, but no camcorder form factor.

The good news is that most consumer models around the $1,000 price range give you more than good enough 4K in daylight. I haven't seen a consumer model at that price point with what any of us would consider to be bad daylight performance, but also none with good low light performance. But again, most new cell phones shoot great 4K too.

I haven't looked at HD-only models, so I can't comment on them. You might look for something like a used XDCAM-EX, those have large chips that provide good low light performance. They were high-end prosumer models when they first came out, not sure what their pricing is on the used market now.
 
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I thought about camcorders as well, but stop and think about if it’s worth it. How often would you use a camcorder if you bought one? Then weigh the cost vs. expected use.

Most phones take solid HD video (and they’re very convenient for social sharing, selling footage, etc.) and if you already have a good photo camera, how many different cameras do you want to fumble with? Sometimes less is more, but I totally get the idea of having a dedicated camcorder.

I was in a similar spot where I wanted to upgrade video equipment for a few years, but wanted to make an investment and improve low-light capabilities. In the past I was quick to buy something that wasn’t higher end and then I didn’t end up using it much since phone photo/video capabilities have gotten so good.

I know that a lot of quality photo cameras these days shoot good 1080p video. Even my aging Sony A58 took good HD video and that camera was 4-5 years old when I was still using it. It was just awful in lower light conditions. I have the A7iii now that I’m excited to test for 4K video once chase season gears up.

I feel like this might be a good time to buy since newer 4K tech isn’t brand new anymore and prices are falling.
 
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I switched a few years ago from separate camcorder and DLSR to a Nikon DLSR that can also take video. I used to try to juggle the two, and decided it was just more of a distraction that was taking me out of the moment. It’s already hard enough to balance the choice of just watching vs capturing, let alone two different modes of capture with two different devices. There are still some inefficiencies in switching between modes, and holding the camera for video is a little cumbersome, but it’s still better than fumbling around with two different pieces of equipment. Less to carry with me too, considering I’m a chase vacationer that has to fly out with luggage and equipment. Not sure about going with just a phone though, at least on the iPhone I know the video zoom is not very powerful and even less powerful than the phone’s still photo zoom.
 
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I struggled with the decision on how to upgrade my video capabilities. Like Dan noted, I just wasn't that impressed with the prosumer/consumer camcorder offerings. You had to spend a lot of money to get just a little better than a cell phone. Just going with a cell phone is problematic - you don't get optical wide or zoom capabilities and more importantly you have to stop recording to make a report or look at radar. Most of the prosumer/consumer camcorders don't give you much optical wide or zoom capabilities either. In the end I bought a Nikon DLSR that supports video (my old one didn't). For less than the price of many prosumer camcorders I got a DLSR body + a wide/normal lens + a second zoom lens. Now I can video with wide/normal/zoom and still use my cell phone at the same time. Was it the right decision? Ask me at the end you the chase season. At any rate - I would not discount the DSLR for video route.
 
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Welp, these responses are not at all what I expected, but they sure have been eye-opening! Shows how well I've kept up with the video market over the years.

Even without knowing the details of how this camcorder market collapse happened, it sounds like "travesty" is a good summary, as Dan put it. I've been leery of how smartphones are changing the tech landscape in general for awhile, even though I own and use one daily, like any functional member of modern society. They seem to have greatly accelerated the trend toward convenience at the expense of quality, whether it's audio, video, or even browsing the web (it's fair to say in 2019 that "the masses" no longer really use computers as we knew them to consume web content, even at home; apparently fumbling around on a cracked 5" screen driven by PC hardware specs from circa 2003 is good enough). This is just one more casualty I wasn't aware of.

Anyway, stepping back off the soapbox: as Quincy alluded to, it seems "upgrading" camcorders in this climate is a non-starter for someone like me who doesn't prioritize video in the first place. The idea of using my phone for all chase video sounds equally implausible, though. My TM90 may "only" do 40x zoom from end to end, but no smartphone camera I'm aware of can even approach that. Worse, you'd be hard pressed to trust a smartphone to record a long tornado sequence (think Dodge City, where you needed to film continuously for 60+ minutes) flawlessly without massive battery drain, possible heat issues, etc. I use my phone's hotspot feature as my sole data source, too, and would like to jeopardize its reliability as little as possible.

