Shopping for a Camcorder? Camcorder and Computer Video Magazine’s Top 10 Features to Look For

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants ©2007

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine

Camcorders continue to improve, and manufacturers continue to add features to consumer camcorders that even some broadcasters wish they had. In addition to point and shoot, most camcorders have manual overrides so you can get capture the full golden hue of a spectacular sunset, or they include microphone jacks so you can use a wireless mike to clearly hear your child’s valedictorian speech.

We compiled this list to help you decide what features to look for when you are shopping for your camcorder. We placed high-definition at the end of the list because we want you to know that most of the features on hi-def camcorders are also available on lower-cost Mini-DV camcorders. But we think now is the time to buy a high-definition camcorder. They come with exciting features, and their prices have tumbled, too. Which ever format you choose, look for the following features so you can get the best results in all shooting situations.

1. Microphone Jack

There will come a time when you will want to record clear audio from a distance. The built-in camcorder mike picks up background noise and will disappoint you when you want to videotape a speech or a performance. Camcorders with mike jacks let you plug in a wireless mike or a shotgun mike. Make sure the camcorder also has a headphone jack, and monitor your audio with headphones. Camcorders with mike jacks include the Sony DCR-HC21 ($500), the Panasonic PV-GS180 ($550) and the JVC GR-DF450 ($300).

2. Manual Overrides

Auto exposure works fine, but if your subject is in front of a window, the auto iris will see the bright light and close down — darkening your foreground subject. A backlight button brightens the subject when the background is brighter than the foreground. Some camcorders offer a dial where you can adjust the exposure manually. If you are shooting a scene with a dark background, such as a school lecture against a black drape, you will want to override the auto-exposure. Otherwise it could compensate for the dark background and brighten the image so much that your subject’s face becomes washed out.

Program AE combines the best features of automatic and manual exposure. It lets you dial in a choice of scenes that the camcorder has pre-programmed with the optimal combination of iris and shutter settings. For example, the Sony DCR-PC109 ($700) has program AE (they call it Automatic) modes for Spotlight, Portrait, Sports, Beach & Ski, Sunset & Moon and Landscape.

3. Long Optical Zoom

One of the few times when digital is not a benefit is when it used for zoom. Digital zoom merely enlarges the pixels, creating a fuzzy picture. Look for optical zoom specifications. If you want to videotape Junior making that touchdown, you’ll want a camcorder with more than the standard 10x optical zoom. Many camcorders, such as the Sony DCR-SR40, ($600) come with a 20x optical zoom. Even longer zoom ranges are available such as the 25x zoom Canon ZR 850 ($300), the 30x zoom Panasonic
PV-GS359 ($400), the 32x JVC G2-MG37 ($400) and the 33x Samsung SC-DC164 ($400).

4. Widescreen

All the new TV sets are widescreen as are all hi-def camcorders. Some of the newer Mini-DV camcorders offer that option, too. Choose a camcorder with a widescreen system that does not merely put black bars at the top and bottom of the screen — a technique called letterbox. Rather, look for specifications such as true widescreen found on the Panasonic GS-500 ($700) or native widescreen, a feature of the Canon ZR 850 ($300). Widescreen is also called 16×9 which refers to the ratio of the width to the height of the image. Standard screen is 4×3.

5. Side Loading

If you ever use a tripod or a monopod, or a shoulder-mount camcorder support, and you have to quickly change tapes, a camcorder that loads tapes from the bottom can cause frustration. You have to take the cam off the tripod to load the tape. Many of the very small camcorders are bottom-loaders. Side loading adds a little to the size of the camcorder, but lets you change tapes more conveniently.

6. Still Photography

If you want to use your camcorder for still photography, look for one with at least three mega-pixel (3.0MP) resolution — more if possible. Some let you choose lower resolution options for sending photos over the Internet. Some camcorders offer a flash for still photography and even ISO adjustment for low light. Some camcorders even let you capture a still picture simultaneously while recording video.

