Help me find a good camcorder.
September 29, 2008 12:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for an inexpensive (under $1000) camcorder but every spec on any camera brings up a thousand questions. 3CCD? CMOS? HD? HDV? MiniDV? BluRay? File formats? Still shots? Help!

So I have some criteria for a video camera, and I hope you all can at least direct me to some good sites explaining the differences, if not give some specific camera examples.

1) I want manual control. Especially manual focus, which to me is a physical ring, though I understand some cameras have manual focus with a small joystick or jog dial.

2) A decent zoom, 10x optical or more.

3) High quality. I want video that looks good on an HDTV. This is where it gets a bit confusing to me. As I understand it, 3CCD will give the best color quality, but high megapixel (?) CMOS chip cameras are just as good if not better. Is there a big difference in quality between 720p and 1080i? And is a non-3CCD 1080i "good enough"?

4) Still image ability. I have a so-so Canon digital SLR, but it's starting to show its age and limitations, so I'd like to be able to take good quality stills with the camcorder. I've seen the new Canon 5D Mark II, which would be almost perfect because it takes HD video as well, but alas, it's out of my price range. The Nikon D90 is nice, and the price is much better, but only mono sound is a dealbreaker for me.

My dream camera would be a professional one like the Canon XL2 or the GL2, the JVC GY-HD200CL17, etc. But these are in the thousands of dollars and my budget is stretching it even at $1000. And they are a bit bulky, and perhaps more than I really need. I'll be using this for basic home moves mainly, but would like to do some projects in which I can use the HD ability for high quality.

What format is best? Is there a big difference between DV tapes, mini BluRay disks, hard drive cameras, flash drives, etc. I'll be using my Intel iMac to edit, and I have Final Cut Pro (or iMovie), but I can fire up Windows as well and edit in Premiere. Is there anything I should know about proprietary file formats and transfering to my iMac?

So what prosumer camera out there does the best job? I know this is all kind of a tall order, but if you can point me in the right direction I'd be grateful.
posted by zardoz to Technology (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
re: #4 - Most if not all newer digital camcorders can take still pictures. But, keep in mind even modest point & shoot cameras are now 8-10 megapixels per image, while the average camcorder is ~1 or 2 megapixels per image. So your still images will not look too hot, compared to other cameras. As such, still image ability ought to be a lower priority of yours IMHO.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 12:49 AM on September 29, 2008

What you're after doesn't really exist. Not with all of your specs anyway.

If you abandon the manual focus ring then there are a couple of Canon camcorders that will probably do the trick very nicely - the (mini-dv based) HV30 has exceptionally good picture quality for the price (it's the top rated camera on, the (flash based) HF11 is similarly good, but neither of them have great manual controls (they can be fiddly) - and they won't take beautiful big stills.

Have a look through the forums at to see what people have managed with these small, relatively cheap, camcorders.
posted by The Monkey at 1:31 AM on September 29, 2008

Mini-DV was the norm but its pretty much been replaced by hard drive camcorders as the new norm. The thing that sucks about Mini-DV is that to get the video onto your computer for editing you have to dub it to your computer in real time. Really annoying.
Deciding between hard drive and flash memory you are looking again at the speed. Flash memory is slower than a HDD but what this will translate to I dont know.
Flash memory is so cheap now that if you got a hard drive based camcorder with a flash slot you could have a physical 'tape' to give to someone if you needed to.
If you want to be able to take still photos, dont be counting on your camcorder as your all in one device for doing this. Taking stills is really an ad-hoc feature of camcorders. I would put it on par with having a cellphone as your main digital camera. Camcorders are designed for taking video, not for still shots. This may have changed since last I checked, but I doubt it, especially in the affordable range.
posted by GleepGlop at 2:09 AM on September 29, 2008

I am personally not a fan of DVD-based cameras. The manual focus won't be found in your price range, in fact the Sony EX1 is probably the cheapest with a really good focus ring.

HDV is a reasonably good format, well supported, shoots on tape (easy to stick the tapes on a shelf). The Hard-drive recorders aren't bad as long as they use AVCHD or HDV, but it's a pain to keep the footage for future use of course.

I'd stay away from the first generation of the DSLR's with video features.

3CCD is generally the best sensor option, some cameras (probably not in your price range) also offer 3CMOS, otherwise it's single CCD or CMOS. The biggest issue with CMOS over CCD is Rolling Shutter, but in practice that often isn't a huge issue, it depends on the camera and your usage.

The HV20 is a very popular camera, there are a variety of add-ons that can make it even better. One of the big things is sound, at times it's even more important that video. Look at improving on the audio features of any camera you buy.
posted by sycophant at 2:38 AM on September 29, 2008

Canon's HG10 (or the hv30, successor to the hv20, if you want to deal with tape). It's cmos, manual focus (with a joystick style thing, not a ring), takes decent pics, takes solid video and you can afford it. I work in video production and I have it.
The problem is that you want a good video camera that makes pictures like you see in professional productions. And every single one of those productions are shot by trained professionals and then gone over by additional professionals in post production. And they look great. I work in fcp, and you can get a lot done with the filters (esp. those from magic bullet), but you can get a lot done with those with footage from many cameras.
The one warning that I have is that cameras like the hg10 have one drawback: their drives are 40gb and hold five hours, but to import them into a usable format requires ballooning them up so that five hours takes like 400gb. Be prepared to wince.
And search vimeo by cameras. You can see what people are able to do with what you're debating getting.
posted by history is a weapon at 7:27 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! It's hard to pick a best answer because all of your answers are useful. I appreciate it. Looks like those new SLRs are the only ones that fit the bill, and even they don't really fit the bill. Oh, well, the search continues...
posted by zardoz at 4:45 PM on September 29, 2008

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