As for DSLR video, it's just incredibly inconvenient and unwieldy to shoot, in my experience. I've been shooting stills with video-capable DSLRs for a decade, and can count the number of chases I've actually used their video capabilities on both hands. If you're using DSLRs *primarily* or *exclusively* for video, have the appropriate lenses/accessories, and don't shoot stills, I'm sure they're fantastic. I, on the other hand, typically need a video device I can set and forget (or that a chase partner can operate without special knowledge required, as the case may be).

The upshot is that I'm actually fairly content to continue on with the TM90, knowing that I can't do much better without spending a lot more money than is commensurate with my interest in video. *If* there were a 4K camcorder virtually identical to the TM90 under $400, I'd probably jump on it, but it sounds extremely unlikely that will ever exist at this rate.

I owe you all for the quick, informative replies. I'd already started browsing camcorders on Amazon, but it likely would've taken me many hours of research to reach the sensible conclusion you guys laid out right away.

EDIT: OK, after re-reading the replies and thinking some more, I'd add the caveat that IF there's some reasonably affordable DSLR or mirrorless option that's exceptionally suited to video -- ideally including a superzoom lens of passable quality with electronic zoom (does that even exist?!) -- I'd give that some thought. It's not so much the form factor of a DSLR that puts me off, but more so the ergonomics of controls and especially the idea of haggling with manual zoom or lens swapping.
 
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Dan Robinson

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The other thing to consider now is how the market for footage has changed. Self-published viral and even long-form production is a real opportunity now via Youtube, instead of the traditional archiving stock video and waiting for a production company somewhere to start working on a show for a network. The former is growing fast and the latter has dropped off just as quickly. Given that most content consumption today is on phones and tablets, HD will get you by just fine right now. All-time I've only received one request for 4K stock footage, and it was for a nighttime aerial of St. Louis, nothing weather or storm related. I've been publishing to Youtube in 4K for the past 3 years, though at the moment they don't allow me to see how many views are in full resolution.

That being said, I don't think it's a bad idea to go ahead and upgrade to 4K if you haven't already, just for the sake of some future-proofing. Just browsing through the sub-$1,000 options on B&H, pretty much any of them would get you there. If I were looking to upgrade right now, I'd spend as little as possible to have a camcorder-form-factor device and save the extra money for the future.

Thanks to the big manufacturers' feet-dragging, some indie crowdfunded options are in the works. Some of these look very promising, like this one:

https://www.apertus.org/axiom

Open source, modular, cheaper and always making the latest advancements in technology available. I'm saving my next big camera purchase for when one of those projects gets off the ground.
 
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Bill Hark

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I have been studying camcorders for a while as I am at the point of upgrading. I currently use the tape-based HDV Canon hv20 and Sony HVR-Z1U that I bought used 10 years ago. Cell phones are great for quick video but they are crappy in lower light and often have bad artifacts in lightning. 4K seems to be the wave of the future but it's difficult to edit, takes a lot of hard drive space and it's hard to see the difference between 4K and HD especially on smaller screens. I've also not been as impressed with the low light performance of many 4K camcorders though I expect there will be improvements. As Dan said earlier, the best low light from what I've read has been on the very expensive Sony Z280 though the cost is prohibitive.I've also read some reviews that report slight softness and barrel distortion especially at the wider angles in the Z280. Not something I'd want to read on such an outrageously expensive device. The advantages of 4K include the higher resolution, future proofing video, the ability to shoot at 4K and then crop to HD and much better frame grabs. From my readings, I am intrigued with the Sony Ax700 which reportedly has better low light than the smaller AX53 which is also used by some chasers including as a dashcam.. I am leaning toward the AX700. I don't have a sense of the low light performance of the AX700 in comparison to my old Z1. One of the biggest issues with DSLRs is the difficulty in shooting video in a run and gun mode.I think they are difficult to focus on the fly in gloomy conditions. With a camcorder, one just sets at infinity and that's it.

