Zooming in on the latest camcorders

18 May

May 18, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

This week, I invested in a new camcorder.

After shopping around for a week or so and browsing the ‘net, I think I have found a good balance between price, quality and features. (And no, I don’t use this column as an excuse to go out and buy a new gadget every week.  I needed a new camcorder for the media training sessions I conduct as a PR consultant.)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about transferring VHS tapes over to digital format. My new Canon ZR700 (about $550) has an audio/video (AV) input and a built in analog to digital converter. Now I can connect my VCR to my camcorder, my camcorder to my computer, and back up VHS tapes directly to the hard drive.

Of course, everything is digital now, with three different modes of capture: miniDV tape, DVD and built-in hard drive. The mini DV is digital videotape, and the DVD actually uses three-inch DVD-R discs.

The hard drive stores video on an internal disc and, once full, you can’t just pop in another tape – you have to download first. Hard drives are also more fragile and don’t like being bumped around too much. Not what I’m looking for.

The advantage of DVD is convenience – no download, just pop out the DVD and play it. The disadvantage is limited recording time, with 20 minutes in high quality mode (30 in medium and 60 in low). As well, you have to format the disc before playing on a home machine, which means you can’t re-use it. (There are new high definition camcorders coming onto the market, but I think it’s too soon to rush into a new, unproven format.)

Because it balances image quality with longer recording time – and will not disappear tomorrow – I went with mini DV.  Be sure to ask a lot of questions and think hard before selecting your format. Here are some more pointers for choosing and using a camcorder:

First, don’t pay too much. The ‘cool’ new formats – hard drive and DVD – cost more, but another factor is megapixels. A camera with a higher megapixel count can double the price of the camera, with all other factors remaining equal. However, more megapixels only enhance the image quality of still photos. And if you are serious about photography, you know that camcorders don’t take great still photos. So why bother? Spend $500 instead of $900 and buy a proper digital camera with the money you save.

Second, don’t fall for the digital zoom capability. As impressive as 1000X may sound, it is meaningless. Digital zoom images are processed by your camera, and can be highly pixilated. Consider optical zoom instead, which is enlarged by the lens, not a processor. Don’t settle for 10X optical zoom – you can find 20X and even 25X at a good price.

Third, the camcorder should have the option of shooting in widescreen but, more than that, look for cameras that shoot in real 16:9 widescreen, not enhanced (which just cuts the top and bottom off the 4:3 image, enlarging it and reducing quality).

Camcorders are getting smaller, to the point that some are actually too small. Hold it in your hand and make sure the controls feel comfortable. If the camcorder is not a pleasure to use, you aren’t going to use it.

Also, if you are looking to convert your VHS tapes to digital, be sure the camcorder has an AV input. This feature is disappearing quickly; I could only find it on a few of the Canon cameras. There are other features I like about Canon, such as the ability to speed up the shutter to capture more detail in bright light or slow it down for low, but the key selling point is the Canon lens, which is superb.

The flip screen is standard on camcorders, but for shooting you should use the viewfinder instead. The flip screen compels you to hold the camera away from your body, increasing camera shake. For stability, you should hold the camera to your face and brace your arm against your body. The same principle applies to still photography – only amateurs use the screen on back of the camera to frame their shots.

Happy shooting!

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