"Camcorders?" the salesperson replies to your question, "right over here."

And so they are: fat ones and skinny ones, big ones and little ones, black ones and white ones and gray ones–two dozen-plus of the cute little rascals, all wagging their tails and begging you to take them home.

If you’re buying your second or third camcorder, you know that choosing the right one will take some time and thought. But if you’re buying your first one, you may well note the bewildering number of choices required and decide to take up lawn bowling instead.

Panic not. Like many decisions, camcorder selection is really just common sense. To prove it, we’ll go through the process step-by-step. If you’re new to the game we’ll make camcorder buying a lot less mysterious, and if you’re an old hand we’ll remind you of some factors you might want to take into account. And regardless of your level of expertise, the accompanying buyers guide will help with a run down of prices, features and specifications for all currently available consumer models.

So let’s get started by reviewing the first and most important choices you have to make: tape format and recording system.

The Great Divide

The most fundamental decision of all is which kind of tape: full-size VHS, small-size VHS-C, 8mm or DVC. Each format has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Full-size VHS tapes are the least expensive and most widely available, and they’ll play in any standard VCR. Camcorders playing full-size VHS tapes are sometimes less expensive feature-for-feature than their more miniaturized cousins, and their controls are often easier to access because they’re distributed over a larger camera surface. Finally, these larger, somewhat heavier camcorders are easier to hold steady.

    On the down side, full-size VHS camcorders are indeed larger and heavier, so if size and weight are prime considerations for you, go for one of the smaller formats.

  • Compact VHS (VHS-C) tapes are petite enough to permit very small, light camcorders. At the same time, you can play them on any standard VCR by popping them into the adapter cassette that’s always supplied with the camcorder. If you’re concerned that this sounds Mickey-mouse, don’t worry. These adapters are reliable and extremely simple to use. So if you demand a compact camcorder without sacrificing tape compatibility, then the VHS-C format’s for you.

    On the other hand, the little tapes are harder to find and more expensive than standard VHS, and they have shorter record/playback times than either VHS or 8mm tapes. So if you want to travel as lightly as possible, the 8mm format might be better for you.

  • 8mm tapes are even smaller than VHS-C, and, at present, the more widely available of the two small formats. Like big VHS tapes, they can record two hours of material.

    In the drawback department, you can’t play 8mm tapes in standard VCRs (no adapter cassette is possible because the actual tape size and recording methods are different from VHS), and, like VHS-C tapes, they are more expensive.

  • DVC (digital videocassette) tapes are the smallest yet available, and they represent the pinnacle of consumer camcorder technology. Though DVC camcorders are currently a bit expensive (starting in the $2500 range and cruising rapidly up to about four grand), theyre undoubtedly the best value on a dollars-for-performance basis.

    The biggest advantage of DVC is the little "D" in front of the acronym: its a digital format, which means it offers an amazing package of features and benefits. (For more on these, see "The DVC Format: Just Another Acronym?" in our November 1995 issue.) Perhaps the biggest drawback is the newness of the technology; it hit the U.S. market only a couple of months ago, so the price is steep and there isnt much hardware available yet.

The bottom line: select full-size VHS for economy, versatility and compatibility. For small size and weight with VHS compatibility, choose VHS-C. For the widest range of small-size camcorder models, commit to 8mm. And for the ultimate in consumer video performance, go for DVC.

If you chose one of the analog tape formats, you’re ready to decide which recording system to select: the more economical regular or the better quality high-band.

Will You Take the High Road?

So-called "high band" recording systems deliver noticeably better pictures, especially in terms of image sharpness.

High band recording is available in all three analog consumer formats, which go by the names S-VHS, S-VHS-C and Hi8 respectively.

How much better is picture quality? Camcorders using regular VHS, VHS-C or 8mm tape formats produce images with horizontal resolution (sharpness) of around 240 lines. High band camcorders, by contrast, deliver 400 horizontal lines or better, for playback quality similar to that of laser disks. To put it another way, high band images are at least 40 percent sharper.

Though this increase in sharpness may not be glaringly obvious to the casual viewer of original high-band tapes, the improvement in edited second-generation copies and third-generation dupes is dramatic.

But this improvement is expensive, too. The camcorders themselves begin at prices hundreds of dollars higher than those of regular cameras. S-VHS, S-VHS-C and Hi8 tapes cost around four times as much as their regular counterparts, and you need similarly expensive high-band VCRs to play them. Finally, to realize the potential of these sharper recordings, you may want to spring for a high-quality monitor with a Y/C video input jack (though any monitor will work).

