Whether you're trying to be the next Speilberg, a TMZ paparazzi or just film your son's soccer game there are 10 basics you need to know about buying a camcorder. Sales people can be more confusing then your credit card statements so here are 10 tid bits for every day people to understand about buying a camcorder from camera zoom to defining HD. If you're looking for camcorder advice click here for expert camcorder reviews.
FPS Made Simple
While searching for camcorders occasionally the acronym "FPS" will be uttered by greedy salespeople. "FPS" stands for "frames per seconds".
Camcorders record by usually taking 24 (film industry standard), 30 or 60 pictures in one second. When footage is played back it gives audiences a video image. Any less then 24 FPS will appear jerky.
Does FPS matter? It depends on what will be shoot and how or if it will edited. FPS at 24 or 30 should suffice when just shooting David Hasselhoff in his bathroom. When trying to make the next Matrix movie with kick ass slow motion scenes a higher FPS will be needed. For slow motion scenes use a camera that can adjust to 120 FPS so when it's played it back then slowed down it will yield clear footage. For general action sequences or recording kids in a backyard smackdown 60 FPS should be suitable.
Lighting For Dummies
Camcorders will usually have settings for different light environments. The usual settings are outdoor, incandescent, florescent and overcast. The quality of indoor footage can vary greatly between camcorders.
Camcorders and cameras typically need twice the amount of light then the human eye needs to properly see. Most camcorders will auto adjust the standard white balance to capture an appropriate amount of light. If light control is essential purchasing a camera that allows manually adjustment to the aperture (amount of light camera takes in) could be the way to go. HD DSLR cameras can be perfect for indie film makers and peeping toms that don't want to use extra light. HD DSLRs are discussed later in this article.
One thing to remember is if shooting someone indoors wearing a white shirt and focusing the camera directly on the white will usually darken or blackout everything else in frame with almost any camera. It's referred to as white out or blow out when the camera is focused on a bright image and the white balance adjusts to see that image and nothing else in frame.
If shooting a first time indie film check out the youtube clip on the left or follow these links for a quick lighting tutorial.
Three Point Lighting
Three point video lighting tutorial
Internal vs. External Memory
The type of memory desired in a camcorder will depend on what the camera will be used for.
Some camcorders will use internal memory meaning the footage is recorded onto a hard drive (memory device) inside the camera. This can work best for those who don't want to worry about memory and are willing to dump the footage into a computer after each use. The drawback is if no footage has been erased or backed up during your 2 month trip to Europe you may run out of memory while proposing to your to girlfriend on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another drawback is that hard drives can be fragile and may not survive a baggage handlers clumsiness during check in at the airport.
External memory is typically a memory card or memory stick (flash memory) that inserts into the camcorder. Memory Cards are discussed later in this article.
Other External memory types are Mini DV (cassettes), DVD and outdated 8mm (cassette tape) which often max out at 30-60 minutes of footage. Beware that 8mm cameras require additional costly equipment to edit on a computer and often have lower quality footage.
For the budding Tarantinos in the room Mini DV is preferable for precise pinpoint accurate editing when making movies although flash memory HD DSLR cameras are a less expensive alternative.
DVD camcorders record footage directly onto a DVD so you can pop out that sex tape and put it on ebay faster. One drawback with a DVD camera is the fact that it is a combo device that takes footage and burns DVDs. Whenever you combine two devices into one you double the likelihood for product defects. Need a toaster buy a toaster, need a hairdryer buy a hairdryer. Don't buy a toaster hairdryer.
What HD Is All About
An HD or High Definition camcorder will say HD on the box, the description or on the camcorder itself. If it doesn't say HD anywhere then it probably isn't.
Whether you need HD or not will again depend on what you're shooting and how you want to view it. HD is basically a line in the sand for image resolution. SD or Standard Definition is 640 x 480 resolution defined as 640 lines vertical resolution and 480 lines horizontal resolution. HD starts at 1280 x 720. Within HD there is 1280 x 720 and 1920 x 1080 resolutions.
Camcorders don't need to be 1080 to be considered HD however, when shooting a first time no budget movie or short 1080 will be the way to go. For shooting a cat running around a living room 720 will be fine.
