Credited with the invention of the automobile assembly line, Henry Ford offered his Model T in "any color" he famously said, "so long as it's black."
With Ford's assembly line concept, cars could be built at an unheard of pace. One of the keys to this was standardization. Trying to pick out video gear from the huge number of cameras and camcorders for sale today isn't very simple. As well as new video cameras, the market is flooded with used video production equipment. How are you to choose from the bewildering array? It's not an easy decision, but it's one that shouldn't be made without considerable thought. If you're a video professional, equipment is the lifeblood of your business and choosing hastily can mean being stuck with video equipment that doesn't do what you need it to do.
Know Your Needs
After Ford's breakthrough, car companies quickly diversified and today the road is filled with Mini Coopers, dump trucks, flashy sports cars, vans, station wagons and a plethora of vehicles in between. Video cameras and video equipment have diversified as well. There are cameras designed to be carried in a pocket or purse to be ready at a moment's notice, there are cell phones with video capabilities, there are cameras for professional use with options to add external microphones, on-camera lights and various other attachments. And in the last few years there's a strange newcomer - the video-capable DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex, which looks odd but offers an incredible array of wonderful features.
Know Your Budget
The real key of which of the camcorders for sale to put in your stocking is how much money you have to spend.
Identify Important Features
What type of videography do you do? This will determine what features are most important to you. Do you shoot a lot of low light videography? You will want a camera with low grain at high ISOs and a fast lens. Do you shoot a lot of sports? A fast auto focus is something you're looking for. Do you want to strap a camera to your helmet as you bobsled the Matterhorn? There are cameras that do that as well. Other important features might be interchangeable lenses, slow-motion capabilities, or the ability to record directly to an external hard drive.
Stick to Popular Brand Names
While it's very true that small companies often drive innovation and come up with clever products, until you know exactly why you want that product it's safest to stick with the major brands who have been producing video cameras and video equipment for years. This isn't simply because they're more reliable but also because it's going to be much easier to get an extra battery for a popular brand name camera two hours before your sister's wedding in Mount Horeb, Wis. Most video professionals have a drawer somewhere filled with now useless proprietary power and connection cables whose provenience they can't even remember.
There is a great number of online video forums; (have you checked out the online community at videomaker.com where people post detailed reviews of equipment?) Amazon.com is a good place to start as well. Be sure to balance reader reviews with those done by professionals, read both and take into consideration the skill level and knowledge base of the reviewer. When googling about equipment it helps to think like a poster in order to find the right information. Searching for "Video Camera X review" will get you more reviews than simply searching for "Video Camera X." Some good keywords to try out in your searches are, reviews, problems, best, great, worst, and FAQ. And remember, cameras are all different beasts - the reason that one person may hate their camera or rate it poorly might be a reason that you'd love it. Search also for keywords related to the work you do. "Best camcorder" isn't as good of a search term as "best camcorder for wedding videography" or "best camcorder for travel."Don't neglect terms like "battery life" or "ergonomics." Think of terms you'd put into your own review of a camera and look for those.
Buy From a Reputable Store
Good camera stores not only have a lot of camcorders, used video production equipment, and accessories for sale, they also have a knowledgeable sales staff. Shop in a store where the person behind the counter can clearly answer your questions and steer you towards the right purchase.
There are a number of online stores with years of experience and excellent customer service who are used by video professionals every day. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The major advantage is that a lot of these stores can sell items at significant discounts. The disadvantage is that you can't pick up and try out the cameras first. Many stores both online and brick-and-mortar, have most of their cameras for sale at prices actually less than what they paid, this is known as a "loss leader" they'll entice you to buy your video cameras with a low price and then make up for it by selling you a camera bag, lens tissue, battery charger and tripod and make their money in that markup. So when comparing prices, be sure to look at the prices of all the video gear you're interested in.
Many people think that buying online means buying tax-free which isn't always the case. If you live in a state that has a sales tax, you're required to pay the sales tax on your own at the end of the year. This is called the "use tax". Remember too that if you're a professional making income from your video work, that you can deduct all or part of the cost of your video gear on your Schedule C.
Make Sure You Know What You're Buying
There are a whole lot of reasons that a camera might not ship with everything you expect it to ship with or need. When comparing prices, make sure that both camera outfits are identical. Do they both include chargers and batteries? Are lenses separate?
You should expect a camcorder to live with you for several years, and it's an expensive purchase so go into it armed. Searching online for the experiences of people who do video work like you do and reading about their positive and negative experiences can really help when you're picking out you're equipment.
Sidebar: Things to Watch Out For
When I bought my first video camera I researched in magazines and found a camera that I liked. One store had it for an extremely low price, much lower than all the others so I called to buy it from them.
"Oh dear," said the clerk on the phone, "do you really want to buy that camcorder?" I said, with some trepidation, that I did. "It's just that this camera is made of plastic and we've had a lot of problems with it. It doesn't last very long and it'll probably break the first time you use it." "Oh, no!" I said.
The clerk helpfully told me that they had another camera that was much better and not much more money. I thanked him for saving me from a ruinous purchase and bought the upgraded camera. Little did I know at the time that I had fallen for the old "bait and switch" as my co-workers pointed out the next day. I was baited with a ridiculously low camera price, and then sold on another item that not only was more expensive but costlier than that store's competitors.
When researching your video equipment, also spend some time researching the places that you're considering buying it from. The bad apples usually get called out pretty quickly and you shouldn't have much difficulty figuring out who the reputable companies are.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.