Camcorder Buying Guide – Key Features

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Key Features

It stands to reason that every quality improvement involved in the construction of a camcorder will impact on its price. Listed below are some of the main features that factor into both price and quality.

Resolution

A higher resolution means there are more pixels capturing information, which means higher quality images. The CCD or CMOS image processor or chip (see below) converts a visual image into an electric signal which the processor converts to digital information. Generally, the larger the CCD or CMOS, the greater the price and resolution of the image – although the power of the processor is just as important as the size of the capturing device.

3CCD

Some camcorders split the light going into the camera into three channels, via a glass prism. 3CCD systems devote a separate CCD to red, green and blue, resulting in more information, higher resolution and greater colour fidelity. Once a pro feature only, 3CCD systems are now available on more affordable prosumer models.

HD

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The lines of resolution various formats use. Notice the widescreen aspect ration of 720 and 1080 high definition resolutions.

The next step up in resolution is high definition (HD). The systems discussed so far have been standard definition. But if you’re familiar with the look of high definition television – much greater detail, colour clarity and dramatically improved sharpness – you’ll appreciate the same kind of result available from an HD camcorder. While regular definition captures 486 lines of pixels, high definition systems capture 720 to 1080 lines of pixels. Not only does this translate into more detail captured in the frame, it also allows you to shoot in widescreen mode (16:9), which resembles the cinema format. Naturally, the significant difference in image quality between standard and high definition is going to be felt in the price. But as HD becomes more popular, prices adjust accordingly. If you play your footage back on an HD television – or plan to move up to “high def” in the near future – an HD camcorder may be the way to go.

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Relative resolution (not actual resolution): (top row) standard definition stretched to 16:9 (middle row) 720 resolution< (bottom row) 1080 resolution

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These columns compare 1080 (left), 720 (centre), and stretched standard definition (right) resolutions, zoomed in 40x (top row), 20x (second row), 10x third row), 5x (fourth row), 2.5x (fifth row), and no zoom.

Scanning

There are two ways a camcorder can scan a video image: interlaced and progressive.

Interlaced Scanning

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Interlaced Scanning

In an interlaced scan, a video field displays the odd lines of an image, and the next field displays the remaining lines. Interlaced scanning requires less bandwidth and refresh time, resulting in a less expensive video system and superior capture of high speed movement.

Progressive Scanning

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Progressive Scanning

In a progressive scan, a single frame receives all of the image’s information. Progressive scanning displays the highest possible detail in an image, and avoids the flicker problems and artifacts that may arise with interlaced scanning. As you might expect, camcorders with progressive scanning abilities tend to be more expensive.

 

DesignationExamplesDefinition (Vertical Lines)Interlaced (Fields per second)Progressive (Frames per second)
StandardSDTV, SVCD, DVD, DV480 (NTSC)
575 (PAL, SECAM)
60
50
24, 30
25
HighHDTV, HD DVD,
Blu-ray Disc, HDV
720
1080

50, 60
24, 30, 60; 25,50
24,30; 25

 

Frame Rate

The way motion appears in your scenes depends on how the image is scanned, and the frame rate used. More options, especially the use of 24p, add to the cost of the camcorder.

60i

60 interlaced fields a second (29.97 frames). For years this frame rate has been standard for television broadcast signals, DVDs and home camcorders.

30p

30 progressive scan frames per second. This frame rate avoids interlace signal artifacts, and portrays moving subjects clearly.

24p

Because it mimics 35mm film’s 24 frames per second, this frame rate is designed for achieving the “film look”. It’s also the perfect frame rate for those planning to transfer their video to film in post production.

For special high speed or slow motion effects other frame rates are also available on some camcorder models. For example, golfers like to play back their golf swing in slow motion in order to analyze it.

Lens Quality

The bigger the optical zoom, the closer you can get to distant subjects, but that also means a more complicated lens structure and increased price. Digital zooms crop the image and uses interpolation to “zoom” in on a subject, usually resulting a loss of image quality. When evaluating a zoom lens, be sure to look at optical, not digital zoom capability. In addition, some camcorder lenses have special coatings that reduce glare and increase sharpness.

Interchangeable Lenses

When it comes to creative choice, even the most outstanding zoom lens fused to the camcorder body is no match for an interchangeable lens system. Interchangeable lens capability is a feature found in higher end camcorders. If you’re planning to develop an arsenal of high quality lenses, you’ll definitely need a pro level camcorder to utilize them.

Which camcorder for me?

Now that you’re armed with more information on camcorders and video in general, let’s return to the basic question, “How will you use it?” The chart below summarizes many of the ideas discussed. Be sure to consider your own needs. For example, you may be a “Hobbyist” who shoots a lot of soccer, hockey or Little League baseball. While you don’t need every high-end feature, a large optical zoom that lets you capture action in the field is a real priority. So you may find that your own style of shooting falls somewhere in between the main categories. No problem. With this Guide and the assistance of your Vistek salesperson, you’ll find a video camera that easily fits your needs and budget.

Type of ShooterCamcorder FormatPlaybackTransfer to ComputerEditing CapabilityImportant Features to Consider
HobbyistDVDEasy playback on DVD playerUSBBasicYour wish list
HDDConnect to TV or PCUSBBasicYour wish list
Memory CardConnect to TV or PCCard readerPrecise editing with compatible PC and softwareYour wish list
ProsumerMini DVConnect to TV using supplied cablesConnect to PC using Firewire or IEEE 1394Precise editing with compatible PC and softwareYour wish list
Memory CardConnect to TV or PCCard readerPrecise editing with compatible PC and softwareYour wish list
ProfessionalMini DVConnect to TV using supplied cablesConnect to PC using Firewire or IEEE 1394Precise editing with compatible PC and softwareYour wish list

 

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About Author

Woodrow Walden is a Toronto-based photographer and the Social Media Community Specialist for Vistek.