Camcorders Buyer's Guide
Like digital cameras, digital camcorders also use a CCD (charge couple device) to convert images electronically into pixels much in the same way as a digital camera would do. The majority of models use a single CCD, although for the clearest results camcorders with three CCD's are available at a slightly higher cost.
Camcorders are now coming of age, several years ago Camcorder were bulky, heavy objects which took large tapes and needed an even large bag to carry everything in. At the moment there is a choice between camcorder formats including digital tape, DVD, hard drive and digital memory cards.
Mini DV camcorders were once the most popular on the market and they give near broadcast quality results. You record your film onto the tapes then play back the tape into either a TV for instant viewing or onto a PC for editing. These camcorders are the cheapest and best value at the moment, and can be connected directly to a PC for editing.
After Mini DV, came the DVD camcorders, which record all your video onto DVDs, so you would just slot your DVD into the camcorder, press record, and you've got ready made near broadcast quality DVDs so you can instantly access the section you're looking for and also then eject the DVD and play it straight away on your home DVD player.
Computer type hard drives then appeared on camcorders. Using a hard drive camcorder gives you lots of space to record hours of footage and itís probably then most easiest way to record your movies. The camcorder keeps your films on internal memory, so there are no tapes or discs involved, you can just record your footage, plug the camcorder into the TV and watch your videos. Also, you can still plug the camcorder into a PC if you want to edit your films to create inventive masterpieces. Hard Drive camcorders give near broadcast quality recordings.
An ultra-compact digital camcorder format introduced by Sony. MicroMV's are smaller versions of the standard MiniDV camcorders. They are ultra-compact, easy to use and give excellent picture quality with sophisticated features.
SD Memory Card
These are the latest type of camcorder, which are usually used by High Definition camcorders which will record in either 720p or 1080p resolutions. Making sure you have enough memory cards at a large enough capacity can be a problem, as you can roughly record 2hours of footage onto an 8GB SD card.
Features to look for:
Ergonomics: Make sure the camcorder is nice size and weight, so that it is light to carry and use and fits comfortably in your hands.
Zoom: The zoom feature is a key feature on a camcorder. The ability to get closer to your subjects can make a huge difference. The optical zoom ranges are the most important. These move the image closer by internal lens movement. Basic camcorders will allow you to zoom in by a factor of 10. Others will let you get 26 times closer. Look out for models proclaiming their digital zoom factors. Some will claim 400 times magnification but picture quality will usually suffer in this process.
Image stabilisation: Failure to hold a camcorder steady will result in shaky and jerky recordings. To keep this to a minimum almost all camcorders have some form of image stabilisation device, usually electronic but sometimes optical. Poorer electronic ones can cause loss of sharpness or resolution.
Recording formats: Choose the recording format that is right for you, see our guide to recording formats above.
Recording time: See if your camcorder allows you to record in differing quality types, as a lower quality recording will mean you can fit more video onto your chosen recording media. In tape-based formats there is usually a choice of three speeds, standard, long and extended to allow for greater recording time. Unlike their analogue counterparts slower speed has little impact on picture quality with digital camcorders. With card- and disc-based formats there will be a compromise between recording time available and mode selected.
Firewire: If you are going to use an editing program on your PC to manipulate recordings then a Firewire connection will speed up the process of data transfer. Cheaper camcorders may only have a USB connection. This is adequate for transferring still photos but could mean some data loss with moving images. Check also that your PC has a Firewire connection - cards are around £25 if you need to add one. Sony has its own version of Firewire connection called i.link.
Battery life: This will depend on the type of battery you are using, the speed at which you are recording and the recording mode that you have selected. There are three main types, NiCad, NiMH and Lithium Ion (Li-Ion). Lithium is lighter than the others, and therefore becoming the standard, but the key point is that some camcorders will only use one type.
There are rechargeable options available for camcorders. Sony's InfoLithium batteries will give you information about their capacity and amount of recording time left in the corner of the LCD screen.
Most batteries supplied with camcorders have an average usage time of one hour. The mAh rating is an indication of comparative battery life - the higher the mAh the longer it should last.
Programmed Auto Exposure modes: Automatically set for a variety of recording conditions AE modes can be a massive help for new and less confident users. Typical modes might be Landscape, Portrait and Sports each of which have different default controlling elements like focus, shutter speed and exposure designed to get you a successful image.
Manual overrides: Some camcorders will allow you to override default settings to get the effect that you want rather than the one the camcorder "thinks" you want. Changing default settings can be difficult on some models, but advanced users can get more from their machine by exploiting these features - a manual focus override, for example, can be extremely useful in low light situations.
External microphone: Most camcorders come with an internal microphone as standard. The advantage of an external microphone is slightly better sound recording performance and less chance of picking up the internal noise of the camcorder on the soundtrack, useful for more professional camcorder shoots!
Digital stills: Some digital camcorders can be used to take digital stills. These are stored on a memory card and can be transferred to a PC for further use. Most digital cameras will provide better quality pictures but it may be a useful additional feature on your camcorder if you don't already have a digital camera.
Check how many megapixels the camcorder will record, you may notice it to be a lot lower than your digital camera.
Most camcorders have just the one CCD sitting behind the lens which changes the light that hits it, into your picture. The advantage of a 3CCD is that it gives you better quality of image as it has a sensor for each of the three primary colours.
This gives you a noticeably higher quality image and improves the overall colour balance of your image. You will find when looking at camcorders you pay a lot more for this feature but it does give noticeably improved image quality over standard CCD models.
After purchasing a camcorder you may find you require some extra accessories to get the most out of the camcorder, or when purchasing your camcorder look for bundle deals which may include many of the camcorder accessories mentioned below:
Tapes and disks: Prices and the amount of recording times will vary according to format and mode of recording. Tape cassettes (MiniDV,Hi8) are cheaper than disks which are cheaper than memory cards. But prices come down all the time as technology advances.
Editing software: Many digital camcorders are supplied with connections to a PC and editing software that you can download to make a professional job of your recordings. Soundtracks, visual effects, and time and date of recording can all be added. Other editing software packages can be bought which offer a lot more features and produce more professional results.
Camcorder batteries: Lithium or NiCad? Rechargeable or not? Whatever your choice the chances are you will be in the market for spare or replacement batteries sooner than you think, larger celled and powered batteries will also mean the camcorder will work for longer without a recharge, although more power usually means making the camcorder a bit heavier.
Tripods: The mechanical method to maintain image stabilisation. Tripods are light, easy to use and will guarantee a steady camcorder recording picture free from shaking and jerkiness. There are various types of tripods, some light and some heavier and more stable, they are all fairly similar and all come with standard brackets that will attach to your camcorder or digital camera.
Carrying bags: The best way to take care of your valuable equipment when you're out in the field is to purchase a camcorder bag, most often bags and cases for your equipment do not come supplied.
Wide Angle Lenses: Using a different lens on your camcorder will give you the option of a different point of view and the chance to create different effects. Check the thread size of the camcorder lens, which will be in millimeters and then purchase the correct lens.
Head cleaners: These will be important if you purchase a tape based camcorder, as keeping tape heads and sound guides clean can mean better recordings and a longer life for your camcorder. There are cleaning products for all formats, some wet, some dry.
Memory Card readers: If you purchase a memory card based camcorder then you can either connect the camcorder directly to your PC, or extract the memory card and use a card reader which are fairly cheap. These devices connect to your PC usually via USB and you will be able to read your camcorder memory card with them.
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