Guide to Buying a Camcorder

by : Andrew Gates

Today's camcorder market is full of new brands and changing technology, with products moving towards greater compactness and more 'cross-platform' features. Choosing the right camcorder for you need not be a daunting task provided you take the time to answer some basic questions about yourself and the technology. You can search for exactly the right product, all the way from brand through model number and vendor right here at It will take a lot of pressure off you.


What kind of camcorder user are you?

At the outset, you need to think a little about why you are buying a camcorder. There are essentially six loosely defined categories:

1) the traveller, buying a camcorder to record travel experiences;

2) the family, usually with young children or soon to be, wanting to record family lifestyle experiences as the children grow up;

3) the grandparent or retiree, often with a little time to look at the world through the lens and capture moments of life that would otherwise slip by;

4) the technophobe, a person with a genuine interest in finding the best bit of gear to make movies and record things of importance;

5) the artist, similar to the technophobe, but has a deeper interest in the pictures and less interest in the technical specification, usually wanting to make movies and document items of interest;

6) the educator or student, maybe a school or classroom teacher, or student with an interest in multimedia. We can add a seventh category: that of the "I just want one" brigade who has no real underlying purpose for the purchase.

Once you have some idea of which category your purchase might fall into, then you have some way of being guided through the maze of choices. There are possibly five basic judgements you need to make about the camcorder you want to buy.

1) How comfortable it is in your hand? Remember, if you're a traveller, you will want to lug your camcorder wherever you go. The last thing you want is a lead weight that makes your hand tired before you've even squeezed the trigger.

2) How easy is it to use? You need to be able to easily understand the basic functions of the camera and reach the controls as you need them.

3) Similar to 3 above, how convenient it is to playback your footage and copy it onto another storage medium.

4) What is the picture quality like? Naturally some picture quality is sacrificed for lower prices and added features in some of the range. But at the end of the day, you really want the best picture quality you can get for the money you are willing to spend. After all, it is picture quality-subjective though it is-that you will judge the camera on in years to come.

5) How much you are prepared to spend. Your purchase decision needs to be balanced between the features and accessories you want in your camcorder and the amount of funds you have available.

The technology

The latest digital video cameras make shooting and editing as easy as falling off the back of a truck, and can help you along the way to winning the grand Funniest Home Video prize. Coupling your digital camcorders with video-editing programs on your computer means you can edit, add visual effects, create titles, add sound effects and play it back at different speeds.

Most digital camcorders use videotape, the most common being a format called MiniDV making it easy to edit it on a computer and output your finished movie to tape, Video CD or DVD. All you need along with your digital camcorder is a FireWire interface on your PC, and a video-editing program.

Some camcorders now use flash media memory cards or sticks to store video, which allows for a smaller camera than digital tape types, but at the expense of lower video quality and smaller storage (although this is quickly changing.) There are two big advantages with the memory stick cameras: one is their portability, especially for travellers, and the other is the small size and easy 'plug-in' accessibility of the storage media.

There are also camcorders that record directly onto mini DVD discs, which you can then play it back in your DVD player. These cameras use an 8-centimeter recordable DVD discs that can hold up to an hour of video, and record a good quality image. One drawback, however is that the discs have to be 'finalised' by the camera before they can be used in a DVD player. However, there are constantly changing standards in disc technology, and it is worthwhile looking at any new developments in this media.

Main Features

Battery: Power consumption varies from camcorder to camcorder. Although it stands to reason that a camera recording to memory stick will have a longer battery life than one recording to DVD or MiniDV tape. However recording and playback time runs out a lot faster than you expect. There are a different ways to address this issue. In many instances you can buy batteries that provider a longer discharge life than the original one that comes with the camera. Ordinarily a camcorder has its battery at the back of the body in an indented housing that has no cover or door, enabling a larger battery (extended life) to fit. A camcorder with room for an expandable battery will give you plenty of recording time while you're still learning.

Screen: One feature commonly espoused by the camera manufacturers is the size of the LCD screen. The bigger it is, the more you can see what you're recording and what you've captured. But the bigger it is, the more battery power it requires too. Also, some LCD screens are not very effective in bright sunlight, and that's one place you will likely be using your camcorder often. Having a viewfinder as well as an LCD screen is a useful option, enabling you to see what you are recording when seeing the screen in bright light is difficult and saving battery power.

Lens: Camcorders come with a zoom lens allowing you to shoot close-up images of distant subjects. Like digital cameras, there is a distinction between digital (zoom) and optical (telephoto) lens capability. A digital zoom enlarges part of the image to fill the screen, whereas optical zoom is the telephoto capacity of the lens itself. The difference is in the final images. Images with high levels of digital zoom can be grainy and lack definition because only a part of the image that is captured through the lens is recorded. With optical zoom, the full image that passes through the lens is captured. Consequently a higher optical zoom is desirable.

Sound capture. Camcorders usually have a front-mounted microphone. Those with a microphone located below the lens, or at the bottom of the front housing usually produce a better sound capture than those with a microphone mounted on top of the camera. Some camcorders have zoom or highly directional microphones that can zoom into the subject when the zoom lens is used. If you are frequently filming in difficult auditory environments or want to capture 'news style' content, it is best to have a socket for using an external microphone.

Stills: Most digital camcorders allow you to take still images and save them to a memory card. However they rarely offer the same level of control or quality as dedicated digital still cameras.

Controls: Comfort and control go somewhat hand-in-hand. Be sure that the camera you choose is comfortable in your hand and that the important controls are easy to access with your fingers while your eye is glued to the viewfinder. Confusing layouts and labels on much current technology conditions many of us to accept automatic functions and controls. But sometimes the automatic settings simply don't cut it with the conditions in which we're filming. Check out how much of the camera's functionality can be turned 'manual'. You should be able to, for example, make a manual 'white balance,' control the aperture on the lens to adjust the amount of light that is let in, and possibly digitally adjust the gain of the captured image.

Low light functions: Choosing a camcorder that has the ability to film in very dull light may be important, especially if you want to shoot at night or indoors. A special slow shutter mode helped by an infrared light can make filming in ambient lighting very effective, as can built-in illumination from one or more LEDs.


Some accessories are necessary for you to have success with your camcorder. You might consider the type of carry case, with good pockets to house additional batteries; storage media lens cleaners and so on. You should consider additional battery power, preferably one with an extended life. You may want to consider a tripod, additional lenses, and a camera-mounted light. You will certainly need storage media for which system you choose. You can check out the full range of accessories for any brand or model by searching our database at