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These days you can get a small, palm-size camcorder at your price range or under that has manual controls for exposure and audio levels. The manual controls on these camcorders rival what the prosumer models have, but they are typically harder to access and can be cumbersome (i.e., the controls are not mechanical, but are driven by a menu system). That’s not ideal for most professional settings (especially if you need to be able to access these controls in a split second), but they certainly have the same end result if your shoots are not complicated and can be set-up in proper time.
Here’s the latest in that department:
Canon HV20 ($1100): Pros: high definition (HDV), 24p recording mode, CMOS sensor (extends battery life), small/lightweight, manual controls. Cons: 1/8" mic input, most manual controls are menu driven
Sony HDR-HC7 ($1400): Pros: high definition (HDV), CMOS sensor (extends battery life), small/lightweight, manual controls. Cons: 1/8" mic input, most manual controls are menu driven
Both of these cams can shot in standard def, too, and are tape based. I think for journalism, tape is a good, cost efficient way to do work that allows you to keep your original footage. There might be some benefits in going in a data (non-tape) route if speed is your main priority. However, the video quality at this level will suffer.
The two biggest factors in choosing a camcorder for journalism may be the environment you’ll be shooting in and where you plan to deliver your footage (edited or raw). If you’re covering news/events with a photo-journalism style, a palm-size might slow you down when you’re trying to expose an improvised shot (e.g. covering violence in Iraq). But, if you’re mostly covering something that allows more freedom in time and shot composition (e.g., interviews, stand-ups, etc.) it can be done with these palm-size cams very nicely.
Furthermore, you should consider how you’ll be delivering what you shoot. If you plan on delivering your footage to broadcast, consider a high-def camcorder. For the short-term it might not be necessary, but in the long run you’ll need to have footage in HD. At this point, broadcaster who accept HD footage have their own terms which often times is not compatible with the HDV format. There are workarounds for some of the stations, but results may vary. That’s something worth researching as well if you’re planning on delivering via broadcast.