A note about DVC: the picture quality of this digital format is far, far superior to anything that even Hi8, S-VHS or S-VHS-C can offer. But as of the time of this writing, there arent any VCRs that will play DVC tapes; this will have to wait a few months.

Once you’ve chosen a tape format and a recording system, you’re ready to decide which camera features are important for your particular needs. For convenience, we’ll group these features into categories, including the lens, the electronics, the audio system and, most importantly, the viewfinder.

Enjoying the View

The viewfinder may be the most significant factor in the way you operate your camcorder. First, decide whether you want an internal finder or an external LCD screen finder. Each has distinct advantages.

External LCD finders are larger and easier to see. They are always full-color, and they rotate independent of the camera section so that you can view them from any position (including in front, as the camcorder includes you in the picture).

Most importantly, external LCD finders allow you to move your eye away from the camera. This delivers three considerable benefits: first, it prevents eye fatigue during lengthy shooting sessions. Second, it encourages steadier hand-held shots, because you can hold the camcorder away from your body, using both arms as shock absorbers. Finally, it allows you to place the camcorder in almost any position–high overhead, down on the ground, out the window of a car–and still see exactly what you’re recording.

On the other hand, external LCD screens can be hard to see in bright light, even with clumsy add-on hoods; and their relatively coarse picture can make it more difficult to focus precisely. In some cases, picture brightness and contrast can be more difficult to judge as well.

Internal viewfinders have the opposite advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, they’re bright in all light conditions and relatively easy to focus. Because they are, in fact, tiny TV screens, their contrast and brightness displays are relatively reliable.

On the minus side, internal finders are usually black and white (though I personally prefer that to color) and they force you to keep your eye glued to them while shooting. Many internal finders, especially on compact camcorders, will not swing down so that you can look through them while holding the camera above eye level.

If you choose a camera with internal viewfinder, check to see if it does rotate both up and down, and that its diopter correction works smoothly (to compensate when shooting without wearing eyeglasses). And if you want the best of both worlds, consider Sonys TRV series, which include both the flip-out LCD monitor and the standard internal viewfinder.

Manual Controls

All camcorders come with fully automatic control of exposure, focus and white balance (compensation for the overall color casts of different kinds of light). They also provide automatic zooming through motorized zoom controls.

For all but the very simplest casual shooting, however, there are many times when you’ll want to control some of these functions manually. Most camcorders include manual focus, but for other auto-controls, different cameras offer different options. Here’s what to look for.

  • Manual white balance. In addition to automatic, some camcorders have selectable white balance settings for indoor, outdoor and sometimes fluorescent light. But if natural-looking colors are critical to you, hunt for models with a fully manual white balance setting. By using this control, you tell the camera to analyze the light it’s actually getting (say, bluish noon overcast or golden late sunshine, both of which would otherwise use the less precise "outdoor" auto setting) and adjust color recording for an exact match.

  • Manual exposure. Most camcorders let you compensate for darker subjects against lighter background with some type of "backlight" switch. For best results, however, look for fully manual iris controls that let you adjust image brightness continuously while judging the effect in the viewfinder.

  • Manual zoom. Motorized zooming is both slow and hungry for battery power, so a manual zoom lever is nice. Use it to quickly frame new compositions and to snap to the telephoto position for critical focusing and then snap back to the desired focal lens length. Manual zoom control is so important (though so often overlooked) that I personally would reject any camcorder that didn’t offer it, regardless of the unit’s other virtues.

After viewfinder and manual control options, lens features are probably the next-most important camcorder buying considerations.

Through the Lens

Almost all camcorders come with unremovable zoom lenses, so before choosing a model, look carefully at the characteristics of the lens. You’ll be living with them for the life of the camera.

Nowadays, most lenses are sensitive enough to shoot in low light levels and most have some degree of macro (close-focusing) ability, for taping small objects like flowers; so you needn’t worry much about these features.

The things to look for carefully are zoom ratio and zoom range.

  • Zoom ratio is the ratio of the longest (telephoto) focal length to the shortest (wide angle). The higher the ratio, the more versatile the lens. Though a few cameras still have 8-to-1 zoom ratios, 10- or 12-to-1 are now the norm, and some models boast 15-to-1 lenses, and even higher.

