Choosing a Camcorder: from Supersaver to First Class

Selecting a camcorder’s like buying a plane ticket: you can fly Supersaver, Economy, Business or First Class. Since every class will get you there, the different ticket prices just buy you different levels of comfort and quality of service. The same goes for camcorders. Whether you shell out $200 or $5,000 you can record video and audio. The differences are all in the details. So let’s survey the four camcorder levels:

  • Supersaver: $200-$500
  • Economy: $600-$1,200
  • Business: $1,200-$2,000
  • First Class: $2,000-$5,000.

    At the low end, your cash will rent enough seating space for a five-year-old; at the top, you’re treated like an oil Sheik; but every class reaches the same destination at the same time.

    Supersaver: $200-$500

    Low-end camcorders are now dirt-cheap because they record traditional analog-format video, rather than digital (DV). As I write this, I’m looking at a newspaper ad for BigBoxCity that offers a full-featured, name-brand model for $188.

    Before you dismiss analog machines (which include 8mm, VHS-C, S-VHS and Hi8), consider this: the first generation quality of a decent Hi8 camcorder tape is so good that it’s hard to distinguish from digital. The problems begin only if you subject your original footage to traditional analog editing: each tape generation sees a visible decay in quality. Moreover, the original tape itself will gradually deteriorate until your precious wedding or baby footage is nearly unwatchable.

    But are these drawbacks always deal-breakers? Not if you immediately convert the original analog signal to digital for editing. If you import your camera footage directly to a computer or black-box editor, the resulting copy will be almost as good as the original – and it’ll stay that way throughout the editing process. In short, you can edit with digital video even if you don’t start out with it.

    What do you get for your relative pittance? Essentially the same bells and whistles delivered by an entry level (Economy) digital camcorder, including decent optics, automatic controls with manual override, digital zoom, and programs for problem lighting situations.

    Who needs ultra-cheap camcorders? Analog models may be good choices for three kinds of users: newbies, teachers and kids. If you don’t yet know how much time and effort you want to invest in digital post production, you can build a good quality, second generation program using just the camera, a VCR and a TV set. That way, you can decide whether you really like making video without spending big bucks to find out.

    As for you teachers, you know that classroom environments suffer from two major problems: laughable hardware budgets and killer repair rates for busted equipment. By going analog, you can get five camcorders for the price of a single digital model. And when a unit bites the dust after a duty cycle of five periods per day, five days per week, you can replace it for less than repair costs.

    Videography is a great hobby for your own children or grandchildren. If a ten-year-old is hot to make movies, an analog camcorder can put her in business for the price of an video game console (while providing an activity that’s equally addictive but far more creative). Finally, you might consider a "disposable" camera for extreme shooting where you wouldn’t dare use your primary cam. You don’t need to be reckless, but wouldn’t it be fun to duct tape a camera low on the front bumper of your car?

    To sum up, supersaver analog camcorders are not only surviving; they’re the purchase of choice in many situations.

    Economy: $600-$1,200

    Economy class camcorders are digital (Mini DV) models for casual shooters. Typically, they offer all the features included on models intended for amateurs. Notable functions include:

  • Automatic settings for exposure, focus, white balance and shutter speed, with manual overrides that let you fine tune some settings if you care to.
  • Zoom lenses that are fast (usable in poor lighting), powerful (12:1 or greater), and high quality (to utilize the higher resolution of digital recording).
  • Electronic enhancements like gain up (which amplifies the video signal in ultra-low light levels) and digital zoom (which further magnifies the image by blowing up the center portion to fill the whole screen).

    Why not stick with cheaper analog models? First, signals that begin in digital mode deliver the highest quality available in small format equipment. An analog signal loses some quality when converted to digital. Most editing software is set up to handle the incoming Mini DV signal without first changing it to a different digital protocol.

    Moreover, your original camera tapes are much closer to archival quality than their analog forbears. That means you can return to your raw footage to re-edit a program or use the original materials for other purposes.

    Also, if size is an issue, the teeniest DV models tend to be more petite than comparable Hi8 units. This can be a big plus if you use your camera mainly for backpacking or similar carry-lite travel.

    Finally, many digital camcorders include still modes that enable you to take snapshots as well as movies. Their typical 640×480 pixel resolution isn’t much use except for small prints and e-mails to friends; but if that’s all you need, why carry two pieces of hardware?

    Business: $1,200-$2,000

    Camcorders in this range offer very few features unavailable in economy class, so why spend the extra clams to get them? Two basic reasons.

    First, everything about these models is just a bit higher quality. The optics are sharper, the electronics are more sophisticated. The tape transport and recording mechanisms are more robust.

    Secondly, the features supplied are more elaborate. Shutter speeds offer a wider range. Higher-end camcorders offer more and more flexible exposure/shutter programs. Zoom ranges are longer (and digital zoom magnifications are greater). Incidentally, digital zoom (which fills the frame with progressively smaller portions of the center of the optical image) may be nearly worthless in a still camera, where a digital darkroom does the job better, but video image cropping is more time-consuming and sometimes less satisfactory. Don’t get all excited by promises of 100x digital zoom unless you like to look at disconnected dots. Another emerging feature to watch for in this price range is mega-pixel CCDs for excellent still images that far exceed the quality of a still grabbed from the video.

    But don’t expect to get a markedly better image than you could obtain from an economy class digital camcorder. An engineer could measure the quality difference on a scope, but you probably won’t be able to see it.

    First Class: $2,000-$5,000.

    However, you will see the quality jump when you move up to first class, because this is where you get three CCDs for your money instead of just one. Three chips can record an image with (theoretically) three-times as much detail.

    Just as important, first class cameras assume that many users will use them professionally; so they include features the pros take for granted. Some have interchangeable lenses. All have superior audio circuitry, with provision for external microphones. Mike connectors may be professional XLR plugs, rather than ditsy little mini plugs. Some have audio mixers built in, for level control and sometimes multiple mike balancing.

    Another feature that’s often overlooked is exposure control by zebra stripes. This is a pattern of diagonal black stripes (zebra, get it?) that appear in the viewfinder over image areas that are 100% exposed. Since good video practice means exposing for the highlights, these warnings are invaluable. Some can even be set to show when flesh tones are too bright for good exposure.

    While economy and business class camcorders fight to get ever smaller, first class models are usually, paradoxically, larger. In professional applications, a larger unit can be easier to hold, balance, keep steady and support (often on a shoulder).

    Finally, as you would expect, the optical, electrical, and mechanical components of high-end models are the very best that manufacturers can deliver for this market.

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