If photographs store moments, then videos store memories. For everyone who has ever encountered a situation which he/she wishes to preserve, to treasure for years to come, or simply capture as an experience or a memory, I understand the frustration of clicking half a dozen photos only to realise that none of them have really captured the essence of the occasion or moment. Everyone who has experienced this will realise the importance of a digital camcorder. To most other people a camcorder is an alternative to a digital camera — after all, they both shoot videos, and they both capture photos as well, don’t they?
I don’t agree with this view. For me, convergence is something that isn’t applicable to digital cameras and camcorders. Sure they do similar jobs, and can double for each other to some extent. They aren’t substitutes for each other, and I figure will not be so for at least another five years. Cameras take beautiful photographs, digital camcorders are the video specialists — if you need to shoot videos, do not skimp on price and buy a digital camera. Similarly if you have a camcorder and you need to take photos, please buy a camera — your camcorder isn’t really built to shoot images. The quality of such photos will be comparable to an über cheap camera.
Camcorders are a lot easier to shop for than they used to be, and after cell phones and digital cameras you will come across people flocking camcorder stalls in large electronics malls. Chain stores for digital electronics like Croma, Next and Reliance Digital are flooded with camcorders, so as a potential shopper for a camcorder there’s no dearth of choice. Let’s talk brands. The most commonly available and popular brand is Canon. This is largely because of the reputation Canon has with compact cameras — people naturally believe that Canon’s camcorders are excellent too. While this isn’t necessarily indicative of performance, you will find more Canon models around than any other. Samsung is another popular brand, and shares second position in terms of popularity with Sony. Panasonic is also available, and has some excellent offerings, but only larger malls will likely have these. JVC is an excellent brand, but not officially available in India. I did come across a handful of these camcorders but they are available in the grey market, without bills. So you will be buying models from these brands at your own risk. Moreover since official presence is absent, service or repairs will be an issue.
But before you go running after a particular brand or model there’s some basic stuff you should know. For one, the zoom is an important consideration for a camcorder. Higher zoom models are costlier in general, although not necessarily better in terms of quality of output or features. So paying extra for an ultra zoom model when you do not need that long a zoom is pointless, since you could spend the money on a better model with a more appropriate zoom. The zoom on most camcorders varies from 8x to around 45x and absolutely do not shop on the basis that the higher zoom models are better. In fact if you are planning on doing a lot of indoors shooting for occasions such as weddings, birthday parties and such then a 12x zoom is more than enough for you. What you should look at for such usage is the low light performance of the camcorder you choose, since indoor shooting involves a lot of close-up shooting and incandescent lighting. On the other hand, if you holiday a lot and do a lot of outdoor shooting you will need a long zoom. Look at camcorders with an optical zoom of at least 32x or even 40x. I am referring to the optical zoom figure here and not digital zoom. For all camcorders ignore the digital zoom specification irrespective of how impressive it may appear to be, since this is not an indication of actual zoom but an interpolated zoom. A 20x optical zoom is better than a 3000x digital zoom. Remember that with such long zooms image stabilisation (IS) is very important, perhaps even more important for a camcorder than a digital camera because blur is more likely while capturing videos since your hand will not be stationary, and tripods are a rarity for camcorder wielders. OIS or Optical Image Stabilisation is the best kind of IS available since the lens actually has a ceramic roller system or a fluid immersed lens which reduces shake. EIS or Electronic Image Stabilisation utilises integrated circuitry to reduce or eliminate blur and while this is present on most camcorders, it isn’t the best method of IS around. If you need a higher zoom, please look for an OIS model.
Another thing which is very important and worthy of your attention is the ergonomics of the device in terms of both button placements and menu intuitiveness. Once you use a camcorder and fiddle around with its settings you will realise how important the menu system is. Button placement is even more important because you will eventually get used to a crappy menu system but non-ergonomic button placement is something that will pain you for a long time to come. I’ve used camcorders that gave me a cramp in my thumb and palm due to a very cramped record button, and some camcorders have their menu buttons placed away from your hand which means you need to use your other hand to operate the menus, and one handed operation is impossible. What I’m saying is its important to actually use each camcorder you plan to buy for at least ten minutes to see if it really fits your hand and usage habits. Some of the so called compact camcorders are ergonomic nightmares as I discovered, and you should never give compactness preference over comfort, unless space is a premium.