    Some camcorders can also enlarge images beyond the optical limits of their lenses, via so-called "digital zoom." This feature uses electronic means to fill the frame with just the central portion of the optical image. Typically, digital zoom will double the overall zoom range, creating, say, a 24-to-1 digital ratio with a 12-to-1 lens.

    Digital zoom can be very useful in telephoto applications like shooting sports and wildlife, but you do pay a penalty. Because the magnification is indeed digital, it works by multiplying (and thereby enlarging) each individual picture element. 2:1 or even 3:1 magnification may yield an acceptable image, but beyond that point, the picture quality degenerates quickly.

  • Zoom range answers the question, how wide is the widest angle setting and how long is the longest telephoto setting? How does "range" differ from "ratio?" Think of two lenses: a 4-40mm lens and a 12-120mm lens. Though they both have 10-to-1 zoom ratios, their ranges are quite different: the first lens has far better wide angle capability, while the second is heavily weighted toward telephoto. So if you routinely shoot family activities at close range, you might choose the 4-40mm zoom; but if sports or wildlife are your passion, you might prefer the 12-120mm model instead.

    Evaluating zoom range can be tricky, because the width of view at any millimeter setting depends on the size of the camera chip. If you’d like a full explanation of this, consult "All About Lenses" in the December 1994 issue of Videomaker.

    Here, we’ll avoid technicalities by offering a very simple test. First, discover what the nominal size of the camcorder’s CCD (image-forming chip) is–1/4-, 1/3- or 1/2-inch. Then compare that camera’s zoom range to the range of other models with the same size CCD. Remember that the widest angle is the lowest number (like 5mm) and the longest telephoto is the highest (like 50mm). That way you can determine whether the lens emphasizes the wide angle or telephoto ranges.

    Comparing two 1/3-inch chip cameras, for instance, a 4.5-45mm lens would favor the wide end, while a 6-60mm lens would lean toward telephoto.

  • Image stabilization is another major factor in choosing a lens. Stabilization is a method of taking all, or at least most, of the jitters out of your images by automatically compensating for camera shaking. On the whole, image stabilization systems do work and they work impressively well.

    At the same time, image stabilization will increase the price of the camcorder–not drastically, perhaps, but substantially. Determining whether the extra cost is worth it is a real judgment call. If you have trouble holding a camera steady, if you don’t like tripods and simply refuse to use them or if you do a lot of telephoto shooting (tripod or not) then you should definitely invest in image stabilization.

    Some camcorders use optical stabilization, which adjusts the image mechanically within the lens. Others use electronic stabilization (labeled "EIS"), which compensates for shake by selecting slightly different areas on the chip for recording.

    Both systems work well, as noted, but if the camcorder uses EIS, make sure that it also employs an oversize chip to prevent quality loss when recording less than the normal full chip area.

    Strictly speaking, EIS is not a lens function at all, but, as its full name indicates, a matter of electronics. So let’s move inside the camcorder to look some other electronic features that could influence your choice.

Three-ring Circuits
From a cost standpoint, the biggest electronic decision you’ll have to make is whether to go with one imaging chip or three.

A few high-end camcorders assign a separate CCD to each primary color instead of making one chip handle the whole spectrum. Three-chip cameras deliver noticeably better color rendition.

But before you rush out to buy one, reflect that street prices for three-chip models start at around $2,700 and then head north with breathtaking speed. In fact, most models are industrial units priced at $7,000 and up.

Here, as with high-band recording, if nothing but the best picture quality will satisfy you, then a three-chip model may be a perfectly reasonable investment. To put the issue in perspective, many people willingly shell out for a $3,000 laptop computer, so why not a camcorder?

  • Digital goodies. If three-chip electronics are strictly for advanced videomakers, then built-in digital effects are more for the casual hobbyist. These effects, typically including fade in/out, wipe, still, strobe, etc. allow you to make scene transitions and process the image as you shoot.

    Why are in-camera effects mostly for weekend shooters? Because dedicated videomakers who create more elaborate programs do extensive post production, and such effects are easier to handle in editing than in shooting.

  • Titlers. The same could be said of in-camera titlers. Some camcorders allow you to pre-store a few titles and then superimpose them over live action as you shoot (or as you edit to your camcorder later). The trouble is, these simple titlers are inconvenient to operate because they lack most dedicated titler input keys, and making other camcorder controls do double duty for titling is cumbersome.

    Also, the type quality of in-camera titlers is truly mediocre. So unless you need merely an on-screen slate to identify footage, I’d put these gadgets way over in the "bonus" column.

