Key Features and Tips for Selecting a Great Camcorder
First off, let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Almost all consumer devices these days are capable of taking some video, from cellphones to point-and-shoot compact digital camera to DSLR cameras capable of taking HD video. So what’s the point in buying a camcorder anymore?
The answer is similar to why there’s more than just minivans out on the highway. You need different tools to accomplish different jobs, even if they seem to have the same basic action (to drive; to take videos). Can’t have a serious economy without trucks. Can’t have real filming work done without a real digital video camera.
Advantages of a Camcorder
For the sake of this article however, let us say that you don’t want to go film school.
Professionals may decide to choose between a high-end camcorder or high-end DSLR camera, or have and use either depending on their needs at the time, but you don’t need that much if you just want to record important events or conduct interviews or make video evidence. You’re a teacher, you’re a lawyer, you’re a doctor, you’re a mother looking up at a stage play, and you’re a father at the sports field. Your needs are different, and as varied as your lifestyle.
You could do more than just try to record the event with an iPhone or something. Future-you will thank you for the memories perfectly captured in time – instead of messing around with expensive aftermarket accessories, motion blur and bright lights, and even more time wasted in post-production.
All other devices compromise between a feature (taking videos) and what they’re actually designed for (taking still pictures, being a media player, being a phone) but perhaps the worst is that they’re not actually designed for fit in your hand for extended amounts of time.
There’s a reason why camcorders are shaped as they are, and that’s because they’re meant to fit in the most comfortable position for your hand and wrist. You risk not just unsteady/slippery hands and shaky video, but because the grip is wrong your phone or compact digicam can get knocked out of your hand if you’re bumped or hit with a stray ball or some other random thing.
Woop. Shattered on the ground. So while trying to avoid that, minding your grip adds tension to your wrists. Compact camcorders are held in a strong ‘pistol grip’ or come with straps hooked around your palms for this reason.
Sure, you could use a tripod, but then that loses the whole point of a portable device – so you can chase your children and pets around as they have fun, follow along motion shots in a game or pan across a scene.
- Better Sensors and HD video
Which leads to the second point – digital camcorders are just inherently better at taking full-motion video than any other device. They have large image sensors that capture light with little noise (which is much more important than mere megapixels) and with shutter speed at 60fps for super-clear action.
All modern budget camcorders can take HD video at 720p, while most mid-range camcorders can take full HD video at 1080p at 60fps. Only high end digital cameras match this capability.
Furthermore, there’s more to taking video than just image quality. Camcorder audio pickup tend to be much more sensitive to audible ranges and may filter out unnecessary sounds automatically.
Pocket or Handheld?
Pocket camcorders are very inexpensive, and may be little larger than a smartphone. On the negative, they typically don’t have much memory, have little zoom, and run out of batteries relatively quickly. On the positive, because of their small size many are manufactured with weatherproofing.
The handheld camcorder is the one we’re most familiar with, often with a viewfinder you can hold up to your eyes. Heavier, but with a larger LCD screen and often more ports for connecting to PCs and TVs.
Surprisingly, the price differential between pocket and handheld camcorders is much to variable. There are pocket cameras that are much more expensive than larger handhelds. Capabilities, more than the chassis, governs the price tag.
Which one should you buy? It depends on your planned usage and budget. In general, take a pocket camcorder if you plan on just walking around; and a handheld if you don’t mind toting along a bag and if you think your video-taking will take a while.
Now let’s have a look at the main features that you a) shouldn’t do without, b) will be very helpful, and c) will be useful only if you intend on making videos a serious part of your work or hobby.
Top Ten Camcorder Features You Should Consider Before Buying
1) Optical Zoom Lenses
No matter what type of subject or event you wish to record, a camcorder with optical zoom is a must. Most pocket camcorders have 5X optical zoom as the basic, but 10X zoom is preferable. Also take note of the focal length of the lenses on your camcorder – lower boundaries (30mm or less) means better and broader landscape shots without fish-eye distortion, while higher values (45mm or more) means greater zoom. A range that goes from 35-55mm is comparable to the stock digital camera.
Note the difference between this focal length and the zoom rating. Camcorders that promise up to 120X zoom with a tiny lens are really only using digital zoom. Larger handheld camcorders with larger lenses are far more reliable at giving up to 30X optical zoom.
This is a very useful feature for pocket cameras. Water-resistant, fog-resistant, winter-resistant; if you ever plan on taking your camera outdoors (and you should, after all that’s why pocket camcorders are such tiny yet powerful packages) then make sure your camera can handle any unexpected spills or changes in the weather. Many pocket cameras are also underwater cameras with little increase in price.
