Camcorders Product Guide
Buying a camcorder can be somewhat confusing. Tape is all but a thing of the past, replaced by digital media. But what is best? In addition, standard digital cameras also have the ability to shoot movies. Camcorders also have the ability to shoot stills. Again, what is best?
There really is no particular best. While digital cameras and camcorders share many key features on the consumer end, the shape and optics of a camcorder is more aptly designed to make shooting movies really easy. The basic rationale is if you want to shoot more movies than stills, a camcorder is your best fit. If you want more stills than movies, a digital camera is more comfortable. If you want to shoot your baby's first steps and the family rollicking in the backyard or travelling through various sites around the world, the camcorder is best suited for motion.
Camcorders store video in a variety of ways, and each type has its advantages and disadvantages. The most popular camcorders have shifted from MiniDV, to DVD, to internal hard drive and solid-state Flash-memory.
Recording directly to Mini DVDs was once considered the best method. Standard definition DVD camcorders will create DVDs that will play directly in your home DVD player. Mini DVDs are inexpensive, and give you between 20 minutes and 60 minutes of recording time per disc depending on recording speed or quality setting.
In addition to being able to play a mini DVD on any home player, the DVD can be copied or easily transferred to a computer by placing it in a DVD Reader Drive. Transferring movies to computer software is pretty easy. Sharing it through the Internet is also relatively simple.
Among the disadvantages of DVD are that it is a standard definition format. It is not capable of recording high-definition for the new TV models. In addition, the (approximate) 3-inch diameter size of the DVD requires a larger size camcorder.
If you don't care about those disadvantages, the DVD camcorder offers among the best values today.
The MiniDV tape was one of the original formats of digital camcorders. Many professional camcorders still use this tape. Some people prefer the quality of MiniDV because it is a sequential recording format - tape is recorded and played from beginning to end. This means that recordings on this format are less likely to be compressed.
Though this format may be used for high-definition recording, these camcorders are a bit larger than the DVD camcorders. Many people seek smaller sizes for travel.
Over the past few years, JVC introduced Everio camcorders. These revolutionary models introduced a hard drive storage system, much like those found in computers. They range from 30GB to over 60GB in capacity. Other manufacturers joined in to offer this technology.
A key advantage was, based on capacity and recording speed, you can record many hours on a hard drive. In addition, you can record in both standard and high-definition modes. Using very small size drives, similar to those used in classic iPods and MP3 players, the weight and size of the camcorder were reduced by over 25 percent.
The disadvantage is you really need a computer to download the videos too. Otherwise, when you record to the capacity of the camcorder's drive, you'd run out of recording space. Some people shy away from this format because there is no tangible media to play on devices. There are no DVDs or tapes. It's just an invisible stream of data.
Download the video to your computer with the included cables to later burn to DVD, edit, or archive. You can view video directly on your TV by hooking up the included cables to your TV set. With an HDD camcorder you can also view scenes without having to go through all the footage in sequence like tape, and can even edit and delete scenes on the fly. The one disadvantage of HDD is that you must be sure to back up your video to an external hard drive in the possible event of a computer crash. That way you save the original video.
Another group of camcorders use flash memory cards to store video, or have built in solid-state flash memory. Those with built-in memory usually can record up to 90 minutes of video. Those with removable flash memory can shoot hours, depending on the size of memory installed. Like hard drives, this format can record in standard and high definition modes. The memory is similar to those used in digital cameras and many cell phones, such as SD, SDHC, and microSD formats. Sony models use Memory-stick formats.
These cameras weigh barely an ounce. They are extremely small, typically 1.5 inch x 3 inches x 1/3 inch thick. These are a traveler's delight. Among these, there are some models capable of recording in High Definition. Some record in Standard Definition.
Like hard drives, memory space is limited and generally must be downloaded to a secondary external drive or a computer.
Most camcorders have lenses that have zoom ranges of 10x to 20x. The 'x' means a multiple magnification. They generally start at a low focal length that delivers wide-angle. Then you can zoom in to bring distant objects nearer. This is known as Optical Zoom. All camcorders have some optical zoom, except for some of the least expensive flash memory camcorder models.
Converse to optical zoom is digital zoom. Digital Zoom is an enhancement. It takes the optical image and digitally amplifies it to a larger size. It isn't as visually sharp as optical zoom. While camcorders can have 100x or more digital zoom capabilities, this feature is less often used. Professional camcorders never include digital zoom as part of their specifications nor to they add that feature at all.
From virtually the first camcorder, all consumer camcorders have the ability to record sound using a built-in microphone. Some higher-level models have inputs for adding external microphones.
All camcorders are capable of recording in stereo sound. All have built in microphones. For better quality you can buy higher quality microphones, and even get a wireless microphone for some models. Many of the high-definition camcorders have a built in surround sound recording system using simulated to Dolby 5.1 modes. There are two ways to add an extra microphone to a camcorder. One is to plug it into a microphone jack (if available), or what is called an accessory shoe that allows accessories to attach to your camcorder. Wireless mics are exceptionally useful when recording lectures or performances.
The reduction in camcorder size dropped another old feature found in older camcorders, the see-through viewfinder. All camcorders replaced the viewfinder with an LCD viewing screen. It's like using a professional monitor. In a sense, it's better than a viewfinder because the screen image is very close to exactly what the camera sees.
