Page is loading, just a sec...

Independent Camcorder buying advice

"Buy the best you can afford" is the only advice to be found on offer from many sources. Not really a lot of use to anyone. Hopefully this page will more than make up for this. Here you will find totally independent camcorder buying advice.

Firstly, you will need to consider the type of use you have in mind. It is pointless buying a camcorder that cannot do what you want to do with it. So, are you intending to record holidays, family occasions like birthdays, Christmas, parties, weddings etc, or are you planning to use it for something more specialised? Perhaps you need a camcorder for business use to provide staff training or promotional material. Maybe you intend to offer a wedding videography service, or perhaps need to produce video clips for a website. Whatever your reason for buying a camcorder, be as clear in your mind as you can be about the type of work you plan before buying.

With your particular use in mind you can now consider things such as format and output quality, physical size and ease of use, and also most importantly - your budget.

There are a number of media formats available, each with their own points for and against. The most popular types are the digital ones, but do not dismiss analogue types as they are still available and may have some advantages over digital for your particular needs. The most common digital formats are Digital8 and miniDV. Newer formats include microMV, RAM memory (cards/stick), DVD-R, DVD-RAM, and 8cm mini disc DVD-R and DVD-RAM. The very latest use an internal hard disc drive (HDD)

Which to choose? It's your choice - there is no difference in output quality from any of the digital formats except DVD and HDD, don't listen to anyone that tries to tell you different. They all output Digital Video. Some will also offer Mpeg (compressed) output. The only differences are those of physical size, media and price. The quality of results is not affected by tape size. Digital8 camcorders are larger than miniDV and microMV, but this may not always be a bad thing. Their extra bulk means they are less liable to 'camera shake' compared to smaller lighter formats. They are also less expensive to buy, with starting prices now well under 200 and tapes at around 3 each.

MiniDV and microMV camcorders and their tapes are much smaller and more compact than Digital8, which can be both an advantage and disadvantage, depending on your eyesight and the size of your fingers. Fine for the younger generation, but not so easy to use if you are getting on in years or have 'banana fingers'. The smaller size is of course a bonus if you dont want to be so obvious while filming. In some situations the results you get will be more natural if the subjects you are recording are not aware of the presence of the camcorder. Also it is a lot easier (and much lighter) to take one as hand luggage when travelling. MiniDV camcorders start in price at around 160 with tapes at about4, and MicroMV camcorders start around 1000+

DVD camcorders were the latest offering from some manufacturers. First was Hitachi, followed by Panasonic and then Sony. The great advantages of recording directly on to DVD disc (in MPEG2) are:

  1. The disc can be played back instantly on a wide range of DVD recorders and players
  2. Immediate random clip access during playback and editing
  3. Up to 100,000 rewrites with DVD-RAM
  4. Up to 12 hours recording per double sided disc in EP mode, 4 hours in high quality mode
  5. PC editing and DVD writing directly from master disc using DVD-R / DVD-RAM burner (Panasonic LFD521E or similar)
  6. Non PC editing. Produce DVD's using DVD recorder with built-in hard disc

With DVD-R / DVD-RAM burners now available under 30 and DVD-RAM discs well below 1 each, plus DVD recorders set to replace the domestic VCR, and with all the other advantages added on, this format must be considered seriously by anyone currently considering a new camcorder. This could well be the way to go both for the amateur and the professional videographer who is concerned with quality results and ease of use.

Also appearing on the market now is the HD (high definition) HDD camcorder. With a 30gb hard disc drive camcorder it is possible to record over 20 hours of video at a time. Even with full HD recording up to 4 hours with 5.1 audio is possible. Of course, no tapes or media cards a required with these ingenius camcorders. Best of all, these new camcorders are so affordable. They will really come into their own as HD and blue-ray recorders become more and more affordable. HDD camcorders have many advantages and offer 16:9 widescreen format, high definition picture, 5.1 audio capture

Confusion marketing rules.... Just as much in the camcorder marketplace as in others. Take a look at the Mobile Phone 'Deals' currently on offer to see what I mean. 'Free' monthly text's, 'Free' monthly minutes talk-time, this plan, that plan, the list goes on.

Why do Camcorder manufacturers offer so many different models? To try and grab the largest possible share of the market as they can. This is good in as much as a strong demand for products from a number of different manufacturers means no one maker can dominate the market, and dictate prices. The nett result of competition within the marketplace is competitive pricing, which is what has led to so much more affordable products than just a few years ago.

