Thinking about getting a new camcorder? Here are 10 points to consider while searching for the best digital video camcorder to suit your needs and budget.
Feature-rich camcorders are flooding the market, but how do you determine which features you really need? This month, we look at questions to ask when considering the purchase of a new video camera.
Buying a new camcorder can be a very daunting process. So many to choose from and so many options, many with confusing acronyms - IR, HD, IS. What does it all mean, and do you need to know?
These point-by-point questions should help guide you, so you can get the best idea on what features you need, what features you don't need and where your video productions are going in the next few years. Today we'll look at ten questions you need to ask yourself while thinking about new video gear.
1. Why upgrade?
Possibly the most important question you must ask yourself is, "What's wrong with my current camcorder?" Unless you can answer this question, with specifics, you might be wasting your money. Sit down and list the specific limitations of your current setup - is it low-light performance? Is the lens not wide enough? Is the autofocus too slow? Is it difficult to edit? Be wary of marketing hype -- "my current camcorder doesn't have image stabilization" isn't a reason to upgrade, while "my video suffers from camera shake" is a reason, and a camera with image stabilization might be the answer.
2. Can't someone just tell me?
When faced with a swarm of new cameras lining the shelves of retailers and back pages of magazines, it's easy to wish that someone would just tell you what to get. And, to an extent, this is what buying guides and reviews are for. But one reason that there are so many different models of cameras is that there are many, many different reasons that people own video cameras. If your main use is a camera to keep in your purse or book bag and capture your own pithy commentary for your video blog, your requirements will be different from those of someone hard at work on an indie movie and who hopes to get a theatrical release.
3. What's my price range?
This is a very important but often misunderstood question. Don't confuse "how much should I spend?" with "how much can I afford to spend?" A video camera purchase isn't always about spending the most you possibly can. A less-expensive camera gives you more money to spend on other things - travel, audio equipment, editing equipment, etc. The camera is just one part of the process between idea and finished product. Camera manufacturers often make several different but related camera models that cover a spectrum of prices. When considering a particular camera, also take a look at the model above and the model below. Very often they share most of their features. Make sure you're not buying things you don't need. Also take into consideration other things that you do need - likd a new tripod or wireless mic. Think of your camcorder purchase as part of a package and budget accordingly.
4. Should I use buyer's guides and online resources?
Be sure to look at buyer's guides (like the one on Videomaker's website), which will allow you to compare features between models, and read articles about new cameras and new features. But also pay attention to user reviews. Sometimes these are very helpful, because they show how a camera works in what may not be an ideal situation.
Professional reviewers may have lots of talent and resources behind them as well as an intimate knowledge of camcorders in general to get them excited about the obscure features of a particular model, but they often have the cameras in hand for only a brief period of time, and many times they don't use them under stressful or everyday situations. User reviews from the field saying that the on/off switch is inconveniently located can sometimes be more helpful than a feature rundown from a professional. Read both the pro's take, and then find camcorder forum and user-groups sites where the owners of a particular model has already invested time and money into it.
5. Am I being seduced by features I don't need or words I don't understand?
There are things you should look for on a camera. Things like image stabilization, three-chip sensors, good low-light capability are all great things to have on a camcorder. Then there are "features" which manufacturers have invented primarily to mislead the consumer. Things like digital zoom (which isn't really a zoom at all, but more like sitting closer to the television) and megapixels (which don't really measure image quality) are often just an attempt to confuse the buyer. We like to look at numbers - they're easy to compare. We see that one camera has a 300x digital zoom; it seems an obvious assumption that it's 300 times better than a camera that has NO digital zoom, but that's not the case. Digital zoom just enlarges the image, it doesn't zoom the lens in tighter.
Shop prepared! If there's a phrase you don't understand, look it up.
6. How's the battery life? How much are extra batteries?
How's the battery life? How much are extra batteries? You don't ever want to be at a critical point in shooting and have the Battery Low indicator flash - it creates a dreadful feeling in the pit of your stomach. Likewise, you don't want to be an electrical socket nomad, moving from outlet to outlet, eyes always alert for a new source of power like a shivering drug user trying to dry out. Be sure to compare battery life on your camcorders and see how much extra batteries cost. At the very least, you should have one extra battery; if you'll often be far from home, you'll want more.
7. What recording media should I be using?
Camcorders record to lots of different media types: Mini DV, DVD, hard drives, CompactFlash, SD and SDHC. While Mini DV is still popular in high-end cameras, lower-end units seem to be trending towards non-volatile media, solid-state cards and built-in memory that will then be transferred to some other media for storage. This is the way digital still cameras have worked for years now. On the one hand, it's convenient not to have to worry about tapes, but, on the other, it's easy enough to duck into an electronics store and buy a bunch of videotapes on vacation, while it's more difficult to find a way to dump your built-in memory to a big hard drive to free up space.
8. What inputs and outputs do I need?
What inputs and outputs do you want your camera to have? How does the video get from the camera to the editing station? Does it have a place for external microphones? Can you plug it directly into a wall socket if your battery runs out? Does it have an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connection so that you can play back directly to your HDTV from your video camera?
9. What resolution is right for me?
Do you want to make movies or upload things to YouTube? Buying and using an HD camera requires some significant resources, from storage space for your video to an editing system that can edit the video to a television that can play it back. Don't buy a camera that's going to sit in a drawer because you don't have the resources to operate it. At the same time, don't buy a camera that's underpowered for your needs. Think ahead of time if you'll be editing and distributing video in HD.
10. What will you need to do later?
Down the road, you may realize you really like videography, to the point where you want to have more control over your camcorder. If the camcorder you choose doesn't offer manual control over items such as exposure and audio levels, you may find yourself wanting to upgrade later. Think about your still camera to give yourself a guide: if you have a nice SLR and use all of the controls that it has to offer, you will probably appreciate a camcorder's manual controls. If you have a point-and-shoot camera and you don't go much beyond pushing the shutter release when you want to take a picture, you probably won't use the manual controls on a camcorder.
Buying a new camcorder can be a daunting task - but by reading this magazine you're already better off than most in making this important decision. A strong idea of what you want to do with your equipment is the most vital way to keep your wits about you and make the most intelligent purchase. Above all, it shouldn't be a rush decision and should be rooted in an understanding of how your current equipment is keeping you from doing what you want to do.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.