Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Going to video

Focus on features, cost when selecting a model

October 8, 2001

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We are going to help you pick a camcorder.

Video editing is today what word processing was 15 years ago, when the Macintosh first arrived on the scene: a communications medium that has the potential to mold the future design of the personal computer. The camcorder is the doorway to that medium.

Like the word-processing revolution did in the 1980s, camcorder technology has taken a great leap forward during the past two years and prices have plummeted, putting professional-grade equipment within the reach of the likes of new parents, travelers and hobbyists. The latest models are even extra-portable, some smaller than a VHS tape. Some have built-in digital still-camera capabilities.

"There's also a big market for buying digital cameras, so being able to kill two birds with one stone is a pretty big deal," said Chase Norlin, a Seattle-based digital-imaging expert. "Also, when you import the data into your Mac, you can sometimes pick out better stills from the video."

But while camcorders have become more affordable, it's no easier to make a buying decision.

Though prices have dropped, digital camcorders remain expensive. Consumer models range between $500 and $2,000, about the same price as consumer PCs, and the camcorder-buying experience today is even more confusing than the PC-buying experience.

The chief reason is that most people don't know what to shop for. With PCs, we shop for processor speed, memory and storage. With digital cameras, we shop for megapixels and image quality. With MP3 players, we shop for portability and storage.

In-store camcorder displays generally provide little more than a camera's zoom capabilities, LCD screen size and what kind of tape it uses. That is not enough information.

The most important features for most consumer camcorders are lens quality, microphone options and the type and number of computer chips called CCDs.

The more large CCDs, the better a camera represents colors and handles complex lighting. Low-end digital cameras have a single 1/4-inch CCD, while high-end cameras might have three 2/3-inch CCDs.

Those are three characteristics that many retailers don't emphasize. So what's a consumer to do?

Don't rely on the store to give you all the information you need. If you're determined to make a smart buy, you can gather the information yourself.

Getting an image

The first issue: Will you go digital or analog?

"The image quality of the digital video format is equivalent to a lot of television news crews," said Jim Feeley, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker and editor of Digital Video Magazine.

"The difference is that professional cameras have $10,000 lenses. With the consumer digital models the lenses are OK, and you can actually get a pretty nice image out of these cameras."

If digital-camcorder prices are too high for you, take a look at an analog camcorder, some of which cost as little as $200. Analog camcorders differ from the digital variety in that digital camcorders store images as ones and zeros. Digital image data can then be moved off the camera, and from one storage device to another without any significant loss in image quality. Because of this, it is better to shoot important images with a digital camcorder, and transfer them to a computer hard drive.

"A big shift in image quality has happened. Now the changes in cameras are going to be more incremental," Feeley said. "If you buy a digital video camera now, you are not going to miss the big sea-change."

Buying an analog camcorder is like buying a cassette deck instead of a CD player. It might be cheaper, but analog is so much less versatile that you might find that in the long run, a digital camcorder was actually the better value. Buy an analog camcorder only if saving up for digital is not an option, and you do not plan to edit or archive your footage on a PC.

Guided by reason

If you have decided to buy a digital camcorder, you must decide whether to buy a basic model, a higher-end consumer model or a full-fledged professional camera. This decision should be guided by reason. Here are some factors to consider:

Unless you are planning to make money or build a professional reputation with video, do not buy a professional video camera.

Be honest about the level of quality you demand. Even basic $600 digital camcorders can deliver better image quality than the best consumer camcorders from five or 10 years ago. If that is all you want, it is fine to bargain-shop. Some experts mentioned a line of low-end Sony digital camcorders using Digital8 tape.

Small, lightweight camcorders will probably cost more. If you plan to shoot lots of video, or go places where you do not want to lug heavy bags, the smaller camera might be worth the money.

If you want to edit the video from your camcorder on your computer, make sure your computer and editing software can work with your camera. Certain cameras are easier to control through the computer than others.

If audio quality is important, you might have to spend $1,000 or more on a camera that handles 16-bit audio in stereo. Consumer camcorders often have automatic volume controls, which can ruin dramatic footage by emphasizing background noise during quiet moments.

"I'm seeing people make very good-looking films with amateur-sounding audio," said Jay Rose, an Emmy-winning sound designer. "Good audio is seamless; it's something you're not aware of. These filmmakers will make assumptions, often using the camera microphone, which is never a good idea for a narrative film."

It takes an external microphone to capture good audio. Those will often cost about $300.

Finally, here is a tip from Feeley at Digital Video Magazine on how to make sure you are getting the best camera:

Once you have your options narrowed down to three or four models in the same category, buy a digital videotape. Put the tape into each camcorder and shoot the same scene once on each model perhaps the scene is a person in a colorful shirt talking, beginning in a low-slight environment and finishing outside. Take the tape to a store that will allow you to play it back on a large-screen television, and see which camera gives you the best product.

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