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FEATURE

 

CAMCORDERS -- THE CREDIBILITY CRISIS

 

INTRO

Camcorders are cool, they’re cute and covetable. Rick Maybury revisits video movie-making and discovers camcorders are no longer naff!

 

COPY

Come on, admit it, you know you want one! The trouble is camcorders have suffered from a bit of an image problem. They’ve never been marketed properly and the impression many people have of them, has been almost entirely fashioned by the likes of Jeremy Beadle and other people’s awful holiday videos.

 

Camcorders, and to a large extent, the people who buy them are changing though. When they first appeared in the mid-eighties, they were brought by the first-kids-on-the-block, the so-called early-adopters who’ll buy anything, as long as it’s new, and price is no object. Then came the grandparents, who had the time, money and most important of all, the grandchildren. Then as prices fell, nest-builders and young parents began snapping them up, eager to catch those first precious moments. Here’s a frightening thought, thousands of kids will grow up to see themselves being born and suffer the indignities of funny moments in potty-training.

 

Camcorder marketing hasn’t improved over the years, if anything it’s got worse, but the product has changed out of all recognition, so maybe it’s time to take another look at what’s been happening lately? About five years ago camcorders suddenly lost their novelty value. Manufacturers discovered that whilst most people quite liked the idea of making their own video movies, they were put off by the notion that camcorders were complicated, expensive, or just plain naff! Moreover consumers had become a lot more sophisticated, buying patterns had been finely honed by recession, and the bitter experience of countless useless gadgets.

 

In the early days camcorders were a lot like SLR cameras, loaded with knobs and buttons, but gradually manufacturers realised that in order for them to appeal to a wider market they needed to be more like highly automated 35mm compact cameras. They responded quickly, we’re now into second and third generation technologies, and with it has come a whole new set of reasons for wanting to own a camcorder, not least the fact that they’re incredibly easy to use and you don’t need to wear an anorak anymore.

 

At first they just stripped features from more expensive machines, but they still looked like serious camcorders, then Sharp hit on the idea of the ViewCam, the first radical change in camcorder design and layout in almost a decade. Suddenly camcorders started selling again. Camcorders with built-in LCD monitor screens get around one of the biggest perceived problems with video movie-making, that it is a solitary pursuit. ViewCam, and it’s imitators from Sony and JVC make it a communal experience, allowing on the spot replay that several people can watch, and hear. They don’t look like conventional camcorders, more like miniature TVs in fact, they’re fun to use, and everyone wants to have a go.

 

If you’re not fazed by tiny black boxes how about a palmcorder? Most models were already highly automated, but many of them retained a number of manual options for setting focus and exposure, but as auto systems have improved the need for manual intervention has all but disappeared. Nowadays the only controls you have to worry about are the on/off switch, and record stop/start button. Camcorder batteries used to be a real pain, always going flat at the wrong moment, but new technologies, like lithium-ion, have improved battery performance and longevity. Some machines can record for up to an hour, without having to recharge the battery. One manufacturer, Hitachi, have a couple of models that run on dry batteries (AA cells), as well as a rechargeable pack, so you never need be caught short again.

 

But what happens when you get home and want to watch your recordings? It’s not too bad with machines that use VHS-C format cassettes,  just slot the tape into an adaptor and play it back on the homedeck VCR. It’s not so simple with 8mm cassettes, though, the camcorder is also the replay deck, and has to be connected directly to the TV. Few TVs have front-mounted AV connectors, which means messing around the back of the TV, trying to find a vacant socket. Hitachi have come up with a novel solution called ‘optical link’. It’s fitted to their VM-H80 Weathercam, which comes with a little black box that plugs permanently to the TV or VCR’s AV input socket. When you want to replay a tape just point the camcorder at the TV and the AV signals are sent the black-box receiver using infra-red beams. No wires and no fuss. Maybe one day all camcorders will work this way...

 

Camcorders are about to undergo their biggest change yet with the introduction of an entirely new digital format. The first DVC (digital video cassette) machines go on sale in the UK this month with the launch of the Sony CCD VX 700 and 1000. It will be a while before prices come down to the level of today’s VHS-C and 8mm analogue camcorders but this is the way ahead. The main benefit will be a dramatic improvement in picture quality, on a par with large professional machines costing upwards of £25,000. Digital camcorders slot neatly into the wider world of digital TV, which will mean an explosion in the number of new channels. They will be hungry for material and digital camcorders will be able to provide it. At last we’ll all be able to parade our foibles, fantasies and fetishes for all to see in stunning broadcast quality video. You have been warned!

