Cheap Thrills

So, it’s finally time: you’ve decided to buy that camcorder. What are you planning to do with it? Are you planning to edit your footage? Do you want to output to other formats?

If the answer is, “No, thanks, I just want something to capture a bit of video every once in a while,” then an inexpensive camcorder may be just what the doctor ordered. They’re simple to operate, reasonably straightforward to purchase and get you to your destination of simple video production in a hurry. And, best of all, the video looks great. We understand your needs and are here with a complete buyer’s guide of analog camcorders and a manufacturer listing of companies offering basic, consumer-level Mini DV camcorders.

There are a number of very usable, yet affordable Mini DV (and Digital8, for that matter) camcorders out there, many for $700 or less. Many are quite useable as a second camera for a professional on a budget or as a first camera for an enthusiastic novice. We even know a clever wedding shooter who brings a second camera with her and gives it to folks throughout the night to get some great additional footage. We’ve even seen folks who use a cheap DV camcorder as a VTR in their edit bay. Dedicated Mini DV VTRs are expensive, don’t have their own view screens and can’t double as a second camera when you need one.

Which Format?

There are two major tape format families in this category: VHS-C and 8mm. VHS-C is marketed by JVC (its inventor) and Panasonic as “the tapes that play in your VCR.” This is more or less true, with the appropriate (and usually included) adapter. While most of us still have VHS VCRs in our homes, sales of new VCRs are slipping and competing technologies, like digital video recorders (DVR) and set-top DVD recorders, are beginning to take over. A subset of VHS-C is S-VHS-C, which is a higher quality, but less compatible format.

The Hi8 format dominates the 8mm format family. Samsung and Sony currently manufacture Hi8 camcorders, but the last standard 8mm camcorder, manufactured by Sharp, rolled off the assembly line in 2002. Sony is the sole manufacturer of Digital8 camcorders, after Hitachi exited the Digital8 world in 2001. Canon used to manufacture Hi8 camcorders, but they too have just exited the analog camcorder business.

Hi8 and S-VHS are both high-band formats, which means that they are separated composite formats that record the black-and-white and color portions of the picture at different frequencies. This is in contrast to formats like VHS-C and 8mm, which record the color and black-and-white portions of the picture together. High-band formats also shoot in higher resolution.

Optical Systems

While most digital camcorders have a CCD with 680,000 pixels, the average analog camcorder CCD only has about 270,000 pixels. This yields horizontal resolutions between 330 and 400 lines, which fits the resolution of these formats anyhow. Cameras with significantly larger CCDs generally use these extra pixels for stills and not for video.

Analog camcorders in the recent past have been notable for having longer zoom ratios than their compact digital brethren, largely because larger cameras can have larger lenses. The 2004 crop of digital camcorders often have very long zooms, with some above an 18x zoom. 10x is the minimum zoom ratio that you’ll find on any modern camcorder. Electronic image stabilization (EIS) is a fairly common feature with camcorders in this class. Generally, only the most entry-level models omit EIS.


Going Out

Current analog camcorders don’t have video inputs, they simply shoot video and output to another device. All camcorders have at least a composite video output, but high-band analog camcorders include an S-Video output as well. Digital camcorders include FireWire jacks, allowing you to quickly and easily connect the camcorder to a computer with a FireWire card, so you can edit your footage. This is one of the biggest reasons that digital camcorders are so popular.

Audio, however, is the Achilles heel of analog camcorders, and has been for quite some time, unfortunately. The sound on analog camcorders is almost always monophonic, and most analog camcorders also lack microphone and headphone jacks, making it difficult to get good sound. This is another very compelling reason to consider a digital camcorder instead.

In Your Future?

Clearly, camcorders in general will continue to decrease in price as time goes on. As this happens, it is likely that analog camcorders will continue to be squeezed out of manufacturer’s product lines in favor of digital models, simply because there is no profit to be made on a camcorder that retails below $300. But if you need an inexpensive camcorder now, and the benefits of digital video don’t strike you as necessary for your needs, it’s hard to go wrong with any current analog camcorder on the market. The resolution of the video a Hi8 camcorder shoots exceeds your standard definition television anyhow. At the same time, it’s worth your while to carefully consider an inexpensive digital camcorder, as a way to future-proof your investment. And with the lowest-priced brand-new Mini DV camcorders coming in at lower levels than we’ve ever seen before, this may be our last analog buyer’s guide.

Charles Fulton is an Associate Editor for Videomaker.

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