Buying A Budget Video Camera

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 03/15/2004 - 16:00

I'm looking for a new video camera. Nothing too expensive. In fact, I'm looking to spend as little as possible, but something that still delivers reasonable results in terms of video and audio. And I don't think that is too much to ask.

I want something that I wont fret too much about, that I'll have close to hand, that I can afford to lose or drop (although obviously I'd rather I didn't). My theory is that I'm more likely to be using the cheap camera than something bulky and expensive, if for no other reason than because they are smaller and more portable.

This camera is for having a bit of fun with, experimenting with and even lending to people for video diaries. It'll also be a back-up camera for more serious work.

Having made the decision to buy, what kind of features am I looking for? Here's a list of the main criteria I'm using to narrow down my choice:

How much?
Under 500 quid. We're talking consumer end camcorder.

Format: MiniDV
It's got to be mini-DV. I want to edit the footage on my PC. Digital formats, MiniDV being the most common, allow you to do this with ease. You can import your footage into your computer via FireWire (aka iLink or IEEE-1394), edit on the computer and export the edited version back to DV without any loss of quality. With analogue formats (Video-8, Hi-8, etc.), when you import the video into the computer the footage has to be compressed into a digital format for editing, thereby losing a generation in the conversion process.

Britain is one of the countries that uses a PAL video system, while in North America (where I am currently based, although I'm British) they use the NTSC system. At the advent of colour television the Americans rushed out their NTSC system while Europe brought out a different system, PAL, years later. The immediate problem for me is tapes recorded on PAL usually don't play on NTSC cameras, VCRs and televisions. NTSC-recorded video wont run on many PAL systems. I really want to go PAL - it produces better image quality with 100 more horizontal lines than NTSC (PAL has 625 vs 525 on NTSC).

Also, if I ever had the money and desire to blow a clip up to film (it has been done more often than you might think by the likes of Dogma filmmakers) PAL has the added advantage over NTSC in that it runs more closely to the speed of film: PAL runs at 25 frames per second, while film runs at 24 frames a second. NTSC, which runs at 29.97 frames a second, requires a more complex "pull-down" process to shed those extra frames in the conversion to film.

Particularly important to me is the fact that I have miniDV tapes on PAL that I want to be able to play back on the new camera's built-in VCR. I wont be able to if I go NTSC. I have footage on PAL Hi-8 that I want to mix with this footage. It will be more problematic if I buy an NTSC camera.

PAL seems to be my pal, yet I am stuck in NTSC-land and if I want to be able to use this new camera casually and share the camera or footage with others here I'm going to have to go NTSC. It's difficult to buy PAL products here so I also have to factor in extra charges to ship the product out (and back if there is a problem with the camera). This issue still vexes me. Fortunately, most people don't have to worry about this, except if buying a camera/VCR or television from an overseas website be sure to check that you are getting the system you want. That's probably the country where you live.

If I go PAL then I will definitely want Video-in so that once I have edited footage on my computer I can then record it back to the video camera using the built-in VCR without any generational loss.

NTSC cameras come with DV in/out as standard, but in Europe, DV-in cameras are considered VCRs and taxed at a higher rate, so many low-budget DV cameras don't support video-in. Support for analogue video in would be an added bonus, but I don't expect it at this price. This could be via RCA jacks for audio and/or S-video (better quality than RCA).

USB port
I'm a webhead so a USB port for streaming live video would be a useful feature.

More chips please, Sir!
A 3 CCD camera - one for every primary colour - would most likely produce richer visuals over most 1-chip video cameras. However, although cameras like Panasonic's NV-GS70B , a budget video cam with three 540k CCDs, are closing in on my price range I'm probably going to have to make do with a single, typically 800k, CCD at this price level. The larger the CCD, the better.

The Lens - Optical vs Digital Zoom and focus
Optical zoom is handled by the camera lens itself. The digital "zoom" is not really zoom, but simply the camera enlarging the existing image. It's another one of those features that camera companies trumpet, which I turn off and never use. You can do these enlargements or "digital zooms" with much more control on your computer with any good video editing program. I'll be happy with 10x optical zoom at this price. I also need to be able to focus manually, preferably using a focus ring around the lens. Surprisingly, this is not a given on many video cameras.

Manual controls
I like being able to set controls manually. I've got away with setting white-balance to auto and forgetting about it in the past, but I also want to fix the colour temperature on occasions. Manual controls for aperture, gain and shutter speed will also allow me more control and to be creative.

Optical Stabilisation System
This is a feature the footage will probably benefit from. It smooths out the rough edges by internally balancing shaky images, although how good the system will be at this price is questionable.

Most camcorders come with inputs for an external microphone and headphones. To me they are essential. I don't expect the audio quality from a DV cam at this price to be great, although I will be enhancing the camera's built-in condenser microphone and lack of manual control over recording levels. (Read Recording Good Sound For Film and Video).

Design - Look and Feel
Any camera at this price is going to be more portable than a more expensive camera (less electronics packed in) but it would be nice to have something that fits snugly in my hand and can be slipped into a large jacket pocket or small bag. I'm less concerned about the design than most reviewers of video cameras seem to be - I usually adapt to any design after using it for a while.

I have no loyalties, but like everyone I am drawn to certain ubiquitous name brands. I'm open to anything, but I'll probably end up buying from one of the usual suspects - Sony, Panasonic, Canon, etc.

Getting a good deal at this price level is all about making sacrifices. Here's some of the things I can do without:

Memory card
I'm not interested in taking stills with the camera, so a memory card is definitely optional. Film stills are important for a production's publicity, but I'll take them with a separate stills camera.

In-camera effects
The camera I buy is likely to have a range of jazzy sounding in-camera effects, fade-in, fade-out, sepia-tones. I wont be using them. I just want the cleanest, most natural footage I can get. I've got nothing against using effects, I'm just going to do them on the computer later. You have much more control, more time and if you make a mistake you can redo the effect.

More like "out-of-focus" in my experience. Frequently, it focuses on the wrong subject or goes hunting for the subject. No doubt, the camera will come with auto-focus, but I'm more interested in the support for manual focus.

If it's stylish great. But I don't want to pay extra for styling.

That's pretty much it. Like I said, I'm not asking for too much. That NTSC/PAL question is the tricky part. Check back later, and I'll tell you how I got on.

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