Shopping for a video camera recorder? You’re in luck. You’ve got dozens of options—possibly too many, in fact. Many people feel overwhelmed when they step into a store and are barraged by a sales talk on video camera features and technical terms like ‘video stabilization’ and ‘MPEG-2.’ It can be pretty confusing. ‘Gee, all I wanted was something to help me take videos of my kids…’
Here is a simple guide on different video camera features, and tips on how to clarify what you need. Remember, it’s not about buying the latest model, but getting the right fit for your budget and purposes.
1. Image stabilization
Not everybody has a steady hand. Unfortunately, the video camera will record both the scene in front of you, but your own movement—including the ‘jiggles’ when you’re walking through a crowd, or taping the landscape while you’re riding in a car.
Good video camera units have a feature called image stabilization, which automatically correct any jerky movements. Some units will do this by adjusting the position of the lens to compensate for the shake (‘optical image stabilization’) while others do this through complex programming, adjusting the image in the opposite direction of the shake (‘electronic image stabilization’). However, a poorly engineered camera will stabilize an image at the expense of image sharpness or resolution. The only way to know this is to check reviews of particular brands and models.
There are two kinds of zoom. Optical zoom controls the camera lens’ focal length, allowing you to record an image at closer range without changing your physical position. This function is very important, especially if you’re using the video camera to record family events or even crazy moments with your kids. You won’t always get the best seat at your daughter’s ballet recital, and even when you’re at home, it’s better to take videos from an unobtrusive position—you get cuter shots when your kids don’t know they’re being taped.
Digital zoom, on the other hand, just gives you a closer look at a pre-recorded image. It’s like placing a photo under a microscope, or in camera terms, enlarging the pixels. However, digital zoom will give you poor image quality. The video gets fuzzy (or ‘pixelizes’) and the function is pretty useless in most cases.
3. Screen size
The bigger the screen, the better the idea of what you’re actually recording. Sizes range from 1.8 inches to 3.5 inches. Just remember that big screens use up more power, so you’ll have to look at the unit’s battery life too. Ideally, the unit should also have a view finder, which lets you ‘peek’ at the scene without consuming your camera’s energy.
4. Battery life
You need to have good batteries especially for video cameras with LCD monitors, which consume a lot of energy. Look for at least 6 hours of battery life. (You should also invest in additional batteries, so you have back up.)
To save money (and the environment) get a unit with rechargeable batteries. Lithium ion batteries are also recommended because these don’t have the ‘memory effect’ that lower maximum capacity if you don’t completely empty the charge before plugging it in.
5. Recording format
Okay, now we get technical. Different video cameras use different recording technologies. One of the most common is the mini-DV casettes. These are compact tapes, and the quality of recording (for both video and sound) are great. You can bring several blank tapes with you, and then transfer the data to the computer using a special accessory (sold separately). The problem with mini-DVs is that the quality of the image can deteriorate over time, especially if you play them repeatedly.
The more ‘high tech’ version of the mini-DV is the micro-MV which boasts of high quality videos and a very small, compact size. You can fit it in your palm! Unfortunately, the price is much, much bigger. HDV cameras, on the other hand, use mini-DVs but are HDTV-compatible and have a stunning 1080i resolution. In layman’s terms, this is the highest standard in image quality. You probably don’t need these, though, if you’re just looking for a way to record your vacations or your special family moments.
DVD formats, on the other hand, tend to be more ‘stable’ than mini-DVs in the sense that you can watch these again and again and not worry about the quality of the image. It’s also easier to transfer data to a computer—just stick it into the drive, and you’re ready to edit. Unfortunately, DVD recorders are more expensive than those that use mini-DV cassettes.
HDD formats are very high quality and can record massive amounts of video, thanks to compression techniques. The videos are ‘saved’ inside the video’s internal hard disc, and then you download these to a computer. Since you don’t insert an external recording medium, there’s less motor noise and mechanical breakdown. However, if you run out of memory, you’re in trouble—you can’t slip in an extra drive. You have to download data, and erase it form the video camera, to free space.
One of the most important things you need to look at is the controls. When you’re recording a special moment, you don’t want to stop just to fiddle around with complicated buttons. Ideally, the video camera should let you switch to different modes with very little hassle. Again, look at reviews and consumer feedback for different units, and consider the ‘tech readiness’ of the people who’ll be using the video camera. You may find it easy, but what about your wife or your older kids? You want them to be able to take over recording duties, too—so you can have your own share of ‘camera time.’