10 Tips for Buying a Digital Camcorder

Unless you have an unlimited budget, buying a digital video camera involves a series of tradeoffs to get the best possible features you can afford. By planning ahead before you make your purchase, you can better anticipate where your camera will get used and extend its functional life in the process. The most important thing you can do before making a decision is to sit down and make a list of the 10 most likely scenarios your new camera will be used for. As digital video camera buyers, most of us fall into one of the following categories:

A) Travelers who want to capture our trip experiences

B) Parents or expecting parents who want to record the kids

C) Filmmakers/hobbyists who want to record the world around them

D) Gadget freaks who need the latest and greatest toy

E) Retirees or Grandparents who often exhibit traits of A or B (or both)

Depending on where you are in life, you might cross over into multiple categories and the reasons for buying a camera will exhibit some similarities. After you look at when and why you might want to record events, take a look at my list of 10 things to watch for when buying a digital camera.

Ignore Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is the measure of a cameras ability to magnify pixels in an image. You don't get a close up shot with digital zoom, you get an enlarged version of the best optical zoom your camera supports, which ultimately results in grainy looking video. This is the same effect as blowing up a digital image to 500% (or more) in image preview mode on your computer. The bigger the image gets, the worse it looks. While digital video cameras attempt to compensate for this by smoothing the edges of pixels, you still aren't getting a better close up. Optical zoom performance is the number that matters when choosing a digital video camera. Optical zoom measures a camera's ability to magnify an image to give you great looking close-up shots. If zoom is important to your digital video recording needs, either spend the money on a better optical zoom or buy an after market add-on lens that further enhances your cameras optical ability. Both options will give you better looking video than turning on digital zoom.

Mexapixels Don't Matter

All the marketing materials related to camcorders boast a number of mexapixels in the camcorder. This number is only meaningful in relation to still images taken with the camcorder. If you're really concerned with the quality of your video image, look at how many chips are in the camcorder and how big the chips are In general, a 1CCD camcorder won't give you the same depth of color as a 3CCD camcorder. And in most cases, a 1/3-inch CCD will give you a better image than a 1/4-inch or 1/6-inch CCD. More recently, CMOS censors are competing directly with CCD in the camcorder market and offer another alternative. Like CCD, with CMOS, the size of the censor matters more than the mexapixels. Lens size and quality also play a part in overall image quality of digital video, but mexapixels don't matter.

See a comparison of 1CCD and 3CCD digital video camera images.

Wide Angle Shooting

One often overlooked feature of digital video cameras is the native ability of a camera to shoot wide angle shots. This determines how far away from your subject you need to be in order to capture a clear image. It also determines how well you can shoot great video in close quarters. The first time this became obvious to me was when I was trying to shoot video of people sitting next to me on a tour bus and I couldn't back-up far enough without climbing out the bus window to get them both in the frame. While this won't make as much difference if you only plan to shoot video of your child's soccer games, be sure and test out the wide angle ability of any camera before you buy or be prepared to make compromises later.

Low Light Performance Matters

How well your digital video camera performs in low light is as much about how well it shoots video in your house with normal interior lighting as it is about how well it shoots in the late evening hours or in a dimly lit basement. In most cases, low light for a camcorder means anything that's not outdoors on a sunny day. If you're buying a camcorder from a large electronics store, ask them to let you demo the camera back in the area where they have the HDTVs with the lights turned down - this will give you a better idea of how the camera really performs away from the bright lights on the sales floor.

Make Sure the Camera Fits

Getting the right features in a camera is important. It's also vital to make sure the camera you are buying fits you. Can you hold the camera steady while shooting video? Is the video camera comfortable in your hand? Are the buttons placed in a way that makes them easy to press without jostling the camera during recording? Is the camera a size you're comfortable taking with you, or is it too big so you'll never use it? Will the camcorder fit in your purse or do you need a separate bag? All these are questions that help determine whether a digital video camera is a good fit for your needs.

Understand Recording Formats

While there are a number of consumer cameras now offering you the option of recording HD video or what we commonly think of as standard definition, the recording format I'm referring to is the medium used to store the video. There are currently 4 main formats to choose from in consumer digital video cameras: MiniDV, DVD, hard drive, and flash memory.

MiniDV is the most common format for recording video. Each tape records 60-90 minutes of video depending on the record mode. The tapes are affordable at $3-5 per tape. The downside is if you want to edit your video, you need to import it in real-time to your computer. For every minute of footage, you wait one minute for the footage to import. If you're busy, this means you end up recording a ton of footage that never gets used because you never have time to edit.

