Buying A Video Camera

Buying a video camera might seem like a simple task, perhaps because you haven’t attempted to do it recently, or maybe you live in a world where video cameras are an oft-discussed item. For the rest of us — hearty DIY people who would like to purchase a video camera who are not independently wealthy or funded by outside money and who want to be treated with a little respect for the couplea hundred bucks we worked for and saved to go buy said camera — I write this guide.

Top-Level Recommendations

•    Sometimes, brand counts. Not in pharmaceuticals, but yeah in electronics.
•    Buying from a place that lets you return something that doesn’t work for you is golden. B&H Photo Video in Manhattan was great. BestBuy wanted to charge a restocking fee so I didn’t buy from them. [So, not best.] Also that means that eBay or some guy on CL is not the best if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
•    Set yourself a price limit and prepare to adjust it by maybe $100. But don’t get crazy.
•    Buying the cheapest item means you get a dinky trifling chintzy piece of plastic. The bottom of the barrel is not a good place for electronics to be found. I hate this but it’s true.

Terminology Basics:

Consumer: The “low end” of video cameras where we will be loitering for much of this discussion. The cameras in the $100 – $1000 range. [All your bills for the month added up.]
Prosumer: A term which has the aura of relators’ ingenuity for making up words that mean “upsell.” Used for cameras that are fancier than point-and-shoot but not so fancy you could take them to Hollywood. Wait scratch that. In the $700 – $1500 range. [yes, that’s a month’s rent.]
Professional: Cameras over $2500 [and up to $60K] which I am entirely unqualified to use, let alone talk about. [All the money you’ll make this year.]

Media Types:

MiniDV – The Old Guard of camcorders’ recording media, these are the tiny tapes you put into your camera that record analog which you then have to capture using final cut or another program. Just a note and thought, most Professional cameras still record to tape [or film, of course] and when you use tape, you are allowing

Mini DVD – A tiny DVD that you record onto in the camera. If you have a desktop computer/certain PC’s, then you can slap the little DVD into your computer and grab the video. I personally would be terrified to shove it into my MacBook, but I could be a priss.

HDD/Flash Memory – any of the growing number of devices that burn the digital encoding of the video directly to the camera’s memory. Sometimes you have to buy an additional memory card sometimes the camera has a ton of internal memory [our friend RAM!] Remember that 20 mins = 1 Gigabyte of data, so if you want to record an hour you’ll need 3Gigs+ [the more stopping and starting you do, the less time you can use, as the memory gets cut up for your little recordings].

Recording Formats:

HD – High-definition images, 1920 x 1080 pixels, generally widescreen, the newest of the new in video reccording. You know how when you take a photo/video of your TV or old-tyme giant computer monitor, and all these horizontal lines were showing up? In HD there are twice as many of those lines, thus getting about double the image info — and taking up double the digital storage space. “We all survived fine without HD until a few years ago, so…?” the video guy at B&H said to me leadingly. Unless you have a HD TV or plan to make videos for the big screen HD might be overkill. Then again – many of the HDD/Flash consumer cameras out there ONLY record in HD. It’s an improvement, of course, and a recent shoot I did in HD got me beautiful footage — that took up 6G for 15mins. Ouch. Also, not yet common in Europe.

AVCHD – Sony/Panasonic’s extra high-def HD format. If you really want to try to capture for Blu-ray, maybe low-end video camera’s aren’t right for you anyway? I feel this is the end result of people thinking they need to see JOhnny’s every pimple in their home movies. But maybe I judge?

SD – Standard Definition. 720×480 pixels* is the NTSC [N America] screen size. What everything tv/video was produced as since TV started being in color in, oh, 1951. Has the benefit of the fact that everything pre 2004ish is in SD, so anything public domain you pick up on to mashup, will be produced in SD.

Tape – If you record to tape, you set the file type according to your capture program. [Final Cut makes my videos into happy QuickTime .mov files.]

If you use a DVD/HD/Flash Memory device, there are a few formats, and not all of them play nicely with each other or with all the other programs or platforms out there. Listing all thevariations is a statistical impossibility, so this is really a word of attention needed here: You might be on a Mac and find that all the Sony software is only for PC and be frustrated. My friends’ Flip recorded in .avi and that needed to be rendered every time I moved it a touch in Final Cut. You might have to convert your footage before you throw it in your editing program.

Converting Among File Types – You recorded in MPEG and you want to edit in MOV. Try ffdshow if you’re on a PC, Any Video Converter for PC or on your Mac! Or you can get QuickTime Pro for $25 [as opposed to QuickTime Regular Normal, which is probably already on your computer].

Bells and Whistles

What is the Image Capture rate? Does it zoom? Can it make sepia tone?

  • Zoom: Optical [what the lens does], Digital [what the camera makes up for you] – listen; fuck digital zoom. It’s like when you ask Photoshop to resize a web image to print quality, the camera/program makes up the missing pixel image data, and it never looks right. Just worry about what the optical zoom is, k?
  • Image sensor – 1/4″, 1/6″, 1CCD, 3CCD
  • Microphone terminal mini-jack – this is a really nice bonus that a lot of Canon [and a fair amount of JVC] camera’s have. Plug in a mic and you can get better sound quality from your tiny camera!

Lastly, follow my above directives, hewn from the pain of researching and being forced to separate from money I made doing something that was not living the dream, with these words of sage advice: time is not just money, it’s much more valuable than money can be. Get your tools and go make your art!

*did you know the origin of the term: PIcture(X) ELement

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