What to look for in a camcorder

Shopping for a camcorder in days past was not an easy experience, but there has been constant improvement in the quality of video that can be obtained. You won’t need the most expensive camera since most do at least high definition (HD) video. YouTube offers HD quality video (up to 1080p) on their site, and even 4K video is now an option. It’s still possible to make DVDs and even Blu-ray discs, but again, an inexpensive camera will generally give you the quality you need. If you are going to just re-watch the video footage on your TV, you need to make sure you’ve got the right cables to make the connection. In general you’ll need an HDMI cable and one that will work with your camera. It may be a “mini” or “micro” HDMI connection on the end that connects to your camera. If you’re ready to shop, you can start with Cnet’s camcorder reviews . Otherwise, here’s what to look for in a video camera (AKA camcorders):

  • HD – Everything is HD now. Standard definition (with its 4×3 aspect ratio) is pretty much gone. Most computers today have the basic ability to edit HD. What’s next after HD is something like 4K (more accurately Ultra HD) footage which is 4 times the resolution of HD video. Ultra HD is 3840×2160 pixels versus HD’s 1920×1080 pixels.
  • Automation – Decide whether you want a camera that you just set on automatic and it does everything for you, or if you want to control exposure, focus, audio, etc. It is strongly recommended that you get a camera that gives you manual control over your camera. Auto-focus is nice, but there will be times when the camcorder won’t know what you are trying to focus on. You can fix bad exposure (somewhat) in a video editing program. You can’t fix focus, or audio, after the fact.
  • Media Types – The ways in which you can store video are constantly evolving. DV Tape, mini-DVD, and hard disk recording media are on the way out. SD memory cards are the most popular way to store your recorded video. Whichever media format you have, you need to make sure you have the right cables to get your footage into your computer. In the case of SD card cameras, you can either pop the card out and insert it into the computer (if your computer has an SD card slot). You can also use a USB cable and the computer will see the camcorder as an external drive. Then use the movie editing software to import the footage into the computer.
  • Audio – Most people don’t think about audio when they look for video cameras, but it is at least equally important . Imagine these two scenarios. Scenario one, you recorded a lecture, but you forgot to take off the lens cap and you only got the audio. Well, that’s a big problem, but you can at least post the audio somewhere and people can listen. Scenario two, you get great video images from your camcorder, but you were far enough away from the speaker that the audio is inaudible. Unless you were going for the silent movie effect, your video is pretty useless. That’s why good audio is so important to good video. Bad audio is very noticeable. Good audio isn’t noticed at all. Look for a camera that has an external microphone input, so you have the option to add a quality microphone. Also look for a camera that has a headphone jack so you can monitor the audio that is being recorded. There’s a good reason why you see professional videographers wearing a set of headphones. They don’t want the surprise of unwanted sounds being captured. A good directional (like a “shotgun” mic), lapel, or handheld microphone will do better than a camera’s on-board microphone almost every time.
  • Image Quality – How important is video image quality to you? Cameras with multiple video sensors will give a better image (generally) than single sensor cameras, but they cost more.
  • Photos – Do you want your camcorder to have the ability to take photos too? This is a common feature in most cameras these days.
  • Image stabilization – There are also cameras with image stabilizers that reduce the shakiness of handheld video, so you may want one with that feature. They’re handy if you are zooming way into the action and you need a steadier shot. They have a limit to how steady the video will appear. Tripods are better tools to use to get steady video .
  • Firewire – While firewire connections generally only come on cameras that use the DV format, there is another advantage of having a camera with firewire. You can record live video directly to the hard drive of a computer, or use the camera as a high quality web cam by using the firewire connection. Look for this technology to fade into the sunset soon.
  • HDMI – In the high definition (HD) video era this kind of connection is becoming ubiquitous. HDMI will continue to be used as we move into the 4K era. You even set up multi-camera shoots with the relatively inexpensive Blackmagic Design video switchers .

Updated 9-10-14

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