Baby’s arrival. Preschool commencement ceremonies. Your first vacation as a nuclear family. Understandably, these are events worth documenting – and they’re worth documenting on something with more power, clarity and storage capacity than your iPhone can provide. But when it comes to choosing a video camera, where do you start? Luckily, that’s why we’re here. Whether you’re storyboarding a home movie for entry in next year’s Sundance festival or you simply need a smarter way to capture everyday YouTube clips, our video camera buying guide covers all the basics.
1. First things first: do you even need a separate video camera?
Like many parents, you probably use a video camera every day but don’t necessarily think of the device in those terms. Whether it’s pairing up with your YouTube account or capturing footage to an internal memory card, that ingenious little camera eye on your iPhone or Android smartphone is, quality-wise, light years ahead of the VHS camcorder your parents used to capture your first steps. It’s faster. It’s smaller. And for most of the everyday milestones you want to capture – say, a weekend soccer game or a school awards ceremony – it’s probably sufficient. If you want to get more serious about your video, however – or if you want a higher-definition camcorder that also captures gorgeous still photos – you’d do well to consider a standalone video camera.
Think of your smartphone as a Jack of all trades. It does a lot of things to the best of its ability and spreads its resources across everything from apps to memory to storage space. A standalone video camera, on the other hand, is designed to do one thing very well. And because shooting video for long stretches requires a unique set of physical actions (ever tried to film a home movie on your iPad?), most video cameras are also designed for ergonomic comfort. But where to start? Well, read on :
2. From pocket-sized to professional: understanding your options
- Pocket-sized camcorders: Remember the Flip camcorder? One button, one big screen, one easy-to-use menu on a device that fits in your pocket. Unfortunately, as smartphones began incorporating similar technology, Flip flopped – but that doesn’t mean pocket-sized camcorders went away. Instead, manufacturers found ways to pack more features into even smaller devices – and started aiming their products at niche markets. Say you’re a blogger or product reviewer who needs to shoot and upload tons of video 24/7; well, then a Wi-Fi HD camcorder from Sony might be just what you need to keep those clips uploading to YouTube. Or let’s say you’re a budding surfer or skateboarder who needs a quick and convenient way to capture action footage in harsh conditions. Well, that’s what the weatherproof, helmet- or stroller-mountable ContourROAM was designed to handle. Bonus? All of the above will run you under $300.
- Flash and removable-memory camcorders: Flash memory – a popular storage medium that, unlike traditional hard drives, has no moving parts – comes in two types where video cameras are concerned. There’s built-in flash storage, which lets you save videos straight to your camera without the potential dropping or shaking hazard the moving parts of a traditional spinning hard drive presents. Then there’s removable memory – which you buy as either SD (Secure Digital) or Memory Stick memory cards and pop into your camera as you need more space to store your footage. The actual amount of footage you can save to any of these formats will differ – from 15 minutes up to 8-plus hours, depending on the number of gigabytes (GB) the memory stores. But because flash memory (both built-in and removable cards) is so small, at least when compared to the larger bits and pieces of a traditional hard drive, you’ll find a much more compact range of cameras in the flash category.
- Camcorders with built-in hard drives: Just as your home computer does, this type of video camera saves data (read: your movies) to a built-in spinning hard drive. Transferring video to your PC for editing is as easy as connecting your camera to your computer with a USB cable, so you don’t need to worry about moving footage between separate memory cards or DVDs. Storage capacities vary but tend to be more generous than you’ll find on video cameras that use flash memory or removable memory cards. (Sony, for instance, offers a model that can store up to 60 hours’ worth of HD video on its 160GB hard drive.) Due to the size of the hard drive itself, however, these cameras tend to run on the larger side when compared to flash-memory cameras; and, because hard drives have moving parts, there’s always the chance of something breaking if you drop or shake the camera. But we’re talking a lot of shaking, and some serious drops, for that to happen.
- “Prosumer” and DSLR camcorders: “Prosumer” is a term that companies use to define people who want professional-quality performance from their technology, but who don’t want to dedicate their lives to said profession. Fiscally speaking, it’s a category that’s going to require you to spend upward of $1,000 to get this level of performance. If you’re serious about your video, however, the investment is worth it. You’re talking a better quality of lens; more reliable performance in all manner of lighting conditions; larger internal-storage capacity; more control over settings – basically, increases everywhere it counts. As you climb the price tree, you’re also looking at a category that includes DSLR (digital) cameras. No longer just the province of serious photographers, these devices – like the Canon EOS Mark series, which has been used to shoot TV shows and films such as House and Captain America – deliver jaw-dropping video capabilities to match their ultra-HD still photos. Of course, most of us won’t need to spend upward of $3,000 on a camera, but it’s nice to know there’s an option for those who can. (Similar “pro” cameras such as the RED, for instance, cost upward of $10,000.)
