Knowing How to Buy a Digital Camcorder - dummies

Knowing How to Buy a Digital Camcorder

By Keith Underdahl

When you go shopping for a new digital camcorder, you may find the myriad specifications and features overwhelming. Your challenge is to sort through all the hoopla and figure out whether the camera will meet your specific needs.

When reviewing the spec sheet for any new camcorder, pay special attention to these items:

  • Batteries: How long does the included battery supposedly last, and how much do extra batteries cost? Buy a camcorder that uses Lithium Ion or NiMH (nickel-metal-hydride) batteries. NiCd (nickel-cadmium) batteries don’t last as long and are harder to maintain.
  • CCDs: 3-CCD (also called 3-chip) camcorders provide much better image quality, but they are also a lot more expensive. A 3-CCD camera is by no means mandatory, but it is nice to have.
  • Manual controls: Virtually all modern camcorders offer automatic focus and exposure control, but sometimes, manual control is preferable. Control rings around the lens are easier to use than tiny knobs or slider switches on the side of the camera — and they’ll be familiar if you already know how to use 35mm film cameras.
  • Microphone connector: For the sake of sound quality,the camcorder should have some provisions for connecting an external microphone. (You don’t want your audience to think, “Gee, it’d be a great movie if it didn’t have all that whirring and sneezing.”)
    Most camcorders have a standard mini-jack connector for an external mic, and some high-end camcorders have a three-pin XLR connector. XLR connectors — also sometimes called balanced audio connectors — are used by many high-quality microphones and PA (public address) systems.
  • Optical zoom: Spec sheets usually list optical and digital zoom separately. Digital zoom numbers are usually huge (200x, for example). Ignore the big digital zoom number and focus on the optical zoom factor — it describes how well the camera lens actually sees — and it should be in the 12x-25x range.
    Digital zoom just crops the picture captured by the CCD (charge coupled device) and then makes each remaining pixel bigger to fill the screen, resulting in greatly reduced image quality. Optical zoom allows you to zoom in while maintaining maximum video quality.
  • Progressive scan: This is another feature that is nice but not absolutely mandatory.
  • Recording format: MiniDV is the most common format, but other formats may make more sense for your needs.
  • Resolution: Some spec sheets list horizontal lines of resolution (for example: 525 lines); others list the number of pixels (for example: 690,000 pixels). Either way, more is better when it comes to resolution.

Features that are generally less important include

  • Built-in light: If a camcorder’s built-in light works as a flash for still photos, it at least serves a semi-useful purpose. But on-camera lights often have unfavorable lighting effects on your subjects. Rely on other light sources, instead, when you shoot video.
  • Night vision: Some camcorders have an infrared mode that enables you to record video even in total darkness. If you want to shoot nocturnal nature videos this feature may appeal to you, but for day-to-day videography, it’s less useful than you might think.
  • Still photos: Many new digital camcorders can also take still photos. Some even have an extra still-camera lens built into the housing. This is handy if you want to shoot both video and stills but don’t want to lug along two cameras — but keep in mind that photo quality usually isn’t the best. An inexpensive 3-megapixel digital camera will take far better still pictures than almost any camcorder.

And then there are some features that are essentially useless. Don’t pay extra for these:

  • Bluetooth: This is a new wireless networking technology that allows various types of electronic components — including camcorders and computers — to connect to each other using radio waves instead of cables. Bluetooth is a handy technology for wireless cell phone headsets, GPS antennas, and PDAs, but Bluetooth connections are far too slow to be used for video capture.
  • Digital zoom: Digital zoom makes the image appear blocky and pixelated — so why do it? Ignore the big digital-zoom claims that camcorder manufacturers like to advertise. When you test the zoom feature on a camcorder, make sure you can disable digital zoom. Some cameras automatically switch to digital zoom when you reach the limit of optical zoom, meaning that you could inadvertently zoom in too much and reduce your video quality.
  • In-camera special effects: Most digital camcorders boast some built-in effects. But why? Special effects can be added much more effectively (so to speak) in your computer, using your editing software.