Home Cameras Video Toolbox: Camcorders
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Toolbox: Camcorders

Choose and use simple camcorders to create Hollywood-style results

When it comes to camcorders, digital video (DV) is the way to go. While Hi-8 cameras are available for a few hundred dollars, miniDV camcorders are far superior because they record digitally rather than via analog and provide 500 lines of horizontal resolution—100 more than analog. Although both record to tape, digital recording means there will be no loss in image quality when the video is duplicated, unlike analog, whose image and sound quality are reduced with each duplication. DV cassettes come in two sizes: Standard/Full Size (125mm x 78mm x 14.6mm) and miniDV (66mm x 48mm x 12.2mm). The former is for pro/commercial use while miniDV is what's available in consumer-line camcorders.

Some DV cameras record directly to recordable DVD discs rather than tape. They offer the convenience of creating a DVD that's playable on a console player. Because there's a variety of DVD formats (DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM), make sure your DVD player will accommodate the DVD format used by the video camera. The video for such cameras is compressed more than a standard miniDV recording and results in reduced image quality.

The zoom lens of a camcorder is one of its most hyped and most misunderstood features. While some cameras promise 20x or higher magnification, it may not be achieved optically, but digitally—meaning by cropping into the image sensor and simulating a higher focal length, but sacrificing image quality.

Choose a camera based on its optical zoom range instead. The specification chart should include the 35mm-equivalent focal-length range. A 10x optical zoom might have a 35mm equivalent of 40-400mm, for example.

Most zooms start at a focal length of 40mm or higher. So if you desire a wider focal length, make sure the camera allows for the attachment of lens adapters.


The built-in microphones of today's video cameras are very effective in picking up ambient sound. These omni-directional microphones are positioned in front or on top of the camera body. We recommend choosing a video camera whose microphone is positioned on the front unless you know you want to include your own narration while recording.

Some cameras feature a zoom microphone, which narrows its pick-up area as the lens zooms to its telephoto position. For more precise sound recording, an external microphone is best. For that, your camera will require an external microphone jack. Also, to ensure good sound, choose a camera with an earphone jack that allows you to confirm the quality of the sound as you're recording.

Image Quality
Video cameras have large LCD displays, which you can use to compose images, but they're not the best way to judge image quality. Connect the camera to a high-quality monitor or television instead. A good test of image quality is to point the camera at a high-contrast scene. Cameras with poor quality will show significant chromatic aberrations, which may appear as a tinted halo.

Cameras that feature progressive scan recording help to improve sharpness and color accuracy. Like television sets, some video cameras create the video image using "interlacing." This is a scanning mode that alternates between two fields (odd- and even-numbered) to create the image. Progressive scanning displays all frames in sequence to produce a full frame with improved color accuracy.



Video cameras increasingly are making it possible to create still images along with moving ones. Utilizing the video camera's CCD, these cameras offer resolutions of 2 megapixels and even higher. The ability to switch between video and still capture with just one device is a great convenience.

Image quality won't be comparable to that of a still digital camera, even of the same resolution, however. This is because it takes more than resolution to make a good image. Video cameras are designed and optimized for video, with secondary consideration provided to still images. While video cameras will deliver acceptable results, take along a compact digital camera for maximum image quality for your prints.


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