Digital Camcorders

 

Digital Camcorders

 

Beginners Guide


What's Your Budget?
Before you set foot into your local electronics store, you should establish a clear budget for your camcorder purchase. There are around fifty models between $300 and $2,500 available for you to choose from, and the best way to narrow your search is to have a good idea of how much you want to spend. You should view your camcorder purchase as an investment: the more money you spend, the more features and better quality you are going to get. Moving even $100 or $200 in your price range makes a big difference. However, that's not to say that there aren't low-priced "gems" out there. There are many camcorders that beat the pants off models that cost hundreds more. While these deals can be difficult to spot at the electronics store, we've tested hundreds of camcorders and found them for you; just keep reading and we'll guide you to those diamonds in the rough!

 

What Do You Want to Do With It?
Look into your "camcorder crystal ball" and imagine how you'll use your camcorder. Are you going to be filming family events, vacations, or sporting events? Do you want to make short films? Is your camcorder for business use?

Different camcorder models and brands are better suited for particular environments and events. Some things to consider: are you primarily filming indoors or outdoors? Are you filming fast events, like sporting events, or slow composed scenes, like plays or ceremonies? Will you be taking a lot of still photos?

It is also important to factor in your past experience with photography, videography, and imaging. Did you take photography classes in school? Have you shot with 35mm film cameras? Do you understand the basic concepts of imaging? Or, on the other hand, you might be looking for something easy to use that you can just "point and shoot" with. Thinking about all these factors can help in making that tough decision of which camcorder to spend your money on. Look through this list of uses and see where you fall:
 

Indoor Shooting
 

  • Low Light Performance
  • Stabilization
  • Ease of Use

Vacations and Outdoors

  • Compact and Lightweight
  • Long Battery Life
  • Stability and Handling
  • Still Performance
  • Good Viewfinder

Sports

  • Fast Shutter Speed
  • Manual Control
  • Image Stabilization
  • Large Zoom

Plays, Recitals, and Ceremonies

  • Tripod
  • Audio Options
  • Manual Control
  • Low Light Performance
  • Large Zoom

Family Events

  • Low Light Performance
  • Still Performance
  • Stability and Handling
  • VCR Controls
  • Recording Medium

Experienced Photographer

  • Manual Control
  • Large Zoom
  • Low Light Performance
  • Audio Options
  • Tripod Mount

Easy Point-and-Shoot Usage

  • Ease of Use
  • Automatic Exposure Modes
  • Quality Auto Modes
  • Stability and Handling

Business

  • Ruggedness
  • Manual Control
  • Audio Options

Independent Filmmaking

  • Manual Control
  • Audio Options
  • Widescreen
  • Cinematic Effects

Still Photos

  • Still Resolution
  • Still Media
  • On-Board Flash
  • Still Quality Options
  • Large Zoom
  • Still Playback Options

Key Concepts to Know Before Shopping for a Camcorder


Video and Color Performance Varies Greatly Among Models
We believe that color and video performance are the most important factors for any camcorder, and represent the most obvious distinctions between brands and, indeed, among models within a given brand. One camcorder can make the videos of your hike look vibrant and lifelike, while another would make them dull and dreary. Some camcorders portray colors as you would see them with your eye, while others make everything look a certain hue. As such, video and color performance should not be trivialized when picking between camcorders.

This is why we spend so much time in every review analyzing and testing each camcorder and put so much weight on video and color performance in our scoring process. It is important to make clear that video and color performance vary greatly among brands and models, largely falling along logical lines. A more expensive camcorder with better specifications will usually outperform a less expensive one with inferior specs. Sometimes, camcorders do perform surprisingly either above or below expectations, perhaps crossing brand lines or model lines. These subtleties are ironed out in our comprehensive reviewing and testing process.
 

