Camcorders buying guide

 

Digital camcorders make filming easier than ever. Gone are the days of needing to prop a huge box against your shoulder to take home movies. And the advantages of digital technology aren’t just confined to size; you get sharper pictures, more features and they’re becoming cheaper.

Virtually all new camcorders will record in high definition so you can enjoy your masterpiece on your HD ready TV. The recording media has also changed. Instead of recording to tape or DVD, modern models tend to favour interchangeable high capacity SD storage cards making them more compact than ever. We hope this guide will help you choose the right model for you.

Recording formats

Memory card

Memory card camcorders have gone from strength to strength as the capacity of memory cards increases and they come down in price. The majority will use SD, SDHC, SDXC or MemoryStick media to store your images and footage, and because a memory card is so compact, the unit itself is generally smaller and more lightweight.

Benefits

  • Recording time at highest-quality setting (standard definition) with a 16GB SD card: over 3 hours
  • DVD-quality or high definition (depending on model)
  • High quality stills
  • Your footage is recorded as a file making it easy to transfer quickly to a PC for editing: 1 hour of footage copied over in a few minutes. 

Flash memory

Pocket-sized flash models let you “see it, shoot it and share it”, making them the perfect camcorder for the YouTube uploading. Though possessing fewer bells and whistles than their more feature-packed cousins, flash memory camcorders more than make up for it through ease of use.

Benefits

  • Low cost when compared to any other type of camcorder
  • Point and shoot simplicity
  • Easy upload of your footage to the web.

Find out more about camcorders in our video.

The advantages of digital

Size

With smaller, lighter, high capacity storage, digital camcorders are getting smaller all the time. The new digital models are more compact and fit snugly in the hand to allow you greater versatility.

PC compatibility

A major advantage offered by digital camcorders is the easy transfer of recordings to a PC where your raw footage can be edited and then burned onto a DVD to add to your own personal library. Many models also support wireless transferring dispensing with cables altogether.

Connectivity

As the motion pictures are digital they can be seamlessly transferred to a PC. With a FireWire connection (also known as IEEE 1394 or iLink) you can download your movies at high speed to your PC's hard drive. FireWire connections are common on most new digital camcorders; alternatively you can use the USB connection, but this is slower and can result in a slight drop in the quality of moving images. If your PC does not have a FireWire connection you may be able to fit a separate FireWire card.

Software

On most digital camcorders it is possible to do a limited amount of editing, but PC editing software is usually included in the box  for you to polish up your footage. These packages vary in quality but you can usually expect to be able to add a soundtrack, cut out footage you don't want, and put your shots into the right order. Separate software packages are also available if you want a more professional final movie.

HDMI

Almost every digital camcorder now comes with a built-in HDMI output. This lets you connect your camcorder directly to a compatible TV and enjoy all your footage in glorious Full HD.

Transfer to USB stick or DVD

Once you are happy with the final cut you could also transfer it to a USB stick (or simply leave on your PC's hard drive). Using a DVD rewriter drive ( DVD±RW ) you can burn a DVD quickly and easily for your family and friends to enjoy on a bigger screen.

Still photo mode

Many digital camcorders feature a still photo mode so you can capture that special moment without needing to bring your camera along as well. Camcorders with PictBridge can be directly connected to a compatible printer to print off stills instantly.

Recording MPEG e-movies

Many digital camcorders let you record MPEG footage that can be sent via email. MPEG files offer a lower quality picture and a short duration, but can be a useful way to send footage quickly.

Other features to consider

Image stabiliser

An unsteady handgrip will blur the video images - if you don't have a tripod, 'Image Stabiliser' steadies the video so the shake is largely eliminated. Image stabilisation can be achieved either digitally or through the optical stabilising lenses. A 'digital' image stabiliser provides an adequate amount of stabilisation, however, top-of-the-range camcorders use a more sophisticated 'optical' stabilising lens.

Image quality

Quality of the recorded images is determined by factors such as resolution of the CCD, lens, optics and recording media. If you're a serious user or professional who needs excellent colour reproduction, then you'll need a camcorder with CMOS to give you a better quality image.

Zooms

There are 2 types of zoom; optical and digital. Most digital camcorders have an optical zoom that ranges from 10x - 20x and digital zooms between 300x and 400x. Try to avoid excessive usage of the digital zoom as image quality degrades due to interpolation (a process where new pixels are added to an image based on the colour values of the surrounding pixels – it's not ideal and often results in a blurry image). To get the best image quality during zooming, optical zoom should be used.

