Technical Editor Doug Polk navigates the sometimes confusing field of consumer camcorders, helping you find and purchase the perfect model.
The grinning video salesman behind the counter slowly leans forward and stretches out his long fingers for your hard-earned cash. You turn and run for the door.
The problem is, your desire to buy a camcorder is matched by equally strong confusion. There are numerous camcorder models to choose from--which one is right for you?
That's the big question. And before you can answer it, you need to ask yourself a few smaller questions. What do you shoot? How will you view it? Which features do you really need? What features do you want?
Answering these questions before you start shopping will increase your odds of making an informed and satisfying camcorder purchase.
Format Pros & Cons
Format should be your first consideration. Two basic formats dominate the consumer market: 8mm and VHS. They are not interchangeable. Each has a standard-resolution version, 8mm and VHS, and a high-resolution or "high-band" version, Hi8 and S-VHS. High-band camcorders produce considerably more picture detail and sharpness than standard versions.
Both VHS and S-VHS are also available in a small cassette style: VHS-C and S-VHS-C. You load a VHS-C type tape into an adapter to play in a standard VHS-type machine. You can't play a standard VHS tape in a VHS-C machine.
With all these variations, you really have six formats to choose from. Which is best? Well, what do you plan to do with your video?
Your first choice should be between standard or high-band formats. If you want a camcorder to keep a video album of Baby, document family vacations, birthday parties, Little League games, or for any household or occasional use, the standard formats are a good choice. Most of the standard 8mm and VHS/VHS-C camcorders produce a very nice picture and offer a slew of basic features at reasonable prices.
But do you plan to shoot weddings, sporting events, insurance tapes or real estate? Will you edit, duplicate and distribute your tapes in any way? If so, then the high-band formats should be your choice.
The high-band camcorders produce very fine, high-quality originals which better withstand copying. Hi8 and S-VHS camcorders, which output an S-video signal (separated video signal), also record or play back regular 8mm and VHS tapes respectively. Also, though an S-video monitor is best, these formats' increased resolution will be visible even on standard monitors or TVs. As you can see, S-video camcorders are versatile.
Price is always a consideration. The cost of standard camcorders (VHS, VHS-C and 8mm) currently ranges from about $600 to more than $1500. The cost of S-VHS and S-VHS-C camcorders ranges from $1600 to more than $3800; professional units run as high as $10,000. Consumer Hi8 camcorders list between $1200 and $4000, with pro models as high as $9000.
In short, the cost differential between a standard resolution camcorder (VHS or 8mm) and its equivalent high-band counterpart can run between several hundred to many thousands of dollars. In both cases, you'll also pay more for the high-resolution tapes. You must decide if the benefits of high-band camcorders are worth the extra expense.
Next, you choose compact or full size. 8mm, Hi8, VHS-C and S-VHS-C tapes are small; this means small camcorders that are light and easy to carry for long times and distances. The average compact camcorder weights under 2 pounds.
The Hi8 format is popular with event and wedding Videomakers who spend a lot of time in the field. They don't want to lug around lots of heavy gear, but still need the quality of the higher resolution format.
Compact camcorders are also popular with hikers and nature videomakers who often travel long distances on foot. They fit nicely into the underwater housings carried by scuba divers.
Perhaps the greatest drawback to the compact formats is their limited hand-held stability. Because they're so small and light, compact camcorders react to every muscle twitch and bump. VHS-C and S-VHS-C also have shorter recording times than the other formats.
Full-size VHS/S-VHS camcorders offer the most mass and thus the most stability. The average weight: about 6 or 7 pounds.
Full-size S-VHS camcorders are useful for shooting events, real estate work and industrial videos; they're also becoming more popular with pros working in the field. S-VHS boasts the most post-production support of all the formats. Vendor equipment offerings for S-VHS editing and production support are vast. These are the advantages you buy with the bigger, heavier full-size S-VHS camcorders.
Now that you've decided on a format, it's time to look at camcorder features.
Glass and More Glass
A good zoom lens is mandatory if you intend to shoot sports of almost any kind. In sports or news events you often need to get in close and fast.
In the world of lenses, focal length determines how wide an area your camcorder records. Dividing the largest focal length (telephoto) by the smallest (wide angle) gives the zoom ratio. For example: Sony's CCD-FX630 8mm Handycam has a zoom lens with a wide angle focal length of 5.4mm and a telephoto focal length of 64.8mm. This yields a 12:1 zoom ratio for this camcorder. Goldstar's GVC-C425 full-size VHS camcorder with focal lengths of 6.2mm to 50mm yields an 8:1 zoom ratio. The greater the zoom ratio, the more choices you have when selecting your shots.
