Camcorder Selection Tips

Camcorders use a charged coupled device (CCD) chip to convert brightness and color to a digital signal. Single-chip camcorder CCDs have to crunch a lot of data. Three-chip camcorders use a prism to divide incoming light into separate red, green, and blue (RGB) hues, thus letting each respective CCD gather more information within its designated segment of the color spectrum. Even though single-chip camcorders use special RGB filters to help their one CCD interpret color data, three-chip cameras have distinctly better color and low-light capabilities.

Your choice in camcorders then comes down to your audience. If your videos are only for home or Web page viewing, a single-chip camcorder will work fine. If you will be projecting your videos on large screens for sales presentations or shareholder meetings, you should give strong consideration to a three-chip camcorder. And if you want to move into the professional video-production business, a three-CCD camcorder is a must. Showing up at a client's office with a palm-sized, single-chip camcorder is a sure way to jinx a deal.

Prosumer Camcorder Reviews

Camcorder buying is one of those things that may simply come down to "feel." You pick up a camcorder and it fits well in your hands, the controls are logical and accessible, the menus make sense, and the images look right. Or not. When you start digging into the details?all those features?it becomes brain numbing.

So, here are the basics: Top-of-the-line gets you three CCDs and plenty of manual override options: focus, iris, shutter speed, and white balance. If you're serious about shooting high-quality videos you'll want to have that level of control. For example, setting a higher shutter speed?the Panasonic PV DV952 I tested for this book has a super-fast 1/8000th of a second shutter speed?means you can capture very crisp images of a very fast subject. Racecars and sprinters all look sharp at such shutter speeds. You do need plenty of light to make this work, though.

Other features of importance include the following:

  • Substantial optical zoom?at least 10x, but 25x is better.

  • Input and output capabilities. IEEE 1394 (the industry-standard means to transfer digital video) is a given, as is a means to record from and to a VCR or other camcorder (S-Video connectors are better than composite).

  • An external mic plug is a necessity as well as a headphone plug.

  • Optical image stabilizing using prisms or some other means (versus the less desirable electronic stabilization).

Superfluous features?and there are many?include the following:

  • Digital zoom. All you get are chunky pixels. Use Premiere's Zoom features to handle this.

  • Titler; Fade-in, Fade-out; and Digital Effects (picture in picture, wipes, multipicture mode, sepia, and so on). Premiere will handle all these without forcing you to fumble with awkward controls and menus.

  • Wide-screen view, unless it's a true 16:9?few offer this. "Faux wide screen" simply adds black bars to the top and bottom of the screen covering parts of the image.

  • Built-in lighting compensation modes, including back-lit, low-light, portrait, sports, and extremely bright settings (surf and snow). You'll use the manual features to more accurately handle these situations.

The prosumer industry de facto standard camcorder is the Canon XL1S, followed closely by the Sony DCR-VX2000 and the brand-new Panasonic PV-DV952.

Stepping down a notch but still prosumer-quality 3CCD camcorders are the Sony DCR-TRV950 and the Canon GL1.

Panasonic PV-DV952

Panasonic loaned me its latest high-end prosumer camcorder to use while writing this book. Although Sony and Canon grab plenty of prosumer mind share, the DV952 may just muscle its way into that vaunted group.

Outstanding standard features include 3CCD with 1.6 mega pixels (the Sony TRV is 1 mega pixel, or one million pixels), 25x optical zoom, 3.5" color LCD monitor, color viewfinder, easy-to-access manual controls, easy-to-use VCR controls, and a comfortable feel.

Other good features: The provided battery charges quickly and runs the camcorder for about two hours, the thumbwheel/pushbutton menu control is effective, audio quality is very good and minimizes sound from behind the camera, and the USB connection allows easy downloading of pictures and audio to your PC.

Some minor nitpicking: The DV952 tries to be the be-all, end-all prosumer/consumer camcorder. There are just too many superfluous features that probably jack up the price without giving much added benefit. The digital photo quality cannot match standard digital still cameras, the memory card audio recording feature is unnecessary (just use the DV tape and IEEE 1394 connector), the "zoom mic" appears only to increase the recorded audio volume without narrowing the focus of the sound, image stabilization had no obvious effect, and the low-light video quality is noisy.

The 952 and its older sibling, the 951, represent a significant leap forward for Panasonic. Their predecessor?the DV51D?was bulky and had a small monitor, a cheap "feel," and some awkward controls. The 952 has resolved all those flaws.

Legacy Analog Camcorders

You may own a legacy analog camcorder?VHS (dread the thought), S-VHS, or Hi-8?and aren't ready to shell out the cash for a DV camcorder. Your old clunker may get the job done, but the results will be several cuts below pure DV video. Image quality from most legacy camcorders falls below today's DV camcorders (Hi-8 still looks pretty good, and professional Beta SP is better than Prosumer DV). But no matter how good the original video looks, the final edited product will not look that great. That's largely because when loading the analog video into your PC (video capture), Premiere converts it to a digital video file (losing some quality in the process), and when you record it back to analog tape for viewing it will lose even more quality. Because Premiere stores video digitally, there will be no generation loss for converted-analog video (or DV) during editing.

One other minor fly in the ointment: You'll need to buy a video capture card (see Chapter 2, "Premiere Setup") with analog input connectors. A straightforward DV-only capture card will not work.

    Part II: Enhancing Your Video