Guide to Buying Camcorders

Camcorder buying is no simple task. The best way to go about it is to decide what you need the camcorder to do for you.

This year we have broken down the categories by size, so how much does size matter? Read on to find out. Don’t forget to take a look at our comprehensive grids, which will help you narrow down your choices.

The Hummer

Like the oversized vehicle, camcorders in this category are the big, rugged, professional models. They are large and, most of all, rather heavy. You can expect to pay for all this heft. At this level, price is not the final determination. This category is for videographers who need great picture quality: 3CCD chips only. The Hummer is big, but it has a large fuel tank. In camcorder terms, that equates to a large lens barrel. The Hummer is the ultimate off-road vehicle. These sturdy and heavy-duty camcorders are no different. They can withstand a lot of punishment. This is obviously too much camera for the typical outdoor birthday party. It is, however, the choice of professionals who need a camera they can take anywhere. You should expect to see separate audio channels, and control for each isn’t too much to ask. Features, durability and great quality are here at the top-of-the-market segment. These camcorders prove that being big can be a good thing. Eventually, many of the cutting-edge features in these top-of-the-line models will find their way down to our next category in a few years.

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Mid-sized

This is the camcorder for the semi-pro. This can fit almost any category. Think of this level as the Accord/Camry class of camcorders. Mid-sized camcorders fit into your budget and do a great job. These camcorders will not have the latest and greatest technology, but you don’t need that. Dependability and ease of use are what you need, with an affordable price to boot. The prices at this level vary widely, from prices that seem extreme to prices that will make it easy to buy a new camcorder. You can go with the basic no-power-windows-and-a simple-radio mid-sized all the way up to the premium wheels and surround sound stereo. Simply said, features will help determine the price. When it comes to the world of camcorders, the more features your camcorder comes with, the bigger the price tag. Lens specs are key at this level. Make sure you are not overpaying for too much lens zoom capability.

Depending on the camcorder, you can get external jacks for microphones. The better the sound, the better your finished product will be. The bigger the chip in your camcorder, the more money you will spend. You need to keep in mind what you are shooting. You may not need a 3CCD camera, or maybe you do but you don’t need a huge, bulky shoulder cruncher. As with the mid-sized car segment, there are many to choose from. All this choice can make it difficult to find just the right camcorder at the right price. Use our grids to help you decide what kind of camcorder you need.

Compact

This level is all about small form factor. You want a camera that can be ultra-portable. These camcorders will not be as rugged as the mid-sized or Hummer-sized cameras, but they deliver good performance. This is the camera for the guy or gal who wants to use it occasionally for family events or other occasions. You aren’t looking to overpay for a camcorder that you use every now and again. Price is what really separates these camcorders from the mid-sized ones.

Exactly what prices are we talking about? The norm is up to $500, and usually a lot less. Ultra-light, ultra-portable and affordable are the catchwords when describing these camcorders. You are giving up a lot of the prosumer bells and whistles of other more expensive camcorders. You will find some manual adjustments, but not as many as on the other camcorders. You need a camera that you can point and shoot, and you have a viewable picture when you’re done. You would be wrong to assume that these camcorders don’t do a good job. Like the compact cars of today that offer a good driving experience, the camcorders in this level may surprise you with their good picture quality. So you won’t have the choice of adding a separate microphone… the one on the body of the camcorder will have to do.


Sporty

Sporty camcorders are like sporty cars: they aren’t meant to be an all-purpose instrument, but rather they are designed to excel in one specific area.

One of the most popular areas covered in this category is underwater filming. When you need to have your camera submerged, you are looking for protection, and, of course, you still want the camera to function properly. Underwater housings for cameras are now easier to find. There are a lot of companies that make them, and a quick search with your favorite search engine will yield a lot of results. Price is a big factor here, and with that come the different features. You want to look for a good sturdy grip that has camera-function buttons big enough to operate underwater. Another good feature is a housing with handles you can remove for storage. Another nice feature to look for is a visible o-ring seal. You want to be able to see easily that the housing has attached to the camera properly; with visible seals, you can easily make sure the camera will be watertight. Some housing will offer color correction filters for use in either blue or green waters.

