We’ve devised this guide to help you sort out which camera fits your particular needs.
If you want a camcorder that is easy to slip into the pocket of a shirt or into the smallest of bags – these cameras will suit you. You can take them almost anywhere which is great if you do lots of travelling and want to record interviews or capture footage from around the United Kingdom or even the world.
A small camera will have very limited features (no optical zoom) but they do have a TV connection (HDMI, component video) and a USB out for computer.
1. Sanyo VPC CG 10
2. Sony MHS-PM1
3. Panasonic SDR SW21
FOR EXTENSIVE FILMING
JVC were the first to bring out an HDD camcorder. Since then other brands have also adopted the media and some, like Panasonic, have now abandoned tape altogether. The main advantage of the hard drive is capacity. To give you an idea, a camcorder with a 120 GB hard drive can film for 45 hours in HD. Remember that camcorder batteries rarely last more than an hour however. The hard drive also makes finding video clips much easier thanks to a system that displays miniatures on the camera screen.
1. Canon HG20
2. Sony HDR-CX520VE
3. Panasonic HDC-HS100
BEST FOR EDITING
Already abandoned by Panasonic, the cassette camcorder is under threat of extinction. Today, it is mainly used for DV format, which is light and compatible with all editing software, even the most basic (such as the software you get free with Windows). This is unfortunately not the case with other formats. DV films take up much less memory than an AVCHD camcorder: you won’t need the latest machine to be able to work with them. Cassettes or tapes are also a very reliable media (no electronic components) and cheap (a one hour tape costs around £3-4). You’ll find cassette camcorders that film in standard definition (DV 576 lines) and in high definition (HDV 1080 lines).
1. Sony HDR HC9
2. Canon HV-30
3. JVC GY-HD201E
TIPS ON SPECIFICATIONS – WHAT YOU MIGHT NEED
A 10X optical zoom will be more than enough for shooting nice looking video. Watch out for misleading marketing as the digital zoom is not a real zoom (enlarging the image pixels). Best not to take it into account at all. Remember that the more powerful the optical zoom, the more you’ll need a stable wrist and even image stabilization: this can now be a very effective feature.
Measured in Lux in the spec, sensitivity defines how well the camcorder can film in low light. In general, mini camcorders don’t give very good results in the dark because their sensors are too small. Some manufacturers however, like Sony have gone to great lengths to give high sensitivity in low light conditions.
If you can go for a camcorder with a large (2.7 inches), bright screen. Manufacturers have done a lot to improve screen quality on camcorders but mini camcorders are less well equipped. Ignore it at your peril; the screen is the only way of checking and viewing your images as these days hardly any camcorders have a viewfinder. It has also become, on many models, an important tool for getting the settings right and viewing the menu.
What you’ll need to go a bit further
A camcorder that has a 38 mm lens has a wider angle of vision than a 50 mm camcorder. This may seem like a detail but an HD video filmed with a wide-angle lens will fit perfectly on a 32-inch flat screen.
Camcorders fall into two groups: standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD) camcorders. The first are perfect for cathode ray TVs and the second are optimised for LCDs and HD plasmas
The most widespread video format today is Mpeg-4. Flash media and HDD camcorders are almost all in Mpeg-4 format. Other formats are Mpeg-2 (flash media) and DV (cassette). Image quality does not depend on the video format but rather on speed. The higher it is, the better the image you’ll get and the more memory it will use.
Some camcorders can photograph at 8 Megapixels and have a flash with a face recognition mode. These camcorders also allow you to take photos while filming. This is a useful feature if you forget your camera.
Camcorder microphones are stereo. This means they record the sound around the camera. If you want to carry out interviews the best thing is to use an external microphone that you plug into your camcorder. For that you need to make sure that it has a microphone socket, which is rare. So remember to check this before purchase and ensure that there is also a headphones socket.
A battery is always supplied with the camcorder. But battery time (30 mins to 1 hour) is not enough to film a celebration such as a wedding. Indeed the battery is used up even when you’re not filming, so battery life goes down very quickly. As they also take 1 or 2 hours to recharge, it is best to buy a second battery that you can use in the meantime. Make sure you check the model of your camcorder before purchase as each model has its own reference.
A lamp, then, can be useful for filming people who are close to the camera. This lamp is fixed onto an attachment on top of the camcorder. On some models, the lamp is powered by the camcorder itself and on others you need a separate battery. Watch out! Lamps use up a lot of battery life!
You’ll also need a bag for carrying your camcorder around. A camcorder is an expensive item and its casing is fragile. You also need somewhere to put all the accessories (cables, charger, remote). If you travel a lot go for a fairly rigid bag that can protect your equipment from knocks. If it’s just for the evening and if the camcorder is small enough, something a little less substantial will do. Lowerpro, Kata, Case Logic and Samsonite are all specialists in camcorder bags.
You’ll find camcorders with interchangeable lenses in case you want added shooting options. A telephoto lens will allow you to couple an optical zoom with a wide angle for example and enlarge your field of vision. These lenses exist in different diameters and with different powers of magnification. Some brands (Sony) offer extra lenses for their camcorders. There are also several specialised manufacturers such as Kendo, Cokin and Hama.