Digital Movies

Camcorder: They aren't cheap, but new recorders provide better quality.


The camcorder has become a fixture on the American landscape. In the right hands, it can yield a documentary of pivotal moments in your life. But in the wrong hands - like mine - it can yield results that make 12 hours of Monica Lewinsky's deposition look like an Emmy winner.

The average video camera in the hands of the average user produces a few memorable moments trapped in a quagmire of quirky pans, shaky zooms and footage of the photographer's feet. The picture is frequently blurry even when it's in focus and the audio sounds like you've been yelling into a cheap cassette recorder in a high wind.

If only you could get clean video and sound - and get rid of those frames of your sneakers - maybe those tapes wouldn't sit around around decomposing.

Well, if you're prepared to pay about as much as you spent five years ago on that first 8 mm minicam, you can end your video misery. With the latest digital camcorders, you can get broadcast-quality video and CD-quality sound.

Many digital camcorders have built-in editing tools and special effects, while some include a connector that hooks up with your PC. With the right video editing software and a little practice, you can be the next Barry Levinson - or at least keep the family awake.

What makes digital camcorders better? They're digital, which means they store images as sequences of ones and zeros, the same way compact discs store digital sound. Traditional camcorders use the same basic analog TV technology that has been around for 50 years, recording magnetic waves that represent patterns of light and darkness.

Digital camcorders can store more information about each frame, which means a sharper, more detailed picture than an analog recording. Digital images are easier to edit and manipulate, and the picture quality doesn't degrade with repeated playing.

I tested two middle-of-the-line digital camcorders - Canon's Vistura ($1,050) and JVC's CyberCam GR-DVF10 ($1,200). Both are about the size of standard 8 mm camcorders, and they pack plenty of features into a small package. But they won't do you a lot of good unless you learn how to use them.

Now consider the issue of tape. Both cameras use the Mini DV tape format, which is slightly smaller than today's standard 8 mm cassettes. So don't don't expect to pop the tapes out of these and throw them in the VCR, or use the tapes from your last camcorder.

(If compatibility is paramount, Sony recently released the Digital8 HandyCam, which can record to 8 mm cassettes and play back tapes made with a Hi8 camcorder).

Next, there's size. Smaller is usually better for most of us. Canon's compact package is a 2.8-inch diagonal color LCD view screen, which can be used as a viewfinder instead of the traditional eyepiece, or turned 180 degrees to show your subject what the camera sees.

Because the Canon has a built-in speaker, you can play back the footage you've just shot with full audio using the LCD screen.

The JVC CyberCam also has a built-in color display and speakers. It's slightly larger than the Canon - 1 inches longer, though its weight is similar. The additional length is put to good use with an integrated mini-floodlight for dark scenes.

Most digital cameras can take stills as well as full-motion video. They can store hundreds of snapshots on a tape. You can view the stills as a slide show on your TV or download them to your computer for editing and e-mailing.

Canon's Vistura is designed with the still photographer in mind, with a hot shoe for an external flash unit on the top which can also be used for other other accessories such as a boom microphone.

Both cameras deliver video that's close to broadcast quality, with crystal-clear sound in stereo if you like, so you can relive those family reunions in Sensurround.

Remember the fuzzy distance shots you used to take with your old camcorder? Both of these cameras can zoom up close and personal without losing sharpness. The JVC CyberCam has a more powerful zoom with a maximum 160X magnification, compared to the Vistura's 64X. The CyberCam also sports a built-in lens cover, a nice touch for klutzes like me who can lose things even when they're tied down.

One other plus for the CyberCam is a standard external recharger, which was faster than the Vistura built-in recharging unit.

Although they're small and light, digital camcorders can still produce shaky images, particularly you're grabbing a one-hand around-the-corner stealth shot of a child who's camera-shy (or worse, a ham). The same goes for shotom a moving car and other stupid videographer tricks. Fortunately, both cameras offer image stabilization - but of the two, the Vistura was better in smoothing out a shaky camera hand.

But enough of plain old good-looking shots - what about the bells and whistles for budding cinematographers?

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