This is a whirlwind how-to-get-started introduction to the world of camcorders. If you are like most people, the camcorder (camera/VCR) is the heart of your TV production system.

Tape formats -

Not counting the professional equipment, and high-priced digital equipment, there are six tape formats, twenty-three major manufacturers, and over 150 models of camcorders. It is still possible to select one without getting dizzy. First choose a format, the kind of tape the VCR uses. Choices: VHS, Super VHS (SVHS), 8mm, Hi8, VHS-C, and Super VHS-C (SVHS-C), Digital8 and DV, and though not a tape format, DVD.

Found in over 90% of the homes today, VHS and DVD are the formats most people are familiar with. A VHS camcorder will produce full-sized VHS videocassettes that are ready to play directly in your home or school VCR. VHS camcorders are the least expensive ones made, but they are relatively large. VHS-C represents a miniature VHS videocassette the size of a deck of cards. The tape is the same as VHS; the the cassette being smaller, allows the camcorder to be smaller, and easier to carry on a field trip.

Although you can play the miniature cassettes in your camcorder, sending the signal to your TV, if you wish to use the diminutive cassettes in a normal VCR, you have to place them in an adapter.

Eight millimeter camcorders use videocassettes about the size of audiocassettes, allowing the camcorders to be as small as the VHS-C types. Picture quality is about the same as VHS, but the 8mm tapes won't play back in common VCRs; you have to play them directly from the camcorder or copy the tapes onto the VHS format for distribution.

VHS and 8mm tapes do not copy well; the picture gets grainy and fuzzy and the colors smear. If you wish to copy or edit your videocassettes, it is better to start with a better original.

Super VHS, Super VHS-C, and Hi8 are the improved versions of the above three formats. Where VHS and 8mm create 240 lines of horizontal picture resolution, SVHS and Hi8 create 400 lines. These super models cost about $500 more than their counterparts, but the cost is worth it if you wish to do serious teleproduction. Although the super camcorders can record and play regular tapes, if they record a super tape, it can only be played back on a super machine. Also, in order to make a super recording, you must buy the more expensive super tape to feed your camcorder. Remember that you are always free to copy your super picture (perhaps using your camcorder as the player) onto a regular VHS tape (recording on a regular VHS recorder) for distribution. Very popular now is the DV (Digital Video) format. These digital camcorders use a tiny cassette and make digital video pictures with about 500 lines of resolution. They cost about $500 to $3000 for consumer and prosumer models. Their strengths, beside sharp pictures and high fidelity stereo sound, is that their digital signals can be copied without degradation; duplicate tapes look as good as the original. Of course you need two DV machines, or a DV machine and a computer, if you want to copy your tape digitally (without degradation). Also, both need digital in/out connections; not all DV camcorders have the digital connectors. All DV machines have normal analog audio and video outputs, allowing you to play your recordings into a TV, or into another VCR, copying them. Although the copies are analog and suffer some quality loss during duplication, the results are still excellent maybe a cut above SVHS and Hi8. Similar to DV is Sony's Digital8 format. Sony puts DV-type signals (the same ones used by DV recorders) onto a high grade 8mm tape. In fact you can even record the DV signals onto regular 8mm or Hi8 cassettes rather than buying the more expensive Digital8 cassettes, but Sony doesn't recommend the practice. The format seems to work as well as the DV format, so why did Sony bother to invent a new one? The Digital8 camcorders will also play back 8mm and Hi8 tapes, thus maintaining compatibility with the tape library you already have.

