Camcorders

Buying Guide - Digital Camcorders

How they work

In many ways a digital camcorder is very similar to a digital still camera. In fact the two are interchangeable to a certain degree, with most digital still cameras able to shoot video, and the majority of digital camcorders able to shoot photos. The same underlying technology drives both devices. A lens focuses an image onto a digital sensor, which then captures said image and writes it to a digital storage medium. In most cases the digital sensor is a CCD, but CMOS sensors are also employed. There's no real advantage or disadvantage to each sensor type, although manufacturers tend to favour one or the other.


Memory cardEarly digital camcorders used cassettes for storage, but unlike older analogue video cameras they recorded digital data rather than raw video. These days digital camcorders write to many different kinds of digital media including DVD discs, hard disks and memory cards. Recording your movies digitally also makes it far easier to edit and show your handy-work off once you've shot it. There's no need for the expensive and complex video capture equipment that was necessary with analogue video cameras, since the digital data can be copied directly to a computer without conversion.

YouTube movies

There's no avoiding the fact that social networking plays a huge role in our lives, and sharing video is an important piece of that puzzle. In fact video sharing sites like YouTube have become so prolific that an entirely new breed of digital camcorders has appeared to address that market. Pocket digital camcorders are designed to be small and light enough to be carried with you at all times, so when something amazing happens you can film it and share it with the world. Not only are pocket camcorders small and light enough to carry everywhere, but they also capture video in a format that can be uploaded directly to YouTube without any editing or encoding.


Devices like the Flip Mino are unbelievably simple to use, you just shoot your movie, plug the camera directly into your computer via the integrated USB cable and your footage will be instantly uploaded to your YouTube account. The downside of these pocket digital camcorders is that the image quality won't match that of a full size model. Even so, with sites like YouTube now supporting high definition video, the quality of pocket digital camcorders is getting better all the time.

Home movies

If you're looking to record your memories for generations to come, you'll probably want the best possible image quality, which means a full size digital camcorder HD. The vast majority of digital camcorders record to built-in storage (either hard disk or solid state memory), SD cards or a combination of both. The advantage of built-in storage is that you can't forget to take it with you, and in the case of a hard disk, it can be very capacious. The benefit of an SD card is that it's really easy to get your data off the camcorder - simply remove the card and pop it into your computer's card reader.


In fact many televisions and Blu-ray players have SD card slots that will let you view your movies direct from the card. Obviously a combination of both storage mediums is ideal, but this is generally an option reserved for high-end devices. Most full size HD camcorders record using a format called AVCHD, which provides efficient compression of your data while maintaining very high image quality. Not only does this mean that you'll be able to shoot for longer before running out of space, but you also won't fill your computer up with incredibly large files, as was the case with the uncompressed HDV standard.

Features

Camcorder


There are a lot of features to consider with a digital camcorder, but the best place to start is resolution. A Full HD digital camcorder will clearly command a premium, but they're not as expensive as you might think. Standard definition digital camcorders are still available, and are also comparatively cheap, but you'll be losing out on the image quality. Another important factor is the lens, with many manufacturers partnering themselves with experts in the field to reap the benefits.


Most Panasonic camcorders sport Leica lenses, while Sony models often come equipped with Carl Zeiss lenses, and of course Canon camcorders benefit from the company's own legendary lens technology. The focal length is another feature worth considering, with many camcorders boasting incredibly long zoom ranges. However, it's always worth remembering that it's only optical zoom that matters, digital zoom numbers should always be ignored. Also, the longer the focal length, the more important image stabilisation is. If you want a steady picture at 35x zoom, you'll need optical image stabilisation. Then there's 3D to consider. Coinciding with the latest trend of 3DTVs, 3D camcorders are hitting the market, but expect to pay a high price for that 3D functionality.

Accessories

There's no end of accessories to go with a digital camcorder, some essential and some merely useful. Most important is storage. If you're not buying a model with a huge, built-in hard disk, you'll need to stock up on memory cards. With Full HD camcorders squeezing around an hour of footage onto an 8GB SDHC card, you'll probably want to invest in a few spare cards to keep in your camera bag. It's also worth picking up a spare battery or two, especially if you're planning day trips with your camcorder.


A decent modelling light will help when shooting indoor events like weddings or parties, while an external microphone is also worth considering if you fancy being the videographer for friends and family. But one of the most important accessories doesn't connect to the camcorder at all, it installs on your computer. A video editing package will allow you to turn the video you shoot with your camcorder into something that's genuinely worth watching. High end packages like Premier Pro and Final Cut Pro may be a little pricey for most of us, but the likes of Premier Elements, or iMovie are more than adequate for most consumers.