A very important factor other than a camcorder’s specification is what sort of recording medium it uses. Traditionally, camcorders used either Mini DV tapes or 1.4 GB DVD disks. The latter are usually preferred because the chances of media failure is minimal. These DVD disks are of a small size and the dual-layer versions store up to 2.5 GB. Re-writeable versions are also available. The two newer storage media available are HDD (hard disk drive) and flash storage. The latter has become popular after the tremendous drop in the prices of flash storage. It’s not uncommon to see flash-based camcorders offering up to 16 GB of storage with additional SD or MicroSD expansion available. Remember that most camcorders do not allow you to store videos on the expansion card, which is exclusively used for still images.
In my opinion a hard drive camcorder makes the most sense. Sure — they’re bulkier and heavier for obvious reasons, but with the popularity of 1.8-inch HDDs this is improving. The pros — quicker start-ups with fewer delays in recording, not to mention the huge space at your disposal. And a hard drive can be read from and written to virtually infinite times as compared to DV tapes and DVDs. HDDs are available in sizes ranging from 20 GB all the way to 160 GB.
I came across Canon’s HG10 which has a 10x optical zoom and a 2.96 MP CMOS sensor. This camcorder is HDD based with 40 GB of storage and features an HDMI out. Canon advertises 1080p support but in reality you can record video in 1440 x 1080p which isn’t true 1080p HD (1920 x 1080). This is nevertheless impressive for a camcorder. The best part is the functional OIS system. Build quality is good, and low light performance is very acceptable. At a price of Rs 76,000, the HG10 is costly, but then it offers a lot. If you want a cheaper HDD based camcorder Sony’s DCR-SR45 is available for Rs 24,000. This model has a 30 GB HDD and a whopping 40x optical zoom. It doesn’t offer HD resolutions and neither is quality as good as the HG10, but it’s much cheaper. I found issues with the IS system which is electronic. Slightly better low light performance can be had from the DCR-SR65 which has a 25x zoom, and a larger 40 GB HDD. It also has a larger 1/6 inch sensor which is the main reason behind the increase in quality over its cheaper sibling. It’s priced at Rs 29,000. The Panasonic SDR-H60 was an impressive camcorder. It’s hybrid, meaning both HDD and memory card are available as storage media. It’s got a 60 GB HDD and an amazing 50x optical zoom that works superbly. Panasonic’s OIS is the best I’ve come across and even at the long end of the zoom I could get focussed recordings sans blur. The only demerit is that the performance of the camcorder in dim lighting isn’t the best around, although it’s not as bad as some of the other models, and I had to nitpick somewhat. It’s priced at Rs 46,000, which seems a little expensive for a non-HD camcorder.
Samsung’s VP-DX103i was an interesting model, quite lightweight and compact for a DVD model. With a 34x optical zoom and a 1/6 inch CCD sensor — this a good looking camcorder with decent features. It offers acceptable performance and for a price of Rs 15,000 is an absolute killer deal if you are entering the world of camcorders or are on a shoestring budget. In fact, given the quality, bundle and the performance I was shocked to find this camcorder available so cheap.
If I were shopping for one, I’d have gladly paid five thousand bucks more for this. Sony’s DCR-DVD610 is available for Rs 19,500, it has a large zoom — 40x, but the 1/8 inch CCD sensor doesn’t give as much quality under dimly conditions as the VP-DX103i which is clearly better priced. Canon’s DC310 is a DVD camcorder with a 1/6 inch sensor that allows capture up to 0.6 megapixels. It has a very decent 37x zoom although the IS system is strictly mediocre. At a price of Rs 19,000 it fits right into the entry level category.
After looking around and playing around with these models I was able to decide what I would buy if I had the cash to burn on a camcorder. For me the Samsung VP-DX103i impressed me with its build quality and acceptable performance. The clincher of course is the sterling price, 15,000 bucks is just amazing for a camcorder. If I were to look at a high end camcorder the Canon HG10 would tempt me for its HD capabilities, but I’d rather go with the all round zoom and terrific OIS capabilities of the Panasonic SDR-H60 — it won’t do HD and that’s my sole gripe.