A digital camcorder can put the power to create broadcast-quality video in your pocket. Whether you’re capturing important family events or you’re aspiring to be the next Steven Spielberg, there’s a compact and affordable digital camcorder for you. Understanding what you need and how digital camcorders work will help you get the most for your budget and Pronto’s Digital Camcorder Buying Guide explains it all.
The image quality of a digital camcorder depends on the lens quality, the number of CCD chips, and the pixel resolution of CCD chips. For family events or video that you plan to post on the Web, choose a single CCD. If you need the digital camcorder for business presentations or professional purposes, a three-CCD model is better.
MiniDV tapes are the most common format for digital camcorders, but the tapes will wear out over time. DVD digital camcorders are more costly to own, but the DVDs will last longer with proper care. Digital camcorders with hard drives provide the greatest data stability, but their recording time is limited by the size of the drive.
Look for a digital camcorder with a front-mounted or extended top-mounted microphone to reduce motor noise in your videos. For the best sound quality, choose a digital camcorder with a microphone jack and purchase a separate microphone.
Don’t be fooled by excessive digital zoom claims, as this feature can ruin image quality. For distance shooting, you’ll need a digital camcorder with a longer optical lens or a model that supports changeable lenses.
Amateur shooters can be overwhelmed by a digital camcorder with manual controls. If you need manual adjustments, make sure you can reach them while shooting and that buttons are appropriately spaced for your hands. Editing is much easier on your PC, so avoid editing features unless you need to edit in the field.
The maximum dimension of a digital camcorders iris, which controls the light send to CCD chips. Digital camcorders with larger apertures typically work better in low-light conditions.
An all-in-one device that captures video and sound to storage media through a built-in adjustable lens and microphone.
Charged-Coupled Devices turn an image into digital data. A single-CCD digital camcorder uses one chip to capture the image, while a three-CCD model splits the image into red, green, and blue components, increasing video quality.
A built-in device that can add dates, times, and titles to video captured by a digital camcorder.
A feature that increases the size of distant objects by magnifying pixels. Digital zoom reduces image quality and at extreme magnifications the image can become unwatchable.
Digital Versatile Discs are a silicon-based storage media used to store data in some digital camcorders. DVDs are available as DVD-R, which can be written once, and DVD-RW, which can be erased and rewritten many times.
A high-speed data port for transferring video and audio from a digital camcorder to a PC. FireWire and other cabled PC connections are much faster than USB.
A built-in magnetic disk used to store data in a digital camcorder. Recording time is limited by the size of the hard drive, which is measured in gigabytes (GB). Larger hard drives allow more recording time.
A digital camcorder storage media that uses rewritable 8mm tape cassettes. Because MiniDV is read mechanically, the tapes will wear out over time.
A feature that increases the size of distant objects by mechanically moving the lens closer to or further from the CCD chips in a digital camcorder. Optical zoom always delivers better images than digital zoom. Digital camcorder lenses are rated for their maximum optical zoom by a number followed by an x, with larger numbers yielding more magnification.
The number of lines that make up an image, measured in pixels. Standard-definition video has 480 lines of horizontal resolution, while high-definition video has 720 or 1,080 horizontal lines.
This feature allows a digital camcorder to create better images in low light and with fast-moving objects by altering the amount of light collected from CCD chips. For nighttime shooting and sporting events, adjustable shutter speed reduces motion blur and captures more detail.
Universal Serial Bus is a standard connection port for PCs that transmits data and power to a connected device. USB 2.0 connections can transfer data at a rate of around 30MB per second.
A manual adjustment that allows you to calibrate a digital camcorder for different lighting conditions, eliminating the pink or blue tint that can come from artificial lighting.
All digital camcorders capture sound and images by converting them to digital files. At a minimum, a digital camcorder offers a lens, a microphone, a zoom function, an LCD screen for recording and viewing, and basic playback options. High-end digital camcorders will include additional microphone jacks and manual controls for shutter speed and focus.