If you don't want to spend much money, you could consider getting the big Sony HVR-Z1U. It is decent in low light and has 3 CCDs which is very unusual for an HD camcorder. With 3 CCDs, I don't see the rolling shutter effect while shooting lightning. This professional camcorder is selling used for a few hundred dollars. The downside is that it is HDV and uses tapes. I like the instant archives of DV tapes. The main difficulty is finding a computer with Firewire inputs. There was only a short period where computers were advanced enough to edit HDV video but still had firewire or the ability to insert a card with a firewire port. If you can't find an old computer with a firewire port or ability to insert a card, you cold use a video capture device such as the Sony HVR-MRC1K.

I'll add that the big companies have slowed down new updates of camcorders. Models or sold for a longer period. The NAB is coming up in early April and sometimes companies will announce new camcorders at that show.
 
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Zoom is one major function that I overlooked with respect to camcorder preference. Phones don’t have much zoom at all and DSLRs can be unwieldy with zoom, between switching lenses and/or trying to get a smooth zoom.

The more I think about it, I probably would shoot more with a camcorder if there was one of good quality, substantial zoom AND at least decent low-light capabilities. Assuming it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

The good points with 4K can’t be overlooked either. You have more room to work with, whether it’s cropping or getting still freeze frames from video. I know that stills from 1080p video aren’t great, at least not it you’re looking to blow them up.
 
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Like I said in the other thread, I too am currently browsing for a new video camera, and I'm on the fence between a Canon HFG21 and a Sony AX-53. Both are on sale on B&H right now, but the sale on the Sony ends the 23rd. Base price for both models is $1,000. $150 off the Sony or $200 off the Canon. As far as I can tell the main difference is the Sony is 4K, which for $50 more seems like a no-brainer, but again it's not something I really find necessary, although the prospect of improved frame grabs is intriguing.

I do like the look of the large form-factor toggle zoom control on the Canon G21 (much more pro-like than the small and often finicky electronic zoom slider controls on most consumer camcorders, which are hard to operate smoothly especially while also panning the camera).

For the OP, would your camcorder be used primarily/only for chasing? For me, I would also use it for train videos in which I would want to zoom/pan with the passing subject, which is why I need a proper "camcorder" and not a DSLR/phone (although I did use my 720p Canon T1i DSLR for train videos for awhile, after applying a firmware hack that allowed me more manual control, after I decided 4:3 SD DV was no longer cutting the mustard and before I bought my current Canon HFG10 off Dan Robinson).

I also might want to take on freelance video production gigs, in which clients generally expect you to have at the very least a high-end consumer ("prosumer") video camera such as these.
 
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The thing I don't like about the ax-53 is that it doesn't use the bigger 1" sensor compared to the AX-100 and CX-900 (which is what I own). The picture quality and low light capabilities are much better, although I'm not sure that's worth $400ish more for the ax100 vs ax53.
 
I recently picked up a used Canon XF100 for a great price. It's not 4k, but it does use a broadcast-ready codec and has a lot of options for tuning the image profile in the camera. It's better in low light than many 4k models currently on the market, while not as good as some of the more recent HD cameras. I find it very acceptable though. Like others here, it wasn't just an investment for chasing. I have other uses like freelance event and sports videography.
I concur with not investing too much into a camera that only serves one purpose. There are also some really great prosumer camcorders that are several years old that will still get you a great image without having to spend as much money if you buy them used.
 
Sep 25, 2006
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My biggest question is how much of a difference is 4k vs 1080p? I've been looking at the Sony AX53 mostly because it seems like a reasonable price (it's on sale at many places right now) for a 4k camera, but is it worth paying the extra money? Obviously as chasers we want a camera that does well in low light, so I could probably get a higher quality 1080 camera for the price than I could for a similar price in 4k. But how much difference does it make?
 
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My biggest question is how much of a difference is 4k vs 1080p? I've been looking at the Sony AX53 mostly because it seems like a reasonable price (it's on sale at many places right now) for a 4k camera, but is it worth paying the extra money? Obviously as chasers we want a camera that does well in low light, so I could probably get a higher quality 1080 camera for the price than I could for a similar price in 4k. But how much difference does it make?
The difference is fairly substantial if you're looking to watch footage on a large TV, want to get high quality stills and/or want to make large crops to video and retain HD quality. In my opinion, if you're more of a casual videographer and want to trade off better low-light capabilities for less cost, then maybe 4K isn't necessary.

