Camcorder Buying Guide
Table of contents
Capturing and preserving those special moments - birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, baby steps and weddings - has never been so easy. The camcorder, an elegant combination of camera and recorder, archives important meetings and presentations, and even allows you to make your own films (documentaries or some creative video). Camcorders today offer innovative technologies and features to meet your video recording needs.
How Digital Camcorders Work
There are two breeds of camcorder: analog and digital. Digital camcorders have developed into mainstream products, while analog camcorders have nearly been phased out.
Where Digital Camcorders Excel
A digital camcorder generally offers better image/audio quality and no quality loss when making copies or transfers, which is not usually the case with analog camcorders. Editing and/or processing video (e.g. cut, merge and special effects) also become far easier as the digital data inside a camcorder's storage is easily processed by a computer. With that many advantages, digital camcorders are extremely competitive solutions for today's savvy user.
There are many different ways of classifying camcorders, but the most common way is to differentiate by storage/recording medium (e.g. VHS-C, memory card/flash memory, MiniDV, Digital8, DVD and internal hard disk). VHS-C tapes are used by analog camcorders exclusively, but that is not what we recommend (unless there are special requirements/reasons; e.g. you have a VCR and an adapter you need to use). The other types of recording medium are used by digital camcorders, and cover a variety of different requirements for the many different types of users.
The majority of digital camcorders use MiniDV cassettes that record DV-format video. This type of camcorder produces much higher quality pictures than videos recorded by consumer analog camcorders. Depending on the model, MiniDV camcorders can deliver resolutions of more than 500 horizontal lines. In addition, some of the latest consumer/semipro camcorders support the high-quality HDV-format, which is capable of delivering up to 720 or 1080 lines of horizontal resolution. These camcorders record HDV-format video on MiniDV cassettes as well.
The MICROMV camcorder is a Sony-exclusive product. The cassette is smaller than the MiniDV and the camcorders record video in MPEG-2 format, which is not compatible with a large number of video editing software. This type of camcorder is designed for high mobility and image quality, but has already been phased out.
3-inch DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW discs are sometimes used as recording media in Mini DVD camcorders (DVD-R/RW or DVD+RW). DVD-RAM discs are also utilized by a number of camcorders, but DVD-RAM discs can only be accessed via DVD-RAM compatible drives, while DVD-R/RW and DVD+RW are supported by most DVD drives. You can typically expect to record 30 minutes worth of video on a Mini DVD disc.
Some of the latest camcorders use internal hard disk drives and record in high-quality MPEG-2 format. With a capacity in the tens of Gigabytes, these camcorders can record extended video clips.
There are, in addition, a few ultra-compact camcorders that utilize flash memory/memory cards (such as CF/Microdrive and SD/MMC) as their primary recording media. These camcorders usually record video in MPEG-4 format. The length of the recordings is tied directly to the capacity of the memory card. These camcorders are usually very small in size and not very expensive at all, hence they are excellent choices for budget users and those who require the highest compactness in their recording gear.
With tens (if not hundreds) of camcorder products available at any one time, its normal to feel confused – just how are these camcorders different from one another? That's where the specifications come into play, as they are key features of a camcorder product and will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the product you are viewing and/or contemplating purchasing.
CCD or CMOS?
Image sensors in camcorders are very similar to those found in digital cameras. There are two types of image sensor: CCD and CMOS. CCDs are more widely used in camcorders now, although CMOS tend to cost less than CCDs. Although early CMOS sensors lagged behind CCDs in terms of image quality, improved technologies have allowed high-end products to utilize CMOS sensors to great effect. Excellent image quality is now as much a CMOS capability as it is a CCD's.
As the eye of the camcorder, the CCD converts visible light into electronic signals. Generally speaking, the bigger the CCD the better the image quality it can offer. That is to say that a 1/3-inch CCD should produce a better image in comparison to a 1/6-inch CCD. Larger CCDs (the CCD size specification is the diagonal measurement of a CCD) capture more light, resulting in brighter pictures and lower noise. Therefore CCD size is especially important when shooting in low light situations.