So, what do we need to look for in choosing a Camcorder. The most important 'features' to be aware of are those that affect the image quality. These are the lens firstly, then the CCD (charge coupled device), which is the part of your camcorder or digital camera that converts the image from the lens into a digital 'signal' or data.

First the lens: - the most important part of any camcorder or camera. Most camcorder users will want to be able to 'zoom in' to their subject either to compose the shot or to 'get in closer' to a distant subject. So look for a lens with a usefull optical zoom range. 10X or more on a larger format camcorder, 20X to 25X on a Digital8, 15X to 25X on MiniDV,10X on DVD are most usefull.

IGNORE ANY DIGITAL ZOOM figure given for a particular camcorder. Digital zoom is used as a selling feature to impress those buyers that think 'bigger numbers are better'. They are not. Massive digital zooms are effected within the camera or camcorder at the direct expense of picture quality. A digital zoom above 50X to 100X would probably never give acceptable results for most users.

Also, while considering the lens, remember that only some lenses allow for the fitting of filters, teleconverters, etc. Will this be relevant to your needs? Better to find out sooner rather than later.

Now the CCD: - Probably less likely to be considered when choosing a camcorder compared to choosing a digital camera, particularly by the less experienced buyer. Its importance however is equally as great when it comes to video picture quality, and therefore must be taken into account when choosing a suitable camcorder for your needs.

It can often be less than easy to discover the CCD's specification of a particular camcorder, but not impossible. The Internet can be a usefull tool here. Typing the model number into a search engine will normally flush out independent reviews as well as manufacturers spec sheets giving this information.

The CCD's output in megapixels is mainly dependent on its size. Sizes are quoted in decimal fractions of a square centimetre or square inch so be sure to compare like for like. Stick with megapixels if you can. The number of CCD's will normally be either 1 or 3. A 3CCD camcorder will have the image from the lens optically seperated into 3 images, one of each colour (i.e. red, blue, green). The resulting images are then converted into digital data by their respective colours CCD, and then recorded on the media as digital video. This gives a much-increased quality of recording, with an output of over 4 megapixels currently available. Three CCD camcorders are more expensive than single CCD ones, but if picture quality is at the top of your list of requirements and your budget allows, then go for one of the many professional or semi-professional models available. Some will also double up as a very capable stills camera. Two camera's for the price of one?

Other points to look for are:

  • Manual Focus and Exposure. Although auto focus and exposure mean it is relatively easy to get 'up and running' with your camcorder and produce quite good results, most people will want to take a more 'hands on' role in their video productions eventually. Manual control of these two features is important.

  • Connectivity. DV output (known as firewire, I.Link etc). This is the most preferable method of connection when transferring digital data from camcorder to a computer. Very fast data transfer speed. Also allows editing software to control camcorder playback functions. DV out is not normally provided, nor required, on HDD or DVD camcorders. Instead they usually connect to a computer using USB 2.0 and to a HD TV or HD / blue-ray DVD recorder using a HDMI lead

  • DV In - not all camcorders have DV In enabled. It is disabled on some models as an import quota workaround. This is not a problem as it is possible to obtain a DV In enabler gadget (sometimes known as a widget), should you wish to output your edited video from the PC back to your camcorder tape. Normally most users will prefer to output from their PC to normal video tape, VCD or DVD disc, a data file on disc or to the World Wide Web, so DV In is not vital by any means.

  • S-Video (composit analogue video, higher picture quality than phono output with minimal loss of quality.

  • Video phono output ( analogue output, lower quality than the other two output options).

  • Lanc remote jack (connects the camcorder to a wired or wireless remote control).

  • Headphone output jack (allows monitoring of audio track during recording).

  • Mic input jack (allows use of external microphone instead of built in mic).

  • Also when buying, check external power source socket can be used with battery in place. Not all camcorders allow this useful function.

  • Macro Mode: - can be a good feature for close-up work if you know you will use it.

  • Low and No Light - (lux is the unit of light) allows use in low lighting and total darkness using an infrared light (built in to most camcorders that support this). Can be important to some users, however normal shooting requires good lighting to produce good images. Sometimes called Nightshot. Typically 2 lux to zero lux quoted by manufacturers.

