Camcorder Buyers Guide 2008: Getting What You Need for your Best WDW Movies Ever

There are a dizzying number of camcorder options out there: standard definition vs. high definition; which recording media do you want to record to; what options do you want on your camera; the list goes on. It gets very confusing, very quickly. The fact is that most camcorders (except for the very low-end ones) will give you quite good performance in most conditions and will meet the majority of the needs of the consumer user. Let’s start thinking about some of the basic considerations to help you choose the right one.

I think your first consideration should be whether you want to edit your video or not. Or put another way, do you want to just watch your raw video and not have to worry about changing it, or do you want to alter it is some way, such a by trimming your footage and re-organizing your clips into a story. Other editing you may be interested in doing is adding titles, transitions, special effects, or music to your video. If you just want to watch it, just about any camcorder will do. Most camcorders regardless of what format they record to (onboard hard drive, flash memory, miniDV tape, or flash memory), will have some way of hooking up to your television to enable you to watch your video. DVD camcorders burn your footage to a DVD that you can watch on most DVD players.

Now let’s talk about editing. It has never been easier to edit your camcorder footage. Most modern computers come with basic NLE (non-linear editing) software such as Windows Movie Maker and iMovie, and these programs are more than suitable for most consumer needs. There are also many quite powerful consumer programs you can purchase that cost less than $100, such as Sony Vegas Movie Studio. But if you want to edit your video there are some thing to take into account. First, you need to be able to import your footage into your computer. Make sure your recording media and computer are compatible. You’ll be unhappy if you buy a camcorder that records to SD card, but your computer doesn’t have an SD card reader. Secondly, make sure you can export the video somehow. If you want to watch your footage on your TV and to use your DVD player, make sure you have a DVD burner on your computer. Most people want to watch their videos on their television, and nearly all editing software packages contain the necessary software to change your video into a format that a DVD player can read (all DVD players read a format called MPEG-2). This is a process called rendering a video, and then it can be burned to a DVD that can be watched by anyone with a DVD player (note that some older DVD players sometimes won’t play newer, computer-burned DVDs, but that this is a fairly uncommon problem anymore).

If you want to edit your video, the type of standard definition format most preferred by many hobbyists (and myself) is miniDV tape. This type of camcorder records to a small cassette tape and the video is imported to the computer in a file format called AVI. AVI is uncompressed and is the most easily editable format for a computer, and allows even frame-by-frame changes. Other file formats (such as MPEG-2, AVCHD, and others) have been compressed into smaller file sizes, and can be harder for your computer to process. In truth this isn’t a huge consideration for most camcorder users, and many people are willing to trade the ease of being able to use an SD card or USB reader instead of tape, which is little more time consuming. MiniDv is the right medium for me right now, but it may not be what you want or need.

This is a good time to talk about high definition camcorders. Many folks these days have high definition televisions but it’s not always easy to watch high definition camcorder footage on it. If you have an HDTV and just want to watch your video without editing, make sure your television and the camcorder you are considering have compatible inputs. They probably do, but just be safe. If you want to edit your HD footage things get more complicated. HD footage contains much more digital information and thus requires more compression. You may need to purchase additional software to edit HD footage. Many computers, especially older computers, don’t have the processing power necessary to edit HD footage, which means that upgrading your camcorder can also mean upgrading your computer, an additional expense you may not want to take on. If you want to edit your video and then to watch your videos on TV, you have to have a way to get it to your television. A standard DVD burner will not be able to burn a high definition DVD, so you have to purchase a special blu-ray DVD burner in order to burn high-definition DVDs. Luckily, most HD camcorders will record footage in HD but allow you to import it into your computer in SD (standard definition). You should know that my next purchase will likely be an HD camcorder, but that most of my videos will be in SD format until I complete a gradual upgrade in all of my equipment over the next few years as I am able to afford to do so. Do your homework before you buy an HD camcorder, you want to be sure it’s really what you need and that you’re able to use it effectively and easily. HD will be an industry standard eventually, but not for at least several years. While prices on HD camcorders are attractive right now, SD camcorder prices have plummeted and there are many screaming deals available on them.

Most camcorders today will offer a variety of features to make your filming more successful, but let’s talk about some of the features that are the most useful.

1. Zoom: One of the first features to look for is the zoom feature of the camera. There are two kinds of zoom, optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is the best to have, as the optics of the camera are what provide the magnification. This way even a magnified image is of high quality. Digital zoom is bit of a trick by the camera companies to get you to buy their camera. A digital zoom acts the way a magnifying glass might work on a photograph: as you get closer and closer the pixels get bigger and father apart, distorting the image. Digital zoom is really only helpful at small magnifications, maybe 10-15x or lower. Only the optical zoom capabilities of your camera are really worth considering. A 10x optical zoom is very useable.