With digital cameras the CCD pixel count is a crucial factor in determining the sharpness of the captured image (due to the detail level). However, this is not always the case with camcorders, since a standard-definition video frame contains less than 400,000 pixels, with any number of pixels exceeding that number having very little effect on picture sharpness. Of course, that is only as far as standard definition video recordings are concerned as high-def video recordings require a higher pixel count (more pixels=higher definition; 1080i/p video requires a 2 Megapixel sensor; 1 Megapixel = 1 million pixels).
Last but not least is the difference between one and three CCDs. Professional camcorders always have three CCDs, one for each primary color (red, green and blue), which results in much brighter and vivid images and more accurate color reproduction. Luckily for us, three-CCD camcorders have made their way into the consumer market, and there are many models costing under $1000.
The optical lens of a camcorder is similar to that of a camera, but is usually capable of a wider zoom range. Although there are other important factors such as aperture and shutter speed when evaluating the lens, for most consumer camcorders, the zoom specification is a more practical index to look at (although that is not the case with professional/semi-pro camcorders).
LCD and Viewfinder
Most camcorders carry both tilt-up viewfinders and LCD screens of relatively large size. The LCD and viewfinder offer instant playback, but the greatest benefit of the LCD and/or viewfinder is the ability to capture exactly what you see onscreen.
Memory cards are used for the storage of still images or MPEG-1/MPEG-4 video clips (as mentioned above, certain camcorders use memory cards as recording media). Like digital cameras, the size of the memory card you choose should depend on the number AND size of the pictures/movies you plan on storing. Unlike digital cameras, memory card types on camcorders are limited, with the usual suspects being the Memory Stick Duo (Pro), Memory Stick (Pro) and SD/MMC cards.
A wide variety of camcorder designs have arisen to meet your specific needs. Choose the camcorder that most closely meets your needs and the situations, events and people you will be shooting..
Home/Vacation Video Maker
The home camcorder user wants to capture those special moments in life - birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, baby steps and the wedding; or even vacation and travel. Ease of use is the key here to allow you to perform basic editing and special effects without too much fuss. These camcorders typically cost from less than $400 to around $1500.
For superior image quality you can't go wrong with a 3-CCDs camcorder, which no longer cost an arm and a leg. Also note that the "Minimum Illumination" value is critical for indoors shooting (or shooting in other low light conditions) - the value measured in lux units show the minimum light requirements for the camcorder to deliver acceptable image quality levels.
Archiving important meetings and presentations and public events/trade shows are what the business Videographer does. Camcorders at this level typically cost between $1000 and $3000. The "Minimum Illumination" value is very important as well as business videographers may perform a lot of indoor shooting.
On a Budget
A camcorder costing under $500 is the price to aim for. There aren't a lot of fascinating features in camcorders in this price segment, however. An entry-level MiniDV camcorder or a slightly bulky Digital8 are still excellent choices that offer relatively high image quality. Memory card camcorders usually cost even less (under $200), but the image quality is the trade-off.
Independent Filmmaker/High End Applications
If you are planning to create serious documentaries, creative videos or independent films, a camcorder that is capable of delivering excellent image quality with a variety of advanced controls is what you are looking for. Compatibility with various lens, sound and lighting accessories is also very important. High-end camcorders are very expensive, however, and range from $1500 to $5000 or even more.
Shooting Still Images
Dramatic increases in camcorder pixel counts have caused many to wonder about the possibility of using the camcorder to shoot great still images in the absence of or as a complete substitute for a digital camera. Nobody wants to carry two devices to perform the same task if one is good enough. Unfortunately, digital camcorder still image quality still has a long way to go to catch up to purpose-built digital cameras, unless you plan on viewing the pictures exclusively on your television set.