Camcorder Settings and Features You Should Know


You're in the market for a camcorder, but you aren't sure what format to choose from, or which features will be important to you. It's tough to encapsulate the top questions our customers ask when shopping for camcorders, and it is impossible to throw it all together in one article. This primer is for the person looking to either upgrade or purchase a new video camera. We hope it will prepare you with the technical jargon and make your final choice much easier.

Recording Media

Maybe you've been out of the game for awhile and want to upgrade that old full size VHS camcorder you've had since the Clinton administration. But when you review all the different recording media options available today, you are filled with fear, dread, and loathing – or maybe you're just plain scared. The first thing that should be considered is: do you want to stick with analog based recording or upgrade to high definition? There are several different flavors of both formats, and we can't cover them all here, but I recommend reviewing what you will be using this camcorder and where you will be viewing the final product.

The old tried and true video tape format has seen dozens of incarnations over the years. Most are familiar with the VHS, 8mm and DV family of tapes. The Panasonic PV-GS90 and the Samsung SC-D382 models offer superior SD quality when recording to DV. With HD today, the most affordable option for video tape is HDV. Identical to DV in almost every respect, HDV has the added benefit of HD resolutions of 1280 x 720 (720p) and 1440 x 1080 (1080i). I've personally seen some outstanding HDV footage shot with the Canon VIXIA HV30 from the mountains of Peru that can be mistaken for a professional grade camera.

Hard Drive based camcorders offer users the luxury of not carrying around a bag of video tapes, and the convenience of storing all the data in the camera. The Canon VIXIA HG10 includes a 40GB drive for up to 15 hours of 1920 x 1080 HD video in LP mode or 5 ½ hours in super high quality mode. The JVC GZ-HD6 ups the ante with a built-in 120GB hard drive. When you are finished recording the video, simply connect the camcorder to your Mac or PC and digitize the footage with your editing software.

DVD cameras combine the backup media flexibility of copying to DVD, with the instant accessibility of solid state. It also is an easy way to immediately distribute the video out. The Sony HDR-UX5 offers 1080i HD recording with all DVD formats (DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD+R).

Finally, there is flash media. By combining the solid state attributes of Hard Drive recording with the transferable media for tape and DVD, flash shrinks the overall size of the camera for a more compact recording experience on media that can hold more data. Technically a flash media device, Pure Digital Point and Shoot acts like a hard drive camera due to the permanent 512MB internal flash memory installed for up to 30 minutes of video recording. The Aiptek GO-HD uses an 8GB SDHC memory card for up to 10 hours of video and the Sanyo Xacti HD-700BR includes an HDMI connector for easy connection to HDTV's.

Aiptek GO-HD

Zoom controls

Zoom controls give you the ability to enlarge an image and display greater detail in it. By changing the focal length to or from a wide-angle to telephoto, the subject will either be enlarged or reduced, depending on if you zoom in or out. In most camcorders, there are two classifications of Zoom; optical or digital.

Zoom controls are very similar between several models. From left to right; Panasonic PV-GS90, Samsung SC-D382, JVC GZ-HD6, Canon VIXIA HG10 and Sony HDR-UX5

The optical zoom physically utilizes the lens mechanics, giving a clear picture when pushing in all the way toward a subject. The digital zoom magnifies the image by enlarging the pixels in the frame instead of taking advantage of the superior optics of the lens. The digital zoom number is always higher compared to the optical zoom number in a camcorder's specs, but higher is not necessarily better. High digital zoom leads to pixilation, which will actually blur the image and reduce the overall quality. Most shooters, whether they be professional or home videophiles, will ignore the digital zoom function on the camera. For best results, stick with optical zoom. The Panasonic PV-GS90 has the best optical zoom in this class of camcorders, at 42x.

Focus Controls

When talking about zoom, one cannot avoid addressing the subject of focus controls. Camcorders come with two forms of focus; manual and auto. When an image is in focus, the primary subject will look crystal clear to the viewer. The focal point of the lens is a point or “blur circle" where all the refracting light rays from the lens converge. When set to manual, you will need to operate the focus ring for the best results. Autofocus is usually set by a button, switch or menu setting. It should be noted that autofocus is usually designed for ease of use and is generally not as accurate as manual focusing, but if you are trying to capture some basic wide shots or group settings, setting the camera to auto should do the trick.


White Balance

White balance (sometimes referred to as Color Balance) is probably the most overlooked feature on consumer camcorders. Many times I will see video that is played back that was shot indoors with a yellow /orange tint, or video shot outdoors with a bluish tint. That's because users did not set the white balance on their cameras properly: they set the color for indoors when they were shooting outdoors and visa versa. The lower the color temperature (2700-3000k), the more it shifts light toward the red. This range is best used for outdoor settings. High color temperature shifts light toward the blue, and is best for indoor locations.

