Your doctor has just announced the conception of your first baby. You can no longer keep putting off the purchase of a camcorder that will capture every stage of your kid’s development, starting from the womb. You have a good chunk of change and you’re ready to start shopping. Trouble is, you don’t have any idea of what exactly you’re looking for. You haven’t had enough time to do thorough research. Now you find yourself standing in the store in a forest of gadgets and gizmos and pushy salespeople. One of them approaches you with an unctuous smile and a gleaming, beguiling camcorder. An alarmingly high price tag dangles from a string. Are you ready to defend yourself? Can you sort the promising from the pathetic? Here are seven essential questions that should be in everyone’s arsenal.
1: Which media?
The most common are MiniDV, DVD, and flash media. Go for MiniDV if you want the highest quality video with virtually no compression. If you want to put the disc right into their DVD player for near instant viewing, DVD is what you require. Flash media include SD cards, Memory Sticks, and more. Go for flash media if you need lots of footage and wish to travel light.
2: Expandable battery?
Camcorders run out of juice sooner than you expect, and included batteries don’t last much longer than an hour, generally. Carry a backup battery, but another solution is to purchase an additional battery that’s designed to provide longer life. Pick a camcorder with room for an expandable battery if you can, to give you plenty of time to shoot while you may be still learning.
3: Manual control?
Some camcorders offer a setting for complete manual control, meaning you have authority over all the typical settings: white balance, aperture (exposure), shutter speed, focus, and gain. Other camcorders have “priority” modes, which hand over the reigns on one control at a time and automatically correct the rest according to your adjustments. Often there is one priority mode for aperture and another for shutter speed.
What is manual white balance? It’s the ability to tell the camcorder’s chip what the color white should look like in any given environment. By pointing it at a white surface and telling it, “This is white,” the chip can then calibrate the other colors. White balancing improves color reproduction. Without it, you’re stuck with a potentially inferior automatic white balance.
Aperture controls the light by literally narrowing the opening it shines into, and shutter speed (you guessed it) changes the speed of the shutter. Closing it every 1/2 second is extremely slow and lets in a great deal of light, while 1/2000 is quite fast. Some camcorders will offer gain control. Gain is a digital boost to the incoming signal. Increasing the signal will brighten the image, but will also increase the noise in that signal. Panasonic camcorders historically offer the best manual control options in the consumer range.
4: How’s the auto mode?
Your prospective camcorder should have some type of Auto Mode on it. Nearly all camcorders’ auto modes are very easy and accessible, but some methods may be more intuitive to you than others. It should be simple and something you can remember. This mode may be your happy recipient’s first introduction to using the camcorder, after all, and it should be a snap to engage.
5: What ports does it have?
Most camcorders should have at least two ports, or places to connect cables to: a USB port, for digitally transferring footage to your computer, and an A/V port, for transferring footage with the old analog method that televisions use. MiniDV camcorders will also have a DV (digital video) port. Some camcorders will have a composite port, which is basically an A/V port in a different shape that takes a different type of cable, one that has one plug going into the camcorder but breaks into three plugs coming out: two for audio and one for video. Some camcorders will have a port for flash media dedicated to capturing still photos. Some will have a fixture on the top called a shoe, designed for holding accessories like lights and microphones. An external microphone should be high on your list. A microphone in port is usually found on mid-level to higher-end models—the more ports (and the more options) the better.
That new camcorder is merely the centerpiece of your upcoming technological entourage. You’ll probably need to buy media for it, like MiniDV tapes or DVD discs; you might want a camera bag, a tripod for steadier shots, a white balance card, accessory lenses… you get the idea. You might not be buying this stuff now, but you probably will someday, and you should inform yourself of what’s ahead.
7: Can I see that thing for a second?
Make sure that little machine handles as good as it looks. Are the buttons and switches easy to reach? Are they big enough? Does the camcorder feel balanced? Is it light enough? Can you find your way around the menus on the LCD screen? Your potential purchase needs to feel at home in your hands, and besides, you can tell a lot about a camcorder just by fiddling around with it—how durable it feels, if it’s designed well, whether or not the zoom toggle functions smoothly. Play with it until you’re satisfied you have a feel for the model. Don’t let the salesperson rush you. You may also want to handle a few other models you aren’t even interested in, just to get a sense of what feels right and what you’re looking for.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and think before making the purchase. True, you can always return it if you’ve educated yourself about the store’s return policy, but it’s less hassle to avoid an ill-advised purchase in the first place than it is to undo it. So take some time and spend the evening dreaming about that special camcorder. If you still want and respect it in the morning, you know where to find it.
– Victor R.