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CassBeth Buying Guide

Camcorders

A camcorder is a great way to document the important and fun events in your life. Besides heartwarming birthday, wedding, and party videos, you can create your own quirky films, make documentaries of family, friends, and places, and share your videos with others. Today's camcorders are a thousand times removed from the big, clunky VHS machines of a decade ago. Modern camcorders are slim, compact machines with powerful zoom, image stabilization, special effects, and bright viewscreens. You'll find most camcorders to be extraordinarily portable and easy to use.

Choosing a camcorder can be confusing, especially with the proliferation of multiple recording formats. The days of the VHS monopoly are long gone now you can choose between VHS-C, 8mm, Hi8, and even digital formats. Camcorders also come with a wide array of options and features.

Formats

When you're choosing a camcorder, the most important decision will be which format you want. Camcorders don't all use the same recording media, and which format you choose will affect how you play back your tapes, the quality of your video and audio, and the quality of your copies.

VHS Tape

VHS camcorders use the same kind of tapes that your VCR plays. When camcorders originally came out, they all used VHS tapes, but over the years, new formats have entered the market. VHS tape has the advantages of being cheap and easy to findand most importantly, you can play back VHS tapes in any modern VCR. This is an important consideration if you want to make first-generation tapes for others or you want to take your tapes to other people's houses without lugging the camcorder with you. The VHS format lags when it comes to quality, howeverwith a maximum resolution lines and adequate but not stellar audio, VHS tape isn't a good choice if you're doing semi-professional work or making a lot of copies.

VHS


You can still get camcorders that use normal-sized VHS tapes, but they tend to be much bigger and bulkier. They do have the advantage of using longer tapestwo hour standard play (SP) recording time, as opposed to 30 minutes for VHS-C.

VHS-C


VHS-C camcorders use normal VHS tape in a smaller cassette. They tend to be compact and lightweight. VHS-C is a popular format because it's easy to play back the camcorders usually come with a VHS-tape-shaped adapter that lets you play the VHS-C tape in any VCR.

SVHS


Super VHS, or SVHS, is a higher-quality version of VHS that offers 400-line resolution and better audio. SVHS tapes are the same size as normal VHS tapes, and you can use normal VHS tapes in SVHS camcorders (but without the quality advantages). SVHS camcorders are mainly targeted towards professionals; they tend to be pricey and large.

8mm tape

8mm tape is smaller than VHS tape, allowing 8mm camcorders to be more compact and lightweight. It does have the drawback that you can't play it in a normal VCR. Most often, you'll have to hook your camcorder to your TV for playback.

8mm


Normal 8mm tapes have the same resolution as VHS240-270 linesbut pack more tape into a smaller package. You can record up to five hours in SP mode on an 8mm tape.

Hi8


Hi8 is a higher-quality version mm, much like SVHS is a better version of VHS. The Hi8 format offers the best quality you can get without going digital, and is small and lightweight. It is more expensive than VHS or normal 8mm in terms of both camcorders and tapes, but you'll see and hear the difference.

Digital formats

The digital revolution has finally reached the camcorder market manufacturers are now offering a new generation of digital camcorders. The digital format has a host of advantages. For starters, video quality is very high, at 500 lines of resolution. Color richness and accuracy is much improved as well, since digital records across a wide color spectrum. In terms of sound, the digital format can record 16-bit CD-quality audio, and most digital camcorders also let you record 12-bit audio in two channels for layered soundtracks. One of the biggest advantages to the digital format is that it lets you make digital copies with no loss of quality, unlike any of the other formats. While you will experience a loss of quality if you copy to a VHS or 8mm tape, it will be comparatively small since the original image is so high-quality. Digital camcorders allow you to take digital still shots as well, essentially giving you a digital camera as a bonus. The biggest misunderstanding about digital, however, is that you can simply plug your digital camcorder into your computer and download your videos. While you can do this with digital still cameras, video is a different matter. You can certainly download and edit your digital video, but you have to purchase a separate video capture card first. And you should be aware that digital video takes huge amounts of storage space. That's why digital camcorders still use tapes (more storage space) rather than memory chips or cards.

MiniDV


The most popular digital format uses Mini Digital Video, or MiniDV, tapes. These tapes are smaller than 8mm tapes, and record several hours of video.

