Finding the Best Digital Camcorder

With their growing list of features and falling prices, Mini DV and Digital8 camcorders thrive. Almost anyone can find a Mini DV or Digital8 camcorder at an affordable price, with a list of features that was unheard of only a few years ago. Your biggest problem in finding the best digital camcorder may be having too many options. How important is the zoom range of a digital camcorder? Which exposure modes and manual controls are important? The array of options available can seem overwhelming. Deciding what features are important, and which ones aren’t, can be enough to make your knees tremble. What if you make the wrong choice? Don’t be afraid, fellow videophile. We’re here to help. Selecting the best digital camcorder for you is simple. You just need to understand your options.

Digital camcorders offer benefits over conventional analog camcorders, but not all digital video camcorders are created equal. In the pages that follow, we’ll take a look at some of the important features, explain their significance and relative importance, and discuss what you need to know so you can select the digital camcorder that best fits your needs. Before you plunk down your credit card for what you think is the best digital camcorder, consider these eight important factors.

In Selecting the best digital camcorder optical zoom carries more weight than digital zoom

Of all your DV camcorder’s features, having a good zoom lens is critical in choosing the best digital camcorder. With it, you adjust image cropping, get in close for a tight shot, or move back for a panoramic view. In addition to image-framing capabilities, your zoom lens also gives you other creative ways to control your pictures.

When you use your digital camcorder to zoom in close, a long lens will compress the apparent distance between objects, and reduce the depth of field. At wide-angle settings, distances are exaggerated, making objects that are up-close look huge in relation to distant objects, and the depth of field gets deeper as the angle of view gets wider. In this way, the zoom lens complements other manual controls like shutter speed, iris and white balance, to give you greater control over the look and impact of your video footage. The best digital camcorders will have a longer optical zoom range, the larger the range of control you’ll have at your fingertips.

The Sony DCR-VX2000 Mini DV comes with a relatively modest 12x lens, while the Hitachi VMD975LA Digital8 and Samsung SCD77 Mini DV come with 22x optical zooms. Canon’s GL1 has a 20x optical zoom. In general, longer optical zoom ranges are a big plus.

Almost all digital camcorders include a digital zoom feature to complement the zoom range provided by the optical system, but digital zoom has a number of disadvantages. Most provide acceptable images at digital magnifications up to about 50x, but most images become pixelated and degraded beyond use at longer lengths.

Should the digital zoom be a factor in your camcorder selection? Maybe. There are times when you have to accept the degraded image quality to get in close enough to your subject to get the shot you want. But in general, consider digital zoom ratios beyond 50:1 to be frivolous. So in pursuit of fining the best digital camcorder, optical zoom is more important than digital zoom.

Mike Input/Headphone Output’s impact on selecting the best digital camcorder.

With 12- and 16-bit digital audio, DV camcorders can deliver excellent sound quality. However, getting great sound requires more than just the camera’s built-in mic. And whenever sound is critical, it’s best to monitor it as you record to be sure that you’re recording the sound you think you are. If sound is important to you, the best digital camcorder for you will have both an external mic input and a headphone output for monitoring sound as you record. Be careful not to assume that a camera has both. A model may have a headphone jack, but no mic input. Another may have a mike input, but no headphone jack. The best digital camcorders have both.

Video Input

The IEEE 1394 FireWire port (called i.LINK on Sony models) is standard on all of the DV camcorders in our grid. A two-way connection, the FireWire port enables either input or output so you can use your camcorder as a player or recorder. This port makes hooking up for editing extremely easy. All you need is your camcorder, a FireWire-equipped computer and a single IEEE 1394 cable. In addition to audio and video information, the FireWire cable carries edit control information so the camcorder can be controlled from your computer.

Optional analog video inputs are important to have if you’d like to transfer video of old analog footage to DV for storage. Analog inputs will also let you use your DV camcorder as a media converter to transfer footage from an analog camcorder into your FireWire equipped computer for editing. Look for models that offer S-video and composite input if this ability is important to you. The best digital camcorder models include both analog and digital inputs.

Number of CCDs

While a digital camcorder with a single CCD (charge coupled device) will deliver high-quality images, the best images come from camcorders with three CCDs. Three-chip cameras like the JVC Pro GY-DV500U, Panasonic PV-DV951, Sony TRV 900 and DCR-VX 2000 and Canon GL1 and XL1S offer the highest quality imaging available in a camcorder. If you plan to produce video that is not going to be broadcast or sold for big money, a single-CCD model should be just fine. For the prosumer videographer who demands the highest quality imaging possible, a 3-CCD camcorder is a natural choice. Of course, this feature comes at a price. Three-chip camcorders are more expensive than their single-CCD counterparts.