One other important issue in choosing a camcorder is taking a closer look at the manual controls. Smaller camcorders tend to bury controls in menus or group many controls onto a few buttons. Generally, having separate controls that have their own mechanics will give a shooter more fine control over the camcorder. On the flip side, a camcorder that has simplified the manual controls to a menu system can be less distracting for the casual shooter. If you are a control freak, look for camcorders with independent, mechanical controls for focus, zoom, iris, shutter speed, gain, white balance and audio gain. Each camcorder has a different system for the manual controls, so if you have an opportunity to try out a camcorder before purchasing it, make sure the controls give you the freedom you need for your style of shooting. (Unfortunately, many of the high-end or prosumer camcorders aren’t available at your local electronics store. )

If you’re looking to get wet, you could purchase a camera designed to be waterproof. This is a cheaper option than buying a dedicated housing for your camera. For a fraction of the cost of a dedicated camera housing, you can buy a small waterproof camera like the Samsung SC-X105L, which was built for harsher conditions and is perfect for non-conventional camera use. Sanyo’s Xacti E1 can be used to a depth of 5 feet. It is small and compact and delivers a nice picture, This certainly will be a viable option for use underwater, poolside or at the beach.

Whatever class of camcorder you are looking to purchase, size will matter. The bigger the camcorder, the harder it is to lug around from place to place. If you are filming a family vacation, you certainly won’t want a huge camera on your shoulder. Likewise, if you will be shooting a full-scale production, your camera of choice will not be a tiny one you can attach to a visor. Your needs should be the most important factor. Of course, after that, the price will certainly be the next big hurdle.

John Devcic is a freelance writer and videographer.

View Videomaker‘s Manufacturer’s list for camcorders

Side Bar: Formats

So what are the formats available for your consideration? The following is a breakdown.

  • AVCHD
    This is direct competition for the HDV recording format. AVCHD is a high-definition recording format introduced by Sony and Panasonic. AVCHD can be used to record on DVD discs, HDD, or even flash memory cards. AVCHD uses the MPEG-4 AVC compression format. The big advantage is that AVCHD can record the same video as MPEG-2, but it uses less space to do it.
  • DVD: Digital Versatile Disc or Digital Video Disc
    DVD is an optical media used for data storage. It gained its popularity originally as a replacement for videocassettes. DVDs look like compact discs but have far greater storage capacities. DVD has also replaced the videocassette in camcorders. DVD video is a standard for storage of video content using DVDs. DVD – Audio is a format for high-fidelity audio content contained on a DVD.
  • DVCAM
    Introduced by Sony, DVCAM is a variation of the DV format. Sony designed the standard for semi-professional and lower-end professional videographers. DVCAM uses the same tape and compression as DV and Mini DV, but it is almost double the speed. A special DVCAM VCR is needed for playback.
  • DVD-R
    If you have ever burned a DVD on your computer, you are already familiar with the concept. The DVDs are burned and can be played back in a computer or certain DVD players. The picture quality is excellent, and the ease of use cannot be beat. When they are cared for, DVDs can be stored for years with no problems.
  • Flash Memory
    The concept behind flash drives and the new flash memory-based iPods. This not a typical internal hard drive. You will need to unload your recordings to another format for long-term storage. The camcorder may have a built-in flash drive, or it will allow you to place flash cards to store your video.
  • HD
    This is the new standard for television, also known as HDTV. High-definition television was developed in 1969. HDTV is a set of three standards for resolution. They are 1080i (1,080 actively interlaced lines), 1080p (progressively scanned) and 720p (progressively scanned). All of these standards use the same aspect ratio of 16:9.
  • HDD
    Camcorder manufacturers are placing these hard disk drives in their camcorders to record videos. HDD camcorders are a nice alternative to DVD or flash card-based camcorders. You do not need to worry about having blank media at hand. You are limited to the size of your hard drive. To continue recording when your hard drive is full, you must delete old recordings off the hard drive or transfer them to other media.
  • HDV
    Short for High-Definition Video. Records compressed HDTV video on Mini DV cassette. Will record in either 780p or 1080i and provides crystal-clear video. Prices are coming down, and that will make their popularity grow.
  • Mini DV
    This is the most widely-displayed format out there. This is a cassette-based format. The consumer-grade tape can record from 60 to 90 minutes of video. This is the de facto standard out there.
  • DVCPRO P2
    P2 is a Panasonic standard developed for professional video. It is a tapeless recording of DVCPRO, DVCPRO50 and DVCPROHD streams, using a flash memory card. P2 cards have a memory capacity of 2GB, 4GB or 8GB. P2 cards are recorded in sequence; when one card is full, another blank card can be placed in the slot while another card is still being used for recording. Theoretically, P2 cards allow for an unlimited recording time, as long as you have an endless supply of cards. If a P2 card is partially full, the recording will continue until the card is full; the previous data will not be recorded over. Previous data must be manually deleted. P2 cards can be easily placed into a PCMCIA slot on a computer, so it makes their data easily accessible to a PC.

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