You may also need better/updated software if you plan on utilizing and editing in 4K. I can't speak to that, as I'm using somewhat dated video editing software. As @Dan Robinson mentioned, he's only been contacted once for a 4K video request. Some of my biggest earnings from selling video have actually come from 1080p iPhone video (main reason is that it's easy to get something like that online before the masses share edited/produced footage), but then again, I have not shot a large amount of handheld video while chasing. I mostly rely on setting up wide angle Sony Action Cams on the roof of my car, adjusting as necessary, and using my free hands to navigate, take still photos and occasionally shoot a bit of video.
 

Jeff Duda

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I've seen videos and read accounts that all point towards the futility of 4K stuff - human eyes are simply not equipped to distinguish between it and 1080p HD. So why spend all the extra money for that if you can find something in HD that has a better sensor and better low-light performance?

I have also been looking into upgrading my camcorder, but I decided to put all the money into a recent DSLR upgrade instead. After reading this thread I'm starting to think it's still worth it to go for a bottom-budget camcorder option, as they still offer sufficient screen resolution, frame rate, and you can supply them with enough battery power and memory to record for several hours, as opposed to using a cell phone (which would probably make it overused).
 
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Can anyone comment on using video-focused DSLRs, mirrorless bodies, or even fixed-lens bodies outside the camcorder form factor? I'm thinking something like the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000, which appears to come with a superzoom (28-400 mm) lens and electronic zoom. It sounds like this, and similar options (including, perhaps, some DSLR bodies with the right superzoom lens attached), might mitigate a lot of my concern about dealing with manual settings (e.g., ISO) or manual zoom.

If you can spend $400-500 on one of these bulkier video-centric M43/crop sensor bodies, but get similar image quality to a $1500 camcorder, I'd seriously consider that route... as long as they can autofocus and auto-select exposure roughly as well as a consumer camcorder, anyway. The bulk, and even the physical lens extension during zoom, aren't big concerns to me.
 
Sep 25, 2006
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Thanks for the info guys! It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at video cameras so I’m not real sure what specs I should be looking for in a camera for chasing. Any suggestions?
 

Jeff Duda

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as long as they can autofocus and auto-select exposure roughly as well as a consumer camcorder, anyway. The bulk, and even the physical lens extension during zoom, aren't big concerns to me.
I'm curious why this is particularly important to you, Brett. I see way too many chase videos with autofocus on and either a rain drop hitting the lens, rapid camera movement, or just the lack of contrast for the autofocus mechanism to use to focus causes either blurred imagery or that flip between focused and out-of-focused. It drives me mad. You should always just manually focus and set to infinity unless you're trying to capture hail stones hitting your windshield or you plan to be inside a tornado. I wish everyone would understand this.
 

Bill Hark

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Jeff, that's my biggest issue with DSLR video in a run and gun situation during rain, decreased light and poor contrast. A camcorder is very easy. Just put it on infinity. With current DSLR lenses, one can't just turn the focusing to infinity. They focus past infinity. One has to try to focus rapidly under poor conditions or maybe focus previously to some distant object and put marks on the lens or tape it to stay in place. There is always the possibility of bumping the lens or shifting the focus when zooming in our out and getting it off of infinity.
 
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I'm curious why this is particularly important to you, Brett. I see way too many chase videos with autofocus on and either a rain drop hitting the lens, rapid camera movement, or just the lack of contrast for the autofocus mechanism to use to focus causes either blurred imagery or that flip between focused and out-of-focused. It drives me mad. You should always just manually focus and set to infinity unless you're trying to capture hail stones hitting your windshield or you plan to be inside a tornado. I wish everyone would understand this.
You're mainly correct that locking to infinity is appropriate 90% of the time when chasing. As such, autofocus isn't necessarily critical (caveat below), but an infinity lock (or at least easy access to infinity without any fuss) is probably quite critical for reasons Bill H. articulated above.

