Digital Camcorder Primer

In this article I’ve put together explanations of the major features to look for when shopping for a camcorder. The major purpose of this is so you can decide ahead of time what features are most important to you, then you can make the best buying decision for your needs.

Tape format
The biggest decision to make here is: do you want to transfer video to your PC, edit the video, and possibly create your own DVD? If you don’t want anything to do with transfer to your PC or DVDs then you probably don’t even need a digital camcorder. A standard analog camcorder in most cases is cheaper, but you will still notice better picture quality with a digital camcorder, even if you don’t transfer the footage to your PC.

There are currently four major tape formats out there. They are listed here in order of size and quality (large to small, low to high)

  • VHS-C is the “compact” version of VHS. This is not digital. But by purchasing an inexpensive adapter, you can play these tapes directly on your VHS VCR. These tapes are physically larger than the others, and therefore the camera is bigger.
  • HI-8 is the next smaller in terms of size. There are both digital and analog cameras that use this format. However, if you record in an analog camera it will not play back in a digital one and vice-versa. To know for sure if it’s digital, it will most likely have a IEE1394 (or Firewire) port.
  • miniDV is even smaller and is almost always digital. Picture quality is better over HI-8.
  • miniDVD is an 8cm DVD disc. This is the newest media format on the market.
    The biggest advantage I see with this format is the ability to play directly in most set top DVD players. In addition, transfer to the PC is quick and easy. The other formats require a real-time transfer and a Firewire connection or capture card.


Still Picture Capture
Most cameras have two ways of capturing still images. The most common is a button that essentially “pauses” the video while still recording the sound for about 5-7 seconds. The other method captures an image to a media card, such as SD, Compact Flash or Memory Stick. Most consumer digital camcorders have this feature, but none yet do it well. The megapixel resolution is still quite low. If you want to take good quality still images, you’re best bet is to by a still digital camera. Don’t let this feature be the deciding factor for your camcorder.

LCD and Viewfinder
Virtually all camcorders now have a LCD and a traditional viewfinder. LCDs have varying sizes, quality and viewing angle. Many viewfinders are now also color. I’ve read that some people still like the black-and-white viewfinders, so it may just be a preference. Try some out at the store to see what you are most comfortable with for both displays.

Image Stabilization
Many cameras now come with some sort of image stabilization or jitter reduction. Most cameras also allow you to turn it on and off. If you have the opportunity to try out the camera, try turning this on and off and compare the difference at full optical zoom.

Optical and Digital Zoom
The major thing I tell people here is ignore the digital zoom numbers. Strictly look at the optical zoom. If you have 100x digital zoom, that is still way more than you need. The difference is that with optical zoom the camera actually adjusts the lens to increase magnification. With digital zoom, it’s all computerized and the image becomes pixilated, or blocky, and quality is
lost. Most cameras currently have an optical zoom in the range of 10x to 24x. One thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t have good image stabilization, then the high optical magnification won’t be very useable.

Manual Adjustments
If you think you might eventually become more advanced in your photography skills, be sure to look at what manual adjustments are available on the camera. These are things such as white balance, exposure, shutter speed and focus. Also, some higher end cameras will have a manual focus ring as opposed to adjusting the focus through the menu buttons.

Accessories
Cable: If you’re planning on transferring your video to your PC, make sure you have a IEEE1394 cable. Some manufacturers do not supply them with the camera. Even though it may come with a USB 2.0 connection, you will likely get better performance with IEEE1394. Check with online shops before purchasing this from a retail store. They generally have a very high markup on these items.

Shoes: Most cameras will at least have a “cold shoe.” This is basically a slot on the top of the camera that will allow you to attach things like an external light or microphone. A “hot shoe” is the same thing except it has power available at the connector. A cold shoe will require a separate battery for that device.

Charger:Another important thing to take note of is: does the camera come with an external battery charger, or if you are required to plug in the camera to charge the battery? In most cases you will want to eventually purchase a second battery. If you must plug in the camera, then that can be a pain, and then you will need an external charger. So, if the camera does not include an external charger, try to find out what it costs to purchase one and factor that into the cost of the camera. Ebay is also a great resource for batteries and chargers. Whenever possible though, try to get the genuine OEM batteries. The last thing
you want is to have some ultra cheap $2 battery exploding in your new camcorder. Some retail stores also give a discount on accessories when purchased with the camcorder.

Remote: If you’re going to be hooking up to your TV or VCR frequently, then it would probably be a good idea to get a camcorder with a remote. This will give you all of the VCR type functionality (FF, RW, Play, Pause, etc) while you sit back and enjoy the show.

Inputs and Outputs
Virtually all cameras will have an A/V output to allow you to hook up to your television or VCR. However, you may want to think about if you want to have some A/V input to your camera. For example, if you’re upgrading from a Hi8 to a miniDV format, you may want to convert your old tapes to the new media. In order to do that, you want to make sure your new camera has a composite or SVIDEO input.

Another feature that is appearing is the ability to use your camcorder as a USB webcam. Considering you can purchase a webcam very cheap these days, this feature should never be a deal breaker, but may be something to watch for.

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2 Responses to Digital Camcorder Primer

  1. ronald says:

    I have a video camera and I know what you mean about digital zoom its made that way on purpose for people to buy it. I believe if you have whats called digital tv then maybe making it full digital will work working on an experiment to make full digital zoom very clear you’ll be the first to know about it.

  2. Jason says:

    That\’s a good question about digital zoom and HDTV. Unfortunately, video footage taken with your camcorder using digital zoom will not look any better on a HDTV compared to your analog television. Once digital zoom is used to record a picture onto the videotape, the quality is permanently degrated and there is no way to recover that on a HDTV.

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