Camcorders Have the Most Trouble Indoors and in Dark Situations
Most camcorders produce bad looking video under low light. This video is characterized by a blurry sand-like texture, called grain or noise, cast over the darker areas of the image. The reason we emphasize low light performance is that, technically, most circumstances where you are likely to use your camcorder are low light situations. Unless you're shooting outdoors on a sunny day, you're shooting in a low light situation, and your camcorder will not be performing at optimum quality. This might seem a little extreme, but the truth is that most rooms that are lit perfectly well for the human eye will cause a noticeable amount of grain in the average camcorder. When you shoot in really dark areas - like a candlelit room, a bar, or a dimly-lit restaurant - your video may end up unwatchable unless you've used a camcorder with good low-light performance. Low light performance is the greatest weakness of camcorders, and also a place where there is the most differentiation between good models and the bad.

Point and Shoot Ease of Use vs. Versatility and Control
The choice between ease of use and manual control is one of the most important decisions a camcorder consumer has to make. Most people find it difficult to adjust the picture settings on their camcorder to get the best looking video possible. The camcorder manufacturers' answer to this is automatic control. Automatic control is like an autopilot for the camcorder. The camcorder's internal computer controls picture functions such as focus, exposure, and shutter speed. Some camcorders' internal computers are better judges than others, and produce a better image when in automatic mode. We look at the responsiveness of the auto modes in each camcorder and give them a score in our auto section. The better the auto score, the more of a "point and shoot" camcorder it is. Many manufacturers include one-touch buttons or simple slider mode selectors that will put the camcorder in full-auto mode.

Another element that indicates a camcorder's ease of use is its array of program (or auto exposure) modes. These are preprogrammed picture settings based on specific shooting conditions. You'll often find presets for sports, candlelight, spotlight, beach, or snow. These settings are useful if the camcorder's basic automatic functions aren't producing the quality you want and you're uncertain of how to adjust each setting element manually. In addition to automatic exposure modes, some manufacturers include options like touch-screen automatic control.

While some users want an easy camcorder that they can just pick up and use, others, often those who have experience with 35 mm photography, will want to be able to adjust their camcorder's focus, exposure (aperture), shutter speed, and gain on their own. The most important of these manual controls is focus, which even the most basic point-and-shoot users will want to adjust manually.

One manifestation of manual control that is often overlooked is button placement. While a camcorder might have tons of manual control available, including a regiment of buttons for every feature, that's no help if those buttons are placed beneath the display, or those features are buried within the camcorder's Byzantine menu system. The father trying to adjust the shutter speed quickly to capture his son's game-ending field goal runs the risk of missing part or all of this spectacular event. Likewise, a mother reaching ever-so-silently beneath the LCD screen to raise the camcorder's exposure to compensate for the low lighting of the final act of her daughter's last chance to play Lady Macbeth before college might accidentally nudge the camcorder, causing unsightly jitter during playback. However, bad button placement might not be a problem if you're shopping for convenience. Many camcorders sacrifice a wealth of manual control options for point-and-shoot quickness. Camcorders geared towards this market often include a fast, stripped-down mode, usually called an "easy" or "quick" mode.

We put a lot of weight on manual control because we believe that using it can significantly improve the quality of your videos. We often find, however, that camcorders that excel in ease of use lack in the area of manual control. What we look for are good point-and-shoot camcorders that are easy to use but offer access to manual control. This will allow a novice to grow with the camcorder, relying less on the inferior automatic control as time goes on.
 

You Aren't Going to Get Stellar Stills
A recent trend among camcorder manufacturers is to incorporate the ability to take still pictures into the models. You're likely to see this marketed as a major feature on most camcorders, with nearly every camcorder box brightly displaying the number of megapixels available with this model. However, this is deceiving. The inherent differences between the way a camcorder works and the way a digital still camera works make it virtually impossible for a camcorder to match the quality of a dedicated digital still camera, even if they do have the same megapixel count. Furthermore, that megapixel count has very little effect on the video quality of your camcorder; it is the size of the imaging device, not the number of pixels it has, which has the greatest effect on video quality. Lastly, you get very little bang for your buck with regard to megapixel resolution in a camcorder. While a $1,000 camcorder typically includes 1.5-2 megapixel stills, a $1,000 digital still camera will create 6 or 8 Megapixel stills. When you go below $1000, most of the models produce stills comparable to those of $100-$200 digital still cameras, but with quality that's much worse. The camcorders that offer truly good-looking stills cost upwards of $1,300! The bottom line is that you'll save yourself money and get much better quality by ignoring the still features of your camcorder and buying a separate digital still camera.