 

CAMCORDER CLASSICS

 

NODDYCORDERS

These three machines were developed in response to consumer surveys which suggested that the apparent complexity of many camcorders were putting people off. The LCD screens make them appear less threatening and easier to use, they also let you and your friends see and hear what you’ve just recorded. A couple of them work as TVs, with plug-in tuner modules.

 

JVC GR-SV2 Infocam £800

This is the only LCD camcorder to use VHS-C cassettes, so you can take recordings made on your home VCR, to watch when you’re on holiday, an optional TV tuner costs £130. It has a 2.5-inch screen, which faces forward, so your subjects can watch themselves as they’re recorded, plus novel 5-second record and video ‘memo’ facilities. Easy to use, good picture quality.

 

Sharp E31 ViewCam £900

An update of the first ‘ViewCam, with a 3-inch screen and pivoting camera section. It has some creative effects and works well under difficult conditions, it also has a proper 8x zoom and a clip-on TV tuner is often bundled in with the price. Good all-round performance and ideal for those who want to progress beyond basic snapshooting. Worth considering.

 

 

Sony SC5 Handycam Vision £900

Recently discontinued but there’s still plenty of them around, often selling well below list price. Very basic, it doesn’t have a zoom lens or any exposure controls and there’s no compatible TV tuner but the 3-inch screen is quite good and it is very small and easy to pack in luggage. Picture performance is very good and it’s absolutely foolproof.

 

CONFETTICORDERS

Shooting a wedding or important family celebration? One-off events demand the best picture and sound quality, which will survive copying and editing when you chop out the mistakes, or make tapes for friends and family. These machines have advanced editing facilities, eye-catching special effects and will cope better in difficult situations, such as dimly-lit churches, living rooms and outdoors.

 

Canon UC8 Hi £800

An amazing spec for the price. This is a Hi8 machine, with stereo sound, a 20X optical zoom, image stabiliser, multi-mode auto-exposure, editing facilities and an ingenious ‘flexizone’ focusing and exposure system, that locks on to an area defined by moving a cursor, shown on the viewfinder display. Outstanding AV performance, small, light, compact and easy to use. Highly recommended.

 

Panasonic NV-S70 £800

This was, and still is a classic, though it’s reached the end of the line now, so keep an eye out for bargains. It’s a tough little Super VHS-C palmcorder with stereo sound, a 10X zoom and plenty of exposure options for special effects, or tricky situations, plus it has an edit terminal. Excellent picture and sound, ideal for enthusiasts.

 

Sony CCD TRV100 £1800

This one has everything, including Hi8 video and stereo sound. Key features are a colour viewfinder and 4-inch fold-out colour screen, for on the spot replay. A full set of exposure controls, image stabiliser, timecode and editing facilities and longer running times, thanks to a high-capacity Lithium Ion battery. Outstanding performance and a delight to use but a tad bulky and horribly expensive

 

GAZZACORDERS

Whether you want to record the local football team’s games for posterity, analyse a golf swing in slow-motion, or capture your own efforts on the sports field, you’ll need an all-action, go-anywhere camcorder, that’s quick on the draw, with pin-sharp picture quality, sophisticated exposure controls and can survive the rigours of the an outdoor life, which might include getting wet now and again.

 

Hitachi VM-H8 £1200

Dubbed the ‘Weathercam’ this extraordinary machine is ideal for outdoor types who likes to do their video movie-making in the wet. The strong water resistant casing can take a dunking (unofficially down to a depth of 1-metre). Hi8 recording and stereo sound assure good AV performance. Clever ‘optical link’ system simplifies TV hook-ups. Few facilities but a doddle to use.

 

Panasonic NV-S90 £1200

A long time favourite with semi-pro users and enthusiasts. The S-VHS-C recording system and 10X zoom with image stabiliser gives superb on-screen results. Sound is good too, with pin-sharp stereo hi-fi audio recording. However, it’s the versatile exposure system, numerous editing options and host of special effects that sets this one apart. Soon to be replaced by NV-S88, same price, even better specs.

