How to shop for a video camera?
January 9, 2014 1:35 AM   Subscribe

I would like to use Apple iMovie to edit footage of piano performances in (at least) 720p resolution, and I am looking for the best camera for a budget of $400-600. I do not want to plug in the video camera and spend hours copying footage to disk and then transcoding before bringing into iMovie, which appears to rule out all Sony cameras (and possibly others?) that record in a format not friendly to iMovie. With that primary restriction in mind, what is the best video camera/"camcorder" for a budget of $400-600 that works best with iMovie?

I will be using this to record piano playing. I see 24p and 60p frame rates as features, and conflicting descriptions of which is "better". When I look at YouTube movies of 24p and 60p footage, they both look identical; I cannot tell which is better. This seems to be a feature that raises the price of the camera, but which is better and why? Are there other features that stand out in terms of making one camcorder a better long-term value over another? Thanks for your advice.
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Technology (2 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
24p is 24 frames a second, essentially the digital equivalent to the (almost) 24 frames a second of 35mm sound film. 60p is 60 frames a second which will produce a much smoother picture than 24p. All other things being equal, it will look less "cinematic" and more documentary-like. See the HFR version of The Hobbit for the look that a higher frame rate gives you. The "p" means Progressive, which means that it captures the entire image for each frame. The alternative is "i" for Interlaced. That will capture alternating lines on each frame. In motion, interlaced at a high enough resolution is certainly "good enough", and interlaced capture is less demanding on the camera. Progressive is definitely preferable though, as there are less artefacts and it's easier to edit.

As to which is better... it's usually a creative decision. There's obviously more information available for fast movement like sports on higher frame rates, and piano performances might fall into that area. It's worth testing and coming to your own conclusions.

Other features to be looking out for are:
  • Decent sound recording - otherwise the whole exercise is presumably meaningless. You may or may not want to plug in an external microphone. Either way, the potential for doing so is definitely something that you should highly consider.
  • Image stabilisation - I always recommend recording video from a tripod if you're in any doubt. However, if you're not going to be mounting on a tripod, then decent image stabilisation is a must, it can transform unwatchably shaky video to something perfectly fine. Most camera will include this these days, but it's worth bearing in mind.
  • Low light performance - Most cameras will look pretty good in a bright space evenly lit with sunlight. However, you might not always be fortunate enough to be in one. How fuzzy does the image get when the camera has to boost it's sensitivity? That's well worth knowing, especially if you think you're going to frequently be in windowless rooms.
The Wirecutter recommend the Panasonic HC-V720, and the article's probably worth reading to get a gist of the kind of technology that is important to a decent camcorder. iMovie 11 and greater support AVCHD, and the Panasonic does recording in MP4, albeit at a slightly lower resolution. They also mention a Canon camcorder for MP4 recording. AFAIK iMovie will edit MP4 files very well.

You might also not find yourself needing a dedicated camcorder. Most interchangeable lens cameras, mirrorless or DSLR, can shoot extremely high quality video, and have the benefit of being far superior in low light to most camcorders, as well as obviously being very good stills cameras. Many compacts can boast similarly high quality video, and even the latest batch of smartphones are extremely competitive on quality. The main issue you'll find with most of these is the audio recording is not that good, but many of them, including many smartphones, do have the possibility of attaching external microphones.
posted by Magnakai at 4:07 AM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd budget a bit for gear and a second camera if possible. A cheap lighting rig will help buckets. Some deflection screens, can also help.

The second camera would be for secondary angles, moving shots, etc.

A single angle video is boring as hell (generally).

Anymore even low end still cameras shoot decent video, I'd buy two cameras, a tripod, and go nuts.

I will warn you though this is a black hole for funds. I started with your idea, now I am shooting with two iPhones (1080p) and two "b roll" cameras (a flip and an older iPhone), and I have a sound stage with green screen. My point here is after you make a video or three you will start to want to do things like make more interesting titles, etc. And you will want better audio/video synching than what iMovie provides.

Have fun.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:11 AM on January 9, 2014

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