2. Image Stabilization: If you are filming correctly, you won’t need a lot of extra image stabilization. But, this is the real world and in Walt Disney World, you’ll be moving around a lot. So image stabilization is helpful to have. There are two kinds of image stabilization systems that cameras may come with. The first is optical image stabilization or OIS, and the second is electronic image stabilization or EIS. OIS provides a crisper and better image overall but most home users won’t notice the difference. This can be a very helpful feature.

3. Manual camera settings: Most modern camcorders allow you the ability to set a few things manually. Pros and hobbyists like this ability in a camera but too much can be confusing, so many cameras offer a middle ground of sorts. My camera has settings for sports activities, bright and sunny days, faces and close-ups, people on stage, and the like. They’ve taken some of the guesswork out of it for the person who wants a better image but may not know how to manage things like shutter speed. Look at what is available on a camera and then think about what kind of filming you do. Do you film your children’s sports events? Look for a feature on a camcorder that increases the shutter speed, which reduces motion blur. Are you trying to film events like plays or concerts in an auditorium? If a subject is lit with a spotlight, manual settings can compensate for brightness. Think about what you want out of a camera and what options you may like having. In addition to these, one of the most useful features I use nearly every time I film indoors is the white balance feature on my camcorder. Most camcorders have this somewhere. I’m not sure I could live without it.

4. Ability to film in low-light settings: don’t believe the hype. Most cameras will NOT film well in low-light situations, despite what their advertising says. Some perform better than others, but don’t expect them to perform well. What happens in low-light situations is that an image gets more grainy and less crisp, and the colors tend more towards a grey or monochrome color. For our purposes, much of what we will likely be filming in WDW will be outside or in reasonably lit areas, but you will be disappointed if you are hoping to get a perfect image inside of Space Mountain or the Haunted Mansion. It won’t happen. The better editing software has some ability to brighten any darkened clips, but they never look quite as good as when they are well-lit in the first place.

Just like there are many camera options, there are also many accessory options. There are three accessories that I think are worth considering for anyone in the market for a camcorder.

1. A UV filter: A UV filter serves two purposes. The first is that it filters UV light and can make your images slightly crisper, I leave mine on my camera full-time. The second purpose is that it protects your camera lens, so that it is less likely to be scratched or damaged if the camera is bumped. I’d rather pay a few dollars for a new filter that got broken than a few hundred for a new lens or camera.

2. A microphone: Even if the microphone in your camera is a good one (most aren’t), it suffers from the fact that it is placed inside your camera and it will pick up sounds from your camera motor and hand movements. Any microphone, even the cheapest on the market, will likely provide an improvement over the onboard microphone. I have two that I use for different purposes. Be sure the camcorder has the appropriate accessory jacks before you purchase one.

3. A tripod: Shaky video distracts your audience and decreases their enjoyment. Professionals use tripods to get good quality video without needing image stabilization. Tripod quality and ease of use goes up the more you are willing to spend, but even a cheap tripod is better than no tripod at all.

In terms of these three accessories, I think that a UV filter verges on being a necessity while a microphone is something you can put off until later if you aren’t sure you need it. A tripod is very useful, but I tend not to want to lug one around in the parks. If you decide to forgo this too, this means you have to be very disciplined about keeping the camera as steady as possible when filming, and being willing to put up with a little camera shake in your footage.

If you decide you are in the market for a camcorder, the December, 2008 edition of Consumer Reports has an updated list of camcorders that it thinks are good purchases. There are several standard definition and high definition camcorders listed, with the SD camcorders starting at around $250.00 and the HD camcorders starting around $800.00. But, prices have fallen since they went to press and you can likely find all of them for less at online retailers or during sales at retail stores. I have seen some for tens or even hundreds of dollars less at a few retailers that I trust. While I’m a big fan of eBay, electronics is one area where they have had problems is with a lot of scam artists and inferior or damaged grey market (foreign market and/or refurbished) merchandise. Do your research before you buy, only buy from a business or person you trust. If it looks too good a deal to be true, it probably is.

Let me tell you a little about my equipment. The videos on the DisneyHomeVideo YouTube channel were all filmed with a standard definition, consumer camcorder I bought a few years ago, a Panasonic GS-150. All have been edited with Sony Vegas Movie Studio, a consumer grade NLE (non-linear editing) program which can usually be purchased for $100 or less. In many, though not all of my videos the camera may have a UV filter and the sound may have been captured with a Rode VideoMic, a hobbyist microphone that retails for $120-$150.

Happy holidays, and good luck choosing! Whether you are buying a camcorder for yourself or for someone as a gift, I hope this article helps you choose the one that is right for you.

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