It's Camcorder Season!

Whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other Winter Festivities, 'tis the season of celebration, beautiful images, family and fun.

However you celebrate it, if visions of new camcorders dance through your head this Holiday Season, you're in luck… because now's the time to think about finally purchasing your first camcorder, upgrading your old one, or taking the plunge to buy that cool, sweet, dream-machine you've always fancied. For months, our editors at Videomaker have been compiling, editing and comparing all the data you need for that new purchase and we've laid it out for you in this Camcorder Buyer's Guide.

While you peruse the Guide, let's look at a few features and terms you need to know, to zero in on which camcorder is the perfect fit for you.

Sects, Formats and Videotape

Camcorders come in many "flavors", and just wondering what format you want can be confusing for the first time buyer.

For those of you still yearning for the comeback of parachute pants and big shoulder pads of the 1980s, it's time to move on. The '80s are long past and the VHS camcorder is all but dead. Currently, no manufacturer is making new VHS-family camcorders, and only Sony is offering new Hi8 camcorders. However, media companies like TDK and Memorex report that sales of VHS and Hi8 tapes are still strong, so there is still tape available and there are still uses out there for your old camcorder. (See Don't Mothball that Old Camcorder sidebar.) Most new camcorder purchases tend to be Mini DV, although HDV, DVD and other formats are gaining popularity as prices drop.

You can capture both analog (e.g. from VHS or 8mm) and digital (e.g. from Mini DV or Digital8) footage in your video project, but you'll need to know how to digitize that footage. Whilst DV uses FireWire, you'll need a capture card device for your computer if you want to capture analog footage. (See Video Capture Card Roundup in Videomaker's September issue.) You can also get a small hard drive called a DTE (direct to edit) that attaches to your camera via FireWire saving your digital files as you shoot, so you can save time when you begin editing.

Other camcorders record to DVD, or memory cards. Recording footage shot from DVD camcorders and memory cards require a completely different set of concerns, so you should also take this into consideration when you think about that new camcorder purchase. More on that in a moment.

If It ain't Tape… What is It?

Those familiar with camcorders of the past 20 years recognize that they used several different sizes or types of videotape formats, but they were all shooting on tape. Until recently. Now we have camcorders that shoot on DVD and flash memory. Comparing them to tape-based camcorders is like comparing apples to chicken wings–they're not even in the same food group. Therefore, we've separated those formats into their own grid. Capturing footage on either DVD or SD cards has both its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage common to both is trying to edit the footage later. The biggest advantage is being able to pop that card or disc into a player and watch your video instantly, without needing to rewind, reload or digitize the tape.

Why would you pick a camcorder that isn't tape-based? For some folks, the smaller the camera the better, and some SD camcorders are pretty darn small. The Fisher FVD-C1 ($800), for instance, is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and shoots about 20 minutes of high-quality, full frame, full motion MPEG-4 video onto a 512MB SD card (2GB cards available). The downside of cameras like this is the price, and many editing software applications have trouble with MPEG-4. But if you want unedited quick point-and-shoot fun, these cameras are a blast.

The DVD camcorders have their own issues to look at, and price is one of them. They record MPEG-2 on 8cm mini DVDs, and many of those discs aren't rewritable, so you can't reuse them like you can with videotape. These mini DVDs hold about 60 minutes of video at a low bitrate; but the higher the bitrate, the less video you can capture. On the plus side, current DVD camcorders have evolved from their early counterparts, which took a long time to respond to commands and were cumbersome to operate. And you can't beat the ease of recording and playing back instantly on newer DVD players. On some of these cameras, like the Panasonic VDR-M50PP, you can edit your video in the camcorder.

Just the Facts, Please: Camcorders from $350 to $500

Whatever format they shoot on, camcorders nowadays come in a wide variety of prices, sizes, and available features. In the past, the lowest priced camcorder had no whistles and bells at all, and was nearly completely automatic, with the user needing to merely turn it on, press Record, and wave the camera around the room. Not so nowadays. Camcorder manufacturers now know that we're not all as dumb as we might seem, and after watching ten years of America's Funniest Videos, many of us know how to focus and white balance. For instance, Samsung's SC-D353, and Panasonic's PV-GS19, both retailing for $350, have programmable exposure modes, have auto and manual exposure as well and both have EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization), unheard of in a low-end camcorder of just a few years ago.

One issue with camcorders in this range is that almost all of the lower end camcorders don’t give the user the option of manual control of the audio levels. What this means is you have to rely on the AGC, or Automatic Gain Control. The camcorder, not you, controls your sound levels. Is this good or bad? Here we go with that big "It Depends." If you want to just point and not have to think about it, then it's a good thing. If you want to get the soft whispers of your child's first words, you might find yourself frustrated with an auto device that wants to pull the sound of the nearby air-conditioner or refrigerator up to compensate for the assumed silence.

Although even the lowest priced camcorder comes with more manual controls, the camcorder is also getting smaller and smaller and with that comes new levels of appreciation and frustration. If you're looking at your first camcorder purchase, you might not need all the advanced functions that come with some of the more expensive and higher-end camcorders, but you'll still need to watch out for a few functions and features that every camcorder should carry to be effective, efficient and fun.

For instance, many smaller Mini DV camcorders load the videotape or the battery from the bottom, and we can't stress enough how difficult this is to work with if you plan to use a tripod regularly. Having to stop and remove the camcorder from your tripod to replace the tape or battery can cost you that one-in-a-million image of Bigfoot disguised as Elvis teleporting off in an alien spaceship. Although small, both of the aforementioned camcorders load from the top. For contrast, Sony's small DCR-HC21 ($400) loads from the bottom, but has an accessory shoe for attaching lights and mics, which the other two don't. Confused about which is best for you? Well, wait until you look at the medium to higher-end camcorders!


