Back in 1983, Sony introduced the very first camcorder: the Betamovie. At the time, they may not have realized the full significance of what their new invention meant to legions of future videographers. That rather large, heavy, boxy and expensive unit was hands-down the most innovative device to come along for videography since the portable VCR and separate camera ruled the roost. It had a straight-through optical viewfinder, tube-based image pickup and record-only tape mechanism, but it was still State of the Art.
Now the Betamovie is old enough to drink and woefully obsolete, along with the consumer Beta format, unfortunately. Today’s camcorders, as descendents of this camcorder, are extremely capable, great performers, sleek, small, sexy and available for a fraction of the price.
OK, the history lesson’s over. The burning question is: what kind of camcorder do you need? Let’s have a quick look at the market to find the best tools for the particular job you’re doing.
Analog formats are in their last days. We’ve even heard that a certain very large retailer won’t be selling analog camcorders this holiday season. But there are a few situations where analog camcorders hang on. For example, if you have a library of Hi8 tapes that you need to transfer to another format, a Hi8 or Digital8 camcorder is the only way you’ll be able to view these tapes. VHS is a little different, as you can always pop your tapes directly into a VCR or with a cassette adapter if you’re dealing with VHS-C. One of the primary reasons analog is out is that it takes a bit more equipment to edit analog footage, whether you’re talking about a traditional deck-to-deck system or if you need to capture footage to a computer.
For all of these reasons, digital now dominates the video domain, primarily in the Mini DV tape format. The tapes are tiny, easy to acquire and hold up to an hour of footage (we don’t recommend LP modes). The quality of the footage is high and the data format is easy for computers to edit. Mini DV is the format of choice for most consumer videographers and many professionals.
There are other digital formats, however. DVD disc-based camcorders let you pop the media directly from your camera into your DVD player for immediate playback, which is a great advantage. The MPEG-2 video encoded on DVDs takes a lot of computing horsepower to edit and so it isn’t the best format for editing. We’re also seeing the high definition HDV format expand dramatically with Sony’s new camcorder.
Back to Basics
Let’s say you are a casual videographer looking for an inexpensive, reliable camcorder to document the occasional sports event, school play or birthday party. Practically any analog camcorder or basic digital camcorder will do nicely, but you should ask yourself whether it has the features you may need some time down the road as you grow into this hobby. We strongly recommend that, at the bare minimum, the camcorder you choose include microphone and headphone jacks, a manual focus control and image stabilization. Only the most entry-level of today’s camcorders don’t have these features, but if you just want a point-and-shoot, this is fine.
If you intend to use a tripod (and you should), you should seriously consider a camcorder that does not load media from the bottom. Bottom-loading mechanisms interfere with the tripod screw at the bottom of the camcorder. This means that whenever you want to change tapes, you’ll have to spend a minute or more removing the camcorder from the tripod, then removing the tripod mount from the camcorder before you can access the tape or disc. In that time, you could miss a great shot.
If you’ve had a basic camcorder for a couple of years and are looking for something a bit more capable, we suggest a model with more manual controls. Some helpful controls include an exposure control and a manual shutter speed control. For exposure, we’d prefer an explicit iris control and a separate electronic gain control, but not all camcorders divide these two settings. A shoe for attaching lights or microphones is also helpful and versatile. We’re talking about roughly $800-$1,200 here, but there are less expensive models that will fit the bill.
The Sky’s the Limit
If you’re a pro, you can get a lot of camcorder in a small package, all for under $5,000. Features like 3-CCDs, zebra stripe exposure indicators, manual audio level controls, XLR microphone inputs, optical image stabilization and color bar generators are easy to find in this year’s crop of camcorders. A number of camcorders also have specialized features, such as 24P modes or high-definition resolutions.
The buyer’s guides that appear with this feature will condense the feature sets on the camcorders currently out there into one list. You can use this as the starting point of your research and we are sure you’ll find the camcorder that you need.
Charles Fulton is Videomaker‘s Associate Editor.