Camcorders are not the bulky monoliths that they were in the past. Today, portability and accessibility are not issues with the digital camcorders regularly available on the consumer market. However, there are also a host of features on some digital cameras that are designed to sound impressive while they offer no real value. It is of utmost importance that you know exactly which camera you need for your individual needs. It may be unwise to purchase a professional camera for birthday parties or a vacation. On the other hand, if you give your video presentation or attempt to make a short film with a poor, standard definition camera, you could be looking at a lost job or be laughed out of the viewing room.
This Camcorder buying guide will examine the precise features that matter in your digital camcorder as well as evaluate the best camcorders on the market to assist you in finding the one that is right for you.
Camcorder Specifications that Matter
The following camcorder specifications are the ones that you should look for when choosing your digital camcorder. By choosing a camcorder that meets these categories, you can be sure that any additional specifications will be adequate for your needs as well. It is important to ignore some of the extras that companies like to tack on to their products to make them impressive to the average customer that knows little about digital camcorders. These are often only a way to artificially increase the price of the camcorder without actually providing a better all around product.
Video Format: There are four different formats to which camcorders store the footage that they record. These include drive, flash, disc and miniDV. Regardless of the video format, it is also important to consider whether the camcorder records in standard or high definition. Common high definition capabilities include 720p, 1080i and 1080p. "i" after the number stands for interlaced scan while the "p" stands for progressive scan. While interlaced scan is high quality, progressive scan is the highest quality currently available for that level of lines. The highest definition available in camcorders in 1080p.
Camcorders that store to a drive need to other media such as a flash card or tape/disc. While this can be perfect for those that want to take their camcorder on a vacation, it is important to remember that the memory on these camcorders is limited and you would need to have a computer with you to transfer the files from the camcorder before filming more footage. Camcorders that use flash for memory have some memory capabilities tight on the camcorder but primarily rely on external drives similar to those found in digital cameras. Just as they sound, Camcorders that use a disc video format record the footage to a DVD disc (normal size or mini 3 inch). Finally, the type of camcorders preferred by professional videographers is the miniDV as they record footage to a high definition video tape that can de transferred easily to a computer for extensive editing.
Lenses: Two primary types of lenses are available for consumer cameras - wide angle and tele-extender. One important application of the wide angle lens is if you are recording an event where capturing a wider area would be beneficial - a school musical or sporting event, for example. A wide angle lens is necessary if you cannot move back any farther to record a wider area and still want to maintain some good picture quality. A tele-extender is a lens that allows distant objects to appear much closer than they are. This type of lens is often used in nature photography when getting closer to the subject would be difficult or dangerous. Tele-extender lenses come in magnification varieties. For example, a 5X tele-extender would make an object seem 5 times closer than it really is.
Focus: Most consumer camcorders will come equipped with automatic focus features - a must for any type of camcorder user. However, there should also be a manual focus feature through a dial directly on the camera or lens compatibility for manual focus features. For example, most of the focus work that independent filmmakers will use is performed on the external lens of the camera. However, for vacations or casual video recording, there is usually no need for manual focus on your camcorder. Excellent camcorders like the Canon XL1S MiniDV Camcorder are top of the line camcorders with interchangeable lens compatibility and focus control overrides (priced starting at around $1,399.00)
Exposure: Just like normal cameras, good camcorders should have both automatic and manual exposure features to alter the amount of light that is allowed to saturate the recording that you take. So, if you have a very bright scene, it would be optimal to allow less light into the camcorder. On the other hand, letting a great deal of light into the camcorder would help brighten the image and make it easier to see. A good example of a camcorder with all the exposure settings that you would ever need such as D-Range Optimizer, scene modes, white balance mode and minimum illumination is the Sony HDR-CX550V starting at about $1,049.00.
Ports and Connections: There are a few obvious ports that you will need, depending on the reason that you need the camcorder. For example, it is essential to buy a camcorder that has ports available for transfer to a computer - typically Fire wire or USB. Other ports that are essential for the casual or professional videographer are the ability to interchange external lenses and ports for microphones and headphones. Some digital camcorders also include ports for external lighting attachments but these are seldom necessary for professionals as the light sources in a scene are completely separate from the camera. However, for any professional videographer, it is absolutely crucial to have a port on the camera to hook up microphone equipment.
Additional Features: While many consumer camcorder features can just be extra fluff, there are some that can really assist you when creating your videos. For example, the camcorder buyer that does not know a great deal about video editing would benefit from buying a camcorder with bundled editing software. Touch screen LCD screens can also help to quickly change camcorder settings on the fly. Finally, digital effects available directly on the camcorder (such as distortion and laser focus) can really add to amateur videographers' videos without the need for intense editing sessions.
