Digital video essentials

Picking the perfect camcorder

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Focus on the essentials

Once you’ve chosen a format, you’ll need to decide which features are most important to you. Some, such as the image sensor and the zoom lens, have a direct impact on the quality of the video you shoot.

Image sensor

One of the most important factors in video quality is the size of the camcorder’s image sensor. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the better the image will look. In our tests of MiniDV camcorders, the Canon Elura 100 (which has a 1/5-inch sensor) took better-quality video than the Sony DCR-HC36 Handycam (which has a 1/6-inch sensor). Because they can gather more light, bigger sensors also tend to perform better in low-light situations.

Zoom lens

You can’t always get up close to the action you’re filming, so having a powerful zoom lens is essential. But manufacturers’ claims can be misleading. There are two types of zooms: optical and digital. The optical zoom is more important; it indicates the magnification that the lens can produce. The digital zoom, on the other hand, uses electronics to enlarge the center of the image. This cropping effect lowers image quality and can result in blocky, grainy footage (see “Viewing Distance”). I recommend using the digital zoom only if you really need it.

Viewing Distance When you use the digital zoom, you pay a big price in quality. The image on the top is a scene shot with a camcorder’s widest angle; the center image is the same scene shot with the camcorder’s 10x optical zoom. On the bottom, you see what happens when you use the camcorder’s 120x digital zoom: although it gets you much closer, the image is so grainy that you can hardly make out the subject.

For most people, a 20x optical zoom should be sufficient—it gives you the freedom to switch from a wide-angle shot of a baseball field to a tight shot of an individual player, for instance. If you need a more powerful zoom, consider getting a telephoto converter, an additional lens element that attaches to the front of your camcorder’s lens and increases the zoom range. You can usually pick one up for around $100.

Image stabilization

Many camcorders offer image stabilization to help compensate for the subtle shake of handheld camcorder work. There are two types of image stabilization: electronic and optical. Electronic stabilization shifts the image slightly after it has been captured, while optical stabilization moves a part of the lens to compensate for the movement. Optical stabilization does a more effective job, but it’s more complex and is found only on pricier camcorders. However, if you’re going to be shooting a lot of handheld footage (or if you often use the zoom lens), optical stabilization is worth the extra money.

Aspect ratio

By default, most camcorders shoot video with a 4:3 aspect ratio (which means that the ratio of width to height is 4 to 3). That made sense when most television sets also had a 4:3 ratio, but these days, more and more TVs use the wide-format 16:9 ratio. To make the most of these wide screens, many video cameras now offer the option of shooting video with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

If you plan to watch your home movies exclusively on a wide-format TV, the ability to shoot at 16:9 is an attractive option. For the best image quality, look for a camcorder with a true 16:9 image sensor—some try to fake 16:9 video by using a traditional 4:3 sensor and merely chopping off the top and bottom of the image (see “Wide Load”). But keep in mind that 16:9 video won’t look very good on standard TVs, as the image will be much smaller than if you had shot it with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you plan to send your movie off to relatives and friends who may not have wide-screen TVs, you may want to stick with 4:3 video.

LCD screen

Wide Load The image on the top is a scene shot with the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. The center image was shot with a true wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio—it shows more of the scene and looks better on wide-screen TVs. But beware of camcorders that try to create the illusion of wide-screen video by simply adding black bars to the bottom and top of the image (a practice called letterboxing), as in the image on the bottom. You’re actually seeing less than you would with standard video.

The camcorder’s LCD screen is often the most convenient way to watch what you’re recording, so you should get one that provides a good view of your video. A two- or three-inch screen should be large enough for most people. Anything larger will waste battery power without offering much additional benefit. (To show off your video to a group, you can hook up the camcorder to a TV.)

If you are planning to shoot 16:9 video, get a camcorder with a wide-aspect LCD screen, which provides a better view of the video.

Some camcorders come loaded with extra features and special effects—but not all of them are worth the added cost if you have a tight budget.