Stability is Vital
No matter how interesting your video might be, no one's going to want to watch it if it's shaky. Second only to poor footage in low light, stability is one of the biggest problems with which most camcorder owners must deal. It's hard to appreciate how unstable your own hands are until you've tried to hold a one or two pound camcorder for ten minutes. Every modern camcorder includes image stabilization, either using a digital processor or optics to partially steady the camcorder. However, these work only so well, and any shakiness will become outrageously apparent when you are zoomed in. A simple tap of a few millimeters can look like an earthquake if you are zoomed in all the way.

We recommend using a tripod whenever possible. However, it's unlikely that you are going to want to carry around an extra set of legs (actually, three) everywhere you take your camcorder. Because you can't always have a tripod, it is very important that you can comfortably hold your camcorder. This includes the ability to access all its features without performing finger acrobatics. When we discuss the handling of a camcorder, we factor in its weight distribution, the grip, and the placement of buttons and features. However, no two sets of hands are alike, and the only way to really determine how comfortable you are handling a camcorder is to go and play with it.
 

Key Features You Need to Understand
As with any technology, there is some very complicated engineering going on behind the scenes in your camcorder. It's often nearly impossible for the average consumer to distinguish between the features that are important and those used just for marketing hype. Here is a quick guide to key camcorder features, and what you should look for in each one:

Digital Video and FireWire
There are two major types of camcorders: analog and digital. Analog camcorders record the picture information to tape as a series of waves and electronic pulses. Digital camcorders translate the video into a computer-like signal, and then record it to tape. An analog camcorder is like a typewriter, while a digital camcorder is like a computer. The benefits of a digital camcorder are that the quality is higher, and no tape quality is lost when you make a copy digitally. Editing is also much easier with a digital camcorder than it is with an analog camcorder. Digital camcorders used to cost upwards of $2,000, but now many models are available as low as $300. Manufacturers are stopping production of analog camcorders altogether.

Digital Camcorders

As almost all consumer camcorders right now record to digital video, it's necessary that your camcorder is capable of making good transfers of digital data to the computer or other digital recorders. This is done through FireWire, another name for the IEEE 1394 high performance serial bus. Most consumer camcorders have FireWire ports that allow camcorders to be routed to a computer to transfer data. Because FireWire can transport more data at higher speeds than a USB cable can, it is nice to use while editing video in programs. FireWire is standard on camcorders today. It is important, however, to verify that your computer has a FireWire jack.

CCDs: Size and Pixels
CCD is short for charge-couple-device, and is often referred to as a "chip." The chip converts visible light into an electronic signal, which the camcorder reads and stores to tape. Generally, the bigger the CCD the better; broadcast camcorders often have 1/2-inch to 2/3-inch CCDs, while consumer camcorders usually have them within the window of 1/6-inch to 1/3-inch. The larger the CCD, the more light is taken in with the image, resulting in brighter pictures with better colors. CCD size becomes quite important in low light situations. CCD sizes in consumer camcorders vary with every model and manufacturer, and always should be considered. The difference between a 1/6-in. and a 1/4-in. CCD may seem small, but when those values are squared to measure the surface area, it has a large effect on video and low-light quality.