The Sanyo VPC-HD1 ($500) has 5.0MP, one of the highest, and it has a flash and ISO adjustments. Don’t be confused by some technical terminology that might be used to inflate specifications. Sanyo advertises 10.0MP, but this is an interpolated image. While it allows for large prints, there is not more information than that of a standard 5.0MP camera. Still, 5.0MP on a camcorder is impressive.

7. Low Light and Night Exposure

Some camcorders have gain control buttons that increase the sensitivity of the imaging chip in a similar way that high ISO levels in still cameras allow for brighter shooting in low light. Unfortunately, this gain control adds grain to the picture – little white pixels, commonly known as video noise or snow.

The Sony DCR-HC96 ($500) has Super NightShot which lets you shoot in near total darkness. The camcorder employs a small built-in infrared light and the image looks like it came from military night-vision goggles.

JVC’s GR-D70 ($500) calls their low light mode Night Alive. A slow shutter speed boosts the light hitting the camcorder’s chip, but doesn’t give you smooth motion.

8. Digital Effects

Camcorder digital effects include flashy special effects but some also include a new picture enhancement technology known as “skin tone softening.” The Panasonic PV-GS400 has a digital control called Soft Skin designed to reduce blemishes and age lines. Elderly subjects will appreciate how young you can make them look!
The Sony DCR-HC36 has a variety of effects that include Old Movie that adds some scratches and a shutter effect, Luminance Key that lets you can put another image in a black background and Trail that adds a streak to subjects in motion.
You can create stop-animation video with the JVC GR-DF550. Controls let you shoot bursts of five seconds of video or just a few frames at a time. The camcorder also has a strobe feature for a stop-motion effect.

9. HDMI Connector

Okay, we said we would wait until the end to discuss hi-def, but HDMI is a connector that you should consider when purchasing a hi-def camcorder, and they are the type of jacks found on most new HDTV sets. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cables send full resolution, high-definition video, as well as audio in a variety of formats, to your monitor. Sony’s HDR-SR5 and HDR-SR7 camcorders have HDMI connectors as does the Panasonic HDC-SD5 camcorder

10. Hi def

Last but not least, now is the time to buy a high-definition camcorder. Prices have finally dropped below $1000, and buyers have several models to choose from. Previously, the only camcorders were HDV format — recording hi-def on a Mini-DV tape. Recently a new hi-def format, AVCHD, has been adopted by several manufacturers.
Sony HDR-SR5 and Sony HDR-SR7 record to internal hard drives in AVCHD and have HDMI connectors. Both camcorders have mike jacks, and they feature 5.1 surround sound recording. The HDR-SR5 ($1100) has a 40GB hard drive and 4.0 megapixel still picture capabilities. The HDR-SR7 ($1400) has a 60GB HDD and a ClearVid CMOS chip that helps it yield 6.1MP still images.
Panasonic’s HDC-SD5 camcorder ($1000), also records in the AVCHD format to SD/SDHC memory cards. It sports three chips, which, Panasonic says, makes it “the world’s smallest 3CCD, full HD camcorder.”

Claiming the title of the world’s smallest HDV camcorder, is Canon with their HV 10 ($700). It has options for manual Focus Assist and Program AE, and it can produce 3.1MP still pictures with or without its built-in flash.

JVC GZ-HD7 ($1200) records 1920×1080 pixels—higher resolution than HDV’s 1440×1080. The camcorder records to an internal 60GB hard drive, and it has JVC’s NightAlive low-light feature. It even has a mike jack for using an external microphone but, surprisingly, no headphone jack.

One advantage of high-definition camcorders is that you can copy video from them to HD DVDs or Blu-ray Discs. At press time, Hitachi announced that they will introduce the first high-definition Blu-ray Disc camcorder that should be available by the time you read this. It will record an hour of 1920×1080 resolution video onto a mini Blu-ray Disc or four hours onto its internal 30GB hard drive. It will also provide 4.3MP still photos. No pricing had been announced at press time.

High-definition camcorders are finally affordable, and just in time for the US conversion to HDTV in 2009. Whether you pop for hi-def now, or purchase a lower-cost standard definition Mini-DV camcorder, be sure it has the features we listed here. You’ll want a camcorder that can be there for you so you can get the best quality audio and video in any shooting situation.

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