Digital 8mm


Some camcorders offer a newer digital media formatthey record digital information on 8mm tapes. These camcorders have the advantage of being able to play back your old 8mm or Hi8 tapes, but they're a bit bigger and heavier than MiniDV camcorders.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder of the camcorder lets you in on the actionit shows you what you're recording. Modern viewfinders will show you when you're zooming in on a subject or using a special effect. Camcorders come with three different kinds of viewfinders Black and white eyepiece Lower-end camcorders use an eyepiece with a black and white display, which is adequate for many recording situations. Color eyepiece Better camcorders offer a color display eyepiece, which gives you a better feel for what you're recording. It's also important for recording with special effects like solarization, sepia, and negative image. LCD viewfinder Many top-of-the-line camcorders now offer large LCD screens, which can range from two to four inches. LCD screens let you see what you're recording without peering into an eyepiece. They're helpful for recording while moving around (so you can see where you're going) and for getting a better idea of what you're shooting. Many LCD screens are built to swivelsome over 180 degreesso you can record while holding the camera above your head or put yourself in the picture. The only disadvantage to LCD screens is they take more power, which slightly lessens battery life. Some camcorders have both LCD and eyepiece viewfinders.

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Zoom

and 300 times. While these high-powered zooms are useful in some situations, the image they produce at high magnifications can be degraded, since they basically enlarge the same set of pixels without adding detail.

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Power source

Most camcorders run on a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery, which lasts one to two hours. They usually include a recharger (which often acts as the AC adapter as well) or the camcorder itself can recharge the batteries. Camcorders also come with an AC adapter, handy for limited-range indoor recording and for playback. Some models also have car adapters you can purchase separately.

VCR capability

For all but VHS and VHS-C camcorders, playback capability is essential, since you'd need a special kind of player to play back 8mm and digital video. Fortunately, all consumer camcorders also function as VCRs for their own format, so you can hook them up to a TV and play back your tapes. Most camcorders include the basic VCR functions (fast forward, rewind); many of them have added search features and come with compact remote controls (also useful for remote recording).

Light

While most camcorders do a good job of recording in low-light conditions (inside a house, overcast days), you will encounter situations where the available light isn't enough to get a good image. Many camcorders come with a light built in for these situationsmost often, the light can be set to automatically come on when the natural lighting is too low. Some camcorders also have connections for snap-on external lights.

Image stabilization

Many camcorders have a handy feature called image stabilization that helps correct for camera shake. Recording while walking, using a powerful zoom, or recording a fast-moving subject all can lead to shaky images that make viewers dizzy. Image stabilization detects camera shake and helps steady the image. You can get electronic, digital, or optical image stabilization. Electronic image stabilization adjusts electronically for shaking, while digital image stabilization also senses when you pan or tilt the camera and doesn't overcompensate. Optical image stabilization uses a set of lenses to adjust for unwanted motion; usually only high-end or professional camcorders use optical image stabilization because it is expensive and can add to the bulk and weight.

Microphone

Most camcorders have a built-in microphone; often the microphone is recessed to decrease wind noise. These built-in microphones are usually more than adequate for home recording needs, but if you're doing a lot of semi-professional recording, many higher-end camcorders also provide connection capability for a separate external microphone.

Exposure modes

Camcorders usually automatically sense the correct exposure during the recording; some also have special settings you can use in certain situations. These can include backlight compensation (for dark subjects against bright backgrounds), fast shutter speed (for sports or other fast-action events), and other exposure modes that compensate for glare, low lighting, spot lighting, dusk, and night lighting. Many also include the option to manually adjust the exposure and focus.

Special effects

Many camcorders now offer special effects that could once be done only by a professional with expensive editing equipment. Some let you fade out at the end of a scene (and fade back in at the beginning). Some give you a whole range of fade options, including fade to black, white, or another color choice; wipe the screen; close and open on the screen like a shutter; fade to a blurred mosaic, and more. Some camcorders also let you record in special video modes, including effects such as sepia, black and white, negative, and solarized (an effect that makes everything look a bit like an oil painting). Some also let you shoot in strobe mode for an artistic-looking slow-motion image. Special effects can be a lot of fun. Although they probably won't comprise the bulk of your shooting, they're useful in many situations.

Still image capability

Many camcorders now offer the ability to take still images on the same tape as video. Some let you record audio with the image. These "photos" remain on the tape and can't be printed like real photos, but they're still fun. All digital camcorders function as digital cameras as well, letting you take a large number of still shots on the tape. These still shots can be downloaded, edited, and printed from a PC. A few analog (VHS-C and 8mm) camcorders have added a digital camera feature they use a separate memory card to hold digital pictures, making it easy for you to download and edit them.

Motion or audio sensing

A few camcorders also offer security recording they use a motion or audio detector to trigger recording.

range

Camcorders usually range from about $400 to $1200 in price, with a few sale low-end models reaching $300 and a few high-end consumer models hitting $1500. Basic VHS-C and 8mm camcorders are generally the least expensive, running between $300 and $500, although higher-end models in these formats (especially VHS-C) can offer advanced features in the $600 to $800 price range. Hi8 camcorders tend to be a little more expensive, ranging from $500 to about $700. Digital camcorders are at the high end of the price range, starting at about $800 for a low-end model and climbing above $1,000 for more feature-rich machines.


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