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How to choose a video camera or camcorder

The most important specifications

Standard full size VHS camcorder
  • Tape format. VHS is by far the most common video format in use today and the automatic choice for most users. S-VHS (or "Super VHS"), however, offers a better original by separating the chrominance (color) and luminance (detail) signals. This separation eliminates crosstalk between the signals, resulting in higher resolution and greatly reduced loss of detail in the tape copying necessary to editing. VHS-C offers VHS compatibility using a smaller cassette. The VHS-C tape is identical to VHS tape but to it in a regular VHS deck you need to use a special adapter. VHS-C is rarely available in professional camcorders because smaller tapes result in only 30 minutes of recording time in SP mode. Video 8 offers quality similar to VHS in a much smaller cassette; Hi-8 is the 8 mm. equivalent to S-VHS. DV is a new digital format which eliminates generational loss during tape copying.

    While different format tapes will not interchange from machine to machine, it is easy to dub from one format to another. Thus, even if you’re standardized on VHS players, it might make sense to buy an S-VHS or Video-8 camcorder. However, there will be some loss in picture quality in the duplication process. This is one advantage of using the VHS-C format for home users, no duplication is needed.

  • Hi-fi audio is a recording format where stereo audio signals are recorded using high speed rotary audio heads similar to the way video is recorded. Normal linear audio tracks are recorded with stationary heads as the slow moving video tape goes by. In general, the faster the tape moves past the recording heads, the better the sound reproduction. In fact, hi-fi audio recording produces sound quality close to audio CDs and, in fact, well into the specification ranges used for professional audio recording equipment.
  • Resolution measures the amount of detail that your equipment can capture, and thus is a good clue to the quality of the image you’ll get on your tape. In a camcorder, resolution is limited by the video recording method. Thus you’ll note much higher resolutions for S-Video and DV units than for VHS and Video 8.
  • Signal to noise ratio measures the intensity of the video or audio signal versus background noise. A ratio of 58 dB, for example, means there are 58 decibels of signal for every decibel of noise. Higher ratios mean a cleaner signal.
  • Audio frequency response measures the range of tones that your equipment is able to reproduce. How important this measure is depends on the audio you record and the care with which you record it. If you’re taping concerts, a unit that will handle 20,000 Hz high tones will make a difference to many audience members (though most will not be able to hear above 15,000) If you’re recording people talking, however, you should know that most voices span a range of only 200 - 2,000 Hz.
  • Minimum illumination is touted in camcorder specs, but these figures should be taken with a grain of salt. The best video always requires a lot of light, and since most people will shoot under lighting much better than the minimum, the real question is how good the unit looks at typical levels–and that’s not related to the stated minimum.
  • Size and weight. A consideration if you plan to travel with your camcorder, but not a big concern for most people, once you get below five or six pounds. Small palm held camcorders seem like a great idea but they are more tiring to hold and promote picture jitter when not on a tripod since they cannot be supported by your shoulder. Also, keep in mind that a lighter unit means a lighter weight frame that will withstand less abuse. Small palm variety camcorders will almost never survive being dropped even a few feet, whereas larger camcorders usually sustain very little damage from a similar drop.

Useful features
How you plan to use your camera is critical to what you buy, since there is a wide variation in the features you’ll find from one model to another.

  • Editing capability can be a major money saver, since it can save you from buying a dedicated VCR for an editing system. Although the editing capabilities of a camcorder are rudimentary, they may be sufficient for very infrequent use.
  • A high speed shutter can be very helpful for coaches and others who will analyze moving subjects. A shutterless camera will record motion as a blur, resulting in blurred slow motion playback or still frames, no matter how good the playback deck. A camera with a shutter, however, will record crisp individual frames.
  • Digital image stabilization smoothes out jitters due to movements of the camera operator. This feature is only helpful on camcorders that are too small to support with your shoulder.
  • A long-life battery can be helpful, depending on how you’ll use your camcorder. No one likes to shut down to change batteries in the middle of a meeting or performance.
  • Digital special effects can be very impressive, though they are missing from the better units, since the manufacturers assume any effects will be added during editing. This is true also of audio dub and fade in and fade out: nice, but easier to do with a digital a/v mixer.
  • Time code and genlock capability are features of use to those buying cameras for professional systems use, and beyond the range of this guide.

    A word about recording speeds: home users often want to record several hours of video on a single tape, but for educational and professional users, it’s false economy, considering the low cost of tape and the high cost of your time. Thus professional camcorders don’t even offer the option of EP recording, and they boost quality with single-speed heads.

    Beyond the specifications
    Reliability is a critical factor in camcorder selection. These systems have a large number of moving parts, all packed into a very small space. Repairs tend to be expensive, and for that reason alone, a professional-quality camcorder makes a good investment.


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