Remember that birthday party, where everybody had so much fun? Or your kids’ school recital where they mastered the performance they had been practicing for so long?
Don’t you wish you could relive that moment over and over and share it with friends?
Maybe it’s time to get a camcorder and capture all your favourite moments.
This guide will help you find the best camcorder of 2016 - 2017 for your need, whenever it is!
Table of Contents
What is a camcorder?
A camcorder is quite simply a camera that captures video footage. That video can then be viewed on televisions or other monitors. Once upon a time a camcorder was a bulky piece of equipment loaded with video tape that you would mount on your shoulder and carry around to record. Over the years, technology helped reduce the size of the camcorder, but recording time was limited to the size of the video tape available. Once digital recording technology was introduced the camcorder got smaller, had longer running times and was packed with more features, ranging from under $300 to up to $4000. Recorded video can be saved and share with ease, then viewed and enjoyed on televisions, computers, smart phones and tablets.
How to choose the best camcorder for you?
As with any purchase it is good to not only research the options available, but first consider your requirements for the device.
- What do you want to record?
- Are you looking to capture various moments, such as birthdays, weddings and other important events?
- Do you want to use it to record podcasts or online videos?
- Will you be taking part in extreme sports, wearing the camera and recording all of the action as it happens?
- Do you need advanced editing options?
- Does it need to be waterproof?
- Are you going to shoot from a tripod or be moving while recording?
- What level of picture and sound quality do you want for the type of video you are recording?
All of these types of questions will help you determine what type of camera and even how much you will want to spend on your camcorder. Knowing the different options and features available are key to determining what to buy. With this in mind here is what you need to know about camcorders from different image quality to the myriad of features available in different models.
What's the difference between camcorders?
Camcorders can differ in a few ways including how files are recorded, how those files are stored and what additional features they have. These different features will make different cameras more suited to particular uses (this is why it’s important to determine what you want to do before you start looking). Here are some of the common differences and the collection of popular features and accessories that are available in camcorders today.
What is resolution? You have probably been familiar with the concept without really knowing it. Since high definition televisions became the norm people have been exposed to the concept of resolution. If a TV has a resolution of 1080p (Full HD) that means that it has 1080 pixels on the display. The more pixels in a display of the same size, the clearer the image is. For example, 1080p is clearer than 720p.
When it comes to recording the same premise applies. You can record in 1080 or 720p on HD camcorders. The reason that you would want to change between the two is varied. Higher resolution recordings will take up more space. You will be able to fit more 720p footage on the same amount of space as 1080p footage. If the TV or monitor that you have to watch the video on is only 720p there is little point to recording in 1080p (although it is likely that in time you would upgrade).
Camcorders are now available in a resolution higher than full HD. Ultra high definition or 4K packs 4000 pixels of detail into every frame. The result is clarity that is almost as good as real life. As with HD though the extra detail will make more demands on your data storage. Footage recorded in 4K won’t look any better on lower resolution TVs or monitors, but again higher resolution is becoming the norm and it is likely that eventually you would have a screen capable of playing the image at full quality.
The important thing to consider is whether or not you require the highest definition available. Lower definition video will always be able to be played on higher definition devices so there is no risk of losing the video. The cost of a 4K camcorder compared to HD camcorders is considerable and as such makes your resolution needs worth consideration.
A video recorded by a full HD (1080p) camcorder
A video recorded by a 4K camcorder
Advanced Video Coding High Definition (AVCHD) is a file format for HD recording. As well as compressing files so that more video can be taken it also allows editing tools such as subtitles to be used after the video has been recorded.
#3. Storage capability
When recording footage, the data has to be saved. In camcorders there are several options for data storage. The quality of footage and the methods of playback will play a big part in deciding what is the best type for you.
Many camcorders are fitted with a hard disk drive (HDD) to store recorded data. The HDD is incorporated into the camcorder. It is usually a large capacity drive (depending on the camcorder) allowing longer footage time. HDD cameras are usually larger than SD card camcorders to accommodate the storage type and will use battery faster. Larger HDD storage options are usually cheaper than the SD options. The camera has to be connected by cable to your computer or TV to download or view the footage that you’ve taken.
- SD or memory card
SD cards are small solid state storage devices used for saving data. These cards have become quite small in size and have increased the data storage capacity that they have. Due to a lack of moving parts the SD is usually a more reliable storage device, that is less prone to failure or recording issues.
