The Great American Camcorder Hunt

If you have a semi-recent Mac, you’ve got iMovie. If you’ve got iMovie you have one of the most fun programs ever devised. Of course you’ll never know just how great iMovie is, just how much fun it can be, if you don’t have a digital camcorder. This is because a digital camcorder is the price of admission for iMovie. Having just recently spent a lot of time trying to decide on a camcorder, deciding on the camcorder and then realizing I lack the requisite cash for the camcorder (I’m saving up) I will pass my accumulated knowledge, be it ever so meager, onto all those who wish to sup at Chris Seibold’s big plate of camcorder shopping frustration.

Before we hop into my ill informed opinions about digital video cameras let me say one thing: getting a digital video camera is like getting drunk in college. It doesn’t matter how cheaply you do it, just do it as fast as you can. The point being that even a very cheap digital camcorder is going to be adequate for a whole bunch of fun. So don’t think you should hold out if you’re on a budget, the most important thing is to start filming. Which brings me to another point, screw what everyone says about story boarding and scripting and just start filming. The fun is in editing, this vile piece of garbage and this cliff dweller were done without an ounce of forethought but I had more fun putting them together than a sixteen yet delivering Playboys to a Vaseline factory. If you need to make better movies to impress friends and neighbors, then read some books but don’t kill the fun by being overly serious at first.

That caveat addressed; there are some things to consider when buying a digital video camera. Let us start with things to ignore. The first bit of marketing hype you need to forget is the digital zoom number. My POS camera has a 450x digital zoom and it’s absolutely worthless. Digital zooming works by enlarging the pixels, you don’t need a camera to do that. Focus on the optical zoom, this is a number that matters, your film at 20x optical zoom will be just as pretty as an unzoomed movie. The second thing to forget about is any digital still picture capabilities. If you want to take digital stills, buy a digital still camera. The last, err, feature that’s pretty worthless if you’ve got a Mac are the onboard effects, or effects you can do with just the camera. Face it, you’re not going to be using the fader feature of your camera, you’ll be using iMovie for that kind of stuff.

On to things you should consider Optical versus electronic image stabilization. This really isn’t a huge deal but Optical image stabilization is a little nicer than the electronic version especially when panning. Most consumer cameras use electronic image stabilization but once you’re in the $750 price range you have choices. I would opt for optical stabilization every single time; occasionally electronic image stabilization will make your picture “jump” as the buffer is overfilled. On the other hand, I hardly ever pan so I wouldn’t cough up any extra dough for optical image stabilization. Another factor that is worthy of consideration is the lens. In fact I am going to bet the lens is to the camera what stereo speakers are to a good stereo, the difference maker. At a certain point you won’t be getting Mr. Magoo’s recycled spectacles you’re going to be getting cameras that have some pretty nifty lenses with cool sounding German names. Just how much this matters is, again, up to the end user. If at all possible film a little bit and then play it back through a monitor (not the flip out viewfinder). You’ll get a good idea of how much der ubermarketing lens helps pretty fast.

Well, we’ve got video covered, what about audio? Any camcorder you’re likely to buy is going to have a built in mic and any camera with a built in mic is going to suffer some audio iffiness. The reason that the built mics always pick up some audio nastiness is because they are part of the camera. The motor spins, the vibration carries through the camera and you hear it on your tape. Not a deal killer but also easily avoided. The simple solution is to eschew the built in mic for an external one and here the choices are legion. I recommend a simple boom mic that plugs into the hot shoe on your camera. A nice boom mic is damped so the vibration from the camera is no longer a problem. As previously mentioned, you’ve got many, many other audio options. To make sure you can avail yourself of most of them make sure your camera has a hot shoe and microphone inputs, flexibility is something that’s worth a few extra bucks.

Of course the proceeding was just a very basic idea of what to look for. Camcorders are much more complicated and involved beasts than can be covered in a few hundred words. Still you’ve got a starting point. Finally I suggest you get out there and start making movies. Once you make a couple of short flicks you’ll be sharing my jones for a Canon GL2, Final Cut Pro Express and more stuff to film. Trust me, it’s the most fun you’ll have with your computer without having to give out a credit card number.

Chris Seibold

Leave a Reply