3. To HD or not to HD?
“HD” seems simple enough: It stands for high definition and suggests a crisp, clear picture that’s pixels above the SD (standard definition) format that defined your parents’ camcorders of choice. But what you might not know is that there are different degrees of HD – and even if you’re eyeing up, say, a $1,500 camera that shoots in 1920×1080 resolution (also known as Full HD), it might not make a difference if your TV or computer display can’t reproduce the same picture quality.
HD resolution is typically designated by a number/letter combination: 720p, 1080i or 1080p. The digits refer to the number of horizontal lines used to display an image, and the letter (“p” for progressive or “i” for interlaced) refers to the type of scan used to display the image. Basically, progressive means a faster and clearer picture, even if, to the naked eye, the difference in quality between p and i can seem negligible.) Standard definition (SD), conversely, refers to a resolution of 640×480 pixels. Okay, got all that? Well, then your instinct may be to look for a camcorder that shoots in 1080p Full HD, since that label implies “best and fastest resolution.” But not all HD camcorders are created equal; many lower-priced or pocket-sized models, for instance, give you limited control over features like zooming, frame rate (number of frames shot per second) and image stabilization (control over whether your picture is jittery). So you could still end up using a lot of pixels to capture lackluster footage. Compromising on HD shouldn’t be an issue if you’re sharing videos on YouTube, as your footage will get compressed (translation: its 1’s and 0’s will get squished) to make the file small enough for uploading. If, however, you’re shooting archival footage or planning to burn your home movies to a super-HD format like Blu-ray Disc, then you should look for a full-featured HD camera that shoots at a higher frame rate (such as 60p, or 60 progressive frames per second). Keep in mind, however, that you’ll want a camera that either has serious internal storage or the ability to swap out memory cards-HD footage also uses a lot more disk space than its lower-definition counterparts./p>
More video camera-buying tips:
10 best video cameras for families: Options for every budget
– Aaron Burgess
Creating a video diary with your kids
– Casey Mullins
10 tips for creating good videos of unwilling toddlers
– Ilana Wiles
4. Holy features, Batman!
For the uninitiated, the technical specifications for a new camcorder can feel about as user-friendly as a wall of hieroglyphics. To help narrow the curve, we’ve broken down the essential specs to look for when shopping. So, whether you’re enduring a salesperson’s spiel or trying to decipher an online tech-specs page, you can make sense of the essentials.
Viewfinder or LCD Viewer
Remember when every camera had a viewfinder that you looked through to compose your shot? While you’ll still find this feature on higher-end video cameras and DSLR/video combinations, most low- to midrange video cameras include an LCD viewer that either flips out (especially useful for getting a wider view of your shot) or is built into the rear of the device. It’s a convenient way to capture, view and (on some more advanced models) edit your videos all through the same display window, especially if your LCD includes a touchscreen.
Optical and Digital Zoom
Most modern video cameras offer you some way to get closer to or further from your shot without actually moving there yourself. Optical zoom relies on your camera’s optical lens to zoom in on or out of a scene, while digital zoom isn’t really “zoom,” but rather a method of electronically magnifying a scene. Digital zoom can be useful if used judiciously, but it may also negatively affect image quality by “blowing up” pixels to an exaggerated degree. To solve this, some digital-camera manufacturers have introduced a new category of “intelligent” zoom, which, while still digitally enhancing your image, targets (read: crops) only the area you want to focus on, essentially jettisoning all the pixels it doesn’t need to zoom in. Long story short, optical zoom is what really matters.
Image Sensor and Megapixels
If you’ve ever tried to capture video footage after dusk or in poor ambient lighting, you understand the importance of a good image sensor. Your video camera’s built-in sensor is responsible for converting light into electronic signals; so, generally speaking, a larger sensor (which lets in more light) will perform better in lower lighting conditions. Image sensors are also defined by their effective pixel count-which is an important distinction from the often more impressive gross-megapixel number that camera companies prefer to market.
We’ll put it more simply: Let’s say you see an awesome-looking camcorder, the spec sheet of which says it’s capable of shooting 12MP (megapixel) footage. Awesome, huh? Now look at the megapixel number next to the image-sensor description-it’s likely lower because that’s the number of pixels the image sensor is actually processing. Your footage will still look great, sure, but don’t be fooled by all those megapixels-they mean less than you might think.
