Note that the section on 'Types of Camcorders' is repeated in the edit video section. This is very much aimed at consumers and not professionals! If you have more specific and detailed questions, please don't hesitate to contact us. This guide was slightly updated in December 2016.
If you're serious about making videos, filming weddings, events or low-end movies, consider spending more money for these 'prosumer' (a cross between 'professional' and 'consumer') cameras. These will give you many more options, much more manual control and professional features such as control over focus, aperture, exposure, ND filters (when bright), the quality of and XLR input (for balanced audio). A bigger lens also generally means more light and a higher quality image.
All camcorders have HD (High Definition) as standard but are varied in the way these record and the quality of recording. Camcorders now record or mainly media cards (SD, microSD, SDHC etc) or occasionally hard drives. Some older camcorders record to DV tape which has been phased out. You will see some camcorders recording to HDV which is an older and lower quality type of HD. Of course increasing numbers of cameras will have 4k video of varying quality and compression (the amount the video signal is squished - the more squishing the lower the quality).
There are a number of 'codecs' (the way the camera compresses-decompresses the video) and the containers they're held in (be that AVCHD, MP4 etc). Unless you'll be doing a lot of editing, don't worry about these too much. If you get into higher end video editing it becomes a bit of a minefield at times! Just make sure that your computer has enough power and that your software can cope with your video format.
Note that some cameras allow you to record to two formats simultaneously (high and low quality). The advantage is that you can quickly preview your footage on the low quality setting and then output the higher quality footage if wanted.
Recording Format Compression
Even though cameras may have similar recording formats (AVCHD), this doesn't mean they're all the same. You also need to choose one with high MBps - the higher the number the better the quality. So top quality cameras will record at high MBps rates to avoid compressing the video signal. If you're using consumer camcorders you probably won't realise the difference. But if you want something for editing and for production purposes, high MBps is important. The difference can be quite dramatic with pro video cams having 10x lower compression rates.
Camcorders are generally getting much smaller with even some outstanding 4k ones being very small. There are also small action cams. Do you want a very small one - a compact one, one that fits in your hand? If you're doing more video shots for college, projects or clients - you'll want a slightly larger camcorder that won't be so easily dropped / moved / more bulky and steady. A larger camcorder also looks and feels more professional - sometimes image is important (eg wedding videography). Other times, convenience and portability wins.
There are varying levels of quality of lenses - generally the higher the price the better the lens. A larger lens will let more light in and be higher quality very generally. Higher-end camcorders will allow you to change lenses.
A good lens will make a massive difference and enable different types of shots to be filmed. It's unlikely that just using a home camcorder you'll want to buy any special lenses except if you like the 'fisheye' lens effect. But, if you're serious about getting the most from your camcorder, then you do need a camcorder that accepts lens attachments for both telephoto (close-up) and wide angled shots. Bear in mind that lenses cost a bit of money. The higher the spec on the camcorder, the more that a lens will be important to think about. The lens is responsible for the image coming into the camera, so the better it is, the better the quality. There are other factors as well.
This refers to the picture sharpness and is measured in horizontal lines. The more, the better the quality / the sharper the picture - very generally.
The HDV standard generally shoots at 1080i (1080 lines interlaced) or 720p (progressive). Progressive is better than interlaced. These record at different frames per second (fps) e.g. 25fps (UK TV standard).
Full HD is 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) and therefore shoots 1080 lines (progressive). Increasingly instead of shooting at 25fps, video cameras can shoot at a higher level - so 50fps (and other frame rates too), effectively doubling the amount of information.
4K is the next highest quality standard (occasionally referred to as 2160p - 4096 x 2160 pixels or more commonly 3840x2160).
Bear in mind that the higher the quality, the larger the storage you need (and the faster the computer you need to process).
Many camcorders have a function that reduces the amount the video shakes. If you've held a camcorder in your hand for long, you'll know that it can start to shake. An anti-shake / image stabilisation function can be very useful. An optical image stabilization will probably be best. But most of all, get yourself a decent tripod!
I strongly recommend getting more than one battery. The batteries that come as standard with most camcorders usually only last for around 1 hour. If you are shooting video outside (away from power mains), you'll need a battery that lasts a bit longer! My advice is to always get at least one other battery.
CCD or CMOS
Basically the pixels (a grid making up the image). The CCD converts this into electronic info. Generally the bigger the better. But not always! Newer camcorders generally use CMOS, which many people believe produces a better quality image, especially in the higher-end camcorders (and it is cheaper to produce!) CMOS is simply a different way of the light getting into the camcorder, and the way the camera processes that information. The higher the number the more light allowed in (e.g. 1.0 higher than 1/3).
