Choosing a Video Camera

By Cathy Zimmermann

Thinking of buying a video camera for your business? Get help choosing the right one with our video camera buying guide.

If you visit Amazon’s Camera Department and search for "camcorders" you'll get 3,948 results - and that's just one website! MiniDV, MiniDVD, HDD, Solid State; with so many options available, how does the novice choose a video camera?

Start by defining exactly what you need, and how much you can spend. Even if you plan to buy online, try to look over your top choices in a brick-and-mortar store. Terms like “lightweight” and “easy to use” are subjective. If you can’t get to a store, you can still get a lot of information on how a camcorder handles and performs by reading consumer reviews on Amazon and expert reviews from a legitimate source on the Web like CNET, DigitalCameraReview, PC World, or Videomaker.

MiniDV uses 60 minute tapes, about $3 each, $2 if purchased in bulk.  MiniDVD uses 30 minute MiniDVDs for under if purchased in bulk.  HDD (hard disk drive) cameras may use memory sticks or cards in addition to the internal hard drive. Solid State camcorders may record on memory sticks, SD or SDHC disks with a capacity of 32GB or 64GB, or a solid state drive (SSD- quieter than a tape-based camera because there are no moving parts) or some combination of these. Sony and Panasonic Solid State camcorders use AVCHD, a high compression codec that results in smaller video files than HDV, but it may require a plugin for importing to your software. If you are recording on HDD, SDHC or SSD, you will also need long term storage in the form of DVD's or a large external drive.

Let's categorize camcorders in the $40-$2000 range by size:

MINI - 3.5-6 oz like Flip Video/ Sony Bloggie
COMPACT - 9-11 oz like Panasonic HDC-HS900
STANDARD SIZE - 12-16 oz like Sony Handycam or Canon Vixia
PROSUMER - 3 lbs (at entry level) like Sony Handycam HDR-FX7

Consider these questions before you shop:

1) Who will be using the camcorder, where, and for what purpose?

  • Is the user comfortable with technology? Able to navigate menus on a small screen?
  • If the user will be travelling, will there be ready access to tapes, mini DVD’s or flash media?
  • Will there be access to a computer for video transfer?
  • What distance will the camera be from the subject? Across the desk? Across a soccer field?
  • Is portability more important than video quality?
  • Are there any special circumstances? Low light? Fast action? Exposure to the elements?
  • How much recording time is required? Minutes for an interview or hours for a presentation or recital?
  • Do you need specific inputs/outputs (for an external microphone or digital projector?)
  • Do you need to shoot 60 fps (frames per second) so you can create a slow motion effect in editing?
  • Do you need to shoot in 24fps to mimic celluloid film?

2) What's your budget?

The choice between Standard Definition (SD) and High Definition (HD) will rest on your budget. While you can get a standard video camera for as little as $40, the resolution in most cases will be low. Get the highest resolution and optical zoom available within your budget. To record a soccer game from the stands, you'll need a 25X optical zoom. Digital zoom will be shaky at that distance and would require a tripod and no wind.

Standard Definition camcorders are usually under $300 while most High Definition camcorders run $460+, although there are some HD mini camcorders under $100. On the high end, you can get an entry level 3-sensor prosumer HD video camcorder like the Sony Handycam HDR-FX7 or a still/video camera like Canon's EOS 7D* for just under $2000.

* Video clips on Canon's EOS 7D are limited to 12 minutes in length or 4GB in size.

NTSC is the video standard used in North America as well as parts of South America and Asia at 30 fps (frames per second.) PAL is the video standard used in Europe at 25 fps. The more expensive camcorders will offer both frame rates, and may also include 24 fps—for a cinematic effect, and 60 fps—to be slowed in editing for a slo-mo effect.

3) At what size will the video be displayed?

If you are only going to show your videos on YouTube, you can get away with a smaller, cheaper camcorder. Many bloggers use Flip video HD cameras which record at 1280 x 720 and start at $79. Higher resolution is needed for a larger display, for example, a big screen TV in a trade show booth or workshop presentation. You'll want full HD (1920 x 1080) for this. Resolution is width × height, with the units in pixels (i.e. 1920 x 1080). If a resolution is displayed as one number, as in 1080p, that number represents the height in pixels. (The "p" means "progressive" and refers to the scanning method used to record and play back the image.)

Your aspect ratio will either be 4:3 (i.e. 640 x 480) or 16:9 (1280 x 720 or 1920 x 1080.) For widescreen display, you need 16:9. YouTube also uses a widescreen format, so if you don't want your video to be letterboxed (black bars above and below) or pillared (black bars on either side) you need a 16:9 aspect ratio. If you are buying a standard definition camcorder, check to see that it has a 16:9 mode. The $40 camcorder probably won't.

4) How will the footage be transferred?

Your MiniDV camcorder may require an IEEE1394 (Firewire or iLink) port to capture video, which the latest Macbooks don’t have. If you're using a new laptop, you probably have a card slot for the SDHC memory card used in many AVCHD cameras, but if not, USB card readers are inexpensive and readily available.

If you won't be able to transfer footage as you film, you may want a tape-based camera.

5) Do you already have video editing software?

Some programs handle AVCHD better than others, and not all tape-based cameras are supported by Final Cut Pro X. Check the documentation and consumer reviews for your software.

If you don't already have software, here are some low-cost options:

  • PC/Mac: Adobe Premiere Elements 10 $60
  • PC: Pinnacle StudioHD (Avid) $59.99, Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD $44.95,
  • Mac: iMovie (included in iLife) $49.00, Techsmith Camtasia for Mac $99
  • Free Software:  (May be "free" for personal use, with license fee for commercial use.)

Final Cut Pro X (for Mac only) is available from Apple for $299.99. Devices compatible with Final Cut Pro X can be found here: Final Cut Pro X Supported Cameras and Devices and directions for importing form tape here. It's possible to get earlier versions of Final Cut Pro and FCP Express from resellers online for $100-200, but beware: if your Mac is already running the Lion OS, they may not work and you will get no support from Apple.


Waterproof Video Cameras:

Hands-free Video Cameras:
(to be used with mounts for helmets, handlebars, surfboards, motorsports, chest harness and more)

See a video comparison of top three models in action:

3D Video Cameras:

Prices quoted as of December 2011.


Cathy is a staff writer and digital media producer at Business Know-How and a graduate student in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program for writing and digital media.
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