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FEATURE

 

BUYING A CAMCORDER

 

INTRO

Summer’s coming, time to dust off the camcorder; if you haven’t got one yet, here’s our exclusive guide to hottest, hippest and cutest cams around

 

COPY

We could prattle on about the video movie-maker’s art, painting with light and all sorts of pretentious tosh, but the bottom line with camcorders is that they capture memories. Nothing does it better, as anyone re-living an embarrassing moment from an 18-30 holiday, or watching their child’s first steps, can testify. Nevertheless, somewhat lacklustre sales figures over the past few years suggest a lot of people are still wary of the things.

 

Price used to be an issue, but with the cheapest discounted models selling for less than  £400, they’re within most people’s reach. You may still think they’re difficult to use, all those knobs and buttons. No so. Since day-one every camcorder has been equipped with fully automatic exposure and focusing systems. We defy anyone not to be able to use one after thirty seconds worth of instruction, or a couple of minutes spent with the instruction manual. Early machines were big and cumbersome but today’s compact models pack easily in an overnight case; some are small enough to slip into a coat pocket.

 

That leaves the naff factor. Fortunately that is wearing off, despite J. Beadles best efforts. More importantly, the message is finally getting through. Two-hour home videos, punctuated with wild zooming and panning, where nothing much else happens, are incredibly boring. It takes only a few minutes to learn how to compose and frame shots, use the stop-start button and not to shove lenses where they’re not welcome!

 

This year should be a good one for the industry and manufacturers are trying harder than ever to win over the sceptics. Recently announced 97/98 model ranges are looking very good, with plenty of exciting and attractive-looking machines. Prices are down, specifications are up, and technology is pushing the limits of what is possible to new extremes. In short -- we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again -- there’s never been a better time to buy!

 

BEST NODDY-CORDER

Canon have a happy knack of making their budget camcorders simple to operate, with better than average performance; that’s very clearly demonstrated on the UC5500, selling now for less than £500. It has a punchy 20x zoom, plus a range of program auto-exposure modes, to ensure a watchable recording in a wide variety of lighting conditions. However, a lot of entry-level machines leave you high and dry, if you want to progress beyond basic point and shoot recording. That’s not an issue with the UC5500, which won’t leave you feeling frustrated, as you become more experienced. That’s the point at which a lot of machines end up gathering dust in the back of a cupboard. The key feature is the Control L/LANC editing terminal, that can be used with an edit controller or home computer, to turn over-long recordings into sharp, snappy productions, that you can be proud to show to friends and family.

Canon UK, telephone 0181-459 1266

 

ALSO WORTH CONSIDERING

JVC GR-AX270, £500, JVC UK Ltd., telephone 0181-450 3282

Fuss-free camcordering with plenty of advanced features on tap

 

Panasonic NV-RX9, £500,

Compact, go-anywhere model, capable of excellent results

 

Sharp ViewCam VL-E34, £600, Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

Colour LCD screen makes it fun and easy to use, for all the family

 

BEST SPORTY-CORDER

One of the most compelling arguments for owning a camcorder is to capture those one-off, defining moments in our lives. The winning goal, the first time you make it down a black run, drinking a yard of ale in 3 seconds, coming first in the school egg and spoon race -- they all have one thing in common --  fast action in often difficult or hectic conditions. That’s something a machine like the new £800 Sony CCD-TR820 copes with easily. It’s a sophisticated Hi8 model, so picture quality is excellent, and you’re assured wobble-free pictures -- when you have no time to set up a shot -- with a powerful 30x zoom and electronic steady-shot image stabiliser. Low light sensitivity of just 0.7 lux and a useful set of program AE modes ensure crisp pictures in unfavourable situations, and there’s plenty of advanced editing features, for tidying up recordings later on.

Sony UK, telephone 0181-784 1144

 

ALSO WORTH CONSIDERING

Canon UC-X10Hi, £700, Canon UK, telephone 0181-459 1266

Superb all-rounder, optical stabiliser, powerful zoom and loads of creative facilities

 

Hitachi VM-H80, £1000, Hitachi Home Electronics, telephone 0181-849 2000

The only all-weather Hi8 camcorder; it can survive a dunking. Discontinued but stocks still available

 

Panasonic NV-SX3, £750, Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (0990) 357357

Super VHS-C picture quality, image stabilisation and great AV quality

 

BEST MOVIE-CORDER

Camcorders have provided a lot of budding Spielbergs and Tarrentinos with their first step on the path towards a career in TV and the movies. Camcorders with plenty of creative controls and facilities will get you off to a good start, and that’s precisely what a machine like the Sony CCD-TR3300 is designed to do. It’s loaded with features, like a manual iris, shutter, white balance and gain adjustments. There’s a good selection of advanced electronic special effects, such as digital overlap, fade, wipe and slow shutter and the editing facilities include timebase correction, time code recording and a full-function edit terminal. The Hi8 recording system, large bright lens, 42x zoom and image stabiliser, combine to give crisp, sharp images every time. For all that it’s very easy to get to know and use, leaving you free to make those all-important artistic decisions

