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Camcorder Buying Guide

 

The key features to consider when buying a camcorder are:

  1. The Physical comfort of the machine.
  2. Ease of use.
  3. Convenience of Playback and/or copying.
  4. Picture quality.
  5. Budget.

The basic Camcorder specs include: price, LCD screen size, weight, and type of microphone. From here, consider the following.

Camcorder Format

Latest technology is high definition video but this is still pretty expensive, so most digital video camcorders still record in standard definition. The quality of standard definition video recorded is much improved, and easy to edit into DVDs. Unless you have HDTV you won't get the benefit yet anyway.

Most camcorders use the MiniDV and DVD formats, but a few other formats are available, such as Sony's Digital 8; and some models capture to small onboard hard drives, while others write to flash memory.

  • Digital 8 camcorder - records digitally to Hi-8 videotapes and can also play back videotapes recorded on analog camcorders. The Hi-8 tapes are typically larger than MiniDV models.
  • Flash memory-based camcorders - are small, but recording times are limited by card capacity.
  • MiniDV camcorders - capture the best-quality video.
  • Hard-drive camcorders - give best access to footage on the drive without having to fast forward/reverse, as with a tape-based camcorder. Instead they use thumbnails. Disadvantage is that once full, you have to offload the footage before you can continue shooting. With a MiniDV model, you can just pop in another tape. Also, like DVD camcorders, hard-drive models capture in MPEG format, which requires much more computing horsepower to edit; in addition, not all editing applications will accept MPEG footage.
  • 3CCD camcorders - use three CCD sensors[RGB] instead of one. This gives much better video quality. If you can afford it, this is a major feature benefit.

Media Storage

New, larger models are using DVD media storage, most are still using Tapes, and will for some time until the DVD version editing options improve.

Currenlty, DVD video recording cannot be imported or edited in all video editing software. Supporting programs include: Adobe's Premiere Elements 3 and Pinnacle's Studio Plus 10. Very convenient to view recording on DVD player.

Screen

Get the largest LCD screen you can find. You tend to use this a lot for both playback and editing.

Check the screen displays well in bright sunlight - many don't. Brightly backlit screens suck a lot of battery power, so its a playoff of preferences, and how you will use your camcorder.

Check the viewfinder is comfortable to use, as you will find you use this more than you think.

If you plan to shoot a lot of scenery or action shots look for wide-screen (720-by-480-pixel) LCD, which won't crop your view of the video you're shooting.

Lens

Digital and optical zoom can be confusing:

Optical zoom - is the maximum zoom the camcorder can achieve by moving its lens elements. Most have at least a 10X optical zoom, which adequate for general purposes.

Digital zoom - magnifies after the optical zoom is fully extended to fill the screen. This method leads to grainy, pixelated, and generally unpleasant-looking images.

Get the highest Optical Zoom you can in your budget.

Image Stabilization

All camcorders have two types of image stabilization:

  1. Optical - reduces shaky video caused by holding rather than using a tripod.
  2. Electronic - uses internal circuitry after the image has been captured.

Optical stabilization usually provides the best results, but it's typically found in more expensive camcorders.

Batteries

Batteries are always an issue with multimedia devices and camcorders are no exception.

The amount of recording and playback time you get out of a battery varies. Minimum is one hour recording time. It pays to budget in an addtional battery, which typically cost from $50 to $100

Microphones

Many new videographers underestimate the importance of sound quality in enhancing their video.

Generally, camcorders with microphones mounted in the front tend to produce better sound than those with microphones on the top. Top-mounted microphones tend to pick up the breathing and voice of the person operating the camera, often at the expense of everything else.

Zoom microphones and sockets for plugging in an external microphone are worthy features to consider. These are very useful if you intend to record presentations or speeches.

Still Photography

Still images can generally be saved to a memory card or to tape. Check the megapixel of these images - make sure it is at least 5-megapixel. If still capture is important to you, avoid models that produce interpolated high-resolution images from lower-resolution CCDs.

Note: dont expect your camcorder to give the same quality still photos as a dedicated digital camera.


Controls

Controls are generally mixed between physical buttons etc and onscreen digital controls. Personally, I hate the onscreen ones - they are difficult to see in bright light conditions and often too small and grouped too close together for men fingers. Make sure you test all the controls before you buy.

Low Light And Night Modes

All but the most expensive camcorders are pretty awful in low light, regardless of what low light enhancement technology they use: infrared light , slow-shutter mode, or built-in illumination from one or more LEDs. Some models offer all three methods.

Wide-Angle Shooting

Several camcorders now allow you to shoot in the 16-by-9 aspect ratio used by HDTVs, even if the camcorders still shoot in standard-definition resolution.

Note that some camcorders use a CCD with a native 16-by-9 orientation, so you get the full resolution of the CCD when you shoot in wide-angle format, whereas others use a CCD with a traditional 4-by-3 orientation and use only a portion of it when shooting in wide-angle format.

High-Definition Recording

More expensive models from Canon and Sony record in a high-definition format called HDV. HDV is highly compressed, so needs a very powerful computer to decode the files and an HDV-compatible video-editing application to edit them. (Only Adobe Premiere Elements 3 and Pinnacle Studio Plus 10 and a few others are compatible.) It takes a lot more time to render HDV files than standard-definition, DV-format files.

Buying Tips From A Professional Cameraman

 

 
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