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Lights! Action! Camcorders!

Constantly improving video cameras offer all the options, from super-high definition to instant DVDs
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

Like Doctor Dolittle's two-headed pushmi-pullyu, camcorder technology is confidently moving in two directions at once. Makers of tape-based models are delivering dramatic video-quality improvements, including high-definition capabilities that make store-bought DVDs look low-res by comparison. At the same time, the quality-schmality-give-me-convenience camp produces recorders that shoot video with no tape at all—and with very mixed results.

Camcorders that record directly to DVD discs are gaining popularity, accounting for more than one in five purchases today. Then there's the wealth of multifunction digital cameras that also shoot video clips and store them on memory cards. Even cell phones now function as ersatz video cameras (is there anything cell phones won't do at this point?).

Before we venture onto the bleeding edge of new camcorder technology, it's worth noting that the most exciting development today might not be new technology at all, but the significant price drop for mainstream MiniDV digital camcorders.

The era of VHS-C and Hi8 tapes (both analog formats) has come and gone, and Sony's Digital 8 and MicroMV tape formats never got much traction in the marketplace. That leaves MiniDV tapes as the format of choice, which is just fine with me. The digital format brings clean, distortion-free recording and playback on very compact tapes (just 2.6'' x 1.9'' x 0.5''). Both the audio and video quality is noticeably superior to the old analog formats. You can view your MiniDV tapes on a TV set or copy them to full-size VHS tapes, using a simple cable connection. MiniDV recordings are easily transferred to a computer for editing and (with the appropriate disk drive) DVD creation. What's more, a reusable tape that holds up to an hour at the highest quality setting sells for less than seven bucks—such a deal!

Your basic MiniDV camcorder—one that's fine for shooting the kid's soccer game or gathering blackmail material at the office Christmas party—can be yours on sale for a thrifty $300 to $400, and you don't have to settle for stripped-down, no-name models. One of my favorite budget-conscious recommendations, for example, is the Canon ZR100. We're talking a 20x optical zoom (i.e., a real zoom lens with 20x magnification, not a digital magnification parlor trick that lets manufacturers claim nonsensical 400x zooms), a reasonable 2.4-inch LCD screen and an effective image stabilization system to minimize shaky-hands syndrome, all in a one-pound package selling for under $300 at the Circuit City Web site.

Of course, as an enthusiastic gadget aficionado, I'm always looking for the testosterone rush that comes with cutting-edge tech, not just the business-as-usual model. It turns out, venturing beyond the basics in camcorders yields some very worthwhile options.

Sensory Motivation
Most camcorders use only one optical sensor, overlaid with a filter that assigns individual cells to read one of the three colors (red, green and blue) used to re-create an image. There's a better way, though, used in professional-level cameras: incorporating three separate sensors, each designated for a different color, produces a more accurate video image with noticeably better color. Three-sensor camcorders have been available in so-called prosumer models aimed at advanced amateurs for some time, but they've always been expensive and prohibitively bulky. Not anymore. Panasonic and Sony have each created three-sensor cameras as easy to handle as their single-sensor cousins.

The Panasonic PV-GS150 ($700) looks like lots of other compact, lightweight camcorders, but beneath its Clark Kent exterior lurks some serious video firepower. The test video I shot of my niece mastering a new pogo stick is excellent, especially when it comes to color reproduction, from the spot-on flesh tones to the tricky dusty pink and aqua colors of her outfit. The PV-GS150 did well indoors, too (sans pogo stick, happily)—the video isn't overly grainy, and colors are dark but not washed out. And shooting is a breeze, thanks to a curved camera body that fits the hand nicely and a joystick control that keeps one-handed adjustments just a thumb-flick away. There's also a hot shoe for connecting optional video lights and a built-in lens cover. A zoom control that's less than smooth is my only serious complaint.

The Sony DCR-PC1000 ($1,300) delivers all the outward design sizzle that the Panasonic lacks, with a sleek dark-gray body that would look just right in a BMW glove compartment. Unlike the Panasonic, the Sony fits in your hands vertically, with the zoom control up front under your index finger and the record button under your thumb. I found it very comfortable. The handsome wide-screen LCD is touch-sensitive for accessing advanced camcorder controls, and includes an additional record button (worthwhile for two-handed shooting) and zoom controls (hard to press and nearly worthless). Whether I was shooting outdoors or in, the DCR-PC1000 didn't disappoint, matching the Panasonic (though not exceeding it, a significant point given the price difference). The Sony unit works with an optional microphone ($150), which can capture surround sound (two channels front, two channels rear). When played back through a home theater speaker system, it delivers a you-are-there sensation, re-creating the sound of birds chirping in the backyard or the audience applauding in a school auditorium. Just remember not to mutter editorial comments under your breath while shooting and you'll really enjoy the effect.

Yes, prices for three-sensor models are higher than your average camcorder, but not painfully so. And when you get a gander at the rich, deeply saturated colors, it's hard to settle for anything less.

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