Q Are there any cameras that work equally well as a camcorder and as a digital camera?

A Some digital SLRs and interchangeable-lens cameras can produce video footage that rivals professional motion-picture equipment costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, several manufacturers offer grip equipment and optics for high-end digital SLRs so they can be used by cinematographers as professional movie-making tools.

Even some of the lowest-priced interchangeable-lens cameras are capable of incredible-looking footage. When Olympus introduced its PEN E-PL1 Micro Four-Thirds camera, it produced a high-def TV commercial for the camera, using the actual camera. (See it at www.startribune.com/a1143.) You would never guess it was made with an inexpensive camera.

Although these cameras can produce amazing video quality, it requires a lot of skill to get the most out of them.

Most zoom lenses for the cameras have rotating manual zoom rings, and unless the camera is on a tripod, zooming while recording can cause shuddering and jerky images. To get sharp footage, you must be careful when choosing focus points.

Some cameras, such as the Olympus E-PL1, have kit lenses that don't autofocus silently, leading to a clicking sound in your movies when recording a moving subject. This makes manual focusing a must and it is difficult at times.

There are other issues, but suffice it to say that for most consumers who make a lot of movies, it is far easier to use a dedicated camcorder.

A consumer camcorder uses a sensor that is much smaller than those found in interchangeable-lens cameras. Although the small sensor limits low-light performance, it produces tremendous depth of field, so everything looks sharp. Camcorders are designed to be easy to hold and have wide-range optical zoom lenses with smooth power zooming.

If you want to explore a single camera for video and stills, check out the $625 Panasonic Lumix G3, the $799 Sony Alpha a55 or the new $1,299 Olympus OM-D EM-5 with power zoom kit. Besides being top performers for stills and video, all three have electronic eye-level viewfinders. Holding a camera at arm's length while recording video is awkward, especially at long zoom ranges.

Going back to the Olympus PEN E-PL1, although it is an older model and focuses slowly, its kit lens, sensor and image processing still produce some of the best picture quality you can find at any price, even compared with more recent, much more expensive cameras. The kit with a 14mm to 42mm zoom lens was one of my favorite recommendations at $499, and it's been on sale online for only $299 recently.

That's a bargain for such a wonderful camera and a great way to get started in the Micro Four-Thirds system.

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