Samsung SC-D382

Camcorders have a setting labeled AWB, or Automatic White Balance. This tool automates the process of color temperature settings, so when you are outside in a sunny or cloudy setting, the picture will give a more natural look. When first operating any camcorder, it is important to play with the AWB settings to see what is best for your scenarios. In a mixed lighting situation, if you are shooting indoors during the day and the camera pans across an opened window, you will notice some harsh changes. This may need some manual adjustment, which some consumer grade camcorders have in a convenient location. Remember, every camera is different and all will react differently to unique light settings. The best way to know how to set the camera is to practice in different locations.


Some camcorders have something called Gain Control. Gain boosts up the signal off the camera's image sensor, giving you a brighter image in low light situations. Bypassing the f-stop or shutter speed, lets you avoid fumbling around while shooting. But gain has its drawbacks: mainly the higher the gain, the noisier or grainier the image gets. And too little gain makes the image too dark. You should be very careful when setting the gain. In the end, there are times when we have no control over the lighting and have to increase the gain to deal with the bad lighting.

Sony HDR-UX5

Image Stabilization

Many camcorders today have a neat feature called Image Stabilization. Without getting too technical, image stabilization is the process of increasing the stability of the image. How many times have you seen amateur video where the camera shakes so much, it appears the cameraman is strapped to a bungee cord? By enabling the image stabilization, you will reduce the shaky cam video that makes you reach for the remote. Although you still should be conscientious about holding the camera steady when shooting- or better yet use a tripod - this feature will reduce the bounce in playback. The Samsung SC-D382 (Digital Image Stabilizer) and Sony HDR-UX5 (Electronic Image Stabilizer) use a form of stabilizing where the electronic image is shifted throughout a series of frames to correct the motion.

Some camcorders have an Optical Image Stabilizer, which utilizes the lens instead of the digital image. This way the camera is stabilized internally by using gyroscopic sensors to detect horizontal or vertical movements. Because of their strong history of developing lenses (or glass as the pros call it) Canon has two models that have this feature: Canon VIXIA HG10 and Canon VIXIA HV30 . You also have the choice of the Panasonic PV-GS90 and JVC GZ-HD6.

Sanyo Xacti HD-700BR

LCD Viewfinder

LCD viewfinders are displays for immediate playback of the media or to monitor the action while recording. As in TV sets, the screen size is measured diagonally, but size matters not when it comes to LCD viewfinders. If you are concerned about the quality of the image, it's the number of pixels that is important. The higher the number, the more pixels will be displayed on the tiny interface, giving you a better resolution. You shouldn't confuse the viewfinder pixel count with the camera's pixel count -these are two entirely different settings.

Some LCD Viewfinders have extra controls for convenient usability. The Canon VIXIA HG10 includes basic playback functions

Many of today's camcorders have LCD viewfinders in the 2.7" range, with the JVC GZ-HD6 topping out this list at 2.8". Generally, the smaller the form factor of the camera, the smaller the display; the Pure Digital Point and Shoot has a miniscule 1.4", but that camera is designed for someone wanting to carry it in their pocket.

The Pure Digital Point and Shoot fits in the palm of your hand

What we hope to accomplish here are the top functions that are most asked about by our customers before and after the sale, and hopefully some of this information will be useful to you.

MODEL Pure Digital 30 Aiptek GO-HD Samsung SC-D382 Panasonic PV-GS90 Sanyo Xacti HD-700BR Sony HDR-UX5 Canon VIXIA HG10 Canon VIXIA HV30 JVC GZ-HD6
Recording Media
512MB Internal Flash Memory
SD/SDHC Memory Card
Mini DV
Mini DV
SD/SDHC Memory Card
40GB Hard Drive
120GB Hard Drive
2x Digital
3x Optical
34x Optical
1200x Digital
42x Optical
2000x Digital
12x Optical
5x Digital
Optical: 10X
Digital: 80X
10x optical
200x digital
10x Optical
200x Digital
10x Optical
200x Digital
Manual Controls
Focus, exposure, shutter speed, white balance
Focus, shutter speed (1/60-1/8000), aperture & white balance
Focus, White Balance
Focus, exposure, white balance
Focus, white balance, exposure control, shutter priority, aperture priority & brightness control
Focus, white balance, exposure control, shutter priority, aperture priority & brightness control
LCD Viewfinder
Image Stabilization
Digital Image Stabilizer
Mega Optical Image Stabilization
Digital Image Stabilization
Electronic Image Stabilizer
SuperRange optical
SuperRange Optical
Optical image stabilization
1/3" VGA
5 MP CMOS (2592 x 1944)
680k CCD
1/6" CCD Image
1/2.5" CCD
1/3" 2100k pixels ClearVID CMOS
1/2.7" CMOS
2.96Mp 1/2.7" CMOS
1/5" Progressive 3CCD