Canon takes a completely different approach to camcorder lenses with its L2 Hi8 camcorder. This unit uses the VL (Video Lens) mounting system, which allows you to remove and interchange the stock 15:1 zoom lens with other VL lenses. An adapter allows you to use Canon EOS 35mm still camera lenses with your L2. When it comes to lenses, the Canon system provides the utmost in flexibility.
Most videomakers won't need such a system, since even mediocre zoom lenses offer enough options for general-purpose shooting. However, if you shoot nature footage or sports, you will soon admire the advantages of the long telephoto and wide angle VL mount lenses.
Zoom speed is another consideration. Many manufacturers offer two-speed zooms with slow and slower speeds. Some camcorders have multispeed zooms, which smooth the transition between speeds. The Canon ES-1000 Hi8 camcorder uses eight zoom speeds; these change as you apply increasing finger pressure on the zoom rocker. The speed changes are almost undetectable.
Still other camcorders--such as the pro-industrial JVC GY-X2 or Panasonic's AG-455U--use broadcast type continuously variable zooms. Unlike the multispeed zoom, these zooms exhibit no abrupt speed changes as the lens accelerates. They are very smooth. They range from extremely slow to quite fast, essential when shooting sports.
Many lenses now offer digital extensions of their zoom ratios. The digital zoom kicks in after zooming out to the telephoto limit of the lens. Panasonic's Palmcorder PV-IQ604 offers this feature, which can effectively double a zoom lenses telephoto focal length. The trade off: jagged edges in the zoomed image and other distortions.
At the other extreme, macro focus allows you to focus on objects extremely close to the lens. This is a great feature for recording flowers, bugs or other extremely small objects. Macro is found on the vast majority of camcorders.
For years, the only viewfinder available has been electronic monochrome, with a 1/3-to-1 inch cathode ray tube (CRT). Though this viewfinder still dominates the camcorder market, the color viewfinder is gaining ground. Color viewfinders appeal to consumers by inspiring confidence in the colors recorded. Hitachi's VM-H71A Hi8 camcorder uses a color Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) for its very clear and easy-to-focus viewfinder.
LCDs such as the Canon ES1000 Hi8 camcorder's 0.7-inch unit use about 140,000 pixels to provide their display. While this pixel count gives a ragged edge to some items in the displayed image, you can still focus well. Sharp Electronics takes the color viewfinder to the extreme with its VL-H400U Hi8 ViewCam. The camcorder features a 4-inch LCD on the rear panel. This frees the operator's head from the camcorder offering more flexibility, and provides clear, easy-to-see playback. Videomakers who shoot a lot of fast-moving sports will appreciate the peripheral vision granted by this LCD. Sony offers a 3-inch version in its CCD-FX730V, as does JVC with its Systemax GR-SV3.
One requirement in a good viewfinder: effective diopter adjustment. This allows you to adjust the viewfinder to your eye. Usually the rotating type of adjuster works much better then the sliding type.
Bells and Whistles
There are basically two groups of camcorder features: 1) features that help improve the cameras image; and 2) features that add special effects.
The most recent features to assist in image quality is Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) and Optical Stabilization. EIS is a method of steadying handheld images by moving the active area of the camcorder's sensor in response to camcorder motion. The result: a steady picture. EIS is very useful in slow panning or slow camera movements common in outdoor shooting.
Drawbacks to EIS: it creates a lag when actually panning right or left, and will actually cause unwanted movement if left on when the camcorder is tripod-mounted. EIS is also useless for some fast movements.
Engineers designed EIS to improve stability on smaller hand-held camcorders like JVC's GR-SZ7U S-VHS-C unit. But it is now making its way into full-size camcorders, starting with the Panasonic PV760 and PV770 series camcorders.
Optical image stabilization uses a special prism in the lens itself, steering the light rays to compensate for camcorder motion. This method, as applied in several Canon, Sony and Ricoh camcorders, tends to show less lag than EIS.
Event videomakers, especially those shooting weddings, have little control over indoor lighting conditions. Manual control of focus, iris and white balance offers them some range of adjustment over such conditions.
Manual focus allows for solid, shimmy-free focus in low light. It also overrides the camcorder's tendency to shift the image whenever someone walks through the picture. Manual iris assists in controlling depth of field and provides more control over exposure and back lighting; manual white balance can offer better control over mixed light sources. You can even manipulate white balance for special effects.
In the 8mm realm, the GE CG818 and Sony CCD-TR30 all allow manual override of at least the iris and/or white balance. The Panasonic PV-900, PV-910 and AG-195U VHS full-size units offer manual iris and/or white balance. Almost all of this year's S-VHS offerings have manual override. As has been the case for some time, manual focus is available on almost every camcorder offered.