Finding the Right Camcorder for Your Needs
Many first time camcorder buyers make the mistake of thinking that the best overall camcorder will be the best for their needs, no matter the associated specifications. This is simply not true. For example, professional camcorders for creating independent films will be much bulkier than those that you would want to safely take on a vacation or trip. On the same note, high end mini camcorders designed for portability may be some of the best of their class, but they will likely not have the features necessary to be appropriate for filmmaking or even making movies that would be suitable for a business presentation or professional web site. The following are instructions on how to pick a camcorder based on the reason that you need it.
Filmmaking: Obviously, a good filmmaker camcorder must include top of the line features in video format, ports and connectors, lens exchanges and other features like exposure and focus. It needs to be 1080p and record to multiple formats such as the industry favorite, MiniDV tape and external flash device. The absolute best professional camera available to consumers is the Canon XL1S MiniDV camcorder with every possible feature that you could need for independent filmmaking. It is interesting to note that this is the same camcorder that was used to film some portions of the Danny Boyle zombie film "28 Days Later." This camera starts at around $1,400 but is well worth the price for the highest quality available to the consumer market.
Business Needs: A good business needs camcorder will have features that allow both for professional videography as well as direct from camcorder presentations. For example, either flash or drive storage is ideal and the camera should have bookmarking features so that you can split individual scenes directly on the camcorder. Finally, a good business camcorder should have a remote control feature or, ideally, video conferencing functionality on the device. The Canon VIXIA HG21 AVCHD 120 GB HDD Camcorder has some of the best business features in the industry and comes packaged with both video conferencing tools and a remote control for quick presentations. This camcorder is typically priced starting around $1,099.00.
Casual Family Use: One of the most important features for family camcorder use is ease. There should not be a great deal of features that could only confuse children using the camcorder. In addition, bulky camcorders could be easily broken if dropped or mishandled. One example of an affordable high definition camera that is perfect for family use is the Flip MinoHD camcorder. One of the smallest high definition camcorders on the market, the Flip MinoHD is small enough to fit in your pocket and can capture up to 120 minutes of high definition footage. It is also easy to use and accessible for all members of the family. There are only a few basic buttons on the camcorder and it is ready to use right out of the box.
Vacation: Some of the features to look for in a camcorder for vacation include portability and accessibility. You want your camcorder to function on any occasion. One of the best examples of an affordable and easy to use high definition camcorder is the waterproof Sanyo Xacti VPC-WH1. This camcorder uses 720p format and allows users to record up to 10 feet underwater with up to 30x optical zoom. Finally, you might not want to bring a laptop or extra tapes with you on your vacation. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-WH1 records video to an external flash drive to make it easier to transport and store memory. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-WH1 is affordable to the average vacationer starting at around $298.90.
Camcorder Product Overviews
Finally, provided here are overviews of some of the best camcorders on the market. Knowing about each of these camcorders' individual specifications and brand name qualities can help your camcorder purchase go by much easier.
The camcorders in the Sanyo Xacti series are designed with convenience and usability in mind with sleek designs and innovative features. Besides the waterproof VPC-WH1 series, The VPC - CS1 Sanyo Xacti camcorders feature a combination camera and full high definition camcorder in a device about the size of a small cellular phone. The VPC - HD2000A camcorders from the Sanyo Xacti series also feature functionality that allows quick and easy transfer of video files to a social media interface as well as acting as a fully functional camera. These camcorders focus on extra features such as image stabilization and face chasing applications for both pictures and video.
The Canon MiniDV series refers to the video format type used by the cameras and includes some of the absolute best camcorders in the industry. For example, the Canon XL2 3CCD MiniDV is the best camcorder offered by the company with enough features to accommodate Hollywood quality films. However, it is priced at around $3,500.00, making it out of the price range for most consumers. The Canon MiniDV series does extend even to the budget conscious range of camcorders with the Canon Elura 40MC MiniDV (around $99.99) for casual videographers. If you are looking to buy a professional digital camcorder for independent filmmaking, it would be best to look to the Canon MiniDV series first.
Sony HDR camcorders are a combination of professional features with a portable design. Sony HDR camcorders include the top of the line camcorders such as the HDR-CX55OV and XR550V but also more affordable camcorders such as the Sony HDR-CX350V starting at around $748.49. Sony HDR camcorders are designed to work perfectly in sync with iMovie on the Macintosh. Most camcorders in the series are capable of recording 1080p movies and taking 7 Megapixel pictures for storage on the same internal flash memory (starting at around 32 GB and climbing to about 240GB).
The Flip Mino HD series is specifically designed for portability without losing video quality. The general sizes of the camcorders in this series are around 4 inches tall x 2 inches wide to make them easy to fit inside your pocket. Models vary in both the amount of memory and customizable options that they feature but the top end model starts at around $279.99 and includes 16 GB of internal memory (about enough to record high definition video for 4 hours). The lowest priced model in the Flip Mino HD series starts at $149.99 and features 4 GB of internal memory - about 2 hours of recording time. All models include USB connectors to upload video to your computer.