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So you’ve decided to buy a new camcorder. This could be your first camcorder purchase, but it’s far more likely that you’re replacing an older unit. Analog camcorders are now history. Even if you’re not looking to record in high definition or widescreen, you will still be buying a digital camcorder.
The first thing you have to decide is what you want to do with your new camcorder. Are you looking for something that’s super simple to use? Are you looking for something that will fit in a purse or coat pocket? Are you looking for something that can record astounding high-definition video that will really shine on your HDTV? Are you looking for a combination of any of these attributes? Fortunately you have so many choices today that you’ll have no problem finding a camcorder with the features you want and the size you want at a price you can afford.
As you probably know, a camcorder records video, but it does not use film. Instead, the lens focuses the incoming light onto an image sensor, which converts the light rays into a series of voltages. Additional circuitry then converts the voltages into a digital signal that can be stored on magnetic tape, a recordable DVD, a hard drive, flash memory or some other storage device. Each recording session creates a new video clip or video file. The video files can then be played back within the camcorder itself and viewed on its built-in LCD screen or copied to a computer or some other storage device for safekeeping, distribution or further processing.
Let’s take a look at some of the components inside a camcorder, and see what makes one component better than another. Then we’ll go over all of the major specifications you will encounter when you’re shopping for a camcorder. Once you know what the specifications mean, it will be a simple matter to find a camcorder with the features that are important to you in the form factor you desire.
So, we now know that a camcorder’s image sensor converts the light rays coming from the lens into a series of voltages that are ultimately converted into a video signal. Camcorders use either a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) or CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) image sensor. While the manufacturing process and technical details of each type of sensor might differ, the basic functionality is the same. Both types of image sensors contain a grid of photo sensors that generate a charge when struck by light. Some camcorders contain a separate image sensor for each primary light color (red, green and blue).
When you see specifications listed for an image sensor you’ll often see its type (CCD or CMOS), size and number of pixels. The more pixels (or megapixels) a sensor contains, the higher its resolution. But keep in mind that sometimes a larger sensor with a smaller number of pixels will generate a higher-quality image than a smaller sensor with more pixels, and with less image noise or artifacts.
Some camcorders will specify their light sensitivity, or how much light is necessary to capture a satisfactory image. One lux is equal to one lumen per square meter. A camcorder with a 1-lux sensitivity rating will capture good video in dimly lit settings. No camcorder will have any trouble capturing video in any kind of sunlight; direct sunlight can produce over 100,000 lux. Even indoors with minimum illumination presents no problem. A well-lit office might be 400 lux and your living room might be 50 lux. A full moon at night will produce only 1 lux. So if you like to shoot in the dark, make sure to look for a camcorder whose sensitivity is close to 1 lux.
The lens is the most important part of any camera. Whether it’s a film camera, a digital camera or a camcorder, the quality of the lens sets the stage for the rest of the camera. The lens is the interface between the outside world and the inner workings of the camera. If the lens itself generates a lousy image, there’s no way the rest of the camera can compensate for that deficiency. And for the same reason cell-phone cameras will never match the quality of full-size cameras, there’s no way that a pocket-size camcorder can incorporate the same quality lens as a full-size camcorder. Lenses take up space and that’s all there is to it; the longer the focal length, the bigger the lens.
The focal length of a lens is the distance in millimeters from the lens to the point where light rays entering the lens become focused. That’s the ideal point to place the image sensor. While you might be familiar with the focal lengths of lenses for 35mm and DSLR cameras, where a 50mm lens “sees” what the human eye sees and anything less (say 25mm) is considered wide angle and anything more (say 200mm) is considered telephoto, you can’t go by those numbers when evaluating camcorder specifications. That’s because the image sensors found in most camcorders are much smaller than those used in high-end cameras, and it’s the size of the image sensor that ultimately determines focal length.
You needn’t concern yourself with the focal length of a consumer-grade camcorder lens. But you should concern yourself with its optical zoom range.
Click on this graphic for more information.