Camcorder features -

Bells and whistles are proliferating faster than anyone can ring or blow them. Camcorders have gotten so good recently that the differences in their features are relatively minor. Because the super camcorders are generally sold to more discriminating users, you generally find nicer features on these machines, another reason for buying the super formats. Nearly every model has: automatic focus, automatic iris (brightness control), automatic white balance (for proper color control), manual focus override (so you can focus on the nearby face rather than the distant tree in the same picture). These camcorders also have automatic audio level controls (they adjust their own volume), date/time generators, automatic shut off (to save the battery and tape if you leave the camcorder in pause long), and automatic tracking (to provide a clear picture even when someone else's tape is played in your machine). All super models have flying erase heads (allowing you to edit from shot to shot without a glitch), stereo recording, playback in the viewfinder and/or a separate TV, in-viewfinder prompt (to appraise you of battery condition and other electronic details), audio and video input and output jacks so that the camcorder can be used to record video signals or play them back (useful for copying and editing tapes), and tape counters telling you how many minutes have been recorded and how many minutes remain on your tape.

Nearly all camcorders have zoom lenses but the greater the zoom ratio, the better. An 8:1 zoom will blow up a picture eight times where a 12:1 zoom will expand a picture twelve times its original size. Look for a multi-speed zoom if you wish to zoom the lens slowly and gently and later zoom it quickly. Beware: amateur videographers tend to zoom too much anyway, making yoyos out of their viewers' eyeballs.

A very useful feature on the $500+ camcorders is image stabilization. This holds the picture still even though the person holding the camcorder wiggles. Rock-solid shots still require a tripod.

I would consider the following features come-ons, of little real value to the serious videographer:

Digital or electronic zoom - blows the picture up more, but makes it fuzzy or blocky in the process

Multiple shutter speeds - only useful for stopping fast action for slow-motion study such as taking the blur out of a golf swing

Character generator - the letters are blocky and chunky, not very impressive

Digital effects - mirror, strobe, mosaic, and other special effect tend to get overused

Color LCD viewfinder - is fuzzier than monochrome finders, and the colors aren't very accurate either

Useful accessories -

Camcorders all come with a battery and charger. If you plan to travel, buy an extra battery, maybe two. Like Tim Taylor says in Home Improvement, you always need "more power." Buy a sturdy tripod with a fluid type head. This will allow you to tilt and pan the camera smoothly, adding a professional look to your shots. Inexpensive tripods (under $300) run the risk of collapsing and dumping your camcorder on the ground.

Buy extra lights on tripod stands. For the best color and dimensionality, especially indoors, rim one light from the left, one from the right, and one from above and behind the subject. Invest in a $30 - $50 microphone (ie. from Radio Shack) and mike extension cord to plug into your camcorder. Keeping your microphone close to your performer will yield crisp, clear sound without distracting echoes. DVD camcorders-Some camcorders record directly to DVDs. It is handy to pop the DVD out of the camcorder and play it in your home DVD player. Note that unlike tape, the freshly recorded DVD is not yet ready to play in your home. The DVD must be "finalized" a process making the DVD no longer recordable and the signals compatible with your home equipment. Thus you can't use a DVD-R or DVD+R over again, like tape. Some camcorders record on DVD-RW and +RW (rewritable) disks, but these may not be compatible with your home gear either. Also, in order to re-record on a disk after it is full, you need to copy the data off the disk and erase the whole disk. Some models will allow you to erase and re-record the last shot you took, but not others --- they stay on the disk until it is full. My booklet "DVDs and Interactive Video" explains these nuances in more detail.

Several camcorder manufacturers -

Canon 1 Canon Plaza Lake Success, NY 11042 (516) 488-6700

Hitachi 3890 Steve Reynolds Boulevard Norcross, GA 30093 (404) 279-5600

JVC 41 Slater Drive Elmwood Park, NJ 07407 (201) 794-3900

Mitsubishi 665 Plaza Drive Cyprus, CA 90630 (714) 220-2500

Panasonic 1 Panasonic Way Secaucus, NJ 07094 (201) 348-7000

Ricoh 5 Dedrick Place West Caldwell, NJ 07006 (201) 882-7762

Sharp Sharp Plaza Mahwah, NJ 07430 (201) 529-8200

Sony Sony Drive Park Ridge, NJ 07656 (201) 930-1000

Toshiba 82 Totowa Road Wayne, NJ 07470 (201) 628-8000
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