For Business and Fun: $500 to $1,000

Do you consider yourself an enthusiastic hobbyist who sometimes mixes pleasure shooting with paid projects? You're among the lucky ones. Having a hobby like video production can be an expensive one, but being able to make a few dollars once in a while helps offset the costs. Not to mention always needing to justify to other people in your world why you just had to have that huge hard drive array, super-sonic mic, and fully packed light kit with enough power to
light the Heavens.

For you, the advanced features are more of a necessity, but you still want to keep your camcorder within a reasonable price, as it might substitute as the family cam all too often. Panasonic offers the lowest priced 3-chip camcorder, the PV-GS65 at $600, although there are only 420,000 pixels per CCD compared to its brother, the PV-GS150 with 740,000 pixels per CCD for $700. Why is that important, you ask? In a nutshell, more pixels=sharper image. The intermediate hobbyist who makes wedding and other videos on the side might not notice a difference, but you will see a difference if you plan to use your camera for anything broadcast-related, or on a large screen.

If you're shopping in this price range, though, there might be many other features that are more important to you. Optical zoom range, for instance, or external microphone input. Most, but not all medium range camcorders allow you to use an external mic. Are you shooting interviews? This might be a feature to watch for. What about iris (or aperture) control? Do you plan to shoot in locations where you won't be using a light, but will have changing natural light conditions? Being able to control the iris might be more important to you than the zoom range. Canon's Optura 50, for $899, has a single CCD, but it's larger at 1/3.4-inch than the standard 1/6-inch 1-chip camcorder, and has external mic capabilities, headphone jack, manual iris and a 10x optical zoom.

Playing with the Big Toys: $1,000 to $5,000 and More

If you're a serious videographer, and either make a living or are planning to produce serious movies or documentaries, you'll need to bring out the Big Guns. In last year's Camcorder Roundup, Videomaker told you about several high-end standard-def camcorders released that year. What a difference a year makes. This time around, very few standard-def high-end camcorders crossed our threshold, and we surmise that this is probably because the manufacturers are reserving that price range for HDV camcorders. As we see more serious movies like Super Size Me and Dreamer shot on consumer or prosumer camcorders hit the Indie festivals; we'll be seeing more and more feature-rich camcorders priced under $10,000. Truly, the democracy of the movie making industry is now!

Features to watch for in this high-end group include color correction abilities, 24p, 720p or 1080i, and film-look imaging. The Sony DCR-VX2100, at $3,000, shoots quite well in very low light. The Canon XL2 and JVC's GY-DV5000U, both more than $5,000, have interchangeable lenses and XLR mic inputs. Again, which is better for you? Sorry, we're just the messenger: "It Depends," on your needs, wants and price.

HDV – Beyond DV: $1,000 to $6,500

Like the DVD and card cams, you can't compare HDV with regular DV camcorders. Currently, there are less than half a dozen HDV consumer or prosumer camcorders out there in our price range, but the list is growing. Although JVC was the first way back in 2003, Sony, Panasonic and Canon now offer HDV camcorders, and more releases are on the horizon.

Sony's newest HDV camcorder, the HDR-HC1, is the first some folks might consider to be a real consumer HDV camcorder at the unbelievably low price of $2,000. From there, you then have the Panasonic AG-HVX200 priced at $6,000, which at first glance looks to be in the same price range as the other HDV camcorders, but if you add P2 solid state cards necessary to record DVCPRO HD, you're crossing the $10,000 mark (estimated at about $500 per GB).

Knowing that, do you need one? Do you want one? The bigger question should be, what would you do with it if you have one? Yes, the technology is almost there, but are you prepared for all that goes with owning an HDV camcorder? Unlike DV camcorders, you can't fake your way along as you learn the features of these camcorders (at least, not in HD mode). They require a decent knowledge of advanced shooting and lighting techniques. They also require the most up-to-date editing software programs right now. The latest versions of many of the editing software available today can all handle HDV editing (some with upgrades or plug-ins).

So there you have it, what to look for in your skill, needs and price range. After you review our Buyer's Guide, and make your decision, all you'll have to worry about is how to find the time to shoot all of those holiday pageants, gift openings, family gatherings, and sparkling winter festivities and still enjoy the best part of the holidays… the food! Good Luck!


Jennifer O'Rourke is an Emmy™ award-winning videographer & video editor and Videomaker's Managing Editor.

The moment you open the fresh new package of your latest camcorder purchase, your old camcorder might just shudder a sigh of anticipated neglect among the mothballs. Don't despair, poor little machine! For your many loyal years of performance, you have a myriad of new uses in a new designation as Spare Camcorder.

  • Boom Cam When it’s old, you're not as protective of it, so you can do things with your second camera you might not attempt with your fresh new baby. Attach it to a monopod for a high angle shot above the crowd, or hang it outside the car for a driving point of view.
  • Tree Cam Hide it among the presents or set it in the Christmas Tree to get a truly unique POV shot of the kids as they rush to open their presents on Christmas morning.
  • Kid Cam My 2-year-old granddaughter loves to play with my very expensive camcorder. Every time I pull it out, we play a game of tug-of-war for ownership. So I bought a cheap, used Hi8, set it to record, and let her run around the house with it. A truly interesting POV possibility!
  • Bike Cam I once duct-taped an old film camera to the front of my son's bike to get some interesting POV shots of his first shaky, awkward, and extremely funny attempts to learn to ride.
  • Digitizer Cam Even if VHS is a dying breed, there's still millions of feet of footage all over the country sitting in shoe boxes and closets, waiting to be edited. If you have the need to edit someone's old family archives, an old Hi8 or VHS camcorder can be worth its weight in gold.

And if you're upgrading your old Mini DV, you will save some wear on your new camcorder by using the old one as your digitizer deck.

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