A zoom lens has the ability to bring you closer to the action or farther away from it, which also determines the angle of view. Picture a basketball sitting on your front lawn: you could zoom in to the point where all you see is a giant basketball or zoom out so that you see the entire lawn with a tiny basketball in the middle.
While a fixed-focus lens sees the same angle of view at all times, a zoom lens has a variable angle of view. Zoom lenses are specified as 5x, 10x, 50x or whatever, with “x” factor referring to how many times closer to a subject the lens can bring you from its widest angle of view to its fully extended telephoto length.
Click image above for Optical/Digital Zoom comparision
Whereas an optical zoom lens alters the image that reaches the image sensor, a digital zoom simply zooms in or out of the image generated by the sensor, effectively cropping its image. In the basketball-on-the-lawn scenario, the sensor would generate an image of the whole lawn with a tiny ball in the middle, and a digital zoom would simply crop out most of the lawn to reveal an image of just a large ball with a bit of grass around it. The problem with digital zoom is that the more you zoom into an image, the more information is simply tossed out, thus reducing the image’s resolution. You end up looking at just a small piece of the image sensor instead of the whole thing.
All consumer-grade camcorders are fully automatic, and either fixed focus or autofocus. That means that you don’t have to set anything or even focus the lens in order to capture great video. A fully automatic camcorder automatically sets color balance, shutter speed, aperture and focus. That’s because it wouldn’t be practical if you had to make manual adjustments before capturing the action. More advanced camcorders intended for more experienced users are fully automatic, but also let you set things manually, if you prefer. You can even focus manually in situations where low light, glare or other circumstances prevent the autofocus from functioning properly.
A camcorder’s media format is the material used to store the video signal. All camcorders used to use tape: Betamax, VHS, VHS-C, Hi 8 and so on. Tape is still used today, but there are newer formats that are a lot more convenient and trouble free than tape.
Tape had a good run for many years, but has lots of inherent problems. Tape can tangle and jam, ruining your footage in the process and possibly damaging your camcorder, and it can be erased by strong magnetic fields. Tape also degrades over time; you’ve probably seen how old VHS tapes look worse as they age year after year. That’s why it’s important to transfer your treasured old videos to DVD or some other digital format before they deteriorate to the point where it’s impossible to do so.
Tapes also have to be played back on a compatible tape deck, which is usually the camcorder itself. And as more and more tape formats become obsolete, it becomes harder and harder to find a deck in which to play your old tapes. Lots of people have big collections of old Hi 8 tapes that they can no longer play because their Hi 8 camcorders have long since bitten the dust. The reasons are many: tape drives have lots of moving parts that can wear out; rubber belts and rollers dry up, stiffen and crack; spinning heads get dirty and wear out.
Another problem with tape is that if you want to transfer the video to a computer for archival purposes or to edit the material, you have to do it in real time, meaning the speed at which the tape plays. So if you have an hour of footage that you want to back up, it will take an hour to transfer the video. Another problem with all forms of tape is that it has to be fast-forwarded and rewound to get to specific clips; you can’t just jump to a scene the way you can with a DVD.
The most common consumer-grade camcorders sold today use flash memory, and B&H carries more than 200 camcorders of this type. Flash memory contains no moving parts that can fail, is inexpensive, stores video in a digital format that’s quick and easy to transfer to a computer and is so compact that it allows the design of smaller and smaller camcorders.
Some camcorders contain a certain amount of built-in flash memory and that’s it. Once you fill up the flash memory you have to transfer the contents to a computer or delete something before you can record more footage. More common are camcorders that have a small amount of built-in flash memory along with a card slot that lets you insert more memory as needed. Instead of bulky tapes, you can now carry around just two or three high-capacity memory cards that take up almost no space at all in your camera bag. Some camcorders offer hot-swappable flash memory―you can swap out a full memory card for a fresh one without powering down the camcorder.