Cameras that use SD cards are often more compact than their HDD counterparts and will have longer battery life than HDD camcorders also. Cards can be removed from the camera and inserted straight into most computers and even some newer model smart TVs.
The disadvantage of SD cards is that compared to the HDD options which offer large storage capacity as part of the camcorder, SD card camcorders usually come with small capacity cards that require the purchase of larger cards. To purchase large capacity SD cards starts to incur extremely high prices. Another disadvantage, for the forgetful, is that you must remember to replace the card into the camera after downloading footage.
- DVD or Bluray
Less common is camcorders that write to DVD or Blu Ray discs. These camcorders are usually a little larger as they have to accommodate the disc. Discs can be changed easily if they reach full capacity. Both are reliable media and have the advantage being able to be played on DVD/Blu Ray players. There is however a limit to capacity on the disks. Newer format AVCHD cannot be played on DVD players. AVCHD specific Blu Ray players to view footage in AVCHD format.
As well as recording video the camcorder records audio as well. To do this the camcorder will have a microphone built in to it. The first thing to be mindful of when looking at the microphone is its positioning. As the lens is at the front of the camera (obviously) you want the focus of the audio to be as close to the lens as possible and pointing towards the front. This positioning will help avoid ambient noise drowning out the sound of the subject of the video.
If you need the audio to be particularly clear or eliminate all ambient noise, an attachable directional microphone (often called shotgun microphones) or lapel microphone may be the best option.
#5. Battery life
While storage space can determine the amount of recording time available, it is important to remember that the camcorder needs power. The battery life will also limit your shooting time.
This may not be a big concern if you are only taking short videos, however, if you are going to be taking extended footage it is important to have maximum battery life. Ensure that when checking battery life that you consider what resolution you are shooting in. If you don’t need to shoot in 4K because you don’t have the capability to watch that resolution, this may extend your battery life.
In addition, compare the recharge time to the battery run time. Can you purchase spare batteries and if so are they reasonably priced? Does the camcorder allow for quick and easy changeover of backup battery? You don’t want to be caught in a complicated time consuming battery change process when trying to record.
#6. Action cameras
A new type of camcorder has gained considerable popularity in recent years. ‘Action Cameras’ like the Go Pro are compact and durable cameras. Convenient for travel, their compact size of only a few inches allows easy packing, taking up very little space. The action camera is shock proof and water proof to up to nearly 200 ft making it a great option for capturing any manner of activity. Video quality is advancing with every new model, with 4K HD being standard. The deficit is in the features available.
Most action cameras don’t feature an LCD screen (although newer, premium models now have small LCD screens) meaning that it is difficult to know exactly what footage you are taking until you download it. Bluetooth connectivity does allow for streaming to smart phones, this however isn’t user friendly when using the video for action footage.
A range of housings and accessories make the action camera a wearable camcorder. Footage can be taken from the point of view of the user by attaching to helmets or masks. Over the shoulder mounts show the user as they move or other mounts allow the focus to be on the users faces, recording their responses to the action as it unfolds.
While the action camera is versatile and durable it lacks many features of a standard camcorder. As the technology advances they are bridging the gap gradually. It is important though to decide the most frequent use of the camcorder and if sacrificing features for durability and size are a worthwhile compromise.
What features to look for in a good camcorder?
There are many additional features that can make a camcorder more suited to your needs. Here are a few of the most common and useful features.
#1. Full automatic mode
Unless you are a professional and want to make adjustments to settings yourself, this is a must have. All the light and color settings of the camera will change how your video will look. With full auto modes the camera measures the conditions and adjusts settings to give you the best visual outcome. It is very rare to find a camcorder without this setting.
#2. Image stabilizer
Ever see one of those movies shot in ‘point of view’ where the protagonist is filming everything they do? Remember the shaky feel that made you feel a little motion sick as the camera moved with its user? Even the slightest of shaking of the hands would lead to a wobbly image.
While mounting the camcorder on a tripod is the best way to reduce this shake, most models now have Optical Image Stabilisation as a feature. A sensor built in to the lenses recognizes any shaking and compensates. The image that is then recorded digitally has the shaking removed, providing clearer, steady images. If you are operating the camera as a hand held unit this feature is a must.
#3. Auto focus
Another standard feature on camcorders. Just as full automatic mode takes the effort out of having to adjust light settings, there is a similar feature for focus. Autofocus will change the focus to maintain clarity of image even while the subject is moving.
