The not so Great American Camcorder Hunt

After writing and accidentally publishing The Great American Camcorder Hunt I received some well earned criticism. One problem: I didn’t recommend any particular camera. I intend to rectify that oversight shortly. First let me recap the features I am looking for:
Optical image stabilization
An accessory shoe so I can get rid of that awful camcorder hum with a damped boom mic
Low price (hey why spend money if you don’t have to?)
A nice lens
Plenty of manual controls
That being said the things I absolutely don’t care about:
Size of the LCD screen
Still picture capability (I already have a digital camera)
Effects that can be applied via the camera

You’ll note that I don’t cover the video quality of the cameras. That’s because video quality is a pretty subjective thing, go with what you like. I am happy with the video quality of my DCR-TRV 120 but I am sure others would find video made on the camera painful to view. One not so important thing to remember: It doesn’t really matter how many mega pixels the sensor (CCD) is, you’ll max out at about 690,000 pixels on the tape.

I can’t possibly cover every single camcorder in production but I can run through the ones at the Apple Store. A quick money saving note: don’t get your camera from the Apple store, you can find them cheaper elsewhere sometimes saving hundreds of dollars.

Heck let’s do it from cheapest to most expensive. First some things all the cameras have: auto focus, zoom lens (at least 10X), and a built in mic.

The cheapest Video Camera is the JVC GR-DV 30US which clocks in at a mere $399.00 (cheaper elsewhere)
The Good: Cheap, no extra features you won’t need, 520 lines of resolution, 16X optical zoom
The Bad: No accessory shoe, electronic image stabilization, no microphone jack.
The over rated numbers: Numbers are hard to come by for JVC camcorders and even if they were easy to come by this camera has no microphone jack. Unless you’re giving this as a gift to someone you don’t like, don’t buy it.

Next up: The Canon ZR-60. I have heard good and bad things about low end Canons. I have heard that the internal microphone is nearly useless and I have also heard that Canons and iMovie go together like peas and carrots. In any event here’s what you get for your 5 c-notes:
The Good: 18X optical zoom, low price
The Bad: Electronic image stabilization, no accessory shoe capability,
The over rated numbers: 1/6 in CCD, F/1.6, effective pixels (tape): 340,000
(Important note: If stereo in is an important feature yo you double check this camera, I have heard reports that the mic in port is mono only though Canon’s website seems to indicate otherwise)

Another JVC camera the $599 GR-DV 90US. This is a prime example of paying for things you don’t need. You do get a slightly larger display but what you’re really paying for is the worthless SD/MMC memory slot so you can take bad digital picture’s. Basically this is the same camera as the 30US. And if you shouldn’t buy a 30US for $399 you really shouldn’t waste dough on this camera.

Also checking in at $599 is our first Sony, the DCR TRV 19.
The good: German sounding lens, advanced HAD CCD, accessory shoe
The Bad: electronic image stabilization, lower zoom than competitors, touch panel LCD display, no manual focus ring
The over rated numbers: 1/4 in CCD, F/1.6, effective pixels (tape): 340,000

Jumping in at $699 is the Canon ZR 70. I say don’t buy it, it’s a ZR 60 with the annoying SD/MMC slot. You already have a digital camera, so save some cash and get the ZR 60. Wow, you saved a hundred bucks!
The over rated numbers: 1/6 in CCD, F/1.6, effective pixels (tape): 340,000

Sony DCR-TRV22. Another poseur, here you’re getting all the grooviness that is the DCR TRV 19 but with a higher price tag. The extra cost is for the stuff you won’t use. All I can say is get the DCR TRV 19.

Checking in at $799.00 is the JVC GRDV800. Will this be the first acceptable JVC? Answer=Yes
The Good: Accessory Shoe, Mic in ports
The bad: Electronic image stabilization, color viewfinder
The over rated numbers: 1/4 inch CCD, F/1.8

We have two entries at the $899 price point:
First the Sony DCR TRV 38
The good: the first Sony with a manual focus ring (my bottom line sony has one, wonder why they dropped it?), German sounding lens
the bad: electronic image stabilization, touch panel focusing
The over rated numbers: 1/4.7″ CCD, Effective sensor resolution (tape): 690,000

Canon Checks in with a near winner: Optura 20
The good: 16x zoom, accessory shoe, progressive scan
The bad: electrical image stabilization, color viewfinder
The over rated numbers:1/4 inch CCD, Effective sensor resolution (tape) 690,000 pixels, F/1.8
(Personal Tip: Get the Optura 10. it’s cheaper and just as nifty)

Wow we’re suddenly up to thirteen hundred bucks! My gosh you better be getting a lot of camera here!

