Thoughts About Buying The Right Digital Camcorder

BlogHer Original Post

It began with a question from Texas Mama. She needs to move up to a digital camcorder but doesn’t know what to buy. I understand, it can be a challenge. What most people want is to create a video that will share a memory, a concept or a situation.

The final goal is not buying a camcorder; it is to record a moment in time. I want to try something a little different. There is no such thing as a typical user but what if we looked at buying a camcorder from the perspective of the kind of video you would want to create?

Which Camcorder Is Right For You?

That depends on your needs, the kind of video you want to create and your skill level. It does no good to purchase a $200 digital camcorder if you cannot transfer the video from the camcorder to your computer. So whether you are low tech or you tend to drool at the mere thought of a HD dSLR videos you might have to start with a self-assessment.

If you don’t like to read the manual or wade into complicated menus you don’t want to buy top of the line. If you love photography and know the difference between an ISO and a f-stop you might not be happy with a point and shoot camcorder.

Talking Head Videos – Camcorders from $50 to $99

Your basic needs are:

  • Keep it affordable
  • Easy to record video and to upload
  • Simple video editing with the software doing most of the work

For indoor talking head videos you can get away with an inexpensive camcorder provided you have enough light. The cheaper the camcorder, the more light it will need. You want to look for a model that has a flash memory card slot.

If the camcorder only has internal storage that can be a hassle. It is also a problem if you want to continue recording or, if you are a Mac user, can’t use PC software.

These devices are probably going to be standard definition 640x480 video recorders. Not a deal breaker for simple web videos.

Recommendations

If I had to recommend an inexpensive camcorder from an known quality computer vendor, I’d go with the Creative Vado Pocket Video Cam. This is a web camcorder that delivers.

I’d suggest not going lower than the $50 range. Between $50 and $98 you will find brands like DXG, RCA Small Wonder, and Vivitar. These are sold in places like Costco, WalMart. Sometimes they appear in drug stores or places not known for selling cameras for much less than their listed retail price. There are issues with very inexpensive camcorders. You might luck out and find a winner. I’m telling you, it is a gamble.

Cautions

I’m not a big fan of cheap camcorders. Customer support is almost non-existent. A few of the vendors do not have a support web site that you can visit for assistance. The software that comes with many of the camcorders sometimes is just plain awful. In other words, you might need more than basic computer skills to troubleshoot non-mechanical problems with these types of digital camcorders.

Video Editing Software

For newbie or low-tech users, free video editors like Windows Live Movie Maker (Vista and Windows 7 only) and the iMovie/iLife suite on the Macintosh side might be more effective in simple editing of videos, upload to YouTube and creating DVDs than the software that comes with the camcorder.

Just In Case Video - $150 to $399

You don’t want to record all of the time. You do want to a record a special day at the beach or your experiences at Burning Man.

You are seeking:

  • Standard or high definition video isn’t that important but you’d like the choice
  • Still photo mode
  • Decent battery life

Recommendations

You were made for the current wave of web camcorders. The Flip, Creative Vado HD 2nd Generation, JVC's Picsio and Sony’s Webbie HD camcorders might be what you need.

Cautions

The newer digital camcorders use MP4 or ACVHD video format. This means you will have to make sure that you have a video editing program that can import and properly render that file format. You either have to work with the included software or take the time to learn a new video editing program.

Also, these digital camcorder use SDHC memory cards (except for the Sony.) If you have an older computer with an standard SD card slot it may not accept the newer SDHC cards. You’ll need a card reader to access your videos if you choose not to connect the camcorder to the computer.

Video Editing Software

Adobe Premier Elements 8 might be a good option for you. Windows uses will need a modern computer running XP, Vista or Windows 7. The program is $80 retail for the stand alone version. If you buy the bundled Adobe Photoshop Elements/Premier Elements you can save cash if you don't have an imaging program, about $100 retail and sometimes less.

Advocacy, Citizen Journalism, Documentation– $120 -$699

Have a cause, want to educate or document your world? Know up front that you will have to invest time to learn basic video editing skills. You might need:

  • Small lightweight camcorder
  • Good audio or an external audio microphone jack
  • 10x or more optical zoom
  • Image stabilization
  • Video storage options, such as a hard drive or high capacity flash memory cards

If recording web video you could do well with Kodak Zi8, Panasonic HDC-TM10K or Panasonic SD-RS26R with 70X optical zoom.

For reporters and journalists if recording good audio is more important and you can live with non-high def video then take a look at the Samson ZoomQ3 Handy Video Recorder. It is standard definition 640x480 video but the audio recording is spot on.

If you want to records in 1080 high definition then the Canon Vixia HF200 might be of interest. If that is over you budge but you still want 41X optical zoom you could swing over to the Canon Vixia FS200 , a standard definition version that includes a microphone jack.

Corel Video Studio X12, Serif MoviePlus X3 or Sony Vegas Movie Studio 9 Premium. These programs will allow you to create videos for different devices like iPhone/iPod, web video or to create a DVD.

Event and Special Occasions – Camcorders from $250 to $999

There is your baby about to cross the stage. You, however, are sitting in row 27. Or your niece is up at bat and you hear the great-grandparents in your ear asking “Are you getting the shot?” For once in a life time events you don’t want to be the one that miss the shot.

Your needs include:

  • 20x or more optical zoom
  • Image stabilization
  • Able to record in a variety of lighting conditions

Sorry, no disrespect to the legion of The Flip camcorder lovers. A camcorder with good optical zoom is what you need in event and special occasion situations. You will also want image/optical stabilization if you are going to do more hand held than tripod work.

Recommendations

I’m thinking the Sony DCR SR47/L Hard Disk Drive Handyman Camcorder (standard definition) with a 60X optical zoom and a 60GB hard drive to store hours of the wedding, graduation or family reunions. Also for consideration, the JVC Everio GZ-MS120B Flash Memory camcorder or the high definition cousin JVC Everio GZ-HM200A.

Video Editing Software

Corel Photo and Video can help novice and low tech uses to create videos and DVDs. Sony Vegas Movie Studio includes DVD Architect to help create DVDs.

Resources

Now that you have a better idea of what you can do with a camcorder and examples of software that can help you meet your goals. I hope the examples help you find the right digital camcorder for you. These are places where you can go to get honest answers to buying camcorders in plain English.

  • You can learn from actual users such as Kristina at MomInformation about her experiences with a camcorder.
  • Use Google Product Search to read the user reviews from different vendor websites such as Amazon and Overstock.com
  • CamcorderInfo.com is the place to go for information on budget and consumer digital camcorders.
  • CNet Camcorder Buying Guide is also a winner for new users. It starts off asking questions like what kind of user are you and then helps you pick the right device for your budget.
  • If you want to know what life is like beyond $999 you should visit Videomaker.com for upper level consumer and prosumer camcorders.

And please feel free to plunk questions in the comments.

Gena Haskett is a contributing editor at BlogHer and writes at Out On the Stoop and Create Video Notebook.

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