  • Remote Control - infrared and wired remote controls are either supplied with the camcorder or available seperately. Can be usefull.

  • Hotshoe - can be usefull in some situations. Takes a video light, shotgun microphone, etc.

Points to ignore:

  • Digital Zoom. Available at direct expense of picture quality. If you need higher zoom power than your camcorders optical zoom, consider a 2X teleconverter or telephoto lens rather than using digital zoom.

  • In Camera Digital Effects. Titles, playback zoom, picture effects, fader, audio dub, etc. etc. All of these added selling points can be ignored these days when choosing a camcorder,as they are all available at the editing stage. If applied 'in camera' you are stuck with them forever on your master tape or disc.

  • Snapshot mode. This is not so important for most users as any video editing program will provide the ability to save any single frame from your footage as either a bitmap or JPEG image, which you can then open, edit, crop and print from any photo editing program such as photoshop.

Explore Your Alternatives:

  • One thing is certain when choosing a camcorder, you are spoilt for choice. Just when you thought you had enough direction to start making an intelligent buying decision I am going to provide you with a couple more avenues to explore. Options, options, options !!

  • Buying v's hiring. If you are going to be making just a few high quality videos or DVD's, perhaps for business or comercial purposes then consider hiring professional or broadcast quality equipment instead of buying.

  • New v's secondhand. A number of photographic and consumer electronics shops have good secondhand bargains on offer from time to time. Normally at about half the cost of new kit, with all the advantages of new (i.e. full guarantee period, servicing, spares, backup, etc.). These offers can mean affording a better spec. camcorder than you may otherwise manage. Often the items have had very little use and are in 'as new' condition, having been part exchanged for the very latest all singing all dancing model which does exactly the same job !!

  • Domestic v's Professional v's Broadcast. Remember what was said at the beginning of this page. If you only need to produce short video clips for web pages consider a digital stills camera. Many will take up to 5 or more minutes of video at 15 frames per second with a 0.3-megapixel resolution. This is more than adequate for web use and will cost around 50. At the other end of the scale are professional and broadcast quality units. The price of these when new needs some serious thought before parting with your money, but the results produced in terms of picture quality speak for themselves. They are of course much bulkier than your average camcorder, and a cheap secondhand Betacam or similar will still set you back between 500 and 1000.

The first two items here are both important, if not vital.

  • A good strong carrying bag, or better still an aluminium case, will repay you by keeping all your kit together and protected during transport.

  • There is no getting away from it, there is no substitute for a good tripod when it comes to making professional looking videos, and the cost of one (from around 25 upwards) should be seen as money well invested. However, it is not always practical to use a tripod and in those situations a monopod can provide the required steadying support (from 12 upwards).

  • Microphones built in to most camcorders have traditionally been 'just acceptable' in their performance, but can be improved by applying some windshielding. A little improvisation with some neutral coloured fur fabric material can provide a seriously worthwhile reduction in the level of wind noise picked up. Alternatively a hand held mic can improve results in some situations, or a shotgun mic, a radio mic or dish mic for directional or distance work.

  • Aditional battery power will possibly be needed at some stage and one or two spare batteries will prove usefull. They can be expensive however, so consider one or two alternatives to buying large capacity manufacturer branded batteries (e.g. Lithium Ion). A 12V car power adapter may be available to suit your particular camcorder which can both power the camcorder while in use on location, and recharge the battery when not filming. A spare heavy duty car battery plus a 12V 'cigar lighter' type socket with a lead terminated with croc clips from a motor accessory shop, when used with a camcorders 12V adapter, will give very long term (24 hours+) portable video power for less outlay than one Lithium Ion battery.

  • Spare tapes are a must of course, and should always be 'striped' as soon as you get them. Fast forward and then rewind each new tape to re-tension it, and then record from start to end (with the lens cap on) to record one single continous timecode track.

  • There are of course many other accessories available, but most can be obtained as and when needed. The only other 'must have' is a good lens cleaner.

Do Your Homework:

Armed with a clearer picture of what you are looking for, what you will be using it for, and how much you expect to pay, you are now ready to track down the right camcorder for you. Shop around. Use the internet to check out independent reviews and recomendations and to compare the best deals on offer when you have decided which make and model of camcorder is most suited to your needs. Take your time and remember, it's a buyers market. Make it work for you. Happy Hunting !!