The most common flash memory camcorders sold today use SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. SD, or Secure Digital memory cards are thin rectangular cards with a notch on one corner; they’re about the same size, shape and thickness as a matchbook cover. Basic SD cards have a maximum capacity of 2GB. SDHC or SD High Capacity cards can store up to 32GB. And SDXC or SD eXtended Capacity cards have a theoretical maximum capacity of 2TB, although the largest cards available at this time are just 64GB. Even so, that’s a quite a lot of capacity for such a small storage device.
Flash memory camcorders typically let you set the quality of the recording so that you can fit a lot of low-quality video or a little bit of high-quality video in the same amount of storage space. Even low quality, standard-definition video can require more than 1GB per hour. And high quality, high-definition video can gobble up 10GB per hour depending on the settings. These are approximations of course, and the settings, record times and video quality can vary greatly from camcorder to camcorder.
Prices for memory cards range from about $7 for a 2GB SD card to nearly $500 for a 64GB SDXC card. When you buy something in bulk, the cost per unit usually decreases. But notice how a 2GB card costs roughly $3.50 per GB while a 64GB card costs nearly $8 per GB. That’s because not all memory cards are created equal. In general, the higher the capacity, the newer the design is and the faster it will perform. While a “slow” card might be able to keep up with a camcorder recording standard-definition video, it could never store data fast enough to keep up with a cutting edge camcorder capturing high-definition video. That’s why you should follow a manufacturer’s recommendations regarding the type of memory cards to use with a particular camera.
MicroSD is a physically smaller version of SD. Some cameras accept the physically smaller media while others require an adapter that makes the smaller cards physically and electrically compatible with full-size SD slots. CompactFlash, or CF cards, and Memory Stick media are other types of memory cards used in camcorders.
Most flash memory camcorders have a USB interface that lets you copy video and stills to a computer for editing and archival purposes. If the camcorder has a removable memory card, it’s simple enough to remove the card from the camcorder, pop it into a card reader (either built into a computer or a separate USB peripheral) and copy over the video and stills that way.
Another type of camcorder contains a Hard Disk Drive or HDD. This was a very popular category a few years ago when memory cards were more expensive and storage capacity was not as high as it is today. But a number of new camcorders still contain hard drives. The hard drives range in capacity from 80GB to 240GB and these camcorders usually have an SD/SDHC card slot in addition to the hard drive. The SD/SDHC slot lets you increase capacity as needed and also provides an easy way to transfer video and stills from the camcorder’s hard drive to a computer.
DVD camcorders also used to be more popular than they are now. In fact, DVD camcorders are practically extinct. A DVD camcorder contains a built-in DVD burner and it burns video to an 8 cm recordable digital video disc in real time as it is recorded. The good thing about this type of camcorder is that the discs it creates can immediately be played back on most home DVD players. You also don’t have to copy the video to another type of media just to free up space in the camcorder; you can simply pop in a new blank disc.
The main problem with both HDD and DVD camcorders is that one has to contain a hard drive and the other has to contain a DVD burner. Either will only add to the complexity, size and weight of a camcorder. It’s much simpler and more compact for a camcorder to have a built-in SD/SDHC slot.
There are still a number of Mini DV camcorders sold, but more and more consumers are buying flash-memory camcorders these days. Mini DV camcorders record a digital signal to special Mini DV cassette tapes. Although the picture quality is much better on a digital tape than an analog tape, Mini DV tapes still suffer many of the same drawbacks of analog tape. The tapes can tangle and jam, they don’t offer random access, the drives can wear out and the cameras are bulkier than those with flash memory. And until you copy your video over to a computer, you have to play back your Mini DV tapes from the camcorder itself.
Click on images to enlarge.
Like any other flat-panel display, the LCD screen on a camcorder has a certain size and resolution (the number of pixels that make up the display). Naturally, the larger the display, the easier it is to examine still images and view video. The display can be as small as 1.5 inches or as large as 3.5 inches, measured diagonally. In addition, the higher the resolution, the easier it will be to make out fine details. Some LCDs offer touch-panel functionality, meaning that various controls will show up on the display and you can simply touch the display to access the controls.
