Camcorders for the Rest of Us

Which is better: that fancy $5,000 digital camcorder with the professional lens, microphone inputs and every available feature and function or the basic $300 8mm model on the shelf at your local StuffMart? The answer is so obvious that actually verbalizing it seems ridiculous. The answer, of course, is it depends!

You wouldn’t put on a tux to mow your grass or do your gardening in a glitzy gown. That would be silly. Sometimes jeans and a sweatshirt are exactly what you need. The key is determining just that: what do you need? The reality is that you may not have dreams of directing a drama, producing a program or making a movie. Maybe your goal is to simply shoot footage of your friends and family. If you need a T-shirt, not a tux, keep reading. Analog camcorders are the jeans and sneakers of the camcorder community. They are familiar, casual and comfortable enough to use every day. If you spill something on them it’s no big deal and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg either.

Who Are They Good For?

Make no mistake, if you want to make video for money, these models are not for you – they’re meant for the rest of us. They’re the best bet for the beginner and the budget-minded. Analog camcorders are made for moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas. They’re tools for teachers. They’re toys for teenagers. Better yet, they’re affordable (some less than $250), so they are worry-free. And they’re easy to use, so just about anyone can operate them. If you are new to video or can’t justify spending a thousand dollars or more on a camcorder, there’s good news: you don’t have to. One of the able analog models in the accompanying buyer’s guide grid may be just the hot ticket.

Features to Find

While all analog models are relatively affordable and easy to operate, there are some differences to identify. Again, the key is deciding which ones you need and which ones you can live without. The following are some features to consider as you shop for an analog camcorder:

  • VCR Compatibility Analog camcorders fall into two broad categories, those in the 8mm family (8mm and Hi8) and those in the VHS family (VHS, VHS-C and S-VHS). If you want to be able to play pop the tape out of your camcorder and into your VCR, you should consider the low-band VHS formats: full-sized VHS or compact VHS (VHS-C). VHS-C tapes are small, but, with the help of an adapter, will play in the standard VCR that’s in your living room. S-VHS tapes will physically fit into your VHS VCR, but require an S-VHS or pseudo-S-VHS VCR to play properly.

    8mm and Hi8 tapes do not fit into your VCR for playback. To view the footage on your TV, you’ll need to cable the camcorder into your VCR (or television). While this is not hard to do, anyone who does not want to deal with cables and connections might select a VHS-family model.

  • Size If you will carry your camcorder far or often, you might be motivated to shop based on size. While VHS-C models were compact when the format was introduced, they’re bulky by today’s standards. 8mm and Hi8 models tend to be significantly smaller than their VHS counterparts.
  • Image Quality 8mm, VHS and VHS-C models are low-band analog formats. Hi8 and S-VHS are high-band analog formats that offer greater resolution and produce better-looking images with clearer color reproduction and sharper images. If image quality is mission critical, you should consider a digital (DV) camcorder, but if it is merely important, shop the Hi8 and S-VHS models.
  • Optical Zoom Range When considering the specifications, look at the optical zoom range. Most camcorders will advertise two zoom lengths, optical and digital. The important number is the optical zoom, as it allows you to magnify the things you shoot without compromising quality. Digital zoom degrades your image, making it virtually unwatchable at much over 40x. So, don’t be distracted by the big flashy number if you see a camcorder advertising a 600x digital zoom. When it comes to zoom, optical is the answer.

    If you are looking for an affordable, worry-free camcorder that offers automatic operation, an analog model may be just what you need. Like they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. If your kicks are canvas Keds instead of leather loafers, an analog camcorder may be a comfortable fit.

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