This is a fancy way of saying “no jitters.” Useful for those times when a tripod would be too cumbersome, an optical (via your camera’s lens) or digital image stabilizer (via electronic image processing) automatically works to reduce the shaking that inevitably occurs when you’re recording. You can also use an off-the-shelf video editing software to smooth out your footage after you record it, and if you’re uploading videos to YouTube, you can take advantage of the site’s free image-stabilization feature.
All other features being equal, battery life would be the deal-breaker in selecting a video camera. Obviously, since you want to spend more time shooting footage and less time plugging in your camera to charge, you want the longest battery life you can find. While this is a critical feature, keep in mind that it takes a lot of power to capture, process, save and share all that HD footage, so if it comes down to “Do I pick this awesome camera that has just 2 hours of battery life or do I sacrifice video quality to get four more hours per charge?” you might want to err on the side of “awesome.”
Many video cameras now come standard with the ability to take still photos-whether through a separate digital-camera feature, a mode that enables you to freeze and capture a frame of video, or (in higher-end models such as the Canon 5D EOS Mark III) a button that enables you to capture still photos as you’re filming video without skipping a beat. None of this is to say that you should ditch your digital camera for an all-in-one camcorder-you might, for instance, find that your high-resolution video camera only takes mediocre still photos-but having the convenience is nice when the opportunity arises to snap a picture.
In the race to catch up with smartphones in the multitasking department, many modern cameras have started including built-in Wi-Fi. Though not essential if you’re planning to edit and share footage from your home PC, having wireless capability can make it much easier to share and upload videos as you’re taking them. Say, for instance, you just filmed your daughter’s first music recital and can’t wait to share it with her grandparents 2,000 miles away. With a camera that includes built-in Wi-Fi and the ability to upload videos to Facebook and YouTube (a common feature on these types of “social” cameras), you could go from shoot to share in minutes.
5. Parting thoughts
OK, so you’ve skipped through all the other sections in our guide and just want a quick reference for the next time you’re at the camera aisle-it’s okay, we’re busy, too.
Start with how you watch videos. Then buy the camcorder to match.
Will you be watching home movies on a 55″ Full HD TV? Are you editing videos on an HD monitor and then burning them to a DVD or Blu-ray disc? Then by all means get the highest-definition camera you can afford: it’ll offer the most seamless transition from your creative vision to the device where you’re viewing it. Of course, you’ll also spend upward of $500 (at the absolute low end), but the tradeoff will be a better viewing experience. Are you mainly looking for a convenient way to get everyday footage onto Facebook and YouTube? You’ll still find a wide range of HD-friendly cameras in the under-$500 range-many with Wi-Fi options for easy video sharing-but you won’t need all the bells, whistles, light-sensor options and other gearhead specs.
Make sure it feels good.
Plenty of video cameras look beautiful on the surface, but you also want something that’s easy to use when you’re moving about a room or chasing after a babbling toddler. Make sure the controls are easy to reach. Check to see if the on/off and record buttons are in a logical place (you don’t want to accidentally turn off a camera while you’re in the middle of shooting). Does the camera have a flip-out LCD touchscreen? Make sure the controls are responsive, and make sure the LCD is easily viewable under bright light. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this thing in your hand-make sure it fits there comfortably.
Don’t forget the extras-you actually might need them.
Accessories like tripods and extra lenses can come after you’ve spent some time with your new camera, but there are a few essentials that are worth picking up before you leave the store.
Many video cameras are small enough to fit in your handbag, but that doesn’t mean you want them rattling around with your keys and half-emptied baby bottles. Invest in a sturdy, waterproof bag that fits your camera snugly but also has a divided interior case for storing extra items like batteries, power cords and memory cards.
Even with a good image stabilizer, no video camera can account for the natural tendency of a human being to be a little jittery-especially when said human is trying to hold a camera steady for long stretches. So take a cue from professional photographers and invest in a camera tripod. (Entry-level models start around $10 at Amazon.) You’ll be able to ensure that your shots are perfectly steady-and you’ll finally time to be part of the action, instead of just filming it.
If you’re using a flash-memory camcorder without an internal hard drive, you’ll need to buy a memory card. Memory fills up fast, especially if you’re recording in HD, and it’s highly likely that the camera you’re buying does not already include a spare card. The good news is that gigabytes’ worth of memory are relatively inexpensive regardless of the card format your camera requires: SD, SDHC, SDXC or, if you’re using a Sony camcorder, Memory Stick PRO.