Price matters when buying a camcorder, but not as much as what you want to use it for!
In last year's Annual Camcorders Buyer's Guide, we divided camcorders by price. This approach still makes some sense, but it may not offer what you need to get your 'perfect' camcorder. The reason? The advent of flash-based 'brick' camcorders - often packaged like MP3 players with digital zoom lens added - and the growing popularity of HDTV at the high end means that your choices have become ever more complex. If you buy based on price alone, you could get the wrong camcorder for your needs.
So let's look at four basic classes of camcorders: Flip-Style (named for the Flip flash-based camcorder that spearheaded this product category), Standard Definition (SD), Basic High Definition (HD) and Premium High Definition.
Flip-Style: Simple But Not Serious
This is an entry-level camcorder, in all senses of the word. A Flip-style camcorder comes in a MP3 player-like package with a digital zoom lens (maybe), one on/off Record button, a basic audio microphone, and the ability to record to internal and/or external flash memory. The videos are usually downloaded using a built-in USB that plugs into your computer. From there, you can burn them to DVD or post them directly to YouTube. At around $200 or less, Flip-style camcorders are fine for fun shots, but not for serious videography.
Standard Definition: No Longer the Standard
When most people think of consumer camcorders, they think of SD camcorders. These units have flip-out LCD screens and/or eyepiece viewfinders, optical zoom lenses and better quality microphones, and as few or as many customizable features as you are willing to pay for. Recording can be done to internal/removable flash memory or internal hard drives. Depending on the quality you are willing to pay for, the final result can be very impressive. Prices for SD camcorders start under $300, and go up a few hundred dollars from there.
Before you buy an SD camcorder, however, ask yourself one question: Ar you going to buy a new SDTV in the near future? Or will your next TV and every TV after it be HD? Answer: HD. This is why it doesn't make sense to buy an SD camcorder when the world is moving to wider screen, higher resolution HD video - now matter how good the price.
Basic High Definition: Today's Definition of Standard
The basic HD camcorder is the entry-level product for anyone who cares enough about video to read Videomaker - even if you just want your 'home movies' to look better. By basic, we mean a camcorder that handles all basic functions automatically; such as white balance, focusing and audio.
Such models cost less than premium HD camcorders - from $500 up to about $1,000 - and often come in lightweight plastic cases that need to be handled with care. But for the money, you can usually count on getting an HD camcorder that shoots excellent images, offers optical zoom (a must, since digital zoom makes your video look grainy) and can be used to create prosumer-quality videos when used with a computer-based editing system. Depending on what you buy, basic HD camcorders can record to tape, optical disks and removable flash memory.
If you are relatively new to shooting video, you would be well-advised to start with a quality basic HD camcorder that does much of the thinking for you. Exhaust the capabilities of this product level, before you spend more to go to the top consumer level.
Premium High Definition: For the More Experienced Shooter
Premium HD camcorders cost the most of all, and are worth the money. These units allow you to have manual control of your settings, offer extra shooting features and use multiple CCD/CMOS image sensors (professional video cameras use three) to capture better-quality video. By offering this degree of versatility, premium HD camcorders give the shooter real control in selecting light levels and shooting styles.
Premium HD camcorders can be used by beginners, thanks to their automatic features. However, the versatility and performance these units offer comes with a suitable price tag; just as a BMW costs more than a Chevrolet. Expect to pay around $1,000 or more for one of this units.
What Should I Buy?
The trick to buying the right camcorder begins by deciding what you want to use it for. Do you want videos that offer high quality visuals, a variety of shots (wide angle, close up, zoom) and steady images? Then a basic HD camcorder is a good choice: It is difficult to hold a Flip-style camera rock steady.
On the other hand, do you value portability and ease of use above all else? If so, then a Flip-style camcorder might be right for you; especially if you want a camcorder that can be carried in your coat pocket or purse for immediate use and uploading.
Once you know what you want, shop around for the best mix of features and price. Remember that nobody ever regretted spending money on quality, but many have wished that hadn't sacrificed it to save a buck. Like a musical instrument, a camcorder is a creative tool that must be capable of meeting your requirements while also fitting your style and level of skills. This comes right down to how well the camera fits in your hand and how much you enjoy using it.
One last piece of advice: Brand names count when it comes to camcorders. Buy from a manufacturer you trust, after reading reviews and trying out many makes and models. After all, this camcorder is your chief creative tool: It has to be just right for you!
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Camcorder Buyer's Guide
James Careless is an experienced broadcast videographer and video editor.