Buying an HD Camcorder: Features to Look For
Image by Michael Heigl via Flickr

Buying an HD camcorder may sound like a fairly straightforward process. After all, don’t we carry around HD camcorders in our pockets in the form of smart phones? What could be so difficult?

Well, with standalone consumer HD camcorders boasting specs and capabilities that fall in line with what you might expect to spend upwards of $10,000 for just a few years ago, there is a lot more to choosing the right one than simply glancing at the price tag.

You might find that after bringing your new HD camcorder home, there are a number of challenges that await you. For example, not all HD camcorders capture footage with the same codecs, and not all of these codecs are compatible with every major video editing program out there. This is an important consideration, especially if you’re recording footage intended to be used in a professional capacity.

HD Camcorder Codecs

Most DSLRs out there record video in a codec called H.264, which is a lossless codec that isn’t intended to work directly with most editing programs. It’s for this reason that special considerations need to be made when working with these types of files. Some HD camcorders record in a common standard called AVCHD, which itself has several different components that may or may not be supported natively by your program of choice. Final Cut Pro, for example, is notorious for having mixed support of AVCHD files, while Adobe Premiere is a bit more forgiving to the format.

Take a moment to find out what frame rates and size options are available, as well. An HD camcorder that records in 1080i will produce interlaced footage, which should be handled differently than progressive files. Interlaced footage is shot with two separate scans, each capturing every other horizontal line. A 60i video may be directly transferable to 30p, but not always.

HD Camcorder Aperture and Image Stabilization

This is a small, but important consideration to make when choosing an HD camcorder. Because most standalone consumer camcorders don’t have interchangeable lenses, you are stuck with whatever is included. An HD camcorder with a high minimum aperture number (ex. 5.6) will provide slightly less depth of field than one with a larger (lower) aperture number. An HD camcorder that boasts an aperture of anywhere between 1.2 and 3.5 will typically provide excellent depth of field, if that’s the look you’re going for. Keep in mind that aperture is also effected by zoom, and zooming in on an image typically results in less depth of field.

While we’re talking about image quality, let’s focus a bit on image stabilization. HD camcorders typically offer optical image stabilization, but you can find some out there that add dynamic and powered IS to the mix, as well. When you’re shooting handheld, image stabilization is one of the most important considerations you can make to improve the look of your video.

HD Camcorder Features and Accessories

Buying an HD Camcorder: Features to Look ForDoes your HD camcorder have an accessory shoe for mounting a light or shotgun microphone? These can come in handy, and will go a long way towards improving your video quality. There are few things more annoying than having to mount accessories on an attachable handle-style adapter. It makes your HD camcorder bulky and can often throw off the balance. If you can mount a microphone directly to the HD camcorder, then all the better. Let the tripod mount do what it was intended to do.

Oh, and trust me on this, you need an external microphone. Trusting onboard audio on an HD camcorder is like handing over the keys to your car to a five-year-old and expecting something good to come of it.

Finding an HD camcorder with the right feature set for you can be a chore, but it can certainly be worth the effort if it means you won’t find yourself back in the electronics store searching for a replacement. There are a few very reasonably priced feature monsters out there that offer plenty of interesting capabilities without breaking the bank. One example would be the Sony HDRCX580V High Definition Handycam 20.4 MP camcorder, which has an onboard projector option, allowing you to play back the footage you just captured against a wall or projection screen so everyone involved doesn’t have to huddle around a tiny little screen. That’s a pretty interesting feature, and one that might be worth considering if you commonly find yourself having to show the footage you just captured to someone while you’re out and about.

HD Camcorder Battery Life

Make sure that your HD camcorder has a swappable battery, and that there are plenty of battery options available. When you’re recording in the field and you don’t have immediate access to an outlet, having high-capacity batteries at the ready will save you in a pinch. You never know when that perfect shot or event might pass your vision, and you really don’t want battery life to be the big hindrance between you and that video.

HD Camcorder Recording Media

Not all HD camcorders are created equal. Some have onboard memory and no external means of data storage. Others might support SD cards or some other type of recording media you can swap out while you’re out and about. Perhaps the best possible solution involves an HD camcorder with two memory card slots that allow you to record to them both, simultaneously.

This allows you to have a working backup of your recording so that you aren’t stuck with a single SD card that may or may not fail on you and lose any data you’ve captured. Having a backup copy of your captured video is absolutely essential, and should be done as quickly as possible after having stopped the recording. The best solution you’ll find is one that works automatically without the need of a laptop or external hard drive at the ready.

Whatever you’re searching for in a camcorder, your experience depends on finding the right device to meet your individual needs. If you need an HD camcorder that offers an exceptional image, onboard backup solution, and battery options that keep you in the field and untethered from an outlet, then you’re likely to be much happier with whatever it is you decide to buy.