The Horrors of Shopping
Buying an inexpensive digital video camcorder can be a tricky affair. When you don’t want to spend too much you really have to itemize your needs and decide what you can live without. Getting a quality image is the key factor to look for in a camera, so when testing your special picks there are certain things you should look for.
Let There Be Light
Lower resolution digital video cameras often have a tough time with varying light levels. Try using the “auto” modes when testing the camera, and shift from the normal light levels to an area of high shadow to see how well it reconfirms. In general, automatic modes are not going to be something that is conducive to a well produced video image so you should be able to walk away from this in every single aspect of the camera. See how it picks up images in the dark, especially objects that have bright colors. If it transitions well and still gives an acceptable image then that is a big plus. Also see how the camera interprets objects that have a varying texture in standard lighting situations. This can be things like how it interprets the details on a piece of clothing or facial features. See how well the camera picks up colors of objects under the automatic settings, because this will be a good indicator as to how well it will handle images in general.
Try out the auto focus to see how well it focuses in on both stationary and moving objects. If it takes more than a second to focus in on a new object then you may want to move on. If the auto focus has trouble on objects that have a variable texture or a complex pattern this is also a bad sign. Try calibrating the zoom manually by zooming in as close as you can, focusing, and zooming back out slowly. It should maintain the focus during the entire zoom out process. You cannot expect almost any inexpensive video camera to allow you to change lenses, especially since lenses on their own on incredibly expensive. If this is what you want then new DSLR cameras like the Lumix GH2 are less expensive than high end HD cameras, but still not in the price bracket that most people would consider “inexpensive video cameras.”
The Great White Hype
Test out the white balance, both auto and manual, to make sure that it really does capture the true white of the situation. Some cheaper cameras have trouble registering a real white, so do this in several lighting situations with different white objects. If you have to white balance several times to get it right this may indicate that the camera is just not up to the task. Inexpensive video cameras have to find a place to skimp on the features, though this is something that is at the heart of video production. The best option will be to be able to set your own white balance, save customizable presets, as well as have camera inherent presets for different situations and color balances.
Eye on the Numbers
Pay special attention to the focal length and resolution numbers. Make sure to get something with a focal length of over twenty, and the lines of resolution always over four hundred. When looking at zoom options always choose optical over digital zoom, but having both is ideal. Remember that digital zoom is actually something that just something that makes the existing image bigger, which actually degrades the image. It is also something that you can do when you are in post-production.
At this point in history you are going to have to pay attention to the numbers just to see what type of camera it is. Make sure it shoots at least 720p, but it would be best to see it go up to 1080i for true HD. At the same time it would also be nice if the image size could be set for 1920, which is often only reserved for higher end cameras. One option that is really left off of inexpensive video cameras is the ability to change frame rate, so look for ones that have a baseline of 23 fps, 30 fps, and 60 fps options.
Take It Back
The best way to try out a camera’s imaging is just to video tape a bunch of situations and then check them over. This can be hard to do in the store, but always keep the receipt and don’t be afraid to return it if it does not meet your expectations.