Full-size camcorders usually have a viewfinder in addition to the LCD. The viewfinder is a tiny embedded LCD, rather than the optical window you’d find on a rangefinder camera. That’s why viewfinders can be color or black and white. Like the main LCD, the viewfinder LCD has it own resolution, and the higher the resolution, the crisper its image will be. Naturally, color is better than black and white because you can see the full palette of colors in your footage. However, if you intend to present your final video in gray scale, the black-and-white viewfinder is a helpful previsualization tool.
Just about everyone knows that pictures will be blurry when you don’t hold a camera securely. The problem is exacerbated when using a telephoto lens. If you’re shooting video and you don’t hold the camcorder steady, you’ll end up with shaky video that’s more or less unwatchable. Using a tripod is one way to avoid shaky video. Image stabilization is another way.
Image stabilization (IS) can be implemented in a number of ways. It corrects for operator movement so that your recorded video is rock solid. When shopping for a camcorder, you’ll see that some feature optical image stabilization and others feature electronic, or digital, image stabilization; optical is better than electronic, but electronic is much better than none.
Optical image stabilization prevents the image striking the image sensor from shaking by physically shifting the lens or the image sensor to compensate for shake. It’s kind of like balancing a pole in your hand; you have to keep moving your hand in the direction that the pole tips to prevent it from toppling over. Digital image stabilization does nothing to prevent an unstable image from reaching the image sensor. Instead it modifies the signal coming from the image sensor to eliminate shake. You’ll find digital IS in camcorders selling for less than $100, and optical IS in camcorders costing more than $200.
Most camcorders can capture still images as well as video. If you’re primarily interested in capturing video but occasionally want stills, this is an ideal compromise. But if you’re mainly interested in still capture then you should buy a digital camera that’s optimized for capturing stills. While lots of camcorders feature built-in video lights, they usually don’t have flashes or the same kind of controls that still cameras have.
Most camcorders come with special rechargeable battery packs and they simply won’t work without them. Obviously you need a charged battery in order to record video and many would-be cherished videos, such as a child’s high school graduation, have been cut short by a battery petering out prematurely. That’s why it’s important to have at least two battery packs and bring both packs with you, fully charged, to any important event.
Some camcorders, mainly pocket-size units, use AA or AAA cells. If you plan on going somewhere where it will be difficult or impossible to charge batteries (an extended trek through the Amazon rain forest, for example), you might want to seek out a camcorder that uses AA or AAA cells, and be sure to bring a fresh supply of them with you. If you like a camcorder that uses AA or AAA cells, but would prefer not to throw dead batteries in the trash, you can always use rechargeable AA or AAA cells. If you’re trekking through Tierra del Fuego with AA or AAA rechargeable batteries, make sure to bring along a solar charger panel.
Many higher-end camcorders include headphone outputs and microphone inputs. All camcorders have built-in speakers so you can hear the audio that accompanies your video, but a headphone output lets you hear your recorded video clearly and discreetly.
All camcorders also have built-in microphones and they’re adequate most of the time. However, external microphones are usually of much better quality, and you can buy special-purpose microphones such as lavalier or shotgun mics that perform better in particular applications. If you’re just a casual camcorder user you’ll probably never have to worry about external microphones, but keep in mind that a camcorder has to have a microphone input in order for you to use an external microphone.
Some camcorders have an accessory shoe that lets you attach shotgun or omnidirectional microphones, video lights and other accessories. The functionality of an accessory shoe varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so make sure that a camcorder that comes with an accessory shoe allows you to attach whatever accessory you’re interested in before making a purchase.
The venerable NTSC analog television system was developed in 1941. Its timing was based on the 60-Hertz electrical system used in the United States and in other countries. Each “picture” presented to a viewer is called a frame, and each frame is updated roughly every 1/30 of a second. Each frame consists of two fields, and each field is updated roughly every 1/60 of a second. The first field contains odd-numbered scan lines and the second field contains even-numbered scan lines. The two fields are interlaced together to produce one full frame.
