Here’s the best bit. You have your new camcorder and you can’t wait to unpack the contents of the box and get started. It’s quite natural that you should wish to insert a blank tape or disk and hit the record button without hesitation.
Thanks to the digital video revolution, there’s never been a better time to start shooting, editing and sharing your video movies with your family, friends and colleagues.
Before you reach the stage where you can make your first video recordings, you need to decide what medium your recordings will use. For years, tape cassettes have been the only viable video recording medium, but they now face serious challengers in the form of DVD and solid state media cards as the format of choice for many newcomers.
We are living in a digital world. Sales of VHS video players have plummeted in favour of recordable DVDs and hard disk systems, and a new camcorder is almost certain to be a digital model.
In the good old days of VHS or Betamax video, vinyl LP records and audio cassettes, we recorded and replayed our TV shows, taped the kids playing in the garden and listened to our favourite music without the help of digital technology. All these systems used analogue processing, which was fine in its day, but technology has moved on. The audio CD introduced us to the benefits of digital signal processing and we have never looked back.
The trouble with analogue recording system is that when the billions of magnetic particles on a tape are arranged according to the frequencies applied to them, which, in turn, relate directly to the electrical signals being fed to the recording head, it is very easy to mix up the signal you wish to retain with all the other stuff that gets in the way – such as the natural hiss that a tape makes when it plays. When you play one back, you inevitably get the other as well. Look closely at your old photos or listen to vinyl LPs and you will see grain and hear rumble and hiss respectively. That’s what you get with analogue.
Where digital has the advantage, however, is that it deals not with sound or light waves that can vary according to a range of local conditions, but with a highly-complex sequence of ones and zeros – in other words, binary code sequences. The mathematicians among you will know that a binary sequence is made up of a combination of the digits 1 and 0, where ‘1’ is ‘on’ and ‘0’ is ‘off’. It’s either positive or negative, it exits or it doesn’t exist, quite simply. This lacks of a mathematical ‘grey area’ means that once a piece of sound or an image is interpreted as a long string of binary numbers, that’s how it stays. This is very handy, because it now means that when you make a digital copy of a tape, either from camcorder to camcorder or camcorder to computer, you are effectively making an identical clone; however, if you have ever made a VHS to VHS tape copy you will know that the loss of picture and sound quality is considerable. That’s why, for video enthusiasts, digital is better.
One of the main reasons why it’s good idea to go for the digital option is that it is neither economically beneficial nor particle to go down the analogue route any more. Not only that, but I’s increasingly difficult to acquire Hi8 and S-VHS camcorders anyway; they are simply not being made in any significant numbers any longer. From a cost point of view, there is little to be saved by not buying a digital camcorder – the cheapest ones are no more expensive than their analogue counterparts.
In general you will find that you will have a lot more scope with a digital camcorder. Given that we are handling great long strings of ones and zeros when making a recording to either tape or disk, it’s a simple job to copy data (for that’s what your camcorder recordings become) from the camcorder to a camcorder or even to another digital camcorder. What is even better is that it all takes place ‘lossless’ – this means the bits and bytes move around without loss of data or quality. That’s more than can be said of the clips recorded in an analogue camcorder.
The one thing that many users find immensely useful about the newer generation of video camcorders is that they afford an opportunity to shoot not just video but also digital stills pictures. Lots of today’s camcorders possess not just a tape (or disk, depending on the format used) but also a slot for a flash memory card designed to store the photos you take. These use the same type of cards that you will find in a typical stills camera – Sony Memory Stick and Memory Stick DUO, MMC (Multimedia cards) and the increasingly popular SD (Secure Digital) and Mini SD cards. What’s more, it’s likely that you’ll be able to copy still images to your recorded video clips and capture still frames from video and save them to the card, after which they can be imported to your computer using the USB cable that comes with virtually all digital camcorders.
An additional advantage of digital camcorders is that you have the opportunity of copying your collection of clips from the camcorder to either a Windows PC Apple Mac computer using simple and trouble-free connections in a lossless manner – that is, no loss to recorded data at all. For digital camcorders that record to tape – such as Mini DV and Digital8 – the best way to transfer your recordings is by a connection system known as FireWire. FireWire is also known as i.Link, and its proper description is’IEEE1394 standard connectivity’. Other tapeless video formats depend upon USB 2.0 for file transfer connections to be made.
If you are a first-time camcorder buyer you’ll be faced not only with the choice of which camcorder suits you but also with the problem of deciding in which format to make your recordings.
Not long ago, the choice was limited to both DV (also called Mini DV) and Digital8. Both use tape cassettes to store the digital video recordings. However, these days, the choice also includes SD cards (similar to memory cards used in digital stills cameras), hard disk drives and removable MicroDrives. But perhaps the biggest challenge yet to DV tape is recordable DVD.
