Camcorder Buying Guide
The key features to consider when buying a camcorder are:
- The Physical comfort of the machine.
- Ease of use.
- Convenience of Playback and/or copying.
- Picture quality.
The basic Camcorder specs include: price, LCD screen size, weight,
and type of microphone. From here, consider the following.
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
- 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
- Flash memory-based camcorders - are small,
but recording times are limited by card capacity.
- MiniDV camcorders - capture the best-quality
- 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
- 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.
New, larger models are using DVD media storage, most are still
using Tapes, and will for some time until the DVD version editing
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.
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.
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.
All camcorders have two types of image stabilization:
- Optical - reduces shaky video caused by holding rather than
using a tripod.
- Electronic - uses internal circuitry after the image has been
Optical stabilization usually provides the best results, but it's
typically found in more expensive camcorders.
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
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
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 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 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.
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
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.
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
Buying Tips From A Professional