Oct 13 2009

Choosing the Right Camcorder

Here are 5 questions to ask while looking for a camcorder that's right for your school.

If your school is in the market for a new camcorder, the more you know about what you want, the easier it will be to find one that suits your needs. Here are a few questions to ask as you consider which model to buy.

How Will You Use It?

Will the camcorder be used to record field trips? Do you plan to use it to capture live performances, such as musicals or assemblies? How you plan to use your camcorder will determine what type of camcorder you should buy.

What Is Your Budget?

Do you want to spend less than $500 or as much as $5,000? If you find a much better camcorder for $100 more than you plan to spend, is it worth the extra money? With some models, certain features may cost a little more, but are worth having; with other models, extra features that add to the cost may be unnecessary. For example, if you know you will be editing your video on a computer, then you won't need a camcorder with built-in editing functionality.

How Bright Is Your Lighting?

It is important to think through everything you need in a camcorder – for instance, how well does the camera function in low light? All digital camcorders are hogs when it comes to light, so when shooting digital video, the more light, the better. If you plan on shooting mostly inside in low to moderate light, you'll want a camcorder with a large charge-coupled device (CCD), which is an electronic light sensor used in digital camcorders.

Some camcorders use a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS). One drawback to CMOS sensors is they exhibit a phenomenon called “rolling shutter effect.” This is only noticeable on fast pans or intensive motion, so if you plan to record sporting events, a camcorder that integrates CCD technology may be a better choice for you.

It's important to check the number of the CMOS/CCD sensors and their size (expressed as fractions). Some camcorders have just a 1/6-inch CCD, while another might offer a 1/4-inch CCD. High-end camcorders utilize three CCDs, with one CCD devoted to processing red, green and blue, respectively. As a rule, the larger the CCD, the better the picture quality – and the higher the price tag. No matter which camcorder you buy, you can make almost any video you shoot look better by opening the curtains and letting the sunlight in. Always flood your subject with a lot of light.  

How Does That Sound?

If you're going to shoot only video and don't care about capturing crystal-clear voices and ambient sound, then most built-in microphones will suffice. However, if audio is critical to your production, then you need a camcorder that offers an external microphone input. An external microphone plugged into the camcorder opens up a variety of audio-capture options and can single-handedly transform a mediocre production into a polished one. Another way to significantly enhance the look of video is to shoot in high definition, but is this feature a “must-have” for schools?

High Definition or Standard?

Schools are in a position to take advantage of the vast price gap between High Definition and Standard Definition camcorders. SD camcorders are much less expensive than HD camcorders, and unless you have a 60-inch LCD or Plasma HDTV in each classroom, you won't see the difference. If you are a fan of the 16:9 aspect ratio and don't need an HD camcorder, look for an SD camcorder that offers widescreen recording. This will not give you HD footage, but it will give you a wide HD-like picture. Many media teachers produce amazing SD video with their students.

For example, Sara Hills, teaches beginning and advanced classes in contemporary media arts production at Roosevelt High School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Southern California. Her beginning class covers media literacy and theory, while the advanced class focuses on producing the school's morning announcements, various short films and a school video yearbook. For the beginning class, Hills wanted something inexpensive and durable with a simple user interface. She selected the Canon ZR 500, which has since been upgraded to the Canon ZR 960. The ZR 960 has a 3.5mm external microphone input, which works well with a simple wireless lapel-microphone system, such as the Sony WCS-999. This setup allows you to capture voices from up to 45 meters away. The camcorder also boasts a 41x optical zoom. For her advanced class, Hills chose the Canon XL2. Her students needed a camcorder that offered more professional features, such as interchangeable lens capability, Canon's own SuperRange image stabilization, skin detail control, and a host of other high-end features, including two XLR microphone inputs for audio.

One of the best under-$200 camcorders to hit the market is the Flip Video. This choice is perfect for school field trips and capturing classroom memories. It's simple to use – just point and shoot – and easy to transfer video to a computer with the included USB connector, which flips out like a switchblade. Video-editing software installs instantly on both Macs and PCs the first time you plug your camcorder in. You can even add titles and background music. The Direct-to-YouTube sharing feature makes it a cinch to distribute your video. Some drawbacks to consider: There is no external microphone input, it has only a 2x zoom and a small playback screen, and there is no protective lens cover or cap. But overall, it's a great camcorder for most educational applications. If you need better audio, just record the voice separately with, say, the Sony ICD-PX720 digital voice recorder, and sync the voice track with the video track using your computer editing software.