Despite the rise in popularity of the competing formats, the medium offering the best quality and most reliable recordings is DV tape. Why? Well, although the data stream employed by DV relies on a degree of video and audio compression to pack the data onto the limited surface of the tape in the cassette, it’s still the better option compared to the level of compression that’s required to pack all the relevant information onto a DVD disk, SD video card or HDD (Hard Disk Drive) camera. All these require the recording information to be compacted heavily, using a compression system called MPEG-2. All set-top DVD players use the same method of compression to cram lots of data into a small space. While the reproduction is undoubtedly good, it’s not as good as DV tape.
Sony Introduced this as a means of extending the use of its Video8 and Hi8 tape formats, but although these were analogue tape formats, all camcorders in the Digital8 range record the same type of digital video stream as used in DV. The only difference is the tape itself. It used to be possible to play your analogue 8mm tapes in a Digital8 camcorder, and even copy them digitally. However, with the format now in its final days, the ability to do this is limited. For new users, it’s not worth considering Digital8.
There is a large choice in camcorders that record to DVD disks, allowing you to simply remove the disk from the camcorder and view its contents on your TV using your DVD player or recorder. The 8cm disks used by DVD camcorders are 2cm in diameter smaller than the standard DVD disks. They can be played in DVD players, but are currently less easy or cheap to obtain than DV or Digital8 tapes. However, their ability to offer you an instant access to recorded clips via a menu system makes them as easy to use as a digital stills camera, and so they will continue to be attractive to many first-time users looking for a quick and easy solution to their home video needs.
A DVD-R disk will enable you to record once only, with no facility to erase the recording. DVD-RW, on the other hand, is a rewritable format to delete all the clips and use it again. RW disks are more expensive to buy but will save you money in the long term.
An increasing range of Digital Media Cameras record not to tape or removable disks but to tiny internal HDDs not dissimilar to those used in Apple’s range of iPods, as well as in other portable media playing devices such as the Sony Playstation Portable (PSP). JVC’s Everio HDD cameras offer up to seven hours of DVD-quality video recording onto the HDDs of some of its models in the range when using the highest quality setting. Microdrives are small removable disk drive media that allow up to 4GB (Gigabytes – or thousands of millions of bytes of information) onto one drive. This is only slightly less than the capacity of a standard DVD disk at 4.7GB. MicroDrives perform in much the same way as HDDs except that they can be removed once full and replaced by an empty disk.
MMC (Multi Media Cards) or SD (Secure Digital) cards are used in digital stills cameras to store your digital pictures. SD-Video cards enable the saving and replay of compressed digital video clips using the DVD-compatible MPEG-2 video compression system. As the capacity and data transfer speed capabilities of SD card technology improves, this is likely to replace tape as a means of recording home video altogether.
How much you have to spend is important in deciding on the camcorder model, but your choice must also be determined by how you are likely to use it.
Whether you aim to use a camcorder to document special family events or for more specialized purposes, consider what you want to do with it before beginning your search. For instance, if you’re intending only to shoot video clips while on holiday, then a low-cost, modestly-featured camcorder will be sufficient. However, if you intend to offer video recording services to other then you’ll need a more sophisticated model.
For family films, look at a camcorder that is easy to use, has a good zoom lens and can also take digital stills images as well as video. The ability to connect to a TV set, VHS video or DVD recorder is also a must.
It’s common for relative beginners to record community events, school performances or even wedding day celebrations for paying or non-paying clients, if you are considering this, and then looks further up the features scale with a 3CCD camcorder that provides for an external microphone, headphones and lighting accessories.
Some find it useful to copy older analogue recordings from VHS, Video8 or Hi8 tape onto either tape or disk in a digital camcorder. In some cases you can connect direct to your computer via FireWire without first recording in the camcorder.
Unsurprisingly, most of you will be attracted to a particular model by its appearance. However, when shopping for camcorders it’s important to try and handle a few models. Only by picking up camcorders can you get a fed for what suits you. Shopping online is one way of making your choice, but images don’t necessarily convey an accurate impression of the size, general handling or weight of a given model.
Every camcorder has to have a lens, a microphone, a means to view what you’re shooting and quick, easy access to the essential record and replay controls. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be content with such simplicity for long, so it’s important that you choose wisely. Whether a camcorder uses tape, disk or card as its primary recording medium is another matter, but in the first instance you will need to consider the basics.
Check is the size of the camcorder’s flip-out LCD screen. Lower-priced models tend to offer only 6.5cm (2.5in) screens, which won’t be a problem if the menu system they display is clear and easily navigable. Higher-priced models will often give you a larger LCD screen, and you will find this useful once you get used to using the camcorder. Secondly, consider the camcorder’s optical zoom lens – this is what enables you to “zoom in” to distant objects without physically moving. A zoom magnification of 10:1 gives you the ability to achieve a 10X magnification. Some offer 12X, and it is not uncommon to see 14X on newer models.
Also useful is the ability to control aspects of the camcorder’s operation manually – such as focus, aperture (the opening and closing of the lens to let more or less light in) and white balance (the color of light that varies from outside to inside the home). It’s also handy to be able to re-record video sequences onto digital tape in the camcorder, so check whether a camcorder has DV and AV inputs.
