How to choose the right digital camcorder
Camcorders used to be the size of Lancashire, and lifting one required irresponsible use of protein supplements. No longer. Today, you could be as slim as me (!) and have no problem handling these beautiful digital works of photographic art. Today’s camcorders (see some reviews here) are small, light, easy to use and easy to edit.
You get a better picture, great sounds and you don’t lose quality each time you play the footage. You can also create effects that would keep Hollywood happy. But where do you start? Features can be tricky to get your head round. Are you a beginner, an intermediate, or a mini-Spielberg?
Want to point your camera roughly in the direction of things (or people), press record and then play the action back on the telly? You need a basic camcorder. For as little as £150, you can get a machine that features automatic controls and very few buttons. These examples record on to mini-DV tapes, you replay your footage by plugging the camera, with tape inserted, into the TV (or PC) with special leads.
Nothing wrong with these cameras, but the optical zoom will be limited (up to 20x), as will the manual overrides. Huh? Yes, some camcorders allow you to override the default settings to get special effects that you want rather than the one the camcorder automatically adjusts to. The image stabilisation on these cheaper models can also be poor, meaning camera shake is a problem.
Type of camera: Budget, Basic or Entry
Price range: £120 to £250
Features: Automatic operation, LCD screen, 10/20x optical zoom
Examples: Panasonic NV-GS80, Canon MV930, Sanyo Xacti HD1A.
OK, moving on. You read the beginners’ stuff above and found yourself tutting. You want to do more. Like edit your recordings on your PC. Cool, but you’ll need one with a FireWire or i.Link connection. Every consumer digital video camcorder has a FireWire socket. It means you can transfer video footage onto a PC, another camcorder or a digital video cassette recorder.
Great, now you can add effects or soundtracks, and generally muck about with your footage. Models with this functionality start at around £300. For this you’ll get optical zoom of 25x or greater, and more manual options. These might include manual focus override, which helps when shooting in low light. Your LCD screen will probably be bigger than on a budget camera, too, and you’ll get high-quality still shots so no need for a separate digital camera.
Type of camera: Intermediate
Price range: £300 to £1000
Features: Editing, larger LCD screen, manual override, 25x optical zoom or more
Examples: Canon MV X350i, Panasonic HDC-SD5EG-K, Sony Handycam HDR-SR5E
Fancy making a film or some extra money doing professional looking wedding videos? At the top end of the market, you can get digital camcorders for not much over £1000 on which you can shoot a movie. Whether you’ll bag any Golden Globes might be down to your talent, but the digital features should help.
Optical zoom will be impressive, at 48x or more. You’ll also get three CCDs. Just run that past me again? Three-CCD (charged-coupled device) cameras offer better image quality than one-CCD cameras. In short, they take a separate reading of red, green, and blue values for each pixel. This makes them much more precise so the quality is better.
These digital camcorders will also come with sophisticated electronics to help you cope with awkward lighting. You can even buy digital camcorders that can play back on High Definition TV.
Type of camera: Advanced
Price range: £1000+
Features: Three CCDs, editing, better electronics, 48x optical zoom, manual override, HD TV playback
Examples: Canon XM2, Sony HVR-Z1, Panasonic VDR-D160EG-S
Points to ponder
Your digital camcorder could come equipped like the space shuttle and look like a Bugatti Veyron, but if you’re not comfortable with its weight or shape, none of that will matter. Ergonomics are important. All the main controls should be handy and you should feel at ease and balanced when using it. Try out the digital camcorder market ask questions, have a play. You know it makes sense.
Shaky hands? If you can’t keep your digital camcorder steady, your recording quality will suffer. Thankfully, almost all new digital camcorders now come with image stabilisation. This is sometimes electronic, occasionally optical. Some downmarket electronic versions can create distortion. Our advice? Try a tripod. Alternatively, bring your elbows in towards your body and slow your breathing slightly.
Zoom Zoom! Zooming is cool. It’s a big feature. Pay attention to the optical zoom range, less so than the digital zoom numbers. This is because optical zoom is based on internal lens movement. Digital zoom works by increasing the size of the pixels in the picture which can result in an unnatural, ‘stair-stepped’ appearance. Optical zoom on basic digital camcorders is usually up to the order of 10x; on prestige models this can rise to 26x. Watch out for models claiming digital zoom extending into the hundreds. This might be true, but your pictures will look grainier than a bowl of brown rice.
Yes, even though you last watched a video when the mullet was considered a fashionable hairstyle, digital camcorders still use tape in the form of mini-DVs. Becoming more popular are solid-state memory, where video is recorded directly onto a card like the ones used on standard digital cameras, and DVDs. If you want to play mini-DVs away from your telly, you’ll have to download the tapes onto a computer and burn the data onto a DVD.
Your digital camcorder might record onto flash memory, secure digital cards or memory sticks. The amount of data they hold varies and they can be expensive. Shop around and ask questions, but don’t always go for the cheapest.
You can choose from three speeds in tape formats; standard, long and extended. In analogue formats, slower speed affects picture quality, but not with digital camcorders.
This is solid geek territory but, basically, FireWire enables you to use an editing program on your PC to muck about with your footage. If this was a FireWire advert, we’d probably say that it means big savings in time and money connecting devices here, there and everywhere, leaving more time for doing what you do best – making spectacular movies. Yuk. If your PC has no FireWire connection, you can buy a card quite cheaply.
What about battery life? Depends on whether you use Nickel Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydrate or Lithium. Nickel Mickel what? Nickel Cadmium is probably the longest-lasting and most reliable, but it’s heavy and toxic. It’s up to you and your environmental conscience. Not that we’re into guilt trips. Bottom line? In short, most batteries in digital camcorders will last about an hour.
Want to override those boring old default settings? With manual override, you can get the effect you want rather than the effect the camera believes you’re after, and overriding manual focus can be great when light is scarcer than a Manx cat’s tail. But, beware: changing default settings can be tricky. Choose your camcorder carefully.
Want to take great still shots? Why spend money on a digital camera as well, when you can get photos on your camcorder? Some camcorders store stills on a memory card. You can then transfer them to a PC or Laptop. Stills quality on a digital camera is usually much better, so think carefully about whether you want this feature.
Hope that helps a bit. Now go and have a look in our Digital Camcorder Review section to find the camcorder that’s right for you. And if all this has left you none the wiser, perhaps sir should consider a Super-8 cine camera?
Copyright Gadget Heaven™ 2008.
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