Aug 10 2009

How To Choose A Camcorder – Getting Started in Video Part 2

Published by at 7:00 am under Video

If your videos will be mostly software demonstrations and tutorials, you may need nothing more than a copy of Camtasia.

However, if you plan on making live action videos, even if only for You Tube, you will be adding complexity to your project. You will certainly need additional hardware, including camera, lights, and a microphone, and additional software, such as Sony Movie Studio.

The question isn’t so much, “What should you buy?” as “How Much Must You Spend?”

Let’s look at cameras first.

Again, it helps to know your audience. Will they expect online video similar to what you find on You Tube? These days, that means wide screen format (which can be different than high definition) video. Viewers tend to pass by standard 4:3 format videos as out of date. If your information is at all time sensitive, be sure your camera can shot in wide screen!

If you plan to shoot only the occaisional video, you might find that the best way to test the waters is with the equipment you already own.

Webcams, Digital Cameras and Flips

You don’t need an expensive camcorder for You Tube or web site videos. In fact, you’ll find plenty of videos that were shot with webcams and room lighting. Unfortunately, these videos are poorly lit, poorly framed, and sound tinny. If you want your video to represent your business, you’ll want better quality that that.

Most digital cameras have a video mode, and they can take suprisingly good short videos. Check you still camera and see if it fits your needs. One big draw back to be aware of: the microphone pick up on digital cameras is usually not very good. So don’t forget the audio when you are planning your video. If you want good sound, you may need to find another way to record voice-overs or add a musical backing track.

The next choice is a Flip camcorder. These small, inexpensive camcorders take excellent video for the web. Newer models shoot in hi-def or wide screen. Again – audio is a problem. Flips do not have external microphone jacks. The sound on a Flip video isn’t terrible – but it can be echo-y and full of background noises. So be careful where you record, paying special attention to the acoustics. (Drapes, rugs, and soft surfaces absorb and deaden sound. So a video shot in a livingroom will sound much better than the same video shot in a kitchen.)

The final choice is a “real” camcorder. The question of how you plan to use it now comes into serious play. For exclusively online use (and maybe family vacations), a decent, low end camcorder can be bought for less than $300.00. Look for brand names you recognize, and read reviews carefully. You are unlikely to find a camcorder with a microphone jack in this price range, so that will still be a limitation if you ever want to use your videos in any offline environment.

Tape or Flash memory? Hard Drive or DVD?

Should you choose a camcorder with a hard drive? One that records to memory cards? One that records to DVD? The answer may suprise you.

While digital is always better in 99.9% of electronics, camcorders are still the exception. The very best quality comes from shooting to DV tape. That is because video shot on tape is uncompressed. The only limitaion on quality is in the quality of the camcorder’s lens and sensors.

Video shot to memory cards, discs, and hard drives is compressed in the camera. This means quality is already compromised even before you begin editing. When you edit that compressed video, you’ll compress the already compressed video for a second (or third or fourth) time. Depending on the quality of the compressor and format used, you can begin to see “artifacts” almost immediately. They may appear as square drop outs or jagged edges or other visible imperfections on your video. The more it is enlarged (i.e., on a 42″ high definition TV screen instead of in a small 320×240 window on your PC monitor), the more obvious the problems will be.

So you can see, there is no simple, one size fits all answer to “Which camera is best.” Are you willing to sacrifice some quality for the convenience of recording to flash memory? Will poor quality discourage high end buyers who might otherwise have been interested in your products?

Better Qualty, Bigger Expense

Knowing your audience will help you choose the right camcorder. If a low end camcorder is not for you, you still face all the same questions: tape or flash memory; CCD or CMOS sensors; external mic jack, etc. Fortunately, at this end of the scale, the choice is pretty simple. There aren’t many camcorders that record in hi-def and have external microphone jacks. In fact, you are basically looking at Canon and Sony.

Here are my suggestions:

If you are willing to spend the money, get the Canon VIXIA HV40 HD HDV Camcorder with 10x Optical Zoom. It has everything you need for first class video, including an external microphone jack and stunning hi definition video. If you can’t afford that price tag, take a look at the Canon VIXIA HF200 HD Flash Memory Camcorder with 15x Optical Zoom. Although it records to memory cards instead of tape, it still takes great footage for several hundred dollars less. It also has an external microphone jack and excellent Canon optics.

Next – Microphones

Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the ability to use an external microphone with your camcorder. Microphones come in a variety of shapes, from tiny clip ons to overhead boom mics with big fuzzy covers. They can be wired or wireless. And they range from $25.00 to several thousand dollars in price.

We’ll look at mics more closely in the next article – but for the budget minded, rest easy. You can find an excellent microphone for less than $40.00.

Please look for Part 3 of this series to learn which mics work best with which camcorders and in which situations.

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “How To Choose A Camcorder – Getting Started in Video Part 2”

  1. Deborah Young says:

    I researched the Canon Vixia for a while and decided to buy it. Unfortunately, because of credit limitations I need to purchase the camcorder from one particular source, and I just found out that as of Nov 2009 they no longer carry the Vixia HVs.

    I’m being told that the replacement, a Canon Vixia HG21 is a better camera, but I don’t know anything about that camera and it’s hd, and I’m not sure now.

    I plan to use the camera to make music videos for YouTube. To start, I’ll just be recording myself playing and singing at home. At some point, though, I plan to take field trips (piano stores, the park, etc.). I had also planned to purchase a Rode NTG 1 shotgun mic to use with the camcorder. Also, right now I have 1 Gig of RAM on my computer and a large backup drive for storage.

    Please let me know what you think of the Vixia HG21.


  2. Dany says:

    The HG21 is an excellent camcorder. It should produce great quality web video. (Google HG21 reviews for a cross section of opinions). The only knock against it that I’ve seen is short battery life. If you plan longer shoots, be prepared with an extra battery or an AC outlet.

    As for HD, it does take a lot of computer power to edit full 1,920×1,080 High Definition. But you don’t have to shoot at the highest quality settings – and you may not always want to.

    But any camcorder you buy now will have some sort of HD – so better to get true Hi Definition rather than a lower standard. When you get your camera, don’t be afraid to experiment.

    The HG21 has both external headphone and microphone jacks, which is very important for your videos. You’ll want a seperate headphone jack to monitor the sound, and an external microphone is an absolute necessity for music.

    So the HG 21 passes all the tests for a good camcorder.

    Just watch out for the price. Full retail is $1,300.00 Luckily, you can get it for under $700 from Amazon, B&H Video, and NewEgg, all reputable dealers. I’d be suspicious of anyone offering it for substantially less than that.

    Rode microphones work very well with Canon camcorders. I’ve used a Rode shotgun mike mainly for recording the spoken word – conferences, interviews, etc – so I don’t know how they stack up against other microphones for music.

    Good luck with your purchase.