Buying a Camcorder

Wouldn’t it be great to have a new camcorder? Of course it would. The good news is that regardless of your experience level or the depth of your pockets, there’s a camcorder out there that doubtless suits your requirements. In fact, the cameras made today easily outshine those from just three or four years ago, so if you’ve held off from buying until the price went down or the quality got better, now’s the perfect time to invest in a new camcorder.

A trip to your local electronics Mega-Mart can be a little intimidating for the first-time buyer. There are so many options, features and formats. Which items are important and which are just frills? How powerful should the zoom lens be? Is there a difference in quality between Digital8 and Mini DV? Should you trust the salesperson with the pocket protector or the one with long hair and a nose ring? Don’t panic. Choosing a camcorder is easy when you understand what you need and compare that to what you’re willing to pay. Whether you’re a casual shooter or a serious pro, this article will help you find the model that best suits your needs.

The Casual Shooter

First-time buyers often fall into the category of casual shooter. The casual shooter is looking for something to record family events, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations and special occasions. These shooters have little interest in making money with their purchase. They just want to point and shoot. There are dozens of models available that suit these requirements perfectly.

When you go shopping, you’ll be bombarded with dozens of buzzwords and jargon. Only a few are relevant. For instance, there are five different tape formats – 8mm, Hi8, Digital8, Mini DV and VHS-C. The first three formats use 8mm tape to record different types of video. From a functional standpoint, they amount to good, better & best. Buy the best one you can afford.

Mini DV (DV25) is the dominant format for consumer camcorders and for good reason. If you’re having trouble justifying the expense of Mini DV (starting around $600), check out the September 2003 issue of Videomaker for seven excellent reasons to consider Mini DV as your format of choice. That said, the analog formats produce better images today than in the past and VHS-C is still a viable alternative. Another advantage is that VHS-C tapes pop into an adapter for easy viewing on your VHS VCR. Unfortunately, if you want to make a copy for aunt Edna, you’ll still have to cable the camera to a VCR.

Most entry-level camcorders don’t have manual controls for audio, focus or white-balance, so consider any extra features a bonus. Still, point-and-shooters, by definition, don’t want to monkey with these sorts of things, so fire away.

The Serious Hobbyist

All that entry-level stuff sounds fine, but serious hobbyists want some spunk (and some manual controls) in their new camcorder. If that sounds like you, we’ll call you a serious hobbyist. As with our previous category, there are many camera models that fit the bill nicely. First, if you’re really serious, a digital camcorder is a must. Not just for the improved video and sound quality, but for some other important reasons. It’s likely you’ll want to edit your videos. If that’s the case, a FireWire interface is highly recommended. FireWire is intimately linked with the Mini DV format and can be found on all Mini DV camcorders. Whether you use a Mac or a Windows-based computer, FireWire transfers audio and video data out of – and back into – your camcorder. Another important reason to go digital – especially Mini DV – is compatibility. With Mini DV as your format of choice, you’ll produce videos that can be played on a variety of equipment, including some professional broadcast equipment.

Even though your skills have surpassed the typical vacation and birthday shoot, perhaps your available funds haven’t caught up just yet. No problem. It’s quite possible to find a camcorder to produce champagne images on your beer budget. Most entry-level camcorders use polycarbonate lenses, but a recent trend is for camcorder manufacturers to include premium optics as the price goes up. An example is Sony’s use of Carl Zeiss lenses in almost all models. The improved quality of glass translates to more uniform images, better exposure and color and a flatter field of view around the edges of your video.

While we’re on the subject of lenses, most cameras have a large emblem or sticker that proudly displays the words like "700x Zoom" or some such nonsense. This number refers to the digital zoom magnification and is as meaningless as any buzzword you’ll ever read. The only zoom rating you need to know is the optical zoom range. This range refers to the actual zoom length of the lenses in the camera and is important in determining how far away you can be from a subject and still fill the screen. In this case, a larger ratio is better, but the largest you’ll likely encounter is 20x (20:1).

As a serious hobbyist, you also need an external microphone jack and a headphone jack. This allows you to use better, more directional microphones in your videos, and monitor the sound with headphones. Nothing screams amateur louder than audio from an on-camera microphone.


The Entry-Level Professional

Maybe you’re a creative type. You’ve had simple camcorders in the past, but you’ve outgrown their capabilities. As an entry-level professional, you’ll certainly edit and sell a few of your videos and perhaps even enter a project or two in a contest.

This is a very interesting category because the lines start to blur between semi-pro and professional equipment.

The single most important element of this unique range is the use of 3-chip image sensors. Most camcorders use one CCD to collect and digitize the image that comes through the lens. A 3-chip camera uses separate CCDs, one each for the red, green and blue portions of the image. Each chip is optimized for its special range of color and collects, digitizes and processes only that part of the image. This dramatically improves the sharpness, color and realism of the recorded image. Due to the special optical elements (i.e. prisms) required to split the image, along with additional circuitry, 3-chip cameras are necessarily more expensive than their single-chip cousins. For instance, an entry-level 3-chip camera could easily cost $1,000 more than a similar single-chip version. The additional expense is well worth the investment if you intend to create professional quality videos.

Another key feature you might look for is XLR audio inputs. The reason for this is simple: professional microphones use XLR audio connections.

In addition to the 3-chip upgrade and XLR inputs, look for manual control of all the creative aspects of video – focus, white balance, exposure, shutter speed and audio levels. While not every camera will contain all options, consider the type of videos you shoot and make sure the camcorder you buy has the most important features for your productions.

The Serious Professional

While entry-level pros might make some money shooting video, there are some lucky folks who make their living shooting high-end video. This may include wedding videography, corporate training, commercials, infomercials or even independent filmmaking.

Serious work requires a serious camera. Although prices can exceed $6,000, there are a handful of options under that mark that produce high-end broadcast quality. In addition to all the features required by the entry-level professional, a serious camera includes several other options. At this level, look for interchangeable lenses so you can leverage your current collection of glass.

Manual control of all lens, white-balance and exposure settings is mandatory – some cameras even offer storage of all your favorite settings for quick recall. Another requirement: balanced audio connections (XLR) along with phantom power for condenser microphones and advanced metering of audio levels complimented with a beefy headphone amplifier.

None of these requirements come cheap, but the resulting quality of audio and video are unmatched short of HDTV. Remember, the last two Star Wars movies were shot exclusively on video, not film and not many folks have complained about image quality.

Wrapping Up

If you’re upgrading or are considering a future upgrade, don’t forget the accessories. Blowing your budget on the most expensive camcorder you can buy is a mistake. Check out the next step up from the manufacturer of your current camera. You may be able to reuse batteries, chargers, filters and other accessories, reducing the effective cost of upgrading. Especially for the shooter moving from casual occasional shooting into videography as a hobby, think about getting a tripod and lights before you search for the magic camera that will win Sundance. We’re not trying to talk you out of buying new gear (and we doubt we could), but new technology is not always the answer to old problems.

We’ve covered quite a range of prices, quality and features in just a short time. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of where you fit on the scale and can make an informed decision when it’s time to buy your next camcorder.

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