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CamcorderHow to Buy a Camcorder

Features and ease of use are most important

Boy, have these things grown up (while shrinking!), in the years since the VCR and video camera metamorphosed into one piece of equipment! The new digital camcorders now rival the best of what you can get from professional broadcast equipment, while even entry level camcorders are crawling with features, many of which you might not even use.

These home movie machines have now shrunk to the point where the tiniest of them are hardly bigger than a package of cigarettes (depending upon what size of cigarette packs are available in your corner of the world, of course). It seems that, if not for the size of the tapes on which you record, camcorders could be dime-sized.

Picture and audio quality on today's camcorders varies quite widely, though even an inexpensive unit will give you more than acceptable video and sound under normal shooting circumstances. Probably your biggest worry about picture quality is not jiggling the tiny things too much, and you most pressing audio concern is remembering that everything you say (even almost under your breath) will be picked up by the microphone.

But we digress. This is about buying a camcorder, not using it. For camcorder shooting advice, check out "How to Shoot Vacation Videos That Don't Cause a Stampede," at the other end of the link.

Okay, one other bit of advice: shoot on the fastest tape speed your camcorder will allow. This will give you the best quality. The issue isn't as serious as it used to be, because even slow speed recording is pretty good, but why opt for anything less than the best you can get? Don't worry about the extra money you'll spend on tape. Tape's cheap and available just about everywhere.

When buying a camcorder, you have to decide which format of machine you want. There are several: VHS (though these aren't as common anymore), VHS-C (little tapes that, with an adapter, play back on a VHS VCR), 8mm, and the new digital format. There are also high resolution versions of the VHS and 8mm formats, called SuperVHS (or S-VHS), S-VHS-C and Hi8mm. Digital beats 'em all for picture quality, but the average consumer can write it off for a few more years until the price comes down to earth.

Each format has its advantages and disadvantages. Full size VHS camcorders are the most stable without technological intervention (the little camcorders can have "image stabilization" doohickeys built in) and the tapes are completely compatible with any VHS VCR. They're also bigger and bulkier than the little guys, so they take up more room when travelling and weigh more heavily on your shoulder. On the other hand, you can rent a movie on vacation (if you run out of landmarks to visit) and play it in the motel room.

VHS-C tapes only record up to half an hour on the fast speed and you need to use the abovementioned adapter to play back the tapes in your VHS VCR. Still, it's surprising how much of an event you can actually get on a half hour tape. Standard VHS tapes won't fit into a VHS-C camcorder, however, so forget about renting movies.

8mm tapes are about the size of an audio cassette, and the standard speed gives you two hours of recording. The big drawback is that the tapes won't fit into anything but an 8mm VCR (and, while there are a few, they're certainly not common). This means when you play back your tape you have to use the camcorder, plugging it into your TV, VCR, or receiver. This isn't usually a big deal, though it does add wear and tear to the camcorder (the other camcorder formats share the wear and tear with the home VCR).

Which format's best? It doesn't matter. The VHS's and the 8mm's (high and "regular" resolution) have comparable quality to each other as long as you compare high res with high res etc. You have to figure out which is the most convenient for your lifestyle, which is the easiest for you to use, which one's going to do the best job for you.

Look for features you'll actually use. You'll probably get more than you need regardless of which camcorder you buy, but don't get talked into a camcorder because it has "auto-XYZ" if that's not something you care about.

Try out each type of camcorder before you buy. Many stores have their camcorders displayed on tripods, aimed at a cute display. That's fine, and you should try the camcorders in that environment, especially if you're planning to use a tripod. But you should also hold them in your hand, put 'em to your eye, and shoot - or at least pretend to shoot. Play with the features and see which one feels best for you.

Are the buttons placed logically? Can you find them by feel, while staring through the viewfinder? Can you see sharp images through the viewfinder? This latter may depend on the adjustment of the viewfinder, too, so make sure the salesperson shows you how to do that.

Sound quality can vary widely, too, though if you get a Hi-Fi camcorder your audio will be very good. Perhaps just as important is your microphone. All camcorders have a mic built into the unit, and this is okay for most purposes. They will, however, pick up wind and any other extraneous noise (including you), which can mar the sound from the people or place you're trying to record. As mentioned earlier, a 'remote mic' can help here.