The other key distinction is the difference between one and three CCDs. Professional camcorders always have three CCDs, one for each primary color. Until 2002, consumer camcorders typically only had one. The colors on professional three-CCD camcorders are much brighter, vivid, lifelike, and accurate than the colors of one-CCD camcorders. A three-CCD camcorder almost always beats out a one-CCD camcorder, and the difference in quality both in normal and low-light shooting is noticeable. The best part is that three-CCD camcorders are beginning to make their way into the consumer market. Whereas three-CCD technology previously could not be found for under $2,000, there are now three-CCD camcorders available for below $1,000, and prices are dropping every day.

Another thing to consider is the number of pixels on the CCD. The more pixels the CCD has, the sharper the image; however, this is slightly deceptive. A standard video frame has only around 340,000 pixels in it. Increased pixels have very little effect on the sharpness of the image once they exceed 340,000. Of course, video could never be that simple, and you will typically see sharper images even between 1 Megapixel and 2 Megapixel CCDs. However, this effect is subject to diminishing returns. It should also be noted that there are two measurements for CCD pixels: gross, which is the total number of pixels on the CCD, and effective, which is the number actually used on the CCD. The effective pixel count is what matters.

Zoom
Zoom can be classified as either optical or digital, and almost all camcorders have both. Normal optical zooms range from 2x to 20x magnification, while digital zooms range from 20x to 800x. While optical zooms use physical movement of the lens mechanism, digital "zoom" is simply digital enlargement of the pixels. Digital zooms result in a blurring of your picture called pixellation. Using a digital zoom will significantly reduce the quality of your video, and we always recommend turning your digital zoom off. We also recommend that consumers just ignore the digital zoom of any camcorder, because it is largely marketing hype and not a quality feature. Manufacturers will boast outrageously large digital zooms of 500x or 800x, which might look impressive on paper. If you were to actually use these zooms, however, your video would be unwatchable.

Media: Tape, Flash, or DVD
Currently, there are three major types of camcorder media: tape, DVD, and flash. (There are both analog and digital media, but we at  concentrate on the digital ones.) These days, most camcorders record to MiniDV digital videotape. A second digital tape format, Digital8, was invented by Sony.

It is important to note that digital stills are not recorded to tape, but to Flash media, just as with digital still cameras. Different types of flash media are used by different manufacturers, including SD, Compact Flash, and Sony's Memory Stick and Memory Stick Duo. A very small number of camcorders include no tape or DVD mechanism and can record video only to a flash media card. These flash media camcorders are just starting out and haven't really caught on.

DVD-recording camcorders have become very popular in the past few years. DVD-recording camcorders record video on smaller-sized DVDs. DVD-recording can cause some confusion, though, because there are a few different flavors of DVD media, each with its own benefits.

There are three types of DVD formats that camcorders use: DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM. These formats are somewhat similar to burnable CDs. DVD-R media cannot be erased once recorded. One of the benefits of a DVD camcorder is that it allows you to do in-camera editing. You can delete scenes, move them around, and even trim them in some models. This is possible only with DVD-RW and DVD-RAM disks. The downside to these two formats is that not all home DVD players can play DVD-RW or DVD-RAM disks. On the other side, most home DVD players (except some of the earliest) can play DVD-R disks.

Image Stabilization
Image stabilization is an important factor in performance, especially if you're not using a tripod. Image stabilization removes some of the shakiness that occurs when you are handing a camcorder. There are two types of image stabilization: optical and electronic. Electronic image stabilization uses the camcorder's internal computer to electronically shift the image in the opposite direction that minor shakes move it. It does this by slightly zooming in on the image, which gives the camcorder a little "wiggle" room. Optical image stabilization follows the same concept, but the camcorder actually moves parts of the lens to compensate for the shake. The downside to electronic image stabilization is that it sometimes degrades picture quality. Optical image stabilization is better than Electronic stabilization, just as optical zoom is better than digital zoom. Unfortunately, most consumer camcorders have electronic image stabilization.

