How to Buy a Digital Camcorder

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What Level of Camcorder Is Right for You?

Whether you just want a handy device for casual shooting or you earn a living producing broadcast-quality professional video, you can find a camcorder that’s right for you. You can also find something to match any size wallet: Camcorder costs range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Here’s what you’ll get in each camcorder class.

Pocket Camcorders ($80 to $250)

The darlings of the YouTube set, pocket camcorders are great for anyone looking for low cost and convenience in an HD camcorder. These camcorders are popular because of their supreme convenience and portability: Stick one in your bag or purse, shoot some video when inspiration strikes, plug the camcorder into your PC, and upload your work to your favorite sharing or social-networking site.

Many pocket camcorders use the MPEG-4/H.264 codec; it requires relatively little PC horsepower, so you can pipe video into your PC very quickly. Most pocket camcorders have a flip-out USB jack that you can plug directly into your desktop PC or laptop; you don’t need to fiddle with a cable. One model, Kodak’s PlaySport ($150), is weatherized and waterproof. You can take it swimming with you and even film underwater (to depths of 10 feet).

Pocket camcorders are only slightly thicker and taller than a smartphone, and they cost as little as $80, which makes them practical stocking stuffers for the holidays. Just don’t expect too much from them. Their small lenses, “lossy” MPEG-4 codec, lack of manual controls, and tiny on-board microphones yield poorer-quality video and audio quality than conventional camcorders offer. Also, be sure to check whether the pocket camcorder you're considering uses fixed internal storage or lets you use a removable memory card to store your footage.

Standard-Definition Camcorders ($180 to $330)

HD is all the rage, so should you bother considering a standard-definition camcorder? If you’re looking ahead to the future, no. But if you need something inexpensive but still full-featured right now, maybe.

SD is slowly fading from the scene, but for budget-conscious buyers who want to shoot decent-quality video, it’s a cost-effective option. Plenty of good-quality SD camcorders are available for $200 to $300; that’s about half the price of the equivalent HD models. Standard-definition video files are smaller and easier to work with, and you can render them quickly on a less-powerful PC, store many more hours of SD than HD video to your hard drive, and back up to DVD more easily. Nearly all current standard-def models use flash memory in place of DV tape.

Many households still have standard-definition televisions, and HD may be overkill for them. That said, the extra money spent on an HD camcorder translates into richer, more-vivid video to watch when you get an HDTV set. HD camcorders usually support downconverting HD video to standard definition. If you have a standard-definition TV and a tight budget, SD is a valid option.

HD Consumer Camcorders ($300 to $1000) If you want better HD video quality in a camcorder and more options, but also want a unit that's portable, reasonably priced, and easy to use, the traditional consumer camcorder may be for you.

These models are bigger than pocket camcorders, but not by much—you can easily slip one into a large coat pocket. Besides capturing video of much better quality, these camcorders offer more options and controls, and they usually include SD card slots for removable storage media.

Most HD consumer camcorders use AVCHD, a codec that imposes heavy demands on your PC but preserves most of the original video's richness and crispness. Most of the components are scaled up from the pocket camcorder: You get more memory, bigger lenses and sensors, and sharper and more-spacious LCD panels, sometimes with touchscreen controls.

The pricier conventional cams offer features similar to what you find on professional and other high-end ("prosumer") models, such as mic jacks, hot shoes for accessories like external video lights and microphones, and manual controls for focus, shutter speed, aperture, and other settings.

One feature that has largely disappeared from the conventional lineup is the eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF). LCD panels have become remarkably crisp and vivid, but many experienced users prefer EVFs because they cut down on glare and save on battery power. With the increased power demands of an always-on LCD panel and with the camcorder recording data-rich HD video, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to battery life.

HD Prosumer Camcorders ($1000 to $3000)

You’ve used conventional camcorders for some time, learning their ins and outs while shooting birthday parties and picnics. Now you’re ready to take the next step—maybe even taking on paid jobs such as shooting weddings or shooting B roll for a professional videographer. A prosumer camcorder may be for you.

Prosumer camcorders offer a few advantages over mainstream consumer models: higher-quality components (especially sensors and lenses), extensive manual controls and shooting modes, and in many cases true 24p (24-frames-per-second progressive) shooting to produce video that closely resembles motion-picture film.

Prosumer models also provide better audio quality and audio options. Audio often gets short shrift in lower-end models, but many experienced users value clean, crisp audio as much as top-notch video. During a corporate shoot, for example, it’s important to be able to hear the speaker clearly.

Most prosumer models let the user add adapters to upgrade to professional XLR audio connections. These balanced-audio connections dramatically reduce line noise and hum, even if you run long cables from a tripod-mounted camcorder at the back of the auditorium to a microphone positioned near the stage.