The high speed shutter feature offers different shutter speeds for clearer high speed action shots such as track events or races. High speed shutter is so common throughout the formats and sizes that it probably won't be a major selling point. But you may want fairly high speeds for fast-action shooting.
You may want an accessory shoe on top of the camcorder to hold an external microphone or other accessory. Most provide this. Some camcorders, like the RCA CC547 full-size VHS camcorder or Canon's E250 8mm unit, feature a video light mounted on top of the camcorder; such lights produce just enough power to enhance the colors of the subject.
Weather conditions may be a concern when shooting, as can moisture when shooting sailing or fishing events. Hitachi's VM-H71A Hi8 camcorder sports a weatherproof "packing" which seals all compartments against moisture (and is said to be safe under one foot of water).
Many videomakers prefer to add digital effects while editing. But if you're new to the camcorder, you might want a few special effects. Available digital effects include:
Mirror. Half of the video image is a reverse copy of the other half.
Strobe. This effect freeze frames the video at a fast rate, lending a jerky look on playback. The rate of strobe is sometimes adjustable.
Posterization. An effect reminiscent of concert posters of the 1960s.
Freeze frame. Records a still image.
Mosaic. This effect turns the image into small, solid-color squares.
Fade to black. One of the oldest and most useful effects.
Negative image. This effect mimics the appearance of color photograph negatives. Useful as a wild visual effect, or for transferring film negatives to video.
Reverse image. Flips the image horizontally.
Character Generator (CG). Some camcorders incorporate a CG, which can superimpose titles on your videos while you shoot.
Digital signal processing. This effect primarily assists in diminishing noise; but it also monitors circuits all over the camcorder. These circuits feed information the processor uses to create and record the best image possible.
No discussion of camcorder features would be complete without mentioning time code. This super video buzzword refers to a numeric code applied to each frame of the video tape to make editing accurate to the single frame. If you plan to do any serious editing, you should understand that time code delivers the best editing accuracy.
There are two versions of time code in use. Sony created Rewritable Consumer Time Code (RCTC) as a Hi8 camcorder standard; the Sony CCD TR-101, Ricoh R-18H and Nikon 750 all use it. You can record RCTC to the tape before, during or after recording video.
Some of the major full-size S-VHS camcorders record SMPTE time code. JVC's GY-X1TC and GY-X2U, along with Panasonic's AG-455U (writes only), use SMPTE time code. SMPTE time code is not compatible with Sony's RCTC.
Now that you have a good idea what you're looking for, consult the All Format Camcorders Buyers Guide that accompanies this feature. Carefully scrutinize the listed models for the details and features you need.
Sometimes a single feature is so desirable or necessary that you might choose a given model solely for that feature. It may be worth losing several other features just to get the one you want. If the feature you want is worthwhile--say a good lens or image stabilization--then this is a smart move. The idea is to figure out which existing model best fits your wants before you go shopping, then stick with it.
Good shopping and good shooting!
Doug Polk is Videomaker's technical editor. Send e-mail to 71161, firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO BUY YOUR NEW CAMCORDER
There are a number of places where you can buy a camcorder--from department stores to mail order houses. Each offers potential buyers both advantages and disadvantages.
Discount electronic warehouses usually will have the model you want--but when it comes to service they can prove lacking. You also may suffer constant pressure from salespeople the moment you walk in the door.
Department stores do not profit from volume sales, so you may end up paying more for electronics here. However, such stores generally offer much better service than the warehouses.
Video/film supply houses also tend to overprice different models, but supply better service than most warehouses.
Mail order is a tricky business for the buyer. Some mail order houses hustle buyers, pushing phantom sales of equipment not yet released publicly.
On the other hand, some houses are legitimate mail order sales organizations that do a brisk, trustworthy business.
If you have not dealt with a particular company before, check it out first. Contact the Direct Mail Marketing Association, 11 West 42nd. Street, New York, NY 10036-8096. You can also refer to the Mail Order Guidelines for Videomaker Readers, which appears in the back pages of this magazine each month. These guidelines offer considerable advice to those shopping by mail.
The good news about mail order: often you can realize considerable savings. If you go this route, ignore the fancy ads, do your homework and don't get caught with your wallet open.
No matter where you buy, ask yourself the following questions about the store in question before forking over any cash:
1) Are they specialists in video? Or do they sell camcorders on one shelf and lamp shades on the next?
2) What is their track record? What references will they let you contact?
3) Are they authorized by any of the major manufacturers? Sony? Panasonic? JVC?
4) Do they answer your questions? Turn them around? And if they actually answer your questions, do they answer them correctly?
5) How much time do they take to explain the warranty?