Shopping for a camcorder can be overwhelming. There are tons of models to choose from at a wide range of price points, and every one has its own lengthy list of specs and features. So how do you cut through the marketing muck to choose a camcorder that you will be happy with? In this article we’ll identify five things to consider before buying your next camcorder.
Buying a camcorder is a bit like buying a car. Which is better, a two-passenger electric Smart car or a full sized four wheel drive SUV with a tow package? Should I buy a minivan or a Maserati? The Maserati has a bigger engine, racing tires, a performance suspension and it comes with a name that will impress people, but the minivan seats eight and has a DVD player and rear air conditioning control. Which is better? The question is almost ridiculous. The answer is, it depends. You‘re not going to tow a ski boat with a Smart car, and you can’t pack five kids in an exotic sports car. Selecting the best vehicle is subjective. It depends on the needs of the driver.
The same is true when it comes to selecting a camcorder. There are many models of camcorders because consumers (and professionals) have a wide range of needs. The key to choosing the right model is to know what your needs are, and then to find a camera with the features that are best matched to your preferences.
Before you break down the door of the store, or click the big blinking link to purchase that new camcorder online, ask yourself these five questions. They will help you narrow the field and make a decision you can live with.
1) Does Size Matter?
The physical size of a camcorder can be a major factor in a purchase decision. The compact size and convenience of a small camera may be more important to you than having a long lens or professional audio capabilities. Professional models are equipped with all kinds of fantastic features, but they are much larger and heavier as a result. Today, even the smallest camcorders shoot better video than many professional cameras did just a few years ago. If you are a casual shooter looking for something you can easily pop into your pocket to shoot vacation video, you will want to consider one of the many micro models on the market. If you aren’t worried about bulk or weight, move on to question 2.
2) Auto or Manual?
Some shooters like to exercise a great degree of control over their camera settings, others prefer to press record and let the camcorder make the decisions. Knowing which way you’re wired to work will help you as you consider a camcorder’s controls. If you like to experiment with exposure, fiddle with focus, select shutter speed, or adjust audio levels on your own, you can focus on finding models that allow you to manually manipulate these settings. Likewise, if you would rather have the camera self-adjust so you can record good looking video footage without having to think about these settings, a fully automatic camcorder may be a better choice.
3) Are Formats a Factor?
Another important consideration is what type of media the camcorder records onto. This will impact how you will transfer your footage from the camcorder to your computer or onto some type of media for distribution, playback and archiving. Some camcorders still record onto videotape, but most of the new models record directly to solid state media like SD Card or P2, or to internal hard drives that cannot be removed at all. Once again, your personal preference may be the biggest difference. As you consider your options, give thought to convenience, capacity, compatibility and availability. Buying a tape-based camcorder may seem safe if you are not deeply digitally literate, buy videotape is getting harder to find on store shelves. Make sure you select a camcorder that uses a friendly format.
4) How Important is Audio?
The ability to connect an external microphone to your camcorder is a key consideration when it comes to camera choice. If you intend to record interviews, events or actors for serious production work, you must record quality audio using an external microphone. In most cases, this means shopping for a camcorder that accepts a mic input. The type of mic jack is another consideration. If a consumer camcorder has a microphone jack, it will likely be of the 1/8-inch mini variety, which will require the use of an adapter if you want to plug in a professional mic. Professional camcorders almost always have XLR audio inputs. Another audio consideration is access to the adjustments that allow you to change and set your levels. Some camcorders have physical dials to turn, others only allow you to adjust audio from a digital display inside a menu. If sound controls and audio quality are important to you, look closely at the audio system and features of the camcorders you consider.
5) Do You Long for Lenses?
Some people are into long lenses, selective focus and shallow depth of field. There are some artistic looks that can only be achieved with good glass. Lens quality varies widely across the range of camcorders on the market. Most models of camcorders have lenses that are permanently molded into the body, and they span a broad spectrum of quality ranging from small plastic lenses with very limited optical zoom ranges to professional models with real glass lenses that provide high quality optics. Only a few models at the highest end and DSLR cameras offer interchangeable lenses. Serious shooters who desire the ultimate in image control will want to consider the limitations of each camcorder’s lens.
So consider your personal preferences before you make a purchase. Think about what type of video you intend to shoot most often, what kind of controls you require and how crucial manual controls are to you. Use these questions to narrow the field to a few models, and get into the right ballpark. After you have whittled down your options, you can do a much more effective and meaningful side-by-side, feature-for-feature comparison.
Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy Award winning producer, director and writer. He is an independent producer and media consultant in Nashville.