Making Movies: Choosing a Camcorder, Part 2
Camcorders are rather like people, at least in some respects. There are tall ones, short ones, wide ones, thin ones, and ones with odd-looking lumpy bits. There are even ones that come in different colors, although (much like people) the colors don't make much difference to what's inside. And, much like picking a friend, choosing the right camcorder can be a confusing business--but only if you don't know what to look for.
In my last column, I looked at the different media that camcorders can record to, including Recordable DVD, MiniDV, and memory cards. This month I'm looking at the different types of camcorders, and the pros and cons of each.
There are three main styles: palm, or pocket-sized models that fit in the palm of your hand; hand, which are larger and meant to be held in one hand, with a strap; and shoulder, the biggest ones that sit on your shoulder. Each of these types has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Pro: Small, can be held and controlled with one hand.
Con: LCD screens are smaller than those on hand models; lesser-used controls may be difficult to access.
Recommended for: People who value portability and ease of use more than features.
Small, svelte, and shiny palm camcorders elicit admiring glances wherever they go. Models such as the $600 Sony DCR-PC55 or the $800 Canon Optura 500 are small enough to fit into a pocket, but can do pretty much everything that their larger brethren can. They are also light: Most weigh less than 10 ounces.
But there's a downside: The smaller designs allow for only a small LCD screen, typically 2.5 inches or less on the diagonal. The devices can hold a limited number of buttons, so while you can operate the basic controls with the thumb and fingers of the hand holding the camcorder, infrequently used features tend to be hidden away in on-screen menus or on buttons on the left side that require using the other hand. While this might not be a problem for most people, it can be annoying if you frequently change settings such as the shooting mode (for going from outdoors to indoors, for instance) and you need to dip into an on-screen menu to do it.
Palm models also tend to have a smaller zoom range than the larger ones: They typically have a maximum optical zoom of 10X, while hand-style models can go up to 20X.
Also, while these very small camcorders are well suited for people with small hands, they can be uncomfortable for those with larger hands, who often find their fingers sitting over the microphone on the top. The microphone can be a problem too: If it is located on the top of the case, it can pick up the voice of the user, drowning out the sounds that you really want to record.
Pro: Still smallish, but LCD screens are larger than those of palm models; more comfortable for people with larger hands.
Con: Heavier and bulkier than palm models.
Recommended for: Those who want more control or a bigger screen and don't mind a slightly larger and heavier camcorder.
The great majority of the camcorders that you'll see on the market fall into this category, Models such as the $370 Sony HC21 or the $460 JVC GR-DF550 are bigger than the palm models, but still small enough to fit into one hand. Generally speaking, they use a strap that fits around the hand to secure the camera--a nice touch if you're videoing a roller coaster ride and don't want to drop several hundred dollars worth of equipment when you start plummeting down.
There are usually a couple of buttons under the thumb, for recording and zoom. You can operate the basic controls of the camera with one hand, although you may need the other hand to access menus and change videotapes.
Hand-style camcorders also generally have big, bright LCD screens. Some come with 3-inch or bigger screens for playing back the action or showing off the still images that many of them allow you to capture. Although the weight of individual models varies, they typically run between 10 and 20 ounces--light enough to carry around for an extended period of time.
There are a large range of designs within this category, so it is important to try them and see how they feel. Though the larger size of these camcorders is an advantage, it can also be a problem: You'll need to buy a proper camcorder case to carry this type of model--unless you have very large pockets. You can tote a hand-style camcorder on a strap around your neck, but this makes you look like a tourist and makes a tempting target for thieves.
Pro: Best video quality; more expandable than other models.
Con: Heavy; can be awkward to use; expensive.
Recommended for: Professional and serious videographers and those who want ultimate control of the recorded video.
You might not see shoulder-mounted cameras such as the Canon XL2 at your local electronics store, but they are worth considering if you are serious about video. These camcorders give you much more control over the process of recording video, allowing you to tweak the video in a number of ways that aren't possible with smaller camcorders. They are also far more expandable: For example, the XL2 has interchangeable lenses and can record from professional microphones.
But this flexibility has a price: Shoulder-mounted camcorders are heavier and bulkier than palm or hand models. But putting the camcorder on your shoulder makes it much more comfortable for shooting for longer periods and helps produce steadier video.
Speaking of price, however, these models ain't cheap: The XL2 goes for around $3500, with extra lenses costing upwards of $1300. But if you're working on a serious project (or someone else is paying the bill), a professional shoulder-mounted camera might be a much better investment than a cheaper one. Canon also offers a $500 adapter that lets you use lenses designed for Canon SLR still cameras--a huge bonus if you want to use a long zoom and already have one for your Canon digital SLR.
Now you're ready to put your newfound expertise to the test. Go into a store that offers a decent selection of camcorders and try several models. See how they fit into your hand and how easily you can reach the buttons. Think about the features that you want and need, and about the recording format that you like. Decide which camcorder is right for you--then buy it.
Congratulations, you're a winner! You've just joined the honorable ranks of Making Movies Camcorder Choosers--the select few who have a camcorder that's right for them. Now if only friends were that easy to choose...