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What To Look For In A HD Digital Camcorder
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Josh Lehrer is a freelance writer based in the New York area.

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What To Look For In A HD Digital Camcorder

BUYING GUIDE

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Buying a camcorder does not have to be a complicated process. With some key information, you can get exactly the right one for your needs.


When still images just don’t cut it, and when a situation calls for video, that’s the time to reach for the camcorder.  But if you find yourself reaching for the old VHS camera from the mid 1990s, or are relying on low-quality, 30-second, tinny sounding clips from your point-and-shoot digital camera, it is time to upgrade.  Buying a camcorder does not have to be a complicated process. With some key information, you can get exactly the right equipment for your needs, and it does not have to break the bank.

Understanding High Definition

Most camcorders sold today shoot in high definition, abbreviated as HD.  This means that not only will the resolution of the cameras be higher, resulting in a sharper picture, but the formatting of the picture will fill the screen of a widescreen TV, instead of having black bars on the sides, which is a telltale sign of standard definition video. 

Canon Vixia XA10

The Canon Vixia XA10 provides the professional touch to high resolution video recording but there are plenty of additional options that will cost less than $1,499 at Adorama.

Professional Video Cameras at Adorama

High definition has two primary flavors, 720p and 1080i.  Some higher-end cameras shoot in 1080p. Without getting too complicated, it is safe to say that 1080p is the highest quality, 1080i is still excellent, and 720p is the low-end of high definition.  If a digital camera’s quality is measured in megapixels, a camcorder’s quality is measured in the aforementioned standards. 


At this point it is also safe to assume that any camcorder you purchase will be “digital,” since it is becoming less and less likely you will be buying a camera with cassette tapes or film.  If you are working on a smaller budget, it is perfectly acceptable to purchase standard definition, or “SD” camcorders. Just be aware that the videos you shoot will not fill the entire screen on a widescreen TV, and will not look as sharp and crisp as HD. 

Pocket Camcorders at Adorama


Choosing the right Lens


The lens of the camcorder is very important, just as the lens on a still camera is key.  It is what focuses light onto the video sensor and makes the video more than amorphous blobs of light.  Ideally, you want as much optical zoom as possible, at least 10x.  Companies often advertise a massive “digital zoom” sometimes over 100x, but this is not a useable feature.  Essentially, digital zooming simply crops the center of the image and blows it up to fill the frame, creating a blurry, pixilated, shaky picture.  Also look for optical image stabilization; this will help keep hand held shots steady, especially at the long end of the camera’s zoom range, since that will amplify any small camera movements. 

Shooting in Low Light

Low light levels are the worst enemy of cameras and camcorders.  Almost any camcorder will record decent video in bright sunlight, but to really put a camcorder to the test, take it to a darkened room and shoot some video.  A good camcorder will have minimal graininess in the image.  Low light performance is directly tied to the size of the sensor inside the camcorder.  The larger the sensor, the better the low light performance, plain and simple.  Common sensor sizes are 1/6-inch, ¼ inch, and 1/3-inch.  In addition to sensor size, look for the minimum “lux” or light level that the device can record comfortably in. It is common to see values of around seven lux, but lower is always better. 


Yes, These Are Camcorders!

Video camera design is changing radically. The Looxcie HD Explore, available at Adorama for $249.99,  shoots 1080p video, has Wi-Fi, and can be turned into a personal streaming device.

This, too, is a camcorder! The Pivothead Aurora's lens rests on the bridge of the user's nose and records 1080p images. Available at Adorama for $299.

The $495 BackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera is the first dedicated HD video camera to accept Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lenses.




Exposure Adjustments


On the topic of exposure, there is another important factor to look for.  Any camcorder sold today will be easy to pick up and start shooting with, but if you are interested in more creative control, look for a camcorder that offers some level of manual exposure controls.  The first level of exposure adjustment is called “exposure compensation” which essentially forces the automatic exposure of the camera to go either brighter or darker.  Full manual control is found on higher end models, and is ideal for those who want complete control over their video while shooting, and who anticipate shooting in complex lighting. 

Focus Control

Manual control also extends to focus.  All digital camcorders have autofocus, but not all have manual focus.  Camcorder manufacturers integrate manual focus in varying ways; usually it involves some kind of electronic control with buttons or even touch-screen controls.  The best form of manual focus control is via a ring around the lens, which allows for the smoothest and most precise adjustment possible.  If manual focus is important to you, make sure you know how it is adjusted on any cameras you are looking at.  When testing a camera in a store, be sure to try and shoot some moving subjects to gauge the speed and accuracy of the autofocus as well. 

The LCD Screen

Depending on how you will be using your camcorder, it is also important to know what you’ll be looking at as the video is recorded.  Any pocket-sized camcorder generally has a fixed, non adjustable LCD screen.  As you move up in size, articulating LCD screens are offered.  If having an eye-level viewfinder is important, make sure to check if the camera actually has one, or if you will be relying exclusively on an LCD screen.  Some models also have a touch-screen interface, which can be great, but some users favor actual buttons.  Look for an LCD screen that’s at least 2.5 inches or larger, and if you get hands on time with the camcorder, check that the screen looks sharp and bright.