Here are some of the features you'll probably run across on your search for the perfect camcorder:

  • AUTOFOCUS - as the name suggests, the machine takes care of the focusing for you. It can sometimes be a little slow, but it generally does a pretty good job and most (if not all) autofocus settings can be overridden so you can take care of the job yourself if you feel so inclined. Autofocus is usually just fine for home movies.
  • AUTO EXPOSURE - This is the easiest way to ensure you get the proper lighting on your shots, and it usually works well. Sometimes, however, like in "backlit" (where the light source is behind your subject) or low light situations, you'll want to override it. Most camcorders give you a couple of varieties on the automatic setting, and some even let you handle the exposure manually. Remember, too, that camcorders today have very "low light level" capabilities, which means they'll perform in almost less light than your eyes can handle. Beware this, though, or your footage will look dark and grainy, regardless of what the light rating says. Still, a reasonably lit room will give you good results; you should have an auxiliary light available for emergencies.
  • COLOUR VIEWFINDER - As the name suggests, this is a nice wrinkle, though it's also more expensive (and rarer) than the little black and white viewfinders most camcorders have. They're getting more popular though, and camcorders like the "viewcams" have larger LCD screens mounted right on the back of the camcorder, which makes shooting much easier.
  • DATE/TIME LABELLING - Wanna keep a record of when you shot your movie? Just about any camcorder will let you, and some will let you display the information for just a few seconds before it disappears from the screen.
  • EDITING - Some camcorders will let you do some reasonably sophisticated editing right in the machine. This still doesn't replace two units and a switcher for sophistication, though. If you're serious about editing, buy the extra equipment.
  • FADE OUT - This adds a professional touch to your movie, by fading the picture to black and fading your next shot in from black. It makes scene transitions look a little more 'arty' and can also make editing later easier 'cause there's a distinct break between shots.
  • IMAGE STABILIZATION - Electronic or optical system that works to minimize jiggling from your hand-held camcorder. Electronic systems don't generally work as well as optical, though of course they're cheaper. Want to get the best result? Buy a tripod.
  • MICROPHONE JACK - This is the plug for the remote mic we mentioned earlier, for people who want to maximize the sound from their subject while minimizing extraneous stuff like wind or the camcorder operator.
  • REMOTE CONTROL - Wonderful for playing back your epic, or getting into the action yourself. For the latter, mount the camcorder on a tripod, set up the scene through the viewfinder, then run into the action and start recording via the remote.
  • SHUTTER SPEED - This is the number of images recorded each second (the number of times the shutter opens and closes each second). It's usually automatic, but many camcorders let you control it manually, too. A faster shutter speed will give you a cleaner slow motion playback, which is nice if you want to study your golf swing, or a hummingbird assaulting your garden. Faster shutter speeds require more light to do them justice.
  • TITLE GENERATOR - A (usually) built in "character generator" that lets you put your own credits on your home movie. Some of these can be quite sophisticated, with different fonts, colours, etc. while others just give you basic titles.
  • WHITE BALANCE - Time was when you had to point your camera at a white card to set it up for shooting. A lot of professional equipment still makes you do this, but virtually all camcorders take care of this automatically. Some let you do the balancing act (which ensures that white objects look white regardless of the lighting conditions) manually as well.
  • WIDESCREEN - Some camcorders let you "letterbox" your home movies, giving you the same widescreen look you can get with laserdiscs. This is kind of cool, especially if you're going beyond the simple vacation video and attempting something artistic. Widescreen is also nice if you're shooting in spectacular vistas (wonder if that's why some widescreen movies used to be called "VistaVision?").
  • ZOOM RATIO - this indicates how apparently close you can get to your subject. Common ratios are 8:1 or 12:1. Many camcorders also offer a "digitally-enhanced" zoom that gives much higher ratios, but remember that these are electronically "fudged" and may not give the same quality as a real zoom.


It makes sense to have extra batteries, 'cause they always run out when you're about to do (or halfway through) your most important shot. Carrying cases are nice, too, especially for bigger or more expensive camcorders; just dangling them from the shoulder strap lets them flop around and possibly bang into something. If you're planning to watch videos on vacation, make sure you bring along the adapter that lets you hook the camcorder into an ordinary TV. Most camcorders should come with such an adapter.

Good Luck!


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January 31, 2006