One thing you will discover about digital camcorder and the associated technology is that things are not always as complicated as you might think. Here are a few examples of features that are promoted as being worthy of your cash but are, in reality, of little use.
In contrast to the optical zoom that most cameras and camcorders have, a digital zoom uses electronic rather than optical means to achieve a higher magnification factor. The pixels are bigger, but as the ratio increases to values of 800X, the picture is rendered useless.
As you zoom into a subject visually, the sound being captured by the microphone is intended to mimic the action. The zoom effect can be noticeable in situations. where audio is clear and distinct, but in general they tend not to produce the desired effect on playback.
The camcorder’s menu system will provide you with the opportunity to create fancy titles which are then inserted onto the video footage as it’s recorded.’ However, the increasing use of computer-based editing packages renders this process unnecessary.
In most low-cost models, wide widescreen isn’t really widescreen – the regular image has had its bottom shaved off to give a letterbox “cinema” effect which, when viewed on a widescreen TV, reflects a lower resolution picture than if simply left alone.
Some camcorders are promoted as having picture resolutions in terms of megapixels (millions of pixels) but what they don’t tell you is that the CCD (image sensor) that creates the images for video can’t really use more pixels than are standard for your TV system.
Taking the trouble to record footage of your latest holiday vacation or school sporting event and the expecting your viewers to sit through two hours of unedited footage is a bit like showing people holiday snaps in which your finger blocked the lens. Wouldn’t it be better to take out the unwanted bits first?
Thanks to low cost computer hardware and software it’s now easy to create a professional-looking video. If you’re keen on sport, for instance, and you wish to distribute DVD copies of sporting events to members of a club or society, you might need a camcorder v-good optical features and manual controls. It could also mean that you will require additional recording facilities such as a good directional microphone and monitoring headphones. If that’s the case, it is essential that your camcorder has the appropriate sockets to accept the mic input and headphone output.
Most of us view commercial movies on DVD, so it’s natural that we should seek to produce our own movie projects on DVD. However, if you’re thinking of doing accurate editing, think twice about recording direct to DVD. Consider a tape format instead.
It’s possible to turn selected sequences into smaller compressed video clips that can be sent to others as email attachments. Camcorders that use memory cards to store digital stills pictures usually have the means to record MPEG-4 ‘email movie’ clips direct to the card before transfer to a computer.
Despite some drawbacks to shooting on formats that don’t use tape, lots of people new to home movie-making are opting to make DVD, HDD and Cardcam recordings instead of digital tape.
I have seen that it is possible to avoid recording to tape altogether, making not only the management of clips within the camcorder a lot easier but opening up new opportunities for transferring your recordings to other devices without much technical know-how.
Unlike tape, where it is necessary to spool the tape forwards or backwards to a certain point, a disk or solid-state camcorder will allow you to click on the clip you wish to view to play it instantly, and offers you the same random access to files as when opening files on a computer.
Opting for a camcorder that does not record to tape does pose some additional issues. While there’s the undoubted convenience of being able to quickly copy your clips digitally into a computer or home recording system, you won’t get quite the same visual quality as if you were recording to digital video tape. Depending upon which camcorder you use and which piece of editing software comes with the product, it could be that the process of creating a DVD will involve re-compressing the already compressed DVD sequences before writing them to the blank DVD disk. This could affect the final image quality.
Recording with a HDD (Hard Disk Drive) camcorder or a Cardcam that uses solid-state memory cards will also have major advantages; in the case of HDD cams you will benefit from a large amount of internal hard disk drive space which has the potential to accommodate the several hours of footage. It does, of course, depend upon compression. By using the highest quality setting on the recording, you will use up more space on the available storage media and this will reduce the amount of material you can store. An HDD camcorder has a fixed, built-in drive which can’t be supplemented or changed.
Whether you are recording onto tape, disk or solid-state memory card, there will come a time when you wish to distribute copies of your home video efforts relatives and friends. Many homes have computers that are capable of importing and processing the digital signals that are stored on camcorder tapes, disk and cards, so why not use them to creative effect?
It’s likely that your computer runs a Microsoft Windows operating system, such as XP Home. Windows PCs account for most personal computer sales around the world, and so many camcorder and digital video applications companies produce software to run on Windows. However, Apple Mac computers have been the favored system for people in the TV, film design and publishing communities since the mid-1980s, many Mac users will argue that it’s the best operating platform for creative video applications, too.
Whether you go down the Windows or Mac route, you must be aware of the minimum set of requirements needed to manipulate digital video efficiently. Modem camcorders come supplied with a USB cable, and it’s natural to be for the transfer of video signals to the computer. While this is true for formats that don’t use tape, it’s still the case that DV and Digital-8 recordings require FlreWire cabling when transferring to and from a computer that itself has a FireWire port. USB is mainly for digital stills and small compressed video transfer only.