A camcorder is more than the sum of its parts it s an exciting high-tech tool that the average person can use to produce wonderful home "movies." However, in order to use a camcorder properly, it's necessary to understand at least some of those parts. And to make an intelligent camcorder-buying decision you really do need to have some sense of which features are important and which aren't. (After all, you don't want to be snowed when the salesperson starts talking about things such as "white balance," "fades" and so on.)
Getting a working understanding of camcorders is not difficult, if you have the information at your disposal. That's what this article will give you. In addition to the charts, which list virtually every current camcorder on the market, along with important features, we also cover the important terminology. We try to make sense out of the technobabble that fills the industry.
Want to buy a camcorder? Want to get more out of the one you have? Read on!
All camcorders output (send out) audio and video signals. However, only a limited number allow you the added advantage of being able to input (receive, or take in) audio and video. Without A/V Input, you can only record through the lens; with it, you can record from another source, such as a VCR or TV. Some units have a single A/V jack, with a switch that toggles back and forth between Output and Input.
This term refers to the process of replacing all or part of the original video soundtrack (e.g., with narration or music), without affecting the video.
All modern camcorders offer Automatic Focus. Just point the camcorder at an object; it senses the distance to your subject and automatically focuses the lens correctly.
Not all Auto-Focus mechanisms are created equal, however. Some focus better than others. Some of the areas to be concerned about include the following:
* Does the camcorder take too long to focus?
* Does the focus fail to lock onto a subject and, instead, move back and forth between the subject and background (an undesirable process called "hunting")?
* Does the unit hold its focus in dimly lit situations?
Our suggestion is that you try out any camcorder you are considering in the following way: Slowly pan the unit back and forth between close and distant objects. See how long it takes the Auto-Focus to adjust between these two objects. A second is acceptable; more than that may be a problem when you're trying to catch Uncle Dick juggling your son's birthday cake out of the kitchen.
Next, focus on a subject such as a person standing close to you and in front of a background that is some distance away. Make sure the camcorder is on Full Wide-Angle and that you're standing at least six or seven feet away from your subject. Is the camcorder able to lock on the person and hold the focus, or does it shift in and out between background and subject?
Finally, find a very dark comer and aim the camcorder at some object in it. Will it focus, or does the recorded image blur in lower light levels? (Many camcorders that focus well in bright light perform badly in low-light conditions.)
Many camcorders--not all--offer a Manual-Focus alternative. While you may wonder why you would want Manual Focus, rest assured, it is a tree asset. When you are taping a special event such as a wedding and you have the camcorder sitting on a tripod, you will want to use the Manual Focus to get and hold the sharpest image. If your unit doesn't have a Manual option, you will have to leave it to the camcorder's electronics to "decide" for you what the best focus is.
Finally, look for a ring around the lens instead of buttons to adjust the Manual Focus. A ring is far easier to control. Unfortunately, too many camcorders these days offer tiny ManualFocus buttons, which are so small that your fingers are too big to operate them easily.
Virtually all camcorders offer Auto Macro-Focus. This allows full automatic focusing from the closest Macro position (about a quarter-inch from the lens) to infinity. (You just point the camcorder wherever you want and the image is always in focus.) Auto-Macro is very important, even if you never take superclose-ups. Its real advantage is in making sure your video is always in focus during those in-between situations of about a foot or two from the lens, which used to be beyond the AutoFocus capabilities of most camcorders.
The majority of models require that you go to Full Wide-Angle in order to use the Auto-Macro feature. That's great for those above-mentioned super close-ups. A few, however, allow you to use Auto-Macro in the Telephoto position, which means you can get amazing close-ups even while keeping the camcorder several feet from the subject. Look for the latter feature if Macro-Focusing is important to you.
Auto-Exposure Program Modes
Many camcorders offer preset AE Program modes that automatically set your camcorder up for various kinds of shooting. For example, some camcorders feature AE Program modes called Sports, Portrait, Twilight and so on. When you choose a Program mode, all of the camcorder's adjustable features, including Shutter Speed, Aperture and White Balance, are set automatically for that particular shooting situation. It's a quick way to point and shoot and usually gives you a more precise setup.
Backlighting is a condition which throws the subject into silhouette, even possible darkness. This happens when the light source or a strong reflective surface (such as snow) is behind the subject. It can occur naturally--a window behind an interior subject, sand, etc.--or can be created intentionally in the studio. (See Backlight-Compensation button, discussed under "Exposure Control," below.)
The Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) is the device (or devices--some camcorders have three CCDs, but most have only one) which actually collects the video portion of the scene and converts it to electrical signals that can be recorded on videotape. Unlike the old video tube, it is sturdier, more vibration-resistant and needs no warm-up time. Other names for the CCD are "Pickup Device" and "Image Sensor."
Some camcorders offer a Character Generator (CG). This feature allows you to build titles, one letter at a time, and add them to your tapes. Some camcorders offer "titlers" which have built-in titles ready to go such as, "Happy Birthday" or, "My Vacation." This is also a handy feature.
Depth Of Field
This term refers to the range between the nearest and farthest points in a scene that are in acceptable focus. This is controlled by the focal length of the lens and the Aperture setting. (The higher the f-stop number, the deeper the depth of field, and vice versa.)
This is a built-in warning and failsafe device on nearly all camcorders these days, which is automatically activated if there is too much moisture condensing in the unit (caused by taking the unit directly from a dry, air-conditioned hotel room out into a hot, humid environment, for example). The camcorder will usually shut down for a period of time, typically 30 to 60 minutes, while this condensation evaporates. This downtime prevents the moisture from, quite literally, gumming up the works. …