The higher quality the image, the larger the card you'll need (depending on your settings and camera). Avoid cheap memory cards which are unreliable. Cards also have varied write speeds (higher the better). Cards often have a 'class' written on them (again the higher the better).
Extremely important for those of us who like to have some greater control over the images or are used to using professional cameras. Things such as manual focus, manual exposure, white balance and ring zoom (see below) are very important.
Manual focus will allow you to focus on a part of your shot (DOF - depth of focus). So, for example if there is a football in the foreground and a goal in the background, you can change focus between the football and the goal. Most times, a camera on automatic will focus on the whole image. Most camcorders have manual focus, although the higher-end ones give you more options and have the focus next to the lens on the ring of the camera. To properly focus in manual mode, here's the trick: zoom in to the subject as close as you can (so, a person standing on a stage), get it into focus and then 'pull back' (zoom out). Then, your subject will be in focus. In 'auto' mode, the camera will focus on the subject automatically, or on the general area. So manual focus is essential in most professional situations (pro cameras also have a back focus, unlike consumer ones).
White balance allows you to set the 'white' in the shot. If you've ever shot video and it doesn't appear to reflect whites accurately (for example it all looks a bit bluey), you need to set the white balance. Most camcorders do this very well. If yours doesn't, a trick is to focus the camcorder on a white bit of paper until the white and the colours normalise. Camcorders handle colour to different qualities.
The final area of manual control is in 'exposure'. Exposure is the amount of light that the camera / lens allows into it. When doing a manual exposure, you should focus in on the brightest part of a person (face - or clothing) and set it so that it doesn't 'wash out' and become 'overexposed'. Basically, make sure it isn't too bright. Manual exposure will help you increase light in dark situations and tone down light when it's very bright.
Low light / Night Vision / Low Lux
See what your camera is like in low light. Low light for a camera is more common than for human vision, so if you'll be indoors a lot then consider checking out some examples of the camera in low light. So-called night vision - often those flaky green or black and white images via infrared. Some cameras have colour night vision but this is basically via slower shutter speeds. So, you'll need to film still images very slowly!
If you're going to use the zoom function get a camcorder with a good optical zoom, which is the only thing worth considering. Don't worry about so-called 'digital zoom' as digital zoom loses so much quality it's useless. Basically optical zoom will zoom in on the image and maintain image quality whereas digital zoom magnifies the image at the expense of quality.
Look for a camcorder where you can have a smooth zoom and where the control is easily accessible, and doesn't rock the camera too much if you do use it 'live'. Remember that zooming 'live' is a very 'consumer' oriented function. You very rarely see the professionals use a zoom as it looks horrible. But where you do need to zoom in and out, find a camcorder that allows you to do this smoothly and consistently. The higher-end camcorders have a zoom ring around the lens at the front of the camera, as well as the normal 'toggle' control on most camcorders. This is what I use when needed (ie focusing, and in between shots when edited). A 10 to 15 zoom is common on most camcorders, but up to 20 is commonly used (meaning you must use a tripod).
Input / Output Connections
Most camcorders will have some kind of 'output' to allow you to view the footage on a TV etc. The lowest quality is 'composite' (RCA). Many cameras have micro-HDMI which is higher quality. Higher end have full HDMI and SDI (via BNC). This may be important to you if you intend to use the camera for 'live' events such as youth events.
You will also have things like USB (older cameras with tape will have Firewire / iLink).
Exposure is basically the amount of light the camera lets in. Usually this is automatic but auto is sometimes not quite enough (and sometimes the light changes levels depending on what you're filming). The more control here, the better you will be able to light shots. Higher end cameras will allow you to manually adjust the exposure via an iris setting.
Sometimes your camera shots will look a bit yellow or possibly a bit blue. This is usually to do with white balance. If you have some options for setting the white balance manually (or different options for varied settings - indoor, outdoor etc) then this is ideal.
Manual shutter speed also allows you to control the light coming into the camera but also allows you to do some creative filming, get sharper shots and even film sports events more effectively. Most camcorders just have an auto setting for this.
Viewscreen / LCD
This is the little mini screen that pops out the side of the camcorder. Get one with a good size in order to get the best shots and to use the screen menus. This doesn't affect the image captured by the camcorder, which will be colour unless you specify otherwise. Get a nice and bright one, as it can be hard to see the LCD display on a sunny day.