Manual focus

Essential for situations when the auto focus can't cope such as shooting through a window, or when the image lacks detail or you want to concentrate on something closer to the lens than the main subject.

Night vision

Many camcorders allow you to film even in total darkness by using infrared light to produce footage taken at night

AE (Auto Exposure) modes

These are provided in addition to a fully automatic recording mode. Each AE mode is tailor-made for different conditions such as Sports, Sunset, Landscape and Portrait with the shutter speed, exposure and focus adjusted automatically. Some camcorders also have manual overrides for extra creative control.

Special effects

These can enhance your footage to really capture the moment. They include mirrorball, strobe light, black and white, sepia, slim and stretch modes. They can be seen on the LCD monitor or through the viewfinder as you record, although some effects can be added into the playback or while editing.

LCD screens

The LCD monitor can be used as a viewfinder or playback screen which enables you to preview your shots. An LCD screen which swivels around will give you maximum shooting comfort, even from difficult angles. Fold-out LCD screens allow you to hold the camcorder away from the body which is less tiring on the eyes. You can make smoother camera movements, use the screen to quickly watch your recorded footage, and access other controls without pausing the recording.

GPS

With GPS you can 'geotag' clips and stills during your adventures, making it easy to track every moment on a map.

Wireless control

Many camcorders can now connect with your smartphone or tablet, allowing you to adjust exposure, take snaps and frame your shots remotely on their screens. This is perfect for those moments when you need to be in front of the camera or far away enough to capture wildlife footage.

Accessories

What's in the box?

Most camcorders usually include a manual, AC adaptor and the relevant cables for PC or Mac connection. A hand strap is often supplied for comfortable, single handed use. A manufacturer's own brand editing software is also usually included.

Carry cases

These are not usually supplied, but a durable carry case is a good idea to protect your camcorder and keep all your equipment in one place for convenient easy access. A range of cases is available online.

Spares

There's no greater horror than to realise halfway through recording a wedding service that your battery is running low. Instead of agonising over whether you will make it to the vows, it's best to bring along a spare. Having a spare tape or memory card also pays dividends if you come across something spectacular.

Guarantee

John Lewis offers a 2 year guarantee on all camcorders; this is extendable to 3 years if you purchase an extended warranty, which will also covers repairs in the event of damage. 

Glossary

Audio Dubbing: Add your own commentary or soundtrack to the footage.

CCD: Charged Couple Device - the light-sensitive chip in a digital camcorder used to store images. It uses an optical sensor to convert light in to electronic signals for high-quality still pictures.

Compression: Compression is the process that shrinks a photo's file size. The majority of digital cameras take photos as compressed JPEG files, which means more images can be stored on the memory card. Compression makes for speedier saving and downloading of pictures and also means it is easier to email them. Because compression results in a small amount of data loss, it is best to buy a camcorder which takes uncompressed photos if you want only the sharpest possible results.

Digital zoom: This works by enlarging the central 50% of the image. This is fine for most uses, but if you will be taking a lot of long-range telephoto pictures you might want to consider a camcorder with a more powerful optical zoom (see below).

DV Terminal: Directly connect your camcorder to your PC for picture editing and processing.

FireWire/IEEE 1394: A fast method of file transfer (even quicker than USB 2.0). Both your camcorder and PC must have FireWire ports in order to transfer footage.

H.264: A type of compression used to store high definition video.

Hot shoe: A device found on some digital camcorders to which an external flash unit is attached.

Image stabilisation: Compensates for hand movements causing camera shake, especially useful when zooming, or processes the image to help keep the picture rock-steady.

JPEG files: (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files - the file format used to store compressed still images.

LCD view screen: (Liquid Crystal Display) Large viewfinder screen offering high resolution images.

Long play: 3 times longer than standard, e.g. 4 hours' recording on an 80 minute tape.

Macro: Describes (camera/lens) getting very close up but not microscopic.

MegaPixels (MP): one million pixels. The greater the number of pixels, the better the quality, but the greater the file size.

Memory card slot: Allows you to easily store still images or video in JPEG or MPEG formats respectively on a memory card, and transfer them from your camcorder to your PC.

Memory Stick: A type of memory card.

MMC (Multimedia Card): A type of memory card.

MPEG files: (Moving Pictures Experts Group) files - the file format used to store compressed video.

Optical zoom: Digital zoom works by enlarging the central 50% of the image, so for long-range telephoto pictures, an optical zoom function is best.

SD (Secure Digital) card: A type of memory card.

SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) card: A type of memory card that has a greater storage capacity over regular SD cards.