When it comes to digital video cameras, there are dozens of models to choose from. So which one is best? “Best”, of course, is a subjective term but here are the features to consider when shopping.
Look and feel – A camera with all kinds of bells and whistles is not going to much good if it’s difficult to use. The camera should fit easily in the hand and the controls should be accessible and simple to use. Check the menu options to make sure you understand them and can set them for the conditions in which you’ll be taking video. The camera also should be easy to mount on and disconnect from a tripod (something you should buy with the camera). Also, consider the weight. A heavier camera will be hard to hold for long periods of time or for younger children to use.
Storage format – Most consumer cameras these days store your video as individual clips on a mini DVD, hard drive, or removable SD card. Some units, especially at the lower and upper price range, use mini DV tapes. Which one you choose will depend on several factors, most importantly whether you plan to edit the video on your computer or simply play it back.
If you plan to edit the clips together, you need to know that most of the non-tape cameras record to the MPEG format, either MPG2 or MPG4. Check your editing software to make sure it can import and use those formats. One major program that doesn’t work well with these files is MovieMaker, the free editor that comes with Windows XP and Vista. To use the clips with MovieMaker, you’ll need software that converts the files to another format. Very often, a program that will do this comes with the camera.
You’ll also need to consider the amount and cost of storage. Video takes up a lot of space so think carefully about the format you choose and how easy it will be to add more space when you run low.
Mini DVDs don’t cost much but also don’t hold much at the highest quality level. But with RW disks you can reuse them (but not infinitely!) and a box of them won’t take a lot of space in your bag.
SD cards cost more but they take even less space and can be reused many more times than DVDs.
In a hard drive camera you won’t have to pay for more space since, of course, you can’t expand the drive. When it’s full, it’s full. Some models, however, do allow you to use an SD card to get more room.
Tape is relatively cheap, not especially bulky and can be reused (but again, not infinitely). On the other hand, you must connect the camera to the computer and stream the video to transfer them for editing. Another plus for tape is that, in general, tape cameras produce better quality video.
Zoom – When it comes to zoom, look at the optical ratings and ignore the digital. Optical zoom is accomplished by actually moving the focal point of the lens. Digital zoom is accomplished by having a computer in the camera figure out what the picture would look like if the focal point could get closer.
All digital zoom algorithms in cameras that most of us can afford do a bad job. Ignore these numbers when considering a camera and turn it off in any camera you buy.
Image stabilization – Many recent models use some kind of circuitry to smooth out the little jiggles that come with handling a small format camera. In general, the lower priced cameras do a fair job of this while higher priced cameras (using optical processes rather than digital) do a better job. No amount of electronics will do a better job than a simple tripod, however.
Low light compensation – As with image stabilization, the ability of a video camera to film in low light varies directly with price. A few manufacturers (notably Sony) claim they have units that will film in near total darkness. Unless you’re spending a lot of money, take the claim with a grain of salt. To throw additional light on your subject, some cameras come with a “hot shoe” that allows you to attach a light (a few have one built in) but this comes at the cost of a shorter battery life.
Plugs and ports – These allow you to get your video out of the camera (and sometimes bring video into it). There are many combinations but at a minimum look for these two:
- USB – Most cameras that store video as files, along with a few tape cameras, use this connector to transfer them to the computer. Camcorders that also take still pictures will often have a USB port specifically for transferring the still images.
- Analog (composite video) – this allows you to attach the camera to your television or a conventional VCR. Very useful when you want to show the video to a large group or when you’ve finished editing your film and want to make copies.
- Many tape cameras will have a FireWire port (also called IEEE 1394 or iLink on Sony equipment). This requires that you have a similar port on your computer. FireWire is not standard equipment on most PC and is not included on the newest models of Apple’s MacBook. It is, however, inexpensive to add the connector.
- Some cameras also have an S-video port which allows the analog transfer of video using a format that is supposed to be better than composite. Some also have a headphone jack, allowing you to better judge the audio quality while filming or when the video is played on the camera.
Audio – The built-in microphones in most low and moderately priced cameras are not very good at picking up individual voices or specific sounds. They are generally omnidirectional, which means they capture a lot of ambient noise, making voices hard to hear at a distance. If you need to pick out specific voices, you will need to plug a separate microphone into the camera and, unfortunately, most low and mid priced cameras don’t include a jack to enable this. Check the specifications carefully before you buy. Some cameras with mic jacks also have a mount that can accommodate a wireless microphone receiver. For serious projects you should strongly consider this option.
LCD Screen – Most cameras come with a small LCD screen usually 2.5 inches (measured diagonally) going up to 3.5 inches. Using the screen can often be easier than using a viewfinder and is great for viewing what has been captured on tape. On the other hand the screen draws power and shortens battery life.
In-Camera Editing/Special Effects – Many cameras allow you to add effects (such as slow motion or transitions between scenes) and do other editing of the video using controls on the camera. For the most part these features are difficult to use and are not as effective as the effects you can apply in most editing programs. Don’t buy a camera based on this feature.
Battery life – Almost all cameras come with a rechargeable battery and an AC adapter that charges it in the camera. For most brands you can also buy an external charger for the batteries. The external charger and at least one additional battery are a must for classroom projects.
You can expect about one hour of use from the battery that comes with most cameras if you use the LCD display. Turning off the display will extend the time by 30 minutes or more. You can often buy a higher capacity battery but they are not cheap and add weight and bulk to the camera.
Still Pictures – Many video cameras can also take still pictures, storing them on SD memory cards or on the tape. While the quality of the stills is improving (most offer 5-6 megapixel shots), you will not get the results that even a low priced digital still camera will give you.
Price – You can find some very good digital video cameras for under $400. For a price between $400 and $900 you can find some excellent models with features appropriate for serious amateurs. In the $1200-$3000 price range there are cameras that are of such high quality that they are used to produce movies, television shows and commercials.
Models from Canon usually get excellent reviews and are my personal favorites in each price category. Models from JVC, Panasonic and Sony also very highly rated.
For more information about buying a digital camcorder, including in-depth reviews of specific models, take a look at Camcorder Info. As for price, shop around.