Pixels Per CCD

Next to zoom range, this is probably one of the most important factors in choosing the best digital camcorder. All else being equal, more pixels are better than fewer pixels. However, while you’d expect a DV camcorder with a 680,000-pixel CCD to deliver a sharper image than one with only 470,000 pixels, this may not always be the case. There are several factors, including lens quality and CCD size, that impact image quality as much as pixel count. For more information on CCD size, refer to The Bigger the Better sidebar.

With 3-CCD camcorders, you’ll notice that the CCDs seem to have a reduced pixel count. The Canon Optura Pi and Sony DCR-VX 2000 both use CCDs with only 380,000 pixels, while the JVC GR-DV2000U boasts a whopping 680,000 pixels on it’s single 1/4-inch progressive scan CCD. Keep in mind that with a 3-CCD camcorder you multiply the number of pixels by three before comparing the numbers with a single CCD camcorder. In reality, the Canon and Sony camcorders mentioned, with 380,000 pixels per CCD, produce a total pixel count of over 1 million; nearly twice that of the single-CCD example.

Even among the 3-CCD camcorders, the pixel count doesn’t tell the whole story. Canon’s XL1S offers a mere 270,000 pixels per CCD, for a total of 810,000 pixels, but its Pixel Shift Technology gives performance claimed equal to CCDs with higher pixel counts while providing better sensitivity in low-light situations.

Maximum Shutter Speed:Faster is better in selecting the best digital camcorder

High-speed shutters allow a camcorder to capture razor sharp images of high-speed action. When combined with manual exposure control, the high-speed shutter gives the videographer great control over the image’s depth of field. By using a high shutter speed and a wide iris setting, you can insure that your images will have a very narrow depth of field, making all but the primary subject appear out of focus. By using a slower shutter speed and closing down the iris, you can give your images nearly infinite depth of field, making everything in view appear sharp. So, whether you’re shooting high-speed sports or just aiming for greater control of your images, a wide range of shutter speeds is a very desirable asset. For stopping serious high-speed action, you’ll find camcorders like the Canon GL1 and XL1S, with their 1/15,000-second maximum shutter speeds, hard to beat. Sharp, Samsung and Sony offer several models with a generous 1/10,000-second shutter setting. Panasonic and Panasonic Broadcast offer a range of models with a respectable 1/8,000-second shutter speed.

Manual White Balance

To casual shooters and hobbyists the specific uses for manual white balance are less obvious, and often less critical than for zoom lenses and shutter controls. But more serious shooters will demand the ability to manually control white balance for color calibration in a shooting environment. If you shoot in odd lighting situations, there will be times when the natural light will simply overwhelm the auto white balance on even the finest camcorder. Other times, you might not want to have accurate white balance. You can modify the look of your video to create whiter looking light, yellowish light or whatever best suits the mood you’re trying to convey. If you plan to shoot in difficult lighting conditions or want maximum creative control, the best digital camcorder for you will have the manual white balance option.

Digital Still Shot

Not every subject is suitable for moving images, and the added resolution some of the latest DV camcorders bring to their still imaging makes them as effective as still cameras as they are as camcorders. This dual functionality is so useful that it’s hard to find a digital camcorder today that doesn’t support some form of enhanced still-image capture capability. But be careful if that ability is important to you, because some models do not include this handy feature.

To achieve the very highest quality still images, the best digital camcorders will be able to store still images on some media other than the videotape. While DV gives us superior resolution video, it’s just not quite up to the level of a high-quality digital still camera. Alternate media, like Sony’s Memory Stick, allows you to store your still images in full-resolution, yielding much higher quality stills. External media also makes getting your stills into your PC for viewing and printing much easier and faster. Many models also include connectors to get stills from your camcorder to your computer and software to clean up your pictures before posting them on your Web site or e-mailing them to friends.

Now you know what to consider in your quest for the best digital camcorder.

Well, there you have it: eight factors to consider when seeking the best digital camcorder. You’ll find more to think about in the details of the accompanying buyer’s guide and Explanation of Feature Headings.

Above all else, relax. Shopping for the best digital camcorder for you should be fun, not frightening. Casual shooters will find that any digital camcorder will bring dramatic improvements to the look of their home videos, and serious shooters will find a multitude of impressive manual options.

Your consideration should no longer be based on your fear factor, but rather on determining which camcorder is the weakest link.

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