Saving Change: Camcorders for 500 dollars or Less

This is a great time to get into video. Never before has the technology been as affordable and sophisticated as it is now. For the would-be videographer on a budget, the market is hot.

Not only are brand-new models available in this most-affordable category (see the camcorders listed in our accompanied buyer’s guide), but there are hundreds of discounted, older models for sale in electronics stores across the country.

In today’s market, all of the cams in this price range are analog, not digital. When considering an analog camcorder purchase, you might wonder if you shouldn’t just wait until digital camcorders fall into your price range. After all, the future of video seems to be further migrating to digital. Well, here are our thoughts on this: Yes, the future is digital, and in the years to come there’s a good chance that analog camcorders will become obsolete. But no, you shouldn’t wait if you want to shoot video now but can’t afford the digital models. Life’s precious moments are passing, there’s no time like the present to get started in video.

So if you’re itching to shoot video but lack the funds to go digital, one of these inexpensive analogs could be the perfect solution. But how do you decide? Are all camcorders created equal? What things should you look for? These are the questions we’re here to answer. Let’s start with a rundown of the features.

Want to Edit?
You say you have a computer already equipped to edit Digital Video (DV), such as the iMac, Titanium laptop, certain Dell, Hewlett-Packard or Compaq models? Fear not the analog camcorder. You can purchase an analog-to-digital external converter to perform nonlinear editing. Sony’s DVMC-DA2, Dazzle’s Hollywood DV Bridge and other video converters sell for $180 to $350. They receive signals from analog camcorders and send them into a computer’s FireWire (IEEE 1394) port.

Feature Presentation
When deciding what abilities your camcorder should have, the first thing you need to assess is your video aspirations. A good analogy is found in still photography. Some photographers are interested in only point-and-shoot cameras. They don’t want to worry about focusing, setting exposures or other manual controls. They want as good an image as possible with no hassle.

Then there are the people who like having control. They are interested in learning about the different features and how to use them to manipulate the shot in different shooting circumstances. These folks may see their photos as artistic creations, or perhaps they want to go pro. For this group, some features are imperative.

Following is an evaluation of several camcorder features and how they relate differently to the hobbyist and to the aspiring pro.


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Manual Controls

For the videographer who wants to override the automatic shooting controls in hopes to advance into more sophisticated video presentations, certain manual controls are essential. They include iris, shutter, white balance and focus controls.

All of the cams mentioned in our buyer’s guide have manual and automatic focus control. Some of them have manual white balance. Sony’s Hi8s are the only ones that definitively indicate having manual irises, while Panasonic and RCA are the only ones that include manual shutter speed control. Since you can’t have them all on one of these camcorders, you have to pick out the manual functions that you will use the most.

White balance helps insure you get true colors in every type of light. The shutter controls the duration of the exposure of light to the imaging sensor or CCD (charge coupled device). The iris controls the size of the opening through which the light is allowed to enter the lens. See past issues of Videomaker for more detailed explanations of these features.

Mike and Headphone Jacks

An external mike is the key to recording good audio. On-camera mikes pick up a lot of unwanted noise and are practically useless at a distance. A headphone jack, only offered by Sony at this price point, allows you to monitor the sound and guarantee your microphone is working properly. People who want to get superior audio should allow themselves room to grow with mike and headphone jacks.

Stereo Audio

You may not notice the absence of stereo audio in a home VCR playing through a television set, but in more sophisticated venues the absence of stereo sound can be noticeable. Interestingly, according to our research, the Canon ES8200V Hi8 is the only current model under $500 capable of recording stereo audio. If sound means a lot to you, stereo capability is something to look for.

LCD Monitor

Large flip-out viewfinders were created specifically for the hobbyist market. They’re handy features that let you hold the camcorder away from your body and, as a result, get more stable images. They can consume a great deal of battery power, but are a handy convenience for any videographer.

Pixels per CCD

The number of pixels on the CCD directly affects image quality. The more pixels the better the image. Samsung’s SC-L550 is ahead of the pack in that category with its 410,000-pixel CCD.

Non-essential Features

Some features are purely for fun, and some actually degrade the video image in exchange for novelty. These features include the character generator, digital effects, program exposure modes, ability to fade and digital zoom.

The character generator is often a list of preset titles like "Happy Birthday" or "Our Anniversary" that show up right in the middle of the footage. They’re OK for the videographer that doesn’t have access to editing equipment. For those who do have access to editing equipment, we recommend adding titles in post-production. The same philosophy goes for digital effects and fading.

Program exposure modes are nice pre-set features; however, they are limited and cannot replace manual shutter and iris controls.

The digital zoom can be a lot of fun, the same way binoculars are. However, trying to watch the footage shot with a digital zoom can be an unpleasant experience. The video becomes extremely pixelated and the slightest movement has the subtlety of an earthquake. We recommend an optical zoom over digital every time.

Making the Grade

Another thing to consider when choosing a new camcorder is image quality, which is largely determined by the grade of tape the camcorder uses to record its signal. Analog tapes come in two categories: standard grade and high grade.

Standard-grade tapes include VHS, VHS-C (compact VHS) and 8mm. The high grades are S-VHS, S-VHS-C and Hi8. High-grade formats significantly increase resolution over standard grades. However, if you’re looking for the least expensive camcorder on the market, you’ll most likely find it in the standard grades.

Focus on Formats

Some important characteristics within the formats might also help you in the decision-making process. VHS and VHS-C will play in a home VCR. The VHS-C requires a cassette adapter (usually included in the purchase of the camcorder), a convenience worth considering. Standard VHS camcorders are the largest formats, and some people consider their size an asset, since you can stabilize them on your shoulder. Some also consider their size a drawback, since they are large and bulky. The S-VHS-C cannot play back in a standard VCR. Because of its higher resolution, an S-VHS VCR is necessary.

The 8mm and Hi8 formats have a tendency to be slightly smaller than the compact VHS formats, because the tape cassette is smaller. This also affords longer record lengths than its VHS-C competitors. However, you cannot play 8mm format tapes in a VCR. You need to hook your camcorder directly to the television to see it displayed.

No Present Like Time

We in the video industry are celebrating the incredibly affordable price range into which many camcorders have fallen. It wasn’t long ago that high-grade and even standard-grade camcorders cost in the thousands. But now, models are available for a few hundred.

It’s a great time for beginning and budget-restricted videographers to get into the business of saving memories on tape. And not only can you save the events of your life, but you can tell stories, make documentaries, record weddings or events for profit, create a public access show or anything your imagination and resources allow. These kinds of productions require editing, but for now, start with a camcorder and the rest will follow.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.