Buying a Video Camera

Buying a consumer video camera can be a big decision. While many people are satisfied with their cell phone cameras, others are looking for a dedicated option. As you shop for a video camera there are several things you must consider.

Quality of Construction
Although it should be one of your first considerations for a camcorder, quality of construction is often the last thing you'll learn about a camera when you're shopping online, because despite what reviews may say or what salespeople tell you, the only way you can truly ascertain how a camera feels in your hands is when you are actually holding it yourself. I like to narrow my options down to a few different cameras and then go into a physical store to see and feel them myself. Big box stores like Best Buy and Costco often have a number of good consumer-quality cameras out of the box and available for you to handle.

Another store I absolutely adore in the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane area for physically handling photo and video equipment before I buy is Huppin's in Spokane. Their online store is OneCall.com , their main website is Huppins.com and their physical location is 421 W. Main St. Huppin's has really helpful staff and they are typically more-than-willing to let you get a hands-on look at their impressive stock of cameras.

When you physically handle a camera, you'll get a real sense of its weight, how the controls fit your hands and how well the camera seems to fit together. Its specs may look great, but if the controls don't fit your hands or if it feels like it'll fall apart during normal use, you don't want to buy it.

Camera Size
A camera's size has a lot to do with how you'll use it. A heavy, bulky camcorder may not be a fit for your lifestyle. If it feels like a burden to carry around, you'll take it fewer places and get less use out of it. At the same time, smaller cameras come with a variety of drawbacks, often including cheaper construction and lower-quality images. As you pick a camera you'll have to make a decision in balancing those aspects of ownership. Do you want a larger camera that will provide better quality, or do you want a compact camera that is easy to transport?

Larger, heavier cameras are less-susceptible to vibration from being handheld and wind vibrations on a tripod, but they also require sturdier tripods and more effort to haul around and to hold. Smaller cameras will noticeably increase the distracting handheld and wind vibrations in your final video, but they're easier to transport and you can fit them into almost any location for shooting your video.

Sensor Size & Video Resolution
With modern digital video cameras, perhaps the most important aspect is the sensor size. Sensor size is roughly the equivalent of film size from the past. Nowadays it's difficult to find a consumer camcorder with a sensor any larger than a fingernail, which means the pixels are small and tightly packed in order to produce full 1080p resolution. This is known as pixel density. Images are created when light hits the sensor. The larger the sensor and the lower the pixel density, the higher quality image achieved. High-density pixels on a sensor are also more susceptible to failure, creating dead pixels in your final video. This is undesirable, but generally not noticeable to the average viewer unless they are looking for dead pixels or the problem increases as the camcorder ages.

It is generally best to find a camera with the largest sensor size possible for the size of camera body you want.

Since most televisions these days are 1080p, you will generally want to match your camera to that resolution. Many cameras will offer lower resolutions such as 720p or 480p, often with higher frame per second rates, but these settings are generally not used unless you are interested in doing slow-motion effects and care less about the final output resolution of your video.

Lens Size
Lens size and quality is a huge contributing factor to your camcorder's overall video quality. In general, the larger the lens, the higher quality video you will get. Your lens is directly related to the contrast of your video and to how much light is gathered to hit the sensor. A larger lens is by its very nature going to gather more light to transmit to the sensor leading to a truer representation of your subject and less noise in your final video. Again, this favors larger cameras, but smaller consumer cameras are getting better at creating high-quality small lenses and adding robust noise reduction to combat the inherent problems with small lenses.

Optical Zoom & Stabilization
Another important part of choosing your new camcorder is optical zoom. Optical zoom is how far your lens itself can zoom without resorting to digital zoom. It is my opinion that digital zoom is useless. All a digital zoom does is resize pixels, so your resolution on the zoomed image does not increase, pixels are just being doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size leading to a highly-pixelated, low-quality video. If you need to do "digital zoom" you're generally better off just zooming in to the max of your optical and then resizing the video on your computer's editing program later. You'll get the same, if not better quality as doing it internally in the camera. If you intend to do a lot of closeup zooms, find a camera with a high optical zoom.

Optical stabilization is also generally better than digital stabilization. Typically I prefer a combination of both, but if it's a choice between one or the other I would choose optical for the same reasons I prefer optical zoom to digital zoom. Quite simply in most video cameras, an optical stabilization physically adjusts your camera's lens elements according to the motion the camera senses, keeping your video motion as stable as possible despite hand movement and camera shake. A digital stabilization is very effective in removing any remaining jerky motion, but typically relies upon analyzing the motion through software and doing a stabilize and zoom routine that slightly reduces the video quality. Some modern cameras actually have a motion tracking digital stabilization that will analyze the edge pixels and actually recreate edge pixels from other frames of video that show that area, reducing the need for digital zoom and increasing quality with a slight possibility of artifacts at the edges of the final video. Another good option for stabilization that is better than digital stabilization is sensor-shift, which actually moves the camera's sensor itself to adjust for unwanted camera motion. Each option should be looked at as you seek a camcorder according to your preferences.

