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Beyond the Office [Making Movies: Choosing a Camcorder, Part 2 - 05/03/2005]

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May 3rd, 2005

Making Movies: Choosing a Camcorder, Part 2

PC World Contributor Richard Baguley

Camcorders are rather like people, at least in some respects. There
are tall ones, short ones, wide ones, thin ones, and ones with
odd-looking lumpy bits. There are even ones that come in different
colors, although (much like people) the colors don't make much
difference to what's inside. And, much like picking a friend, choosing
the right camcorder can be a confusing business--but only if you don't
know what to look for.

Last month, I looked at the different media that camcorders can record
to, including Recordable DVD, MiniDV, and memory cards:

This month I'm looking at the different types of camcorders, and the
pros and cons of each.

There are three main styles: palm, or pocket-sized models that fit in
the palm of your hand; hand, which are larger and meant to be held in
one hand, with a strap; and shoulder, the biggest ones that sit on
your shoulder. Each of these types has its own strengths and

Palm Style

Pro: Small, can be held and controlled with one hand.
Con: LCD screens are smaller than those on hand models; lesser-used
controls may be difficult to access.
Recommended for: People who value portability and ease of use more
than features.

Small, svelte, and shiny palm camcorders elicit admiring glances
wherever they go. Models such as the $600 Sony DCR-PC55 or the $800
Canon Optura 500 are small enough to fit into a pocket, but can do
pretty much everything that their larger brethren can. They are also
light: Most weigh less than 10 ounces.

But there's a downside: The smaller designs allow for only a small LCD
screen, typically 2.5 inches or less on the diagonal. The devices can
hold a limited number of buttons, so while you can operate the basic
controls with the thumb and fingers of the hand holding the camcorder,
infrequently used features tend to be hidden away in on-screen menus
or on buttons on the left side that require using the other hand.
While this might not be a problem for most people, it can be annoying
if you frequently change settings such as the shooting mode (for going
from outdoors to indoors, for instance) and you need to dip into an
on-screen menu to do it.

Palm models also tend to have a smaller zoom range than the larger
ones: They typically have a maximum optical zoom of 10X, while
hand-style models can go up to 20X.

Also, while these very small camcorders are well suited for people
with small hands, they can be uncomfortable for those with larger
hands, who often find their fingers sitting over the microphone on the
top. The microphone can be a problem too: If it is located on the top
of the case, it can pick up the voice of the user, drowning out the
sounds that you really want to record.

For pricing and specs on the Sony DCR-PC55 and the Canon Optura 500,
go to the PC World Product Finder:

Sony DCR-PC55

Canon Optura 500

Hand Style

Pro: Still smallish, but LCD screens are larger than those of palm
models; more comfortable for people with larger hands.
Con: Heavier and bulkier than palm models.
Recommended for: Those who want more control or a bigger screen and
don't mind a slightly larger and heavier camcorder.

The great majority of the camcorders that you'll see on the market
fall into this category, Models such as the $370 Sony HC21 or the $460
JVC GR-DF550 are bigger than the palm models, but still small enough
to fit into one hand. Generally speaking, they use a strap that fits
around the hand to secure the camera--a nice touch if you're videoing
a roller coaster ride and don't want to drop several hundred dollars
worth of equipment when you start plummeting down.

There are usually a couple of buttons under the thumb, for recording
and zoom. You can operate the basic controls of the camera with one
hand, although you may need the other hand to access menus and change

Hand-style camcorders also generally have big, bright LCD screens.
Some come with 3-inch or bigger screens for playing back the action or
showing off the still images that many of them allow you to capture.
Although the weight of individual models varies, they typically run
between 10 and 20 ounces--light enough to carry around for an extended
period of time.

There are a large range of designs within this category, so it is
important to try them and see how they feel. Though the larger size of
these camcorders is an advantage, it can also be a problem: You'll
need to buy a proper camcorder case to carry this type of
model--unless you have very large pockets. You can tote a hand-style
camcorder on a strap around your neck, but this makes you look like a
tourist and makes a tempting target for thieves.

For pricing and specs on the Sony HC21 and the JVC GR-DF550, go to our
Product Finder:

Sony HC21


Shoulder Style

Pro: Best video quality; more expandable than other models.
Con: Heavy; can be awkward to use; expensive.
Recommended for: Professional and serious videographers and those who
want ultimate control of the recorded video.

You might not see shoulder-mounted cameras such as the Canon XL2 at
your local electronics store, but they are worth considering if you
are serious about video. These camcorders give you much more control
over the process of recording video, allowing you to tweak the video
in a number of ways that aren't possible with smaller camcorders. They
are also far more expandable: For example, the XL2 has interchangeable
lenses and can record from professional microphones.

But this flexibility has a price: Shoulder-mounted camcorders are
heavier and bulkier than palm or hand models. But putting the
camcorder on your shoulder makes it much more comfortable for shooting
for longer periods and helps produce steadier video.

Speaking of price, however, these models ain't cheap: The XL2 goes for
around $3500, with extra lenses costing upwards of $1300. But if
you're working on a serious project (or someone else is paying the
bill), a professional shoulder-mounted camera might be a much better
investment than a cheaper one. Canon also offers a $500 adapter that
lets you use lenses designed for Canon SLR still cameras--a huge bonus
if you want to use a long zoom and already have one for your Canon
digital SLR.

For more info on the XL2, go to Canon's Web site:

Now you're ready to put your newfound expertise to the test. Go into a
store that offers a decent selection of camcorders and try several
models. See how they fit into your hand and how easily you can reach
the buttons. Think about the features that you want and need, and
about the recording format that you like. Decide which camcorder is
right for you--then buy it.

Congratulations, you're a winner! You've just joined the honorable
ranks of Making Movies Camcorder Choosers--the select few who have a
camcorder that's right for them. Now if only friends were that easy to

Have a question or comment? Write to Richard Baguley:
makingmovies at

Read Richard Baguley's "Making Movies" columns:

"Until last October, Christ had a very limited involvement in my life. I believed in God; I just never had to prove I believed. Belief is an absence of proof."
-- Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling
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