The camcorder emits an invisible beam (usually infrared) that bounces back off of the object that is in shot. The camera measures the distance and adjusts the focus accordingly. You can turn it off if you need to. Situations such as low light environments do render the autofocus less effective so it is not always the best option. In most cases though it is very useful.
Are you a bit old school? Still like to look down the barrel and shoot exactly what you see? Not all camcorders have viewfinders (an eyepiece where you can see what you are filming), but you can still find some. Apart from providing ‘point of view’ shooting, a viewfinder allows you to shoot without the LCD screen. This extends the battery life and is a good option for extended shoots.
A zoom lens has been a standard feature in both still cameras and camcorders for many years. Zooming allows you to focus in on objects or people that a far away without having to move closer. Many camcorders will claim both an optical and a digital zoom range. So what is the difference?
- Optical zoom
Optical zoom uses the physical lens in the camera. When you zoom in the position of lenses and as such changing the focal length of the lens. While doing this it still maintains focus.
- Digital zoom
Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom does not change the focal length of the lens. Digital zoom is usually activated once the limit of optical zoom has been reached. Digital zoom then takes the image at the centre of focus and enlarges it. Digital zoom does have limits before image quality suffers.
It is best to have optical zoom and then digital zoom to allow you to get a little closer. Digital zoom on its own will not provide the same clear focussed shots that optical will and as such should not be considered an absolute replacement.
#6. Built-in projectors
Excited to see what you’ve filmed and just can’t stand to wait? Are you straining your eyes to see on the small LCD screen? Don’t have a computer or TV to connect to? Not a problem. Some new models come with built in projectors. Fold out the LCD screen and on the back of it you’ll see a small lens. This can project on screens, wall or any other light flat surface. From anywhere up to 60 inches away you can shine your video onto a wall and watch it without a TV.
#7. Built-in USB cord
Do you have a drawer full of random cables? Not sure if they are chargers or connectors or both or even which device they belong to? A camcorder with a built-in USB cord may be your friend. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The USB lead to connect to the computer is a part of the camcorder itself. It either folds or retracts into the camcorder until it is needed to connect to a computer or TV.
#8. Wifi connectivity
Don’t even want a built in USB cable? The world is wireless now. Wi-Fi is an ever growing feature in a multitude of appliances. The camcorder is becoming a part of this world too.
Many cameras include Wi-Fi connectivity. In its simplest form that allows you to connect to your computer and download recorded videos without having to connect via a cable. Transfer of recordings is that quick and easy!
Beyond simple data transfer though, there are more advanced Wi-Fi features available. Many camcorders can connect to smartphones or tablets via an app. These apps allow instant streaming of video to the smart device allowing you to view your recording without having to be camera adjacent. You can enjoy a party and check that everything is recording ok.
This option even allows for closed circuit style live footage, similar to that of a security camera or baby monitor. The most advanced options even allow for some camera control, such as controlling zoom, from the smart device.
#9. Durability and weather-proofing
Are you the adventurous type? Love recording your hikes, swims and camping trips? While an action camera like a Go Pro may seem like the best option, you will be limited by its capability. You still want a camcorder with flip out screen, image stabilisation and zoom options, but don’t want to be worried about breaking it if you drop it. There are a range of camcorders that are suitable.
Many options are shock proof and water proof to around 9ft. These are a great option in between a standard camcorder and an action camera. While they won’t have all the features of standard camcorders it is still versatile and if it ends up in a muddy puddle it will keep on recording.
This one is a fairly advanced feature and will most certainly raise the cost of your camcorder. If you have a 3D capable TV or monitor, then you may be interested in recording footage in 3D, to make the memory even more realistic. A 3D camcorder employs two lenses side by side taking footage a fraction apart. When this image is viewed on a 3D device with the appropriate 3D glasses the image has depth and is three dimensional.
Overall a camcorder is a great way to capture and store memories, create videos for podcasts or record your adventures. While the choice may seem overwhelming when you first look to purchase, it doesn’t need to be. Careful consideration of your needs before looking at the range of camcorders available will help you determine what you definitely need, what is nice to have, what is completely unnecessary.
Once you have your list and compared the different options you can make your purchase with the confidence that you have bought the best camcorder for the money. Then all you have to do is go and enjoy yourself and capture memories that you’ll want to share forever be it birthdays, weddings, recitals or even just the breeze blowing the autumn leaves off the trees.