Movies, on the other hand, are progressive and don’t contain fields; instead, each “picture” is updated in its entirety at 24 frames per second. This slightly slower frame rate gives film a unique appearance when compared to NTSC video. Many of the latest camcorders can record in 24p for a more film-like look and feel.
PAL is the analog television system used in Europe. Because Europe uses a 50-Hertz electrical system, PAL televisions and camcorders have traditionally worked at 50 fields per second or 25 frames per second. That’s why you need a PAL camcorder if you want your video to be playable on a PAL TV set. You need a PAL camcorder even if you’re buying a 1080p high-definition model.
In general, the more inputs and outputs a camcorder has, the more versatile it will be. Many camcorders have a USB output for copying contents to a computer or for connecting to a display or external recorder that has a USB input. For the same reason many camcorders have a FireWire output, but FireWire is far more common on Macs than PCs. Camcorders may feature miniature USB and FireWire connectors but the functionality is the same.
Camcorders usually have a video output that lets you display recorded video and stills on a TV set. A composite video output is used for standard definition analog video and it usually takes the form of a single yellow RCA jack. Audio is handled separately. S-Video, also used for standard definition analog video, offers a better picture than composite video, but its use has become less popular as HDTV becomes more popular. S-Video uses a 4-pin mini-DIN connector and audio is handled separately. Component video is an analog connection that can handle high-definition video. Component video uses three separate RCA jacks (red, green and blue), and audio is transported separately. HDMI is a digital connection for high-definition video and it has become today’s standard. HDMI uses a unique 19-pin cable that handles both video and audio. Some camcorders have mini and micro HDMI connectors but the functionality is the same.
Sometimes you don’t need any cables at all. Camcorders with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity let you transfer video and stills to a PC or TV through a Wi-Fi connection. Some camcorders also feature Bluetooth technology, which makes it easy to connect accessories such as headphones and GPS units wirelessly.
The smallest, simplest camcorders available are of the shoot-and-share variety. Shoot-and-share camcorders are so small that you can keep one in your pocket at all times and be ready to capture the unexpected. They typically look like smart phones, with a lens on the front and an LCD screen and a few controls on the rear. Many of these camcorders come with software that makes it easy to edit and upload files to social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
Shoot-and-share camcorders typically use flash memory. They have a fixed-focus lens with digital zoom, a relatively small LCD, a USB interface and a video output. Some have image stabilization and some are waterproof. Shoot-and-share camcorders range in price from as little as $25 to roughly $250. At the low end these camcorders typically record 640 x 480 VGA video, but for less than $100 you can get one that records high-definition video. But you get what you pay for; a $99 HD camcorder will never capture video with the same quality as a full-featured unit.
Standard palm-held camcorders are larger in size than shoot and shares. But it’s the larger size that provides room for optical zoom lenses, larger displays, video lights, more advanced circuitry, accessory shoes and other features. Some camcorders have a pistol-grip design that’s easier to hold than a shoot and share but is still small enough to fit in a coat pocket. You can choose a conventional-style camcorder that’s quite compact or a larger one that packs in every feature you could ever want.
The most important thing about any camcorder is that it fits comfortably in your hand and that your fingers can intuitively reach the controls. If it feels awkward or too heavy or if you have to fumble for the controls you’ll miss out on important events.
If you’re not interested in HD, think again. Even though your current TV might be standard definition, your next one will likely be a high-definition unit. That’s because it’s hard to buy a new TV that’s not HD. If you need to shoot in SD now, get an HD camcorder that can record in SD. That way you’ll be ready for HD down the road.
If you do a lot of shooting outdoors in full sunlight, get a camcorder that has a viewfinder, because it’s difficult to see the image on an LCD screen when it’s sunny out. If you don’t need a tripod, video light or external microphone right now, you can postpone those purchases. But you should buy things such as an extra memory card and battery pack right from the start so that you’re not prevented from capturing an important event because of a full card or dead battery.