I had a bit of a wakeup call when I went shopping for supplies for my daughter's birthday. I asked when they would be stocking more camcorder video tapes. The answer: "Oh, we don't stock those anymore."
After a little looking I did find what I was looking for, but decided it might be time for an upgrade. Ah, but where to start…
How deep are your pockets? Or, better yet, just how often are you going to use your camcorder? If you only use it every now and then, or only use it to post short clips online, you are in luck. You'll be better off without a tricked-out gizmo, all of whose features you will probably never figure out anyway. There are a lot of great cameras with low price tags that you'll be happy with. On the other hand, if your current video camera gets a lot of use (and relatives mistake it for an additional family member) the price tag will go up, but you will end up with a higher-quality product that will do its best to put up with your abuse…oops, I mean use.
Prices can range from $149 to $1,500 and higher. Typically, $800 is the mark is that divides high-end items and the rest of market.
Take-Anywhere Mini Camcorders
Small pocket-sized camcorders like the Flip are very compact and extremely easy to use. The videos can be easily transferred to your computer or Web. They're really inexpensive, too; most can be found for less than $200. Unfortunately, you'll have to deal with inferior lenses and horrible shots in low-light environments.
Digital camcorders come in standard and high definition (HD). If you are shopping for a full-sized, full-featured camcorder and own an HDTV (or soon will), then definitely go with the HD camera. It will deliver great-looking, wide-screen video.
This is where I spent most of my time trying to decide which was best. The type of media your camcorder uses impacts the size, weight, battery life and performance. It also has to fit your wallet.
Digital camcorders can record to hard disk drives, flash memory cards, built-in flash memory, mini DVD discs or tape. There are also HD models that record directly to Blu-ray discs.
- DVD – DVD camcorders record directly onto small DVD discs. They're great because you can watch your video after instantly after recording it. Blank DVDs are also fairly inexpensive. Archiving the discs is an issue because the discs can be easily scratched or damaged. Also, because the disc is constantly spinning, it is a constant drain on the battery. You may also have a limited recording time, so remember to keep some spare blanks on hand, along with a Sharpie to label them.
- Hard drive camcorders –These camcorders have the highest capacity of any storage format available. You can fit hours upon hours of video on the drive before having to transfer it to a computer. You can also delete and move files while on the camera. To archive the video, you would probably buy an external hard drive – two, optimally, in case one goes bad. Syncing software ensures that there is always a duplicate of each clip on both storage drives.
- Flash memory cards – The same memory cards you use in your digital camera can be used to store digital video. You'll have to choose between the Memory Stick or the SD/SDHC card formats.
Because flash memory cards are so small, the camcorders into which they fit are significantly smaller and lighter. And better yet, because flash memory has no moving parts there is less drain on the battery. However, they can't handle as much video as other formats. Card capacities are climbing, but high-capacity memory cards aren't cheap. Most people don't realize that different cards operate at different speeds. If you're shooting video, make sure you get what you need. For HD camcorders, start looking at a Class 6 card; the next step up, Class 10, may be too much performance for the price.
- Blu-ray disc – There aren't many cameras that write directly to Blu-ray, but more are on the way. With Blu-ray you get all the advantages of DVD, but with much more storage and quality.
What is the best media? Well, if you haven't yet picked a favorite, compare prices and the capacity of each and try to figure out how often you'll be filling up your DVD, Blu-ray, flash card or hard drive.
- Optical/digital zoom – Optical zoom is what I call "real zoom". It is the lens that allows you to get closer to the subject. It also produces a higher-quality image.
Your digital camcorder records images made up of zillions of tiny pieces called pixels. Digital zoom enlarges the pixels. Does your image look larger? Yes. Is the quality instantly reduced? You bet.
It's always best to make your choices based on optical zoom.
- Image stabilization – Unless you are an indie-horror filmmaker, image stabilization is your friend. It's especially useful when you are zooming in on distant subjects.
- Photo features – You can leave the digital camera behind if you use a camcorder with photo snapshot abilities. Many of the controls and shooting modes are the same as your regular digital still camera.
When asking yourself what is the right choice, remember, it has to be the right choice for you. You want it to add to the experience that you are trying to preserve, not complicate it. I hope you find your right fit and you find moments that you want to keep forever.