The $1300 dollar entry is Canon’s 200 MC. Gotta say I’d by the Optura 20. See the camera is pretty cool but no advanced accessory shoe. No shoe means: no cool boom mic or clip on light.
The good: Optical image stabilization, high resolution, low power video light
The bad: No accessory shoe, color viewfinder
The over rated numbers: 1/4 inch single CCD, Effective sensor resolution(tape) 690,000 pixels,F/1.8-2.1

Well we’re to a full grand and a half. At this point I would expect a bunch-o-camera.

Well if you have $1500 Sony will gladly relieve you of the burdensome cash and replace it with a DCR-TRV80.
The Good: Carl Zeiss Lens, plenty of control
The Bad: Electronic image stabilization, color viewfinder, bluetooth*
The over rated numbers: Single1/3.6 CCD, Effective sensor resolution for video (tape): 690,000, F/1.8

We now take a quantum jump in price, our next camera clocks in at a whopping suggested retail of $2799.00 (ouch!) What maker has the audacity to actually expect someone to pay so much for a camera? Canon. And what do they call this worth it’s weight in gold model? The GL2.
The Good: 3 CCD, Fluorite lens, optical image stabilization, 20X zoom, a wealth of controls
The Bad: Have you seen how much this thing costs??? Color viewfinder
The over related numbers: 3 CCD 1/4 inch, Effective sensor resolution for video: .38 megapixels, F/1.6

I’m not going to cover the Canon XL1S, if you’re thinking about buying this camera you know way more about cameras than I do.

Well, that’s a load of info. Some other key points: The Sony cameras all work off touch sensitive screens. This is problematic for a couple of reasons: First when the screen is on you’re wasting battery life and secondly if you’re in bright sunlight that screen can be very hard to see.

Some other issues to be aware of: Many of these camcorders are bottom loading. This isn’t a problem for me because I never film more than a fraction of one tape. Hence I didn’t take it into account, but if you’re filming something really long you will be peeved when you have to remove the camcorder from the tripod to change tapes. I also didn’t take into account the size of the flip out screen. A larger screen is more gimmickry than necessity. The LCD screens give you a rough idea of the shot but don’t rely on them too much (the XL1s doesn’t have a flip screen so you know the pros don’t use one). I suggest using the eyepiece, it’s much more precise and you’ll get a much better idea of what’s going on. Which segues nicely to: Why color viewfinders suck. One the best and easiest ways to check the contrast and color of your film is to look at it in black and white. You’re seeing the scene in color so a B&W viewfinder gives you an added perspective.

Onto general buying advice: Take your computer with you. Import some footage and watch it. You won’t notice the camcorder hum if you watch what you shot on the LCD (cause the camera will be running) but you’ll hear it on your computer. This will also give a good idea of video quality instead of LCD quality. Film a variety of light levels so you can get an idea of the cameras automatic adjustments. Before you give a camera low marks for performance in less than well lit situations remember that you can manually adjust some settings and probably get somewhat better results. Finally pick the camera that suits your shooting needs. If you’re not going to be shooting feature films (or mocking them) you probably don’t require the 16 by 9 aspect ratio.If you’re not filming cathode ray tubes at least one of the GL2’s features will be of little value. Spend some time thinking about what you intend to do and then purchase the camera that fits your needs and budget. One final tip: You’ll be happier if you get a camera that’s a hundred dollars less than the one you think you want and spend the money you saved on some lighting at your local Home Depot.

My top choice: Canon Optura 10 or Sony DCR TRV 38. These are nice mid range cameras which have all the features most folks would require with the notable exception of optical image stabilization. To get optical image stabilization AND get the must have shoe you’ll have to pony two grand for a GL2. I like optical image stabilization but I don’t like it eleven hundred dollars worth.

* bluetooth is possibly the silliest thing to ever grace a digital video camera, yep you can print stills or check your e-mail if you’re close to another bluetooth device but are do you really want to check your e-mail with your video camera?

Chris Seibold

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