3) Photo Capture
In a not-so-surprising reversal, a digital video camera can also take still photographs the same way a compact digital camera can also capture video. They often have the same type of image sensors. When considering a camera for photo shooting, look for autofocus, scene modes, and other features you may expect in a point-and-shoot digital camera.
4) Image Resolution
If you want to upload videos just to Youtube and other online sites? A pocket camera with 720p is good enough. You want to record and event to display later on a high-def TV or burn to a DVD for sharing with friends and family? Spring for a camcorder that takes at least 1080p videos.
5) Software and Computer Compatibility
Some cameras have features that make them “Youtube-ready“, such as automatic compression for videos you’ve taken. Some camcorders are “Skype-ready“, in which if you plug them into your PC through USB, they function as a webcam. Some cameras with WiFi can automatically upload to Youtube or a cloud service to save you the hassle of transferring movie files to the computer.
Most pocket cameras only have a USB port (and charge through said port). Larger cameras may have HDMI and other ports to easily connect to a PC for displaying and transferring data.
However, don’t be satisfied with just physical products. Some cameras come with free software provided by the manufacturer for file management and editing the videos/photos/audio recordings you’ve taken. These value-add goodies can be serious time-savers.
6) Audio Connectors
A camera with audio jacks to plug in microphones or headphones is critical for bringing your video-taking to the next level. Most internal audio pickups can muffle sound and make human speech harder to hear. Headphones allow you to listen in to exactly what the camcorder’s recording.
Don’t skimp on audio quality if you want to take great videos. Make sure that your camcorder’s recording in stereo. Higher-end camcorders can record in Dolby 5.1 surround sound!
7) Eye-level Viewfinder
While you can rely on an LCD screen to frame your shots, an optical or electronic viewfinder is still the best way to get exactly what you want out of a scene. There is also the benefit that LCD screens consume power, and viewing from the viewfinder can greatly extend usable time out of your camcorder.
8) Image Stabilization
A must-have for any form of camera, this reduces blur and smearing from unsteady hands, panning shots or recording while walking. If you’re using long-range zoom to focus on a person, building, or a new development in an interesting scene, any minute movement can wreck your shots.
However, there are two types of image stabilization used by cameras and camcorders. Optical image stabilization is more expensive and involves a moving element with the lens itself. Digital zoom calculates how your body movement may be influencing the shot and may selective turn off pixels on the image sensor as you move. Needless to say, optical stabilization is much more accurate if a bit harder to find.
9) Manual Controls
Automatic scene modes are nice, but there are times when you should really exercise your own judgment in setting exposure and focus for your camera. Full-feature cameras tend to allow manual controls, be it in the form of buttons or a touchscreen LCD. You can try to focus on a very distant object, or make macro shots on a very close, very tiny objects like insects and flowers, or emphasize parts of the human body like eyes and lips without grossly exposing skin pores.
Be comfortable with telling your camera how you want it to perform, because that’s the only real difference between merely good videos and the great.
10) Memory and Storage Options
Videos eat up a lot of disk space. Camcorders have different options for saving data, from flash memory, memory cards, DV and mini-DV and even internal hard disks. These Recording formats different in size, convenience, speed, and price per gigabyte.
Most modern camcorders, even pocket versions, have internal flash memory so that you can save videos and still shots without an external memory card. The main issue is that this flash memory is often limited, and you will need repeatedly to transfer and delete files.
Memory card or memory stick slots are the today’s preferred media. SD cards often go from 16 to 32GB. This is enough for most people, specially if you take videos for blogging and social media sharing.
An internal hard disk is the priciest option, yet also offering the largest capacities for recording hours of video. 60 GB is an entry-level internal storage option, while most higher-end camcorders have 160 GB or more. And often you may add capacity with SD card slots. Pick a camcorder with sizable internal storage if you plan on using a tripod most of the time.
Some cameras have Bluray-disc recorders for much more cross-compatible media sharing without the need for computers. These discs tend to have 25 GB capacity, 50GB for dual-layer. They are better for home recording and immediate backups.
But what about your experience, if you already have a digital camcorder? From little dramas to stand-up comedy, do you believe that the recording medium matters if you’re shooting for your portfolio? Have you tried photojournalism? Or just making many home videos – which feels more comfortable in your hands: a point-and-shoot camera or a pocket camcorder?
Please share your views and stories below. We’d love to hear it!
About: Carlo Marco
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