  • Time code. Time code provides an address for every separate frame of the moving picture. This feature is often only applied in more sophisticated editing systems for video production. If you have the desire to conduct accurate editing functions, time code will be an important factor in your purchasing decision. There are several types to choose from, and each time code format offers different advantages. So do your homework when deciding which time code format is best for you.

Sound Decisions

In selecting camcorders, too many buyers overlook the sound department, so here’s a quick rundown on desirable audio features.

  • External mike input jack. This is an absolute must for all but the most casual videomaker. Built-in camcorder microphones do remarkably well for many types of shooting, but there are many situations which demand stand-alone mikes for capturing decent quality audio.

  • Audio monitoring. Listening to the sound as you record it may seem like too much trouble; but consider: you can’t otherwise tell whether you’re getting any audio at all! If you lose the video, the viewfinder tells you at once. But if, say, the battery in your external mike should die, you could tape an entire session without knowing that you had no audio whatever.

    To prevent this disaster, your camcorder should have a jack into which you can plug a set of headphones. At the least, it should have a small monitoring speaker on its side.

  • Stereo sound. Some better camcorders are equipped to record stereo sound. This feature’s not terribly important if you normally use the built-in mike or a single stereo external mike, because the stereo imaging that results is not the best possible.

    On the other hand, if you often record plays, concerts or similar events, you may want to place separate external mikes; and that will make stereo audio recording both practical and effective.

Gotta Have It

So there’s a quick rundown of features you should check out when selecting a new camcorder. But before wrapping up, we should point out a completely different approach to the process: the "gotta have it" method.

In some cases, you’ll find one feature so important that you pick the camera that has it, irrespective of its other features. Do you demand interchangeable lenses? Then you’re going to choose a Canon L2 camcorder. Want both LCD and tube-type viewfinders on the same unit? Then it’s a Sony for you.

But whether you go for a single must-have function or build a whole shopping list of features, a bit of pre-purchase homework will help you choose wisely and well.


SIDEBAR 1

Where Videomaker Readers Shop
In a cheerfully unscientific telephone survey, we asked some of our readers to share their personal experiences in buying camcorders; and though the resulting information wouldn’t satisfy a statistician, it did turn up some intriguing facts.

Overall, our interviewees represented a broad range of regions, genders and ages (20-something through 70-plus)–just like our readership in general.

Respondents split 50-50 on preferring full-size or compact camcorders. Interestingly, all the compact models reported used high-band recording systems, either S-VHS-C or Hi8, though regular VHS was well represented in full-size models.

Factors in Buying Decisions
Reasons for choosing a particular camcorder varied widely, as expected. Raymond Luttermoser of Canton, Michigan, wanted picture quality above all, and invested in a Hi8 camcorder with image stabilization and a very long zoom lens range.

Betty Anab of Cowelsville, New York, chose the high quality of S-VHS-C, but the deciding factor for her was a black and white viewfinder, which she finds easier to focus through.

Ted Keller of Carrier Mills, Illinois made no bones about it: his three biggest factors were price, price and price.

Judy Redmon of Wartburg, Tennessee, has a loyalty that should warm the cockles of Magnavox’s heart: for her, brand name was the most important factor.

Where to Buy It?
The real surprise, though, was the variety of vendors from which our respondents bought their camcorders. Interestingly, no one bought from a camera store or from a mail order vendor (though several said they had since developed enough confidence to shop by phone). On the other hand, several bought from electronics discounters or warehouse-style "clubs," as expected.

What was unexpected was the variety of less common kinds of vendors. Patricia Atkinson of Richmond, Virginia, bought her camcorder on her gasoline credit card.

Abelardo LaFuente of Seattle, Washington, found his at Radio Shack.

Peter Marsoobian of Laguna Niguel, California, did his shopping in an outlet of an audio speaker manufacturer.

And, providing heartening evidence that traditional retailing is not entirely dead, Barbara Hancock of Bellingham, Washington, bought her VHS-C camcorder at a general furniture and household appliance store.

How to Shop
Our readers were nearly unanimous about the advice they would give a first-time camcorder buyer:

  • Think hard about how you intend to use your camcorder.

  • Figure out which features will serve your particular uses.

  • Find out which models include those features.

  • Shop for the best buy.

And several interviewees were kind enough to point out that their principal camcorder information source is Videomaker.

–J.S.

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Mike Wilhelm
Mike is the Editor-in-Chief of Videomaker and Creator Handbook