Audio
In some ways, the audio you record with your camcorder is just as vital as the video. However, this isn't likely to be a make-or-break area in your camcorder buying decision. Most camcorders are generally equal in the audio that their attached microphones record - equally bad, that. There are often problems with tape motor noise, problems from noise from your hands operating the camcorder... and sometimes the camcorder will simply record the wrong thing. When looking at the audio component of your camcorder purchase, look for options. We recommend using an external microphone instead of the one that is included with the camcorder, so you must look for a microphone-in jack. It is also good to have a headphone-out jack so you can monitor your audio and correct for any problems while recording. In addition, some higher-end and some middle-tier consumer camcorders include manual audio control, which allows the user to adjust the audio level of the microphone's channels; this is important when recording something like a concert, or anything very loud or soft.

Still Pictures
Still picture quality is rated in pixels, usually advertised as a number of Megapixels. For many years now, camcorder manufacturers have been integrating still picture functionality into their camcorders. However, as we said above, your best move is to buy a separate camcorder and camera. If you are placing value on still pictures (which many consumers do), look for a high megapixel count, an on-camera flash, and a large included memory card.

Automatic Exposure Modes
Many consumer camcorders include preset shutter speed and exposure settings that put a window of performance on the shutter speed and the exposure. These presets usually include sports, low light, sun & ski, landscape, spotlight, etc. If you are not familiar with manual control, these modes can be very helpful.

Widescreen
This term characterizes the aspect ratio of 16:9, and comes up in conversation of 16:9 mode often. An aspect ratio is a way of describing the ratio of how long a picture is to how wide it is. In video, the standard aspect ratio is 4:3; that is, 4 inches long for every 3 inches tall. In film, the standard aspect ratio is 16:9. This is why you will sometimes see black bars on the top and bottom of the screen on a movie which has been converted to television. It is because the actual movie is too wide to display on the whole screen. While the television you have at home is likely designed for a 4:3 aspect ratio, many people want that film widescreen look. (Some even have a 16:9 aspect ratio TV.) For this reason, many camcorders include a "widescreen mode." Some very expensive camcorders can produce images that are truly in the 16:9 ratio; however, most consumer camcorders, because of the 4:3 size of their CCDs (see above), have to approximate the 16:9 ratio using a number of tricks developed by the manufacturers.

LCDs and Viewfinders
LCDs and viewfinders are mechanisms used for playback on the camcorder itself. While almost all consumer camcorders can be plugged into a television for playback, the LCD and viewfinder offer immediate playback of media. Generally, the more pixels on the LCD or viewfinder the better; pixel are given in thousands, such as 123K (123,000 pixels). LCDs and viewfinder size is measured on the diagonal. A 2.5-inch LCD screen will have sides smaller than 2.5 inches.

Focus
An image is in focus when it is crisp and clear to the viewer. Put another was, a focused image occupies the focal point of a lens mechanism. The focal point of a lens system is the point at which all refracting or reflecting light rays from the lens converge, the focal length being the distance from the lens to the focal point. Camcorders usually have automatic and manual focus options. As far as manual focus options go a focus ring is best; however, many of the less expensive consumer camcorders have either jog dial or button manual focus.

Shutter Speed
Shutter speed refers the speed of the opening, or rotation, of the camcorder's shutter. (Go figure.) Each time the shutter opens, a certain amount of light is admitted to the CCD. Shutter speeds are measured in rotations per second: 1/60, 1/2000, etc. High shutter speeds like 1/2000 admit less light, because the opening in any given amount of time is small. Slow, or low, shutter speeds admit more light as they remain open longer. A low shutter speed recording of a fast object can result in a blurring or trailing effect; a fast shutter can capture moving objects, like athletes, crisply. Diminished light admittance at high shutter speed can be compensated by boosting the exposure / aperture.

Exposure / Aperture
Exposure refers to the exposure of the imager to light. While shutter speed governs the interval of exposure, the iris -- more specifically, the aperture -- controls the amount of light let in at any given interval. The wider the iris, the bigger the aperture, the smaller the F-stop (the measurement of exposure), and the more light that is let into the lens, resulting in a brighter picture.

