Buying A Camcorder - A Basic Introduction

Types and Features to Consider

Canon's Vixia HF S10 high definition camcorder
Ethan Miller / Staff / Getty Images

Buying a Camcorder

There are two basic questions you should answer before you begin shopping for a camcorder:

  1. What do you want to shoot
  2. What do you want to do with the footage

The answers will help you to narrow your search. You also want to consider

  • The physical comfort of the machine. 
  • Ease of use. 
  • Convenience of Playback and/or copying. 
  • Picture quality. 
  • Fits within budget.

Types of Camcorders and Features to Consider

  • Action! Extreme Sports camcorders are great for great for young adventurers who want to document a life lived with adrenaline. Many are waterproof and extra rugged and can be securely mounted in a variety of situations makes them perfect for dynamic point-of-view shooting.. There isn't a lot of zoom and usually no manual controls. The lenses are very basic and designed to take in the world at a wide-angle setting. However, the sensors are small, so the video may not look terrific blown up on a large HDTV.
  • Close-Ups!  If you want to get close-ups of your child's concert or soccer game you'll need a lot of zoom. The important numbers to look at are listed as optical zoom, which is what the lens does and is higher quality than digital zoom which may yield a picture that is blocky and pixelated. A high number for optical zoom means you can get close enough to capture small details without losing picture quality. But zooming in reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor, so if you're zooming indoors look for a camera with good low-light sensitivity and/or a lens with a large aperture.
  • Be Still! The closer your close-up, the bigger the problem of hand shake. Look for a camcorder with optical image stabilization, which uses mechanical elements in the lens to help compensate for hand shake. Even if you can't mount your camcorder on a tripod, this feature will help keep your video steady as you zoom in. Digital image stabilization uses software and the image processor to cut down on camera shake. It's not as effective as optical image stabilization, and can sometimes make your picture look grainy.
  • Memories! There are two types of built-in memory in camcorders - a hard drive or flash - and they also include a memory card slot, usually for SD, SDHC, or SDXC cards, to let you expand memory capacity. High-definition footage requires a lot of storage space, so you'll want to have plenty of memory available when you start shooting. If the camcorder has no built-in memory, the memory cards are all you've got. They come in sizes, measured by gigabyte capacity, and speed, or how quickly the card can transfer data. If you're recording high data-rate HD video, you'll need faster speed class cards.
  • Touch and Go! Many camcorders offer a touchscreen LCD, enabling you to quickly scroll through the menu to select options, and edit without pushing any buttons. With many of them, you can also select your subject on the screen to assign them preference in a shot, or to focus on them. Others let you use the touchscreen to take a still photo of your subject.
  • Where Am I! Camcorders with with geo-tagging use a built-in GPS to tag your videos with not only the date and local time of your recording, but also the location of where you shot the video. So when you get home from back-packing through Central America, you won't have to spend multiple hours sorting through your videos just to find the footage from Machu Picchu.
  • Top-of-the-Line! If you're serious and want the very highest quality, consider pro-style camcorder, which will have better video quality, more manual controls like manual focus, and often the ability to connect external microphones. Look for high-quality sensors. A three-chip camera will record red, blue, and green separately to deliver a sharp, color accurate picture even in low-light settings.

Last Word

 

There are a several good websites that will aid you in your search for the perfect camcorder. For starters try Consumer Reports Magazine. it gives a good basic explanation on what features are and are not important in camcorders.

For the consumer that is (or thinks he/she is) needs more understanding of camcorder technology, check out About.com's own Camcorder site, hosted by Emily Price.

In addition, here are some of Emily's great tips and picks:

Camcorder Buying Guide