Shooting modes

Like digital still cameras, most camcorders offer shooting modes that tailor the camera’s settings to specific situations. A sports mode, for instance, increases the shutter speed to better capture fast-moving objects, producing sharper video. But be realistic about which modes you’re likely to use—most people will use only a few. The Sony HDR-HC3 Handycam, for example, offers a slow-motion mode that captures three seconds of video at 80 frames per second (fps). That’s great for a golf player hoping to analyze a golf swing, but it’s not very useful for filming a family reunion. However, almost all users will benefit from sports, portrait, and night modes.

Still-image capture

Most video cameras can capture photos, too. While this can be a useful feature, don’t expect to get the same quality that a dedicated still camera delivers. The image resolution on most camcorders tops out at 2 or 3 megapixels, and you can pick up an 8-megapixel still camera for around $300.

Some camcorders (such as the Sony DCR-HC36 and Panasonic PV-GS300) can record still images and video simultaneously, but the image resolution—640 by 480 pixels—is about what you’d get from a cell phone camera. Most others require that you switch between recording modes—virtually guaranteeing that your subject will have become bored and wandered off by the time you’re ready to shoot.

If you plan to take a lot of photos or are picky about quality, you’ll be better off getting a digital still camera. They can also capture video.

Manual controls

Some expensive camcorders give you full manual control over shutter-speed and aperture settings. This can help you compensate for difficult lighting situations that may confuse the camcorder’s automatic settings (such as the glare of the sun shining on sand). But it’s overkill for most people. If you’re shooting home movies of the kids, you don’t need manual controls.

Night vision

Lots of interesting things happen in the dark. How well your camcorder captures them will depend on the type of low-light mode it uses.

Lights Out The image on the top shows video shot in a Sony camcorder’s normal mode at dusk: the subject is barely visible in the low light. The image on the bottom was shot using Sony’s Color Slow Shutter mode. You can see a lot more of the subject, but the resulting video is very jerky. An even better option is to use an external light to illuminate the scene.

All video cameras offer a passive mode for capturing low-light scenes. In this mode—called the MagicPix mode on Panasonic camcorders and the Color Slow Shutter mode on Sony models—the camcorder slows the shutter speed to capture more light. While this greatly increases the light sensitivity of the camcorder, it also results in grainy, jerky video (see “Lights Out”). Some camcorders take this a step further by including an infrared LED, which emits light that the human eye can’t see but that the camera’s sensor can (on Sony cameras this is referred to as NightShot mode). The resulting green-and-white video looks like what you’d see through night-vision goggles, but is less jerky than slowing the shutter speed.

Some camcorders also offer an active mode, which adds more light to a scene. Typically, this light comes from a small LED on the camera body (with Panasonic camcorders, it comes from the backlight of the LCD screen, which you rotate to illuminate the subject). These lights do a better job of illuminating nearby subjects, but they aren’t very bright—they reach only a few feet. You’ll get much better results by investing in an external light that attaches to the camcorder’s hot-shoe.

Now that you’ve decided which features you need, you should be able to narrow the selection of camcorders to a manageable number. But before you make a purchase, go to a store that offers a good selection, pick them up, and try them out.

First consider how well the camcorder fits into your hand, and whether the controls are within easy reach. Practice using the record and zoom buttons. You should be able to reach them with your fingertips without the camcorder shaking or dipping. You should also think about the weight of the camcorder. While larger models like the Panasonic PV-GS500 offer more features, they’re also much heavier.

In bright sunlight, you may have trouble seeing the camcorder’s LCD. In that case, you’ll need to use the viewfinder. Make sure it’s comfortable to use—particularly if you wear glasses—and that the battery doesn’t get in the way. You may prefer a viewfinder that extends and tilts.

Finally, before you put down any money, take the time to read reviews of your top picks. All the features in the world won’t do you much good if the camcorder shoots terrible video.

[ Richard Baguley has reviewed digital camcorders and cameras for Macworld and PC World.]

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