Prosumer camcorders tend to be larger and heavier than their consumer-oriented cousins, and for good reason. A large, well-balanced camcorder is much easier to stabilize than an ever-shrinking consumer camcorder, resulting in less-shaky video. The increased size also accommodates a larger number of manual controls, such as rotatable rings for focus and aperture controls, and dedicated buttons to set white balance. It’s much easier to have a physical control at hand than to waste time poking around for it in the LCD screen menu.

Most prosumer models retain the electronic viewfinder—useful for avoiding the sun’s glare during shooting—and it’s often easier to hold the camcorder steady when you’re holding it up to your eye.

As you take more and more jobs, video archiving becomes more important, both to build your own portfolio and to keep backups of work shot for your clients. For these reasons, many prosumer models still use DV tape, often in addition to removable flash memory. Because of its reliability and durability, DV tape remains one of the most popular video archive media, but robust forms of flash memory such as Compact Flash are making serious inroads.

Twin-Lens 3D Camcorders ($1000 to $2000)

If you'd like to boldly go where few home-video enthusiasts have gone before—the third dimension!—then you might want to step up to a 3D camcorder. While it's possible to recreate a 3D effect in still images with a single lens, you'll need a twin-lens setup to record 3D video. A few options are available now: Full HD camcorders with two built-in lenses, detachable 3D conversion lenses for high-definition camcorders, and pocketable models with two built-in lenses.

Just remember, 3D is a different beast altogether. We have an entire guide devoted to 3D video capture and playback, but here are the major things to consider if 3D sounds enticing. First and foremost, you'll need a 3D TV or a 3D-capable computer setup for playing back your footage in full, three-dimensional glory. Second, in order to play back your 3D footage, you'll likely need to connect your camcorder to your 3D TV via HDMI and use it as a playback device. And third, you'll need to make sure that your video-editing software supports 3D footage if you intend to edit your clips.

At this stage, we'd recommend a 3D camcorder only for the unintimidated. If you're up to the challenge, you could become a true 3D video pioneer, because there isn't much competition out there in terms of 3D-minded directors. Besides, all the 3D video-capture devices on the market also shoot 2D video, so you're not locked into the third dimension if you don't get the hang of it.

Video-Capable Digital SLRs ($1000 to $5000)

Use a still camera to shoot professional-quality video? It’s not as crazy as it seems. The latest DSLR cameras are video-capable, capturing HD video as well as excellent still images. For the money, video-capable DSLRs offer exceptionally large sensors and very good lenses, so the user can produce excellent video.

The video is so good, in fact, that DSLR-shot video is cropping up in TV and film productions, including last season’s final episode of House and in a Formula One chase scene in Ironman II. HD video DSLRs offer a combination of small size and strong depth-of-field control, so users can shoot from locations that are too cramped for a bulky professional camcorder.

HD-capable DSLRs are not for everyone, though, especially for people interested in shooting and editing long footage. Most of these cameras shoot MPEG-2 video, which can choke home-editing station setups once file sizes get larger than a few GB (only about 10 to 15 minutes of full HD video). TV and film producers rarely feel limited by this size restriction, because they shoot short scenes, but casual shooters sometimes want to shoot longer footage. Many of these cameras offer only manual focus in video mode, which everyday shooters may find too much of a hassle to operate.

Professional Camcorders ($5000 and up)

Pro-level camcorders are very pricey, but they're an essential investment if you make video production your life’s work. You'll find a vast array of models designed for different types of shooting environments, but in general you'll get the highest quality components available in camcorders, especially lenses, and you can customize operation in many more ways than you can with less-expensive camcorder types.

Many pro-level camcorders let you swap lenses, so you can optimize your video acquisition for the shooting environment. For example, you can switch to a wide-angle lens for tight camera work in a small room or set, and then swap in a zoom lens for greater depth of field in outdoor shoots. Most pro camcorders are larger than other models, and they permit extensive customization via a wide range of programmable buttons, dials, and rocker switches that let you tailor the camcorder controls to your needs.

Pro camcorders offer redundant controls arranged around the camera body and handle so that you have convenient access to your important controls, whether you mount the unit on a tripod, set it on your shoulder, or hold it low for ground-level shoots. Most pro models come with built-in XLR connectors—no adapters needed—for clean, noise-free audio.

In the pro-video world, video archiving is critical. Many of these camcorders use hard-disk drives and tape for archiving and data durability, but camcorder makers are adding Compact Flash (CF) slots, too. CF cards are bigger than SD cards, and they’re easier to handle, faster, and more durable.

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