To get into the weeds just a bit, though: I *always* keep my camcorder on infinity lock. However, low-end consumer camcorders like mine have tiny sensors, which in turn have deep depth of field. The larger the sensor, the more you have to worry about shallow DOF. With shallow enough DOF, the infinity point changes appreciably between wide and tele zoom, introducing yet another complication I don't want to deal with on a video device. That's where autofocus might come in handy: say you zoom way in from 28 mm to 300 mm, then need to make sure you're still focused at infinity. It might be faster to AF on a distant object than any other method! At least, this is what happens to me on my DSLR when shooting stills with a tele lens.

Anyway, autofocus was less important on my list than reliable autoexposure of the same sort you'd get on a camcorder. I'm very open to using a larger body with a better sensor if it's cheaper than a camcorder with the same size sensor; I just have no interest in fiddling with ISO, aperture, etc. to get a decent exposure. I'm too busy doing that on my main DSLR for stills. I'd also strongly prefer electronic zoom, both for smoothness and for ergonomic reasons.
 
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I still use my Panasonic 900 series HD camcorder and it works fine - gives me decent results, and I'm not sure buying a new one (as others have also mentioned in this thread) is going to give me much noticeable difference.
For stills, I use a Sony RX10 (first version) - https://www.wexphotovideo.com/sony-cyber-shot-rx10-digital-camera-1544413/

This also does nice video, with full manual control, and has a fairly decent zoom too - and is f/2.8 out to 200mm.

Sony are now onto the fourth iteration of this - but it costs rather more! https://www.wexphotovideo.com/sony-cyber-shot-rx10-iv-digital-camera-1639100/

This shoots 4K video, as well as being able to give you 4 seconds of 1000fps (or 7 in a different mode)! This can give some cool slow-mo lightning shots. It also has a 600mm zoom.
 
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I posted above my reasons for preferring a DLSR that allows me to take both stills and video with the same piece of equipment. But after reading Jeff’s and Bill’s comments, I’m rethinking that; maybe I should look into returning to a small camcorder. It wouldn’t add all that much bulk in traveling out to the Plains, and I had noted the downside of the DLSR being a bit cumbersome to shoot video with and switch modes, so a separate camcorder would eliminate that issue.
 

Bill Hark

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They finally got the Sony AX700 at the local Best Buy, and I had a chance to mess with it along with the smaller AX53. The AX700 is a bit large for a dashcam and might not be held steady on my mount. My biggest concern is ease of infinity focusing. Both can easily be set to manual focus and then a ring can be rotated until the infinity sign is present. Unfortunately, when focusing through a narrow view of the front window on either power lines across the parking lot or ?clouds, both cameras when zoomed in will focus past infinity. This is highly concerning because it would be too difficult to find infinity on the fly. I was hoping to just rotate the ring until the infinity sign appears and not worry about going past infinity as with autofocus lenses on DSLR's I can't tell if the same thing happens on wider views which would be more typical of chasing. It is possible the focusing is so exact that a power line on the other side of the parking lot is still not infinity, and I'd have to find a farther object (not possible with the current location of the display cameras.) With clouds, I am having a hard time seeing exact focus to make a determination. With my current HD setup, I just hit a button on either camcorder (Sony Z1, Canon HV20) and it goes immediately to infinity without any fuss. I would hate to purchase expensive camcorders only to later find out my footage is soft when I eventually get a 4K TV years later. I also post this as a warning to anyone who is using the Sony AX100, 700 or AX53. Try focusing on something in the far distance like power lines or an antenna first with automatic and then manually while looking at the screen. Then compare to blindly rotating the ring to and past infinity as would likely happen on a chase.
 
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Best advice with focusing is to not using "continuous focus" but "focus lock." I use this setting during hurricane chases when I cannot manually focus the camera (it's in a water case) and I don't want the camera going in and out of focus, e.g., searching for a focus point. With focus lock, you can focus on a distant (or closer) object and the camera will stay in focus / infinity until the shutter button is partially depressed again. You can also use "peaking" if it's an option. With peaking, a blue (or other selected color) haze or highlight glows around the subject when it's in focus. This makes it easy to focus though the rear screen without looking though the viewfinder. I use Lumix cameras for both sills and video.