 

ALSO WORTH CONSIDERING

Canon UC-X2Hi, £1600, Canon UK, telephone 0181-459 1266

Numerous advanced facilities, and one of the best Hi8 performers on the market

 

JVC GR-SZ5000, £800,

Soon to be launched enthusiasts model with many advanced features

 

Panasonic NV-MS5, £1800, Panasonic UK Ltd., telephone (0990) 357357

A full size Super VHS stalwart, much favoured by semi-pro users

 

BEST DIGI-CORDER

The digital video cassette (DVC) format has provided a welcome breath of fresh air for the camcorder market. DVC camcorders deliver broadcast-quality picture and sound performance, at an affordable price. The first machines were aimed at serious movie-makers, enthusiasts and semi-pro users, but JVC broke the mould with the incredible GR-DV1. This highly covetable, pocket size machine, now discounted to £1500 or less, rocked the camcorder world. It quickly became a best seller, creating enormous interest that extended well beyond the bounds of traditional video movie-making. It does everything a normal camcorder can do, plus a whole lot more, including operating as a high quality digital still camera, with the option of downloading images into personal computers. It’s a brilliant piece of design, extremely simple to use and ready to go in a couple of seconds.  Small wonder that it has inspired a host of imitators, but this was the first, and we reckon still the best.

 

ALSO WORTH CONSIDERING

JVC DVM1, £2000, JVC UK Ltd., telephone 0181-450 3282

Successor to the DV1, with colour LCD screen, and PC connectivity as standard

 

SONY DCR-PC7, £2000, Sony UK, telephone 0181-784 1144

Inspired by the DV1, with fold-out LCD screen and even more advanced facilities

 

SONY DCR-VX1000, £3500, Sony UK, telephone 0181-784 1144

A superbly well-featured machine, for pro and semi-pro movie makers

 

BOX COPY 1

INSTANT EXPERT -- CAMCORDER TYPES

Camcorders come in many different shapes and sizes, but the market has evolved into four basic categories. Compact, sometimes called ‘shoe-shape’ machines are still the most numerous, though they’re being gradually overtaken by smaller sub-compact models, that are more convenient if you need to travel light. Compacts and sub-compacts are available with the entire range of feature configurations, from simple budget models, to advanced semi-pro machines, costing from under £400 to over £1500. 

 

The third and most recent type of machine is the ‘LCD Cam’, with a built-in or fold-out colour display screen. They’re proving very popular with family users, who value the facility for two or more people to watch a recording, on the spot. They tend to be quite basic though, with modest zoom lenses, and few creative facilities. Hybrid compact camcorders, with conventional viewfinders, and a fold-out LCD screen are usually better featured, though the LCD panel imposes size, weight and price penalties.

 

The last and smallest group of machines are the large, high-performance shoulder-mount models. They’re designed for serious high-end users, and in practice will spend most of their working lives bolted to tripods. They’re specialist products, typically costing between £1500 and £45000, and clearly not the sort of thing you’d want to pack for a weekend break.

 

FORMATS

VHS-C and 8mm camcorders are fine for making simple home movies. First generation quality is good, recordings can however, start to look a whiskery when they’re copied or edited beyond a second generation.

 

S-VHS-C and Hi8 are the high-band formats. Picture quality is noticeably better than VHS-C and 8mm, edited recordings and copies also look a lot sharper. Equipment and tapes are a little dearer, though.

 

The DVC format is capable of broadcast quality picture and sound performance, moreover digital recordings can be copied ad-infinitum, without significant deterioration. The cheapest DVC machines cost from £1500, though prices are expected to fall

 

BOX COPY 2

INSTANT EXPERT -- ACCESSORIES

* A good quality carry case or bag is essential to protect your camcorder. Make sure it’s large enough to hold the mains charger, and a couple of spare tapes and batteries. There’s plenty to choose from, prices start at around £20

 

* Camcorder batteries always run out at the worst possible moment. Always carry a spare, and make sure you get the right type for your machine. It’s a good idea to get a high capacity type, if you’re going to be doing a lot of recording.

 

* A lot of camcorder have image stabilisation systems nowadays but you can’t beat a tripod, for really professional-looking shots. They needn’t be expensive, models like the Vivanco VS26 are small, light, and pack easily into luggage. Vivanco, telephone (01442) 403020

 

*  Nickel-cadmium batteries can quickly loose their capacity to hold a charge if they’re subjected to frequent top-up charges. A battery discharger can eliminate the ‘memory’ effect and restore a battery to full health, for a fraction of the cost of a new pack. Hama have dischargers for most types, from around £20 upwards. Hama UK, telephone (01256) 708110

 

* Camcorder microphones are a necessary compromise. You can easily improve the quality of your soundtrack by using an external microphone, and you won’t have to get so close to your subject.  The Bandridge BMD 850 stick mike is a good buy at £40. Bandridge, telephone  0181-543 3633

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 1704

 

 

 

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