Recording Media
Prices & transfer speeds listed below are current as of writing this, but technology prices & speeds fluctuate over time and may not remain accurate
Modern cameras use a lot of different memory formats for storing your videos. It is important to take this into consideration when you're buying a new camcorder. If you are looking at a dSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, chances are good that you'll be looking at Compact Flash (CF) cards or Secure Digital (SD) cards. Some will take microSD cards and others will take the proprietary Memory Stick or Memory Stick Duo. Many modern camcorders will also include internal flash memory or allow you to connect an external hard drive for additional capacity.

You need to keep these in mind as you look for a new video camera. If your new camera has 64GB of internal memory, chances are you won't need to use extra cards for most of your video shooting until you go on vacation or otherwise don't have a chance to empty the camera's storage often. However, most people will find themselves in need of buying some sort of memory card.

I try to stay away from proprietary memory such as Sony's Memory Stick. I like having a variety of options when I purchase memory without being tied down to a single brand. Nonetheless, Memory Sticks are generally high-quality and will last awhile, although they are small and brittle. You can generally buy a 32GB Memory Stick Duo for about $80. They feature read speeds up to 50MB/s and write speeds up to 15MB/s, allowing you enough speed to write to the card without fear of the data coming in too quickly for it to record and giving you a fairly quick transfer of video to your computer.

The problem with having brand choice is that the speed and quality of each brand are wildly different, as are the prices. Just as small and brittle as Memory Sticks, SD cards are just as easy to lose track of if you're not careful--especially microSD cards. With SD and microSD cards you can get read speeds as high as 100MB/s, but on some less-expensive models your read speed will be as low as 20MB/s. Some of these cards have write speeds of 10MB/s, which I do not recommend for HD video, however most will have a write speed of 15MB/s or above, which is ample for most consumer HD video recording. A good quality SD card with 32GB of space and balanced 45MB/s read/write speed costs about $45.

Compact Flash cards are becoming more rare on most consumer products, but are still in use for professional dSLRs and similar products. There are good reasons for the pros to use them, and possibly for you as well. CF cards have a very large profile compared to the other memory cards we've talked about so far, being about twice as wide and twice as thick as a standard SD card. CF cards typically use a higher-quality plastic or metal construction that makes them very robust and harder to misplace than smaller cards. CF cards tend to be more reliable and are more backwards-compatible than other forms of memory cards. Current CF cards can write at speeds as high as 145MB/s and read as high as 150MB/s, making transfers very quickly and easily. A good-quality CF card with a read speed of 60MB/s and write speed of 45MB/s will cost around $120. In addition to the higher price, since CF cards are geared toward professionals, it can be slightly harder to find card readers for them, and the card readers often limit the data transfer speeds, so you may find yourself hooking up the camera itself to your computer for transfers more often than with other memory card options.

It's great to have a camera with internal memory, but being able to expand that memory is essential if you ever plan on being away from home for more than a few days. You should choose memory options that fit your budget and are easy to carry along with you.

Brand
Camera brand has a lot to do with both quality and ease of use. For camcorders I have generally defaulted to Sony, because they have great quality prosumer cameras, their controls are kept fairly standard across most of these models and I am able to swap out batteries and other equipment freely between the cameras. Typically once you choose a brand, you stick with it for these kinds of reasons unless there is a very good reason to switch. In my case, I switched to using primarily dSLR video, for which 29k Productions uses professional Canon models.

If you're in the market for a new camcorder, choosing one with similar controls to your old one, or controls you find intuitive is the best plan. You don't want a lot of controls or menus that you have no clue how or why you would ever use them, because that's just confusing and unnecessary. The best way to decide about this is to actually handle the camera itself (see above about where to go hands-on with cameras in-person).

Altogether, the known brands are going to be good choices for your new camcorder. If you stick to brands such as Canon, Panasonic and Sony, you'll generally get a good quality video camera that will last for many years. There are some well-known brand names that are in the modern camcorder market, but I would not recommend having had poor experiences or heard of bad experiences with them. These include General Electric, Kodak and Samsung. While their current lineups may be higher quality than they used to be, the three brands I mentioned first are known for having consistent quality across their camcorder lineups.

File Formats
Several years ago when flash memory cameras were new and camcorders were just then getting fancy processors that could do fairly complex editing and effects, some video camera manufacturers decided that you no longer needed to transfer your videos to the computer for editing, so they began using proprietary file formats that were unreadable by most editing programs, except what was internal to the camera or their proprietary computer editing software. Most have gotten away from that silly concept now, and most modern editing programs have been updated to accept a wider variety of file formats.

Nonetheless, it is still important for you to check the camera and check your editing program of choice to make sure the two will be compatible. There's not much use in capturing a bunch of great video and not being able to do anything with it after that! You don't want to upload unedited video to YouTube! (By that I mean please don't upload unedited video to YouTube ;) )

Wrapping it Up
As you search for your new video camera, you'll find some great online resources to help you make your choice. Online sellers and reviews are a good way to narrow down your search. My personal favorite is the B & H website, BHPhotoVideo.com, which has great search features allowing you to filter cameras by price, brand optical zoom length, sensor size, memory card and more. Another great site and one that has easy-to-find professional and consumer camcorder reviews is cnet.com.

A big part of your video camera purchasing process will be based upon personal preference and how you intend to use the camera. If you have any comments or questions about purchasing your next camcorder, please feel free to ask us on Twitter @29kProductions of visit our Facebook page.

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