Gain
Gain refers to the amplitude or strength of the video signal. On some consumer camcorders, one can boost this signal, increasing the amplitude, or gain. This allows for better low light performance, as the image becomes generally brighter, but it's often at the expense of clarity, as noise increases as well. Gain is measured in decibels. (0 dB, 6 dB, 18 dB, etc.)

Webcam
Progressive Scan
Some consumer camcorders, especially expensive ones, offer progressive scan options for the capturing of video. There are two different types of scanning: progressive and interlaced. Video is captured in fields of resolution. It is also captured at a certain frame rate (i.e. 30 frames-per-second, etc.). With interlaced scanning, there are two fields of data recorded within each frame. Each field consists of alternating lines of resolution. Once the two fields of alternating lines of resolution are recorded, a frame is said to be created, consisting of two interlocking frames of resolution. The fields of the resulting frame have been recorded in an alternating sequence. Therefore, in playback, one cannot stop and view a single frame and see a clear picture. Rather, when viewing frames recorded with interlaced scanning, you'll see a flickering between fields, similar to the VCR flicker when pausing a VHS tape. Usually, consumer camcorders record at 60i, which means 60 frames-per-second with interlaced scanning. This is actually 60 fields per second, which when interlocked create 30 frames-per-second.

In progressive scanning, the two fields of resolution that make up each frame are captured together at the same time, sort of similar to film in that a series of still images is recorded in sequence. While a minute of video recorded at 30p (30 frames progressive scan) would contain approximately the same amount of data as a minute of video recorded at 60i, there are slight differences. In general, progressive scanning rates produce motion that is more similar to the way film does, although interlaced scan produces slightly less smooth motion. Both progressive scanning rates of 30p and 24p are available on camcorders. While real 30p is available on some higher-end camcorders, it is often approximated by altering a 60i scan. This is even more true with 24p, however unfortunate.

Many independent filmmakers and video nuts lick their chops over the ability of camcorders to record in 24p. While this option is almost always a result of some sort of processing effect, the resulting capture is said to approximate the look of film. Indeed, many hobbyists desire 24p because of the possibility of eventual video to film transfer. Currently, you can not find true 30p in a camcorder under $3,000.
 

The Next Step
We have reviewed, tested, and analyzed every camcorder on the market to make your shopping experience easy. The next step is to read our reviews and recommendations, which should guide you to the model of your choice. Here's a list of the different features on  to help you narrow your decision:

Camcorder Ratings The camcorder ratings page summarizes all of our research in one easy-to-follow table. This page ranks every recent camcorder based on its overall score from the  standardized rubric. This page is an easy way to take a quick glance at the ratings of all the models on the market and how much we liked or didn't like each one. From the camcorder ratings page, there are links to the full reviews of each model. This list also includes the price of each model and many of the key specs, which are very helpful in making your choice.

Camcorder Reviews Directory Our reviews directory main page includes links to all of our reviews, divided by manufacturer and recording format. This is a great place to start if you know a specific model or manufacturer for which you want to read a review.

Camcorder Message Boards Want some personal help? Have a question that hasn't been answered in a review? Confused by something? If you still have questions, you can ask them in our online community, which includes 20,000 members eager to help you pick the right model. Our online community includes over forty different message boards, each dedicated to specific camcorder models. If you have a question about a specific model, you can ask it in that model's message board. If you have a more general question, you can ask it in our Buying and General message boards. This community is one of the greatest assets of  and is a great resource when shopping for your camcorder.

Price Comparisons Our price comparisons section is great if you want to skip the reviews and go straight to shopping. It provides real-time pricing information from 30-50 online retailers for each model. You can jump right to the online store of any listed retailer from the price comparisons section.

Digital Camcorders

 

Home   ▪   Buy Digital Cameras   ▪  Camera Bags  ▪  Digital Camera Battery  ▪  DVD Camcorders  ▪   Mini Digital Camera  ▪   Digital Photography

Copyright eDigitalCameras.org