Small is in: think of netbook computers, the Mini Cooper and the iPod shuffle. With the ability to stuff high-tech components into smaller and smaller form factors, engineers have managed to coax high definition video images from pocket cameras smaller than most cell phones. They look like and often feel like cell phones, too. In fact, with the introduction of this new product niche, the video industry is experiencing something of a mini-revolution. Nowadays, a growing number of companies are producing a larger number of these cameras in an ever-increasing variety of capabilities, price points and options. But, which one is best for you and how will you know what to look for when it comes time to shop for the best camera out there?
It’s helpful to remember that these cameras weren’t designed nor have the same capabilities as full-sized cameras (if you can call a two-pound camera the size of a soda can “full-sized”). They don’t have huge batteries or optical zooms; they don’t have a zillion buttons with endless menus to wade through for uber-customization, or a plethora of manual controls. Oh no, my friends. What they do the best is simply being simple. All boast a minimum of buttons (two or three at most) and almost nothing in the way of optics other than a digital zoom of minor power.
What’s the benefit to all this simplicity? Easy to use functionality and low, low cost. Pocket cameras often require no more than a one or two button push in order to start using the camera. Often, no more than three or four buttons are available to the user anyway. Usually, the buttons consist of power, record and zoom in/out- usually represented by the + or – symbols. That’s it. Screens are normally in the 2-inch range and provide just enough of an image to keep the subject in view. Also, the screen displays critical information like battery level and the amount of video recording time remaining.
And it’s precisely because of this limited menu of options that the manufacturers have managed to keep prices so low on their offerings to the consumer. Prices can start well under $100, and normally will go no higher than the $150 range (roughly the price point where entry-level full-sized cameras start to appear). Variables that may affect the price include materials used in construction, included software, no-name or well-known brands and some limited options that are starting to find their way into the upper strata of the price range like external mic inputs.
One of the strongest attractions of this camera is its small size and convenience. No larger than a smartphone like the iPhone or the Palm Pre, battery requirements and the need to not make it too small keep them all pretty much the same size. Kept in a pocket or purse, it can sit there for days on end until a gotta-get-it now moment happens right in front of your eyes when normally a camera would not be handy. Whip the camera out of the pocket and commence shooting. That’s really the best use of this type of device- a quick-draw video camera that’s easy to use and returns high quality results consistently.
How high quality? How does high-definition video sound to you? As incredible as it seems, the higher price spectrum of the cameras can return true HD video. Normally 720p, the images are sharp and clear. The only hindrance is the use of lower-quality optics and a minimal zoom. Built to a price, these digital zooms normally don’t exceed 2x magnification (normal-sized cameras have optical zooms of 30x or more) and because they use digital zooming by artificially increasing the size of the image instead of optically enlarging it, the sharpness of the image can suffer as well. The best advice here is to walk closer to the subject, if possible. Audio recording is usually sufficient to the task and not much more. A microphone is normally mounted next to the lens and picks up all manner of noises occurring in front of the camera. Expect enough to get the job done, just not Dolby 5.1 sound.
Each camera comes with specialized software designed to make it easy and straightforward to ingest and process the video images for editing with your favorite software. Sometimes the software comes stored on a traditional CD, other times it’s kept within the camera itself and downloading it is as simple as plugging the camera into the computer using the unit’s built-in USB connector (the USB connection also provides the power for charging the camera’s battery). Just about all of them also come with at least basic editing software that will allow you to perform simple edits and to clean up each clip for a more organized product. Any more sophisticated editing requirements are best left to higher-end software purchased separately.
Most units provide around 60 minutes of on board video storage via internal flash memory, and few offer the option of memory expansion with additional SD cards (whatever it takes to keep costs down!). This means that you’ll have to occasionally download the contents of the memory to a hard drive or other storage device in order to have sufficient memory available for a quality shooting session. This also means you’ll have to be aware of the camera’s constantly changing memory capacity and have a means of storing those precious images once the camera indicates the memory is full.
To find your best fit, camera-wise, go to brick and mortar stores in your area including department stores, electronic stores and camera outlets, and hold as many as you can in your hand. How does it feel to you? Are the images on the screen bright and crisp? Do the buttons seem well placed for your fingers? Does it seem well built and worth your hard-earned money?
Finally, consider your needs for this type of camera. It’s not as versatile as a “normal” video camera, but again, it is far more convenient to keep, carry and use. This is not a camera type really recommended as the user’s primary camera, but rather as a backup or 2nd view or specialty-use camera (i.e., mounted on a motorcycle handlebar or a helmet). It truly excels as the camera carried everywhere and all but forgotten except when suddenly needed to record family memories or the odd news event.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: small doesn’t mean useless, and inexpensive doesn’t mean poor quality. Consider carefully your specific needs, try a few on for size and enjoy the freedom small cameras can provide. Big isn’t always better and sometimes, good things really do come in small packages.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker‘s Pocket Camcorders Manufacturer’s list.
Randy Hansen is an award winning photographer and editor and is photo chief of a TV News station.