DVD is becoming a common format for recording. Camcorders that record to DVD typically use either standard sized DVD+R or DVD-R disks, with mini DVD becoming commonplace in Sony's DVD camcorders. Mini DVD camcorders record approximately 20 minutes per DVD. While DVD media is slightly cheaper than MiniDV tape, it comes with a few different quirks. DVD camcorders are a good option if you don't plan to edit your footage, but become a hassle if you want to extract the video from the DVD. In most cases, if you go this route, be sure you also invest in Sony's Vegas Video, otherwise you can plan on jumping through hoops to edit your movies.

Hard Drive based recording is popular for many of the same reasons outlined in Flash Memory below. By recording directly to a hard drive, recorded video is easily transferred to a PC for editing in faster than real time. The big downside is being limited in how much video a hard drive based camera can store (although this is typically 1 hour per 1GB of storage). When you run out of space, you need to delete everything on the drive in order to keep recording.

Flash Memory is becoming more common as a storage format for digital video cameras. Much like digital still cameras, a number of camcorders are using SD cards to store video. For standard definition, you can typically get 1 hour per 1GB of storage. The advantage of this type of storage is ease of file transfer. You simply copy the video file to your hard drive in order to edit. The price of large storage cards is still somewhat expensive, especially if you need to keep several cards on hand.

Test LCD Brightness in Sunlight

If possible, take a demo unit of the digital video camera you plan to buy outside before making a purchase. Many of the LCD screens on camcorders don't perform well in bright sunlight, making it next to impossible to see what you're recording. There are little visors you can get to shade the LCD screen from the sun, but that's also one more thing to carry. If you can find a camcorder with a great LCD screen, you'll be better served.

If you find the LCD isn't performing up to par in bright light, the Hoodman LCD sun shade is likely your best alternative.

Image Stabilization

Most digital video cameras have some form of image stabilization. The quality varies widely from camera to camera. Image stabilization quality becomes a key factor in the way your shots look when shooting video without a tripod. Stabilization really comes into play when zooming because little shakes are magnified along with the image. In most cases, consumer digital video cameras use electronic image stabilization, which is software in the camera that attempts to correct for a shaky hand. If you can afford it, optical image stabilization is better because it's actual mechanical components in the camera making adjustments for shake to keep the lens stable. When choosing between two cameras at a store, turn on stabilization on both cameras, zoom in by an equivalent amount and hold them out at arms length. While this isn't scientific, the one with the smoother looking image is likely to have better stabilization.

Avoid Hybrid Cameras

The current range of digital video cameras with digital still camera functionality is inferior to almost all digital still cameras. The idea of a combined camera is better in concept than it is in practice. If taking digital stills is important, get a camera designed for taking digital stills. Focus on the core video features when buying a digital video camera and think of the digital still functions as a convenient bonus if they happen to work well. If you're dead set on getting a camera with both features, get a digital still camera with video functions - the still cameras take better video than the video cameras take still images.

Buy a Tripod

If you buy a digital video camera, you need a tripod to go with it. There's no other accessory, outside of a longer life battery, that will improve your video recording experience. The key here is to get the right tripod. It's tempting to get the off-the-shelf options at the electronics store, but they always fall short. Look for a fluid-head. Make sure the tripod extends high enough to shoot effectively - 72-inches is a good starting point, because anything less often leaves you shooting the backs of people's heads in a crowded area.

eBay offers a great selection of fluid-head tripods at competitive prices.

When Buying Online Beware

I do most of my electronics purchasing online and I still occasionally run into situations where companies try bait-and-switch type tactics in selling digital cameras and camcorders. There are many companies offering what seem like bargain prices on video cameras. What they don't tell you is that in order to get the low price, they will try to upsell you on many things you might not need. Watch out for companies trying to bundle things like tapes, tripods, camera bags and other accessories with your purchase. It's not that you don't need these items; it's that the bundles are often low quality stuff that makes the company a ton of money. You'll remain happier in the long run by sticking to your guns and saying no to these add-ons or by simply shopping elsewhere when a sales rep attempts to stick you with stuff you didn't order. One key indicator that you're about to get the hard sell is the Website requiring you to either call in your purchase or accept a callback from a sales rep after ordering through the site in order to finalize the purchase.