 

Sony TR3000 & MPKTRB underwater housing £1600 and £2000

A truly outstanding machine. Headline features include HI8 video and stereo sound, 16X optical zoom with 32X electronic enlargement, image stabiliser, loads of slick-looking special effects, manual exposure controls, colour viewfinder and some of the best editing facilities in the business. Pop it in the optional underwater housing (safe to a depth of 75 metres) and you can take this one anywhere.

 

OSCARCORDERS

Fancy yourself as the next Spielberg or Tarrentino? Your movie career will get off to a flying start with a high-performance camcorder, that gives outstanding picture and sound quality, plus the flexibility to create and capture those spectacular cinematic moments. Forget family-oriented snapshooters, think big, and be prepared to dig deep for the best the camcorder industry has to offer!

 

Canon EX2 Hi £2700

Canon’s finest, and still the only camcorder with an interchangeable lens system, that can also use lenses designed for Canon’s range of SLR cameras. It packs a lot of top-end technology, including Hi8 video and stereo sound, full manual exposure system, timecode editing and AV inputs. It’s quite a lump, a bit too bulky for family users but if you’re serious put it on the list.

 

Sony CCD-VX1

Until recently the only ‘domestic’ Hi8 camcorder, with 3-CCD image sensors, for unrivalled colour resolution and accuracy. The large 12x zoom and Hi8 recording system are capable of outstanding results. It has a full compliment of manual exposure controls, plus several important pro features, though once again the price, size and weight count against it for casual home video movie-makers.

 

Sony CCD-VX1000 £3000?

The very first digital camcorder using the new mini DVC tape format. Picture quality is almost up to broadcast standards. It has a 3-CCD image sensor and full manual control so it’s bound to be popular with professional video movie makers. DVC palmcorders will probably not appear until late next year but if you’re looking for the ultimate camcorder now, here it is!

 

WIDGETCORDERS

Camcorders are a lot easier to use these days, and most machines will make perfectly acceptable video movies with a minimum of fuss or bother, but where’s the fun in that? These three machines have got the kind of extra features and facilities that make you want to pick them up and have a go, and hopefully get you hooked.

 

Sanyo EX-33 £750

When Sanyo launched the EX33 back in 1993 it cause a storm, and it’s still going strong. The machine itself is a quite ordinary 8mm palmcorder but it comes with a clip on 1.5-inch LCD monitor screen, that doubles up as a remote and useful 8-scene editing controller, so you can lick your movies into shape. Very capable, shop around for deals.

 

Sharp ViewCam VL-H410 £1400

Sharp’s top of the range ViewCam has a 4-inch LCD screen, one of the better ones that can be viewed in sunlight. It has all of the facilities of a high-end machine, picture and sound quality are both very good, and there’s a fine set of exposure options, plus an image stabiliser. A TV tuner is available, there’s even a compatible underwater housing.

 

Sony SC8 Handycam Vision, £1100

Refined second-generation LCD camcorder that unlike it’s simpler cousins has a proper zoom lens (6 x optical, 24x digital), plus the all-important Hi8 video and stereo sound recording systems. The 3-inch colour screen produces a clear bright image and it has lots of useful features, including long-lasting lithium-ion battery, widescreen recording mode and NTSC playback. Ideal for demanding technophobes.

 

ALLROUNDERCAMS -- HE BEST BUYS

What makes a great camcorder?  Picture and sound quality are important, but the mark of a good camcorder is that it gets used. Point and shoot machines are all very well, but if indoor shots are grainy, or it gives up in poor light, then it’s going to end up being used less often. It makes sense to spend a little more on a camcorder that can cope with as wide a range of conditions as possible, and not leave you high and dry if you want to progress beyond basic snapshooting.

 

The Canon UC8 Hi combines the best of both worlds. In the full-auto mode it’s a docile as a kitten, but fire up the creative options and you’ve got a powerful, and affordable video movie-making tool. Panasonic’s NV-S90 (check out the NV-S88 too) is for those who want to go a little bit further, with full manual exposure control, some stunning special effects, and professional editing facilities. The TR3000 is the last stop before the big semi-pro machines, it’s approachable and simple to use but the range of manual functions are unsurpassed by any other palmcorder.

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Ó R. Maybury 1995 1010

 

 

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