Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.

4 thoughts on “Picking out a camcorder

  • November 10, 2002 at 1:53 pm
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    Dave-

    With the newer digital stuff I’ve found that I can use one of the nice flash stand-off frames to mount both a digital camcorder and a digital camera zoomed to the same frame size – works great for video and stills at wedding receptions and the like. And Sony makes a nice tripod that includes camera controls on the handle, easier to keep the shaking down when zooming in and out, etc. Thanks for your continuing tips.

    Paul

  • November 11, 2002 at 11:18 pm
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    I really enjoy reading all your articles about video editing, because it prods me into wanting to start it up as well. However, questions abound: to do video editing, do you only need a firewire port, or do you need a dedicated video editing card, like the Pinnacle DV? I thought that I read somewhere that these cards are helpful because they render video much quicker than if you didn’t have one at all. If this is the case, what kind of video card/editing card do you recommend? And then of course, how much? Is more expensive necessarily better? I’ve been kind of eyeing the ‘breakout’ box types; I think I saw a Pinnacle version, with Firewire. The nice thing about this box is that it has analog inputs, in case you need to pull video from an analog box. How fast of a computer would you use? Would running something with XP make video editing more stable, or is 98SE ok? Finally, what kind of program? I know that Premiere 6.0 is the best, but it’s also ridiculously expensive. Is there something out there that does basically what Premiere would do, but for, oh, I don’t know, 1/10 the price?

    Thanks for your time.

    Lawrence

  • November 13, 2002 at 5:12 pm
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    Paul, thanks for the tip.

    Lawrence, good questions. Editing cards do speed things up an awful lot but they aren’t strictly necessary. They’re a good buy for what you get though–Premiere’s included. The Pinnacle DV500 costs under $500. Adobe Premiere costs a little more than that. Now, you’re getting the previous version (6.0 vs. 6.5) but there’s nothing wrong with 6.0. And the DV500 gives you Pinnacle’s DV capturing/cataloging software and titling app, which are both very nice. And as you said, the DV500 includes analog inputs so you can capture from anything you want.

    I’ve run a DV500 with Premiere on a Duron-750 and on a Pentium 4-1.5GHz. Speed is respectable on the Duron and very nice on the P4. Memory bandwidth seems to make a big difference, so DDR or RDRAM (Rambus) will help as much as a faster CPU, if not more so. But I’ve heard of people doing video editing on K6-2/350s. If you’re patient, any modern system will do.

    I do my editing in W2K; it’s more stable than 98SE. That’ll also be true of XP. But an awful lot of people do video editing in MacOS 8 and 9, which is less stable than 98SE, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

    As far as Premiere alternatives, there’s Cinelerra for Linux, which I haven’t looked at yet. It’s free. Can’t beat that. It doesn’t do everything Premiere does but Premiere doesn’t do everything Cinelerra does either. For Windows, a lot of low-end capture cards include rudimentary software that’ll get the job done, though not as nicely as Premiere. But there’s nothing wrong with getting a low-end package to learn with, then graduating to Premiere. Premiere is awfully intimidating if you’re coming at it cold. But if you learn on a simple, low-end program, Premiere will be a lot easier to learn, if indeed you need it.

  • November 14, 2002 at 12:28 pm
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    I’d forgotten about this alternative. Check out mainconcept.com for some inexpensive editing sofware, Linux or Windows. You can download and play with the demos to see if you like it before you plunk down cash.

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