The LCD is the screen that you use to compose your video, and view menus for the camcorder. Smaller models use touchscreens which makes going through the menus easier and doesn't require added controls on the camcorder's body. A larger LCD screen is much easier to see. Many are over 2 inches (measured diagonally). In addition to size it is also important to look at the resolution of the screen. The more pixels used for a screen the better. So for both LCD size and number of pixels on the screen, higher is better.
Don't expect to find a huge LCD on a tiny size camcorder. Most are proportional to the overall design.
This feature was originally introduced on camcorders. Once a premier feature, it's found on virtually all models. The idea was to electronically stabilize video images that appear jagged as a result of normal hand movements.
Image Stabilization compensates for any movement of the camcorder you are holding to give you sharp video, even in low light. This is especially helpful when using your zoom out to its full magnification. As you zoom in, any shaking of the camcorder is magnified.
Lux refers to light sensitivity. Early camcorder manufacturers boasted that their models could shoot images under the illumination of a candle. They did but with a considerable loss of color and image integrity.
Getting a camcorder with a larger sensor will have better light gathering ability, and low light performance. Those camcorders with larger lenses will also help in low light situations. Again, however, there's the problem that size does matter when producing sharper, better images under low light. When you are attempting to make a camcorder as small and as lightweight as possible, you need to compromise lens and image sensor sizes.
Many camcorders have a built in flash (for still pictures) and/or a video light for lower light situations. This light is usually an LED bulb whose main purpose is to help correct color under low illumination.
SDTV and HDTV
Earlier televisions, in the United States, had a maximum resolution of about 720x480. This is considered Standard Definition or SDTV. As such, most camcorders were engineered to meet this resolution. In addition, most televisions had square-like screens so the images were set to fill those screens.
New HDTV televisions have wider rectangular screens. These are capable of displaying high definition images up to 1080p. 1080p is a way of expressing the resolution for high definition, HDTV video. 1080p video has 1080 progressive scanned lines of resolution. In a 1920x1080 standard HDTV, the maximum lines of resolution that can be shown on the screen is 1080. The combination of 1080 lines of resolution and the progressive scan format provide for the best image quality possible on a standard HDTV.
Since TV is the most likely way you're going to view your camcorder videos, it is a good choice to seek out a camera that is HDTV compatible. Most HD camcorders may fall slightly short of 1920x1080 progressive resolution during recording modes but are fairly close. This is due to the nature of the shutter-like mechanism shooting video at a certain rate of frames per second. Yet only HD camcorders will deliver images that will fill your new widescreen televisions.
The best HD camcorders are those with Hard Drive or Flash memory. Shooting HD video requires more memory than SD video.
Most camcorders offer the ability to take pictures (still photos) with your video camera. Image quality varies from camcorder to camcorder. Generally the megapixel rating may be lower than most digital cameras but offer decent quality. Use this feature more as a convenience when you don't have your digital camera with you.
Some camcorders record stills into internal memory while many offer a separate slot for a memory card. Flash memory cameras that record to memory cards may not have a second slot.
There are a variety of accessories available for camcorders:
A good quality camcorder case is probably the most important accessory you will buy for your camcorder. A camcorder case will store your camcorder when it's not in use, and will protect it from being damaged during travel and storage. When you look for a case try and find one that will fit around your camcorder snugly. If your camcorder can freely move around within the case then you are defeating the purpose of purchasing the case to begin with. Some cases come with organizational dividers or straps to help secure your camcorder. Many have pockets for additional accessories.
Seek out a case made of polyester or nylon that has some level of water resistance for varied weather conditions. Though I prefer a shoulder bag for easier access to the camera, many travelers enjoy backpacks for being less cumbersome. Lowepro and Vidpro make a wide variety of cases that can suit your purposes.
There are replacement battery packs available and, for many models, there are rechargeable batteries with longer power capacities than that of the standard battery. Whether your camera uses AA, AAA, or dedicated rechargeable batteries, consider spare batteries when going on longer trips. If rechargeable, remember to always charge them overnight. Nothing is more sullen than wanting to shoot a great video opportunity and your camera power dies.
Although many camcorder models include image stabilization, a tripod may be extremely helpful when doing more critical video photography. You can also use a tripod to just mount the camcorder, turn it on, and allow yourself to be part of the action.
Though many camcorders are designed for use in low-light situations, several models may include a built-in color-enhancement light. Using brighter lighting improves color and image clarity. There are many external lights available that can connect to video cameras.
If you're camcorder records on DVD or MiniDV, keep an extra supply handy. Make sure you have spare memory cards handy if your camcorder uses them. If you've a hard drive camcorder without a separate memory card slot, you may want to invest in a portable hard drive or a netbook to store video images when on long trips. Remember that about 20 hours of standard definition recording memory translates to less than 10 hours as high definition.
Many of the new camcorders have significantly better image recording capabilities than those of two or three years ago. Flash and Hard Drive storage offer the most flexibility but are really designed to work with the aid of a computer for transferring images to other media and edit capabilities.
Size and weight of consumer camcorders are ounces instead of pounds, inches instead of feet. You'd be amazed at what some of these tiny camcorders can do. Yet they are easy to use while offering many new creative opportunities.
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