How to buy a Camcorder

I recently bought a Sony DCR DVD 403 camcorder. I had to do a lot of research before buying the camcorder. There are just so many models and so many features that I was very confused. This post is just to make the task easy for others who are interested in buying one.

We can classify camcorders by type of media they store on
  • Tape Camcorders: These use tape as media to store images. There are many types of tape available like Mini-DV, Hi-8, Digital-8, Micro-DV, VHS. The only tape camcorders I would recommend are Mini-DV. The reason is size VHS, Hi-8 and Digital-8 camcorders are large. Micro-DV is failed technology although the camcorders are very small. More over finding Micro-DV tapes is difficult
  • Tapeless Camcorders: They use media other then tape to store images. DVD, Flash memory, Hard disk are some of the media used. Flash memory is not very large and Harddisk one's though promising are very new. So I prefer only DVD.
So for rest of the discussion we will only consider Mini-Dv and DVD camcorders.

Camcorder advertise various features like: Size, Number of pixels of CCD, Optical zoom, digital zoom, Number of CCD, Low light picture quality, Image stabilization, Infrared recording, size of CCD, number and type of port, connectivity, battery life, touch screen....... and the list goes on.

I will try to explain these features. But before explaining what do various features mean I would like to explain what is CCD.

CCD means Charged Coupled Device. It is like a eye of camcorder or you can think of CCD like film of Camera. Better the CCD is better are the result of camcorder. The CCD quality depends on many factors but the two important ones are Size and Number of Pixels on it.

Following are the few features which can or should be considered before buying a camcorder.

Number of Pixels: This is one of the features that is often highlighted by companies. They would list 1 megapixel or 2 megapixel or 3 megapixel. Generally speaking more the number of pixels the better is the image quality.

Size of the CCD: On one hand most companies highlight megapixels of CCD but they don't generally highlight the size of CCD. Generally speaking the bigger the CCD the better is image quality as this reduces noise in the image. If two camcorders have same megapixel the one with bigger CCD would produce better images. This factor is mostly over looked by most users.

Number of CCD: Professional camcorders have 3 CCD one for each primary color. In general 3 CCD camcorders perform better then single CCD ones. Camcorders with 3 CCD will advertise this as one of their main features.

Image stabilization: Image stabilization means that camcorder would try to eliminate camcorder shake( hand shake) by employing digital or optical method. Generally speaking optical stabilization is better then digital one. Although I have seen that some camcorders performing badly even after optical image stabilization and some camcorders with digital stabilization doing much better. Even if you have very good quality CCD with high resolution if image stabilization is bad it will ruin the entire show. Normally camcorders highlight this feature with emphasis if they have optical. I would suggest you to try camcorders first and not go by definition to see if the optical stabilization advertized really works.

Low Light photography and Infrared mode: I am covering these two under one heading as both are meant to do video recording in lowlight and no light situation. Only Sony camcorders have infrared mode where they can do recording in no light or Zero lux. Low Light recording is done by slowing down the shutter speed. The picture would appear hazy when this is done. Camcorder would mentions their lux rating where lower lux means better it is. I would suggest not to go by that number but try it yourself. Another thing to note here the CCD size comes in handy here as bigger CCD means better low light performance.

Zoom: Zoom can be optical and digital. Digital Zoom is useless. I would even suggest to ignore that number. More the Optical zoom the better it is.

Ports and connectivity: This means what all ways can camcorder be connected to other devices for downloading images. It can be firewire, USB, Bluetooth. I normally don't pay a lot of attention to this but it should have at least USB. I don't even consider Bluetooth as factor.

Battery life: This is one of the features that are not advertised but as user it is very important for us. How long will the battery that ships with camcorder last. Most camcorders don't advertise this. The battery that comes along is usually not very good in some cases would not last 45 minutes. So If you are buying such a camcorder add cost of additional battery to cost of camcorder.

Still Picture Resolution and Still Media: Most camcorders can also take still pictures but for a still picture of decent quality it should be atleast 3 megapixel. If you want to take only one device checkout on this feature as well. Additionally if you already have digital camera you can reduce your cost by selecting a camcorder which records still pictures on same kind of memory. Some Mini DV camcorders can take pictures on tape as well. Mini DVD camcorders might also take pictures and store them to DVD. Having such features reduces cost. If the camcorder you like is not of such type add cost of media also.

What did I look for?

I already had very good digital camera so I wanted to buy good camcorder. Features I looked for were
  • CCD Resolution
  • CCD Size
  • Image stabilization
  • Low light performance and ability to shoot in 0 lux
  • Size and Weight
  • Battery life of shipped battery

Optical zoom was not a problem as most camcorders have minimum 10x

I found all this in Sony DVD DCR -403. In addition to above I also got

  • Records still picture at 3 Megapixel on DVD
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 channel Audio Recording (This is great feature)
As the Media is DVD I am also able to directly put in DVD player or laptop to play it.

One final thing, add all costs to cost of camcorder to know actual cost and don't forget to buy a very good camcorder bag to protect it.

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