Image quality is the primary concern when shopping for a digital camcorder and quality is determined by the lens and the digital technology. Less expensive models have lower quality lenses that may not work well in low light or at some distances. Spending more may get you a better lens, or it may get you an average lens with a lot of features you don’t need. Know what you’re paying for, and be willing to sacrifice convenience features for a digital camcorder with a better lens.
Digital camcorder CCD chips. Digital camcorders use charged-coupled devices (CCDs) to convert light into digital data. Most digital camcorders have either a single CCD chip that does all the work or three CCD chips that process red, blue, and green separately. Three-CCD digital camcorders produce the best possible image quality and tend to work better in low light and at longer distances, but you’ll pay a lot more for this technology.
For family events or video that you plan to post on the Web, a single CCD digital camcorder is an excellent choice. If you need the digital camcorder for business presentations or professional purposes, you’ll want a three-CCD model.
The resolution of a digital camcorder is determined by the size of the CCD chips and the number of pixels they have. Higher pixel counts typically result in sharper images, but this depends on the quality of the lens and the actual resolution when image stabilization and other real-world factors come into play. Don’t be too dazzled by the potential resolution of a digital camcorder, try it and judge the performance yourself.
Digital camcorders store data either on MiniDV tape, DVD, or on an internal hard drive. MiniDV is the most common storage format, and these compact 8mm tapes are easy to buy and carry around. If you shoot a lot of video, a MiniDV digital camcorder is your best bet.
The biggest drawback to MiniDV digital camcorders is the tape, which degrades each time it is used and decomposes over time. You’ll get better image quality from a camcorder that uses rewritable DVDs that can play in most computers and DVD players. Digital camcorder DVDs are more expensive and fragile than MiniDV tapes, but they’ll last longer with proper care and support higher resolution than MiniDV, which tops out at 720x480.
For all-digital recording without media, digital camcorders with built-in hard drives are available. The biggest drawback to these digital camcorders is limited recording time. Once the hard drive is full, you’ll need to download the data to your computer to keep recording.
If you need high-definition video, choose a digital camcorder that writes to DVD or a hard drive. For everyday use or recording long events, a MiniDV digital camcorder is the best choice. Remember that you can download your video to your PC with any digital camcorder, which overcomes the limitations of storage media.
Digital cameras record CD-quality digital stereo, ranging from 12-bit and 16-bit sound in budget models to full Dolby Digital at the high end. The quality of sound depends largely on the digital camcorder’s built-in microphone. Look for a digital camcorder with a front-mounted microphone to minimize motor noise on MiniDV and DVD models.
A top-mounted microphone is good only if the microphone’s sensor is mounted well in front of the digital camcorder’s body. Digital camcorders with top-mounted mics tend to pick up much more motor noise, including noise from the zoom lens. For the best sound, look for a digital camcorder with a microphone jack and purchase a separate mic.
The zoom feature allows a digital camcorder to get closer to the action through magnification. Optical zoom moves the lens to achieve magnification, while digital zoom magnifies the size of recorded pixels. A 10x optical zoom is ideal for most users.
Beware of the claims made about digital zoom. This function can cause the image to degrade to the point where it’s unwatchable. If you need to shoot video from a distance, you’re better off getting a digital camcorder with a longer lens, or a model that supports changeable lenses.
Most digital camcorders work best in daylight. For nighttime or low-light interior shooting, you’ll need a three-CCD digital camcorder designed for this purpose. These high-end digital camcorders will include manual controls for focus, shutter speed, and white balance.
If you choose a digital camcorder with manual controls, make sure the buttons are located where you can reach them while you’re shooting. Watch out for buttons that are set too close together if you have large hands.
Electronic image stabilization is a common feature on digital camcorders. By reducing the size of the image, it reduces the impact of hand movement while you’re shooting. This is a great feature for home users, but it’s no substitute for shooting from a tripod.
A digital camcorder should have RCA video or composite video jacks to connect to your TV and a USB port to connect to your PC. Deluxe models may include FireWire ports for faster data transfer.
Although some digital camcorders offer flying erase heads, character generation, dubbing and other editing functions, you’ll find it much easier to edit video on your PC. Shop for image quality and don’t pay extra for editing capabilities unless you need to edit in the field.