Most cameras have an array of presets. These include things like Auto ,Night Scene, Sunrise & Sunset, Fireworks, Landscape ,Portrait, Spotlight, Beach, Snow etc and may help you.
Some cameras have a fast startup mode, for those moments where you quickly want to capture something. If you think this may happen (it probably will), then try to find a camcorder that has this function.
Touchscreen Focus / Auto-focus
Using the touchscreen, you can decide who to focus in on by using controls in-built to the camcorder, or touch-screen. This is called touch-focus or similar (or even 'face detection' which will focus in on people's faces by picking up the human skin tone). You can also have multi-focus points on some camcorders. On higher end models, manual focus via a front 'ring' (by the lens) is used to focus. All camcorders will have auto-focus, only a few have manual focus and only higher end models feature this 'proper' focus. Remember that in low light, your camcorder will have trouble focusing, so manual focus is an important consideration, even on basic models.
If you are serious about doing decent recordings then you need a decent mic. These can be bought from Panasonic, Rode (Videomic), Sennheiser or Sony for example - up to £100-£1000. Without specialist mics, the background noise is very high and the quality of sound becomes very random, dependent on how close the camera is to the people - and how much background noise. Get the mic close to the subject but not so close that the mic can be seen or so the sound distorts (higher end camcorders allow you to adjust sound levels). Quality sound speaks of a quality production.
Some people use clip on mics hidden subtly underneath clothing etc. but beware of noise caused by clothes rubbing against the mic. Others may simply use a normal mic. If you are going to get a mic, the word you're looking for is a 'shotgun' mic. Shotgun mics pick up the sound only from the direction in which they are pointed.
If you are going to edit on a computer: another alternative is to tie mic the actor or subject with the mic connected to a handheld recording unit - pref one with 48bit uncompressed audio. This enables high quality recording and you can sync the audio to the picture when editing.
Finally, if you're likely to want some sound outside, you'll need to get a windshield for the mic above and beyond the regular foam protector that comes with some mics. You'll need one of those 'fluffy' looking things for your mic.
Video Output Options
Composite / BNC will be standard. Output via composite is the lowest quality (all the signals pass down the one cable). Most camcorders have HDMI out - (high definition multimedia interface). This doesn't always work when filming 'live' (for example at an event). They do allow you to plug into your computer or TV at home. So if you want to use a camera live, just check.
WiFi / NFC / Bluetooth
Need to get your footage out wirelessly etc then make sure you have this option. Higher end video cameras have apps on Android and iOS that will help control functions of the camera remotely.
Most camcorders come with a remote control. These are rarely used by most people. However, you may think of uses for this, such as if a camcorder is out of your reach etc. There are other 'remote' functions available on other higher-end cams, for controlling smooth zooms etc.
Some camcorders act as a projector, both for their own footage and for other footage that you can play through them.
How do I avoid dropouts (tape media only)?
A 'dropout' is when you're playing back your recording, or capturing to a computer.. Suddenly the picture seems to 'break up' or the computer stops capturing. What's happened? You've experienced (probably) a dropout, a glitch in the tape. Very frustrating, so remember that when filming something important, you need to get lots of 'cutaway' shots (shots of things relevant to the filming that you can insert later if needed).
So what's the solution? Well, there's 3 solutions for you that are camera-related
- Firstly, buy a 'head cleaning' DV tape. This is simply a tape that cleans the 'machine heads' of your camcorder. Put this through your camera around every 20 times you use it. Make sure the brand of cleaning tape is the same, and often it's a good idea to use the same brand of cleaning tape that you use for your normal DV tape.
- Secondly, don't re-use DV tapes that you have recorded onto. Instead, buy more DV tapes if you can and record new.
- Thirdly, always use the same brand of DV tapes. You don't have to pay ££s or $$s for each one though. I have Sony camcorders so use Sony Premium DV tapes, at around £1.60 each in the UK. I always stick with these.
Go check sites for reviews. For more reviews visit www.camcorderinfo.com / www.digitalcamera-hq.com/camcorder / www.dvspot.com / internetcamerasdirect.co.uk / www.cnet.co.uk / www.cnet.com / www.camcorderinfo.com / www.dvxuser.com / www.dv.com / www.dvuser.co.uk / www.sonyhdvinfo.com / www.pana3ccduser.com - among many other sites. Some of these are aimed more at professional users than others.
Camcorder comparison (some aspects only, being updated constantly)
Click here for a table from camcorderinfo.com which is way more complete than the one I had here..