Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Camcorder Buying Guide

Entry Level
With any camcorder in the $350 and below range, there will always be some trade off in terms of features or image quality. There are also some smaller camcorders like the flip and those made by xacti (sanyo) and aiptek. I have never used one of these, so you might have to look into it yourself. I have heard these are good for video podcasting. But, maybe they're not the greatest for recording Jr's first words. Again, you'd have to look into those yourself, maybe they're perfect. Almost all of those record on flash media.

High Def vs. Standard Def
High Def camcorders are coming down in price, but keep in mind that it is still much more economical to make standard definition DVDs than it is to make HD DVDs. High Definition footage also takes up a lot more room on recording media (and computer hard disc space if you want to edit it).

Low Light Recording
This is probably the most important property to look for but its not really a specification that manufacturers will list specs for. Here is where professional and consumer reviews come in handy. Just remember that there really aren't any entry level camcorders that record particularly well in low light, but still, some may be better than others. Good places for reviews:

Recording Medium
First things first: no recording medium is permanent. At some point or another (be it 20 years or 100 years), data on a storage medium will degrade or the equipment used to read and write it will fail. The best thing you can do is hedge your bets by using multiple mediums (like copying footage from a tape to a DVD and then keeping both) and/or making multiple copies of a recording (blank DVDs are quite affordable these days). Oh, and if you use tape, never store it laid down flat, always standing up on end.

  My favorite recording medium, tape, is becoming less popular as flash memory starts to come out in higher capacity. The digital MiniDV tape that I use is also cheap enough that I can use it for storage (I leave stuff on my tapes, even after I transfer to DVD, just in case). The two downsides of tape are that 1) It can deteriorate over time more quickly than flash (at least VHS used to, I have not yet had any noticible detoriation in digital tapes) but possibly more importantly 2) It is less popular than flash memory these days, so your camera selection is a bit more limited. Still you may be able to find the right digital tape camcorder if you scour the internet hard enough (just be sure to buy from someplace reputable, I have heard horror stories).

  Having said all that, flash memory is probably the most stable and long lasting (but expensive) storage medium. Flash memory cards are also pretty small and I tend to loose things, so I you go this route, you might want to keep a box for these cards in your media storage cabinets (next to your VHS tapes of the Star Wars Christmas Special and your birthday in 1983). Because they are a bit more expensive than tape, you might be inclined to not use flash cards for long term storage. In that case you can transfer the footage to your computer and burn a DVD or get a stand-alone burner. I've never used one but as far as I can tell you hook your camera up to it (or pop the memory card in), put in a blank DVD, press a button(s) and the footage will transfer. The main downside of flash memory (other than being a bit more expensive) is capacity. You might need a few or more cards if your going on vacation, for instance. Of course, tapes only typically hold 60 or 90 minutes, so you would need a few of them too if you went with tape.

  There are some camcorders that record directly to DVD. I have never used one of these. Again you model selection will be somewhat limited. Your video is also compressed more than it would be on tape. Its my opinion/theory that if your footage is compressed that much from the outset, there is a chance it could become unwatchable or corrupted faster.

  There are also some (probably not many entry level models) camcorders that record to hard discs built into the camera. I have never used one and I don't think I would. They are probably fine, but in my head, a hard drive has more moving parts, and that means it could break faster. These are probably being replaced in the market by flash models anyway.

  As far as DVDs go (be they ones your record to directly or make later from tape or flash memory), the ones you can record on are dye-based and will not last as long as commercial DVDs of movies that you buy. So make extra copies and keep your original footage on its tapes or flash if you can. Also, make extra DVD copies and send them to your friends and family. That way you know you will also have a backup somewhere else.

Where to buy
As I mentioned, if you buy online, chose a reputable seller. Even if they have a slick website, I would stay away from anyone offering a deal too good to be true. They will give you a hassle and you probably will spend a lot more than their advertised price. I have heard some horror stories from well-meaning and intelligent people I know about buying photo equipment online. If you call up to order and they insist you need certain accessories, that is also a sign of a no-goodnik. Even if you order from their website, they may call you to try to sell you accessories. You have to stand your ground with salespeople. Some no-name places will even go so far as to take your money and never send you anything OR even send you a different model than what you ordered. Getting a refund from them could be equally nightmarish. There also can be differences in the the same model from the same manufacturer. Always buy the model made for the US market. This may seem more expensive but if you need to utilize your manufacturers warranty, it will be worth it. Just google 'Grey Market Camera' and you will understand what I'm talking about. In addition to no warranty, they are often also missing accessories normally included with the camera. As far as sellers go, I definitely have a recommendation: B&H Photo. No, they don't pay me to say that. But they have been around a long time and they even have a huge store in the middle of Manhattan. If their prices seem higher than A1 Cameras or Swarmy Bill's Electronics, its because B&H is the real deal. And if you like drooling over catalogs, theirs are not the mere fliers that other electronics stores send out, theirs are hefty reads with glossy covers, detailed specs and big juicy pictures of cameras. Their website is also great: I get pretty much all of my cameras and photo gear from B&H. You can also check out a model on their website to see reviews, features and included accessories. Of course, you will probably do fine at Target/Kmart/Walmart if they have the model you want.

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