Remember when a SD 640 x 480 image is blown up onto a large TV or monitor the image will degrade meaning the tiny pixel boxes that make up the image will show up and the picture will not be as clear. Going for an HD camcorder over a SD camera will typically cost an extra $100-$200. The exception would be mini HD camcorders or "bloggie cameras" that have poor zoom. Look further down for the skinny on zoom.
Some camcorders offer 1080 resolution but recommend using a sport setting for recording action and movement. This sport setting is usually only 720 resolution. What this usually means is the camcorder is not sophisticated enough to record action in 1080. So unless the person is standing still the camcorder will usually need to be used in 720. That's basically a rip off paying a 1080 price for a 720 camera.
Check out this link for further illustrations of resolutions and picture size.
720p vs 1080i HD Explained
Microphones Aren't Just For Karoake
Camcorders usually come with built in microphones for sound. The quality of these microphones can vary and it's best to look up reviews online. Amazon.com is a great resource for reviews since most people don't have a vested interest in writing an untruthfully good review.
Built in or internal microphones can have several drawbacks. The highs and lows could be off and the overall range of the sound recording may be poor.
Getting a camcorder with an internal mic and an external mic port could be the way to go if sound is extremely important. Having an external mic port gives the option of plugging in a microphone. This comes in handy when recording at a distance. The microphone can be placed in one area close to the subject to reduce ambient noise while the camera can be placed further away.
For shooting a dance recital an external mic may not be necessary while shooting a commencement speech might. For no budget film productions an external mic is a good way to create a reference track or if there's no cash for separate sound equipment and you can't borrow any. Check out the youtube clip for more details on types of external microphones.
Video Production Basics : How to Buy an External Microphone for a Camcorder
Internal or External Batteries
Battery life can be a crucial element in a camcorder. Murphy's law dictates you're battery will die during your most important shot so battery life should be a primary concern.
An internal battery is inside the camera and basically can not be removed or replaced. Batteries lose life over time. When you're internal camcorder battery dies you'll need to hook up a power cord to continue recording. This is fine when making podcasts or video blogs at home but won't work while filming a daughters graduation or on the set of an indie movie. Also when the battery becomes so old it will no longer hold a charge the camera is almost useless. The Louvre in Paris frowns upon people hooking up power cords under the Mona Lisa.
External batteries are inserted into the camera before filming. The huge advantage of external batteries is you can carry extras. Some camera's use more expensive custom batteries to basically rip off consumers while others will simply run on standard AA or AAA batteries. It's typically easier to carry extra AA or AAA batteries and easier to find and purchase these batteries when on the go.
All Memory Cards Aren't Created Equal
Memory cards and Memory sticks can be bought in various sizes (memory capacity) typically ranging from 2GB to 32GB. What is being shot, the resolution being used and the desired quality will dictate the type of card to use.
Memory cards and memory sticks are both flash memory but, are not interchangeable. Memory sticks are only for Sony products and conversely most Sony camcorders will only work with a memory stick and not a memory card. Memory sticks are standard with the only variation being the size or memory capacity.
Memory cards have several variations between memory capacity, and transfer speeds. Most camcorders that use memory cards use SD or SDHC cards. Micro SD cards are tiny little cards that are just best left for cell phones. SD stands for Secure Digital and comes in 2GBs or less and can be used on most devices that use memory cards. SDHC is Secure Digital High Compact that come in 4GB and higher.
An important component to buying an SDHC memory card is the type of camera being used. When using an HD camera the SDHC memory card should be a class 6 or higher. SDHC memory cards come in various classes. The class is the speed the memory card can record and read. Low class cards can cause jerky recording and sound. Memory cards start with no class at all such just like Lady Gaga (unnecessary cheap shot) and move up in increments such as class 2, 4, 6, etc.
What Zoom Is All About
Camcorders have two types of zoom called optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is what the camcorder lens sees. Digital zoom is software in the camcorder that tries to interpret what it is seeing and fills in the pieces.
For the most part digital zoom is fairly useless. The image is usually distorted. When shopping for camcorders look for the optical zoom desired and discount the digital zoom.
Several mini HD camcorders and "bloggie camcorders" can be found for $70-$200 but, come with only digital zoom which means they really have no zoom at all. This is great for video blogs but terrible when sitting in a tree trying to get footage of Lindsay Lohan doing coke in a rehab clinic.