Browse all Camcorders at Adorama 
 

The JVC Everio GZ-R10 ($349 at Adorama), like most camcorders, has a flip-out monitor. It also can be submerged down to 16 feet, survive drops to 4.9 feet, and operate down to 14 degrees F.


Options for Storage Media

One of the biggest benefits of digital camcorders is the ability to upload video to a computer for viewing, editing, and sharing.  It is important to consider the media to which the camcorder records in video, both because it will affect the size of the device, and how video is transferred to the computer.  Camcorders that record to miniDV tapes are slowly becoming a thing of the past, but a few major companies still sell them since there are very few compatibility issues and the resulting video quality is very high.  However, these cameras are generally larger than others, and uploading video is slow, since every minute of video means a minute of uploading time. 

Sony HDR-FX1000

The Sony’s pro-level HDR-FX1000, available at the Adorama price of $3,098, is one of a handful of HD camcorders that record videos onto MiniDV.

A popular alternative is flash memory cards, such as SD or CF (compact flash) cards.  These are cheap and reliable, and it is easy to have many of them for a near endless amount of recording time.  The small form factor of SD cards translates to incredibly small camcorders; in fact, almost all pocket-sized models take this format.  It also leads to faster upload times when transferring video to a computer, and there is no rewinding involved, making it easy to jump around to different video clips on the card. 

The Panasonic HC-W850 has Wi-Fi/NFC video transfer and control capabilities. It is available from Adorama for $798.

Another option is cameras with built-in hard drives.  These cameras offer the longest recording times without having to change tapes or memory cards, but if the camera does not have an additional memory card slot, once the hard drive is full, you must either delete some video or transfer it to a computer.  Cameras with standard hard drives are also a bit more vulnerable. Newer models offer solid state hard drives, and are priced at a premium, but they’re significantly more shockproof. 

The Canon EOS C100 is a pro Cinema camcorder kit at a pro price ($5,999 at Adorama) that uses Canon EF-mount DSLR lenses.

If you need to shoot a lot of video without changing media, go for a camera with a built-in hard drive.  For the smallest possible device, the right choice would be flash memory cards.  Be sure when purchasing memory cards not to simply buy the cheapest one, look for a card that qualifies as “class 6” or better for more reliable recording and faster transfer times. 
 
 
Lexar’s 32GB 200x Platinum II Series cardLexar’s 32GB 200x Platinum II Series card, right, is a Class 10 SDHC model, available at
Adorama for $16.95, and is well-suited for camcorders that take SDHC cards.


Solid state hard drives combine the size of a standard hard drive with the durability and compactness of a standard memory card, but since the technology is still somewhat new, expect to pay more.  A bevy of connectivity options are present on camcorders today, including how the camcorder plays back video on other devices and how it connects to a computer. 

Audio connections are also important.  Most tape-based devices have FireWire connections, so if you are going to purchase one of these models, be sure that if it in fact does have FireWire, and that your computer also has a FireWire port so you can download the video.  Any memory-card- or hard-drive-based device will have a USB port. 

If you’d like to play back the video on your HDTV, look for an HD camcorder with an HDMI or mini HDMI port to get the full high definition experience.  Component (also known as RCA) cables are also HD, the only downside being that audio and video cables are separate connections, instead of the all-inclusive HDMI cable. 

Sound

Depending on your audio recording needs, a camcorder with no audio ports whatsoever might be fine.  However, look for at least a standard headphone jack so you can listen to camera audio during recording, or the ability to connect even a basic external microphone for dramatically improved sound.  Using an external microphone is ideal especially when recording video outside, and even a cheap external microphone can take your video to the next level.  Camcorders designed for advanced audio recording will have XLR ports, which are made to capture the best sound possible and use professional microphones, but you will pay extra for it, and it increases the overall size of the device. 

Soup up your digital still camera’s HD Video Sound: Don’t use the built-in Mic

Shooting Photos

While taking photos is not what these devices are primarily designed for, having the ability to snap a photo with your camcorder can definitely come in handy.  Be aware that most camcorders’ photo quality barely can match up to even an inexpensive point and shoot camera, so don’t expect to be able to make prints bigger than 5x7 inches with the results.  Some camcorders have a built-in flash just for photos, along with a dedicated photo button.  If shooting still images is an important feature for you, also check if the camera is able to snap a picture while recording video. 
   
It Comes Down to Price

Of course what will most likely be the deciding factor in your camcorder purchase will be price.  As technology improves and becomes more widespread, buying a high definition camcorder leaves a much smaller dent in your wallet.  As price goes up, enhancements include greater storage capacity, a larger sensor, a longer optical zoom, and screens get bigger. 

Now that you know some of the important features to consider, I would highly recommend getting hands on time with a model before purchase; Adorama’s Camcorder department  has many of the models and is a great opportunity to find a camcorder that’s right for you or as a gift. 

 

Note: All prices and availability accurate as of July 24, 2014. Prices may change over time; follow the links for the most current information. Additional research by Mason Resnick.

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