How to Buy a Digital Video Camera

A lot of people ask me — especially lately — what type of videocamera I use. It’s a Panasonic PV-GS120, and there’s a photo of it on this blog’s masthead. I like it a lot, but it’s obviously time for an upgrade.

This post won’t give you advice on cameras, but I describe my typical process for purchasing any high-consideration electronic device. Maybe it will help you. If you’re serious about commercializing your work, go with a prosumer HDTV. Otherwise almost any decent digital camera will produce a picture far better than you’ll ever see through online compression.

  1. I do ask around a lot. But don’t ask people who make good videos, ask people that are really anal-retentive about what they buy.
  2. I visit, and (the latter is fee-based and often lags). These sites starts help me identify top models or brands. Naturally the model numbers rarely synch up but it’s a good start. When I bought my digital-still camera (Rebel XR), I was seeing it as a top camera on all of these sites.
  3. Now I’ve identified a few brands and model numbers that look good. So I bounce between sites to confirm it. I used to use epinions, but now I check to see if the Amazon ratings are good.
  4. If I’m stuck between several brands, I default to the long-winded digital video camera experts. There are people that write novels on these things, and they’re usually one of the top listings if you search “my model review -buy” on Google.
  5. Finally, I do shop around on the froogles, but often decide to get it at Best Buy or Circuit City. By now, I can’t wait any longer and I want to confirm the feel of it. I don’t mind paying a 5% premium to not have to wait for it and know I can run it to the store.

Note- this is if you’re going for a consumer camera or simple prosumer. If you’re going HDTV or $1000 plus prosumer (Cannon, Sony, Panasonic), then you want to try some trade magazines and BHP Photo.

12 Replies to “How to Buy a Digital Video Camera”

  1. I find flickr is always a good place to get feedback. If you find a still camera that has video (which is what I use, Sony z-1000) then you go look up on the huge collection of cameras for your camera(s) of choice. You can then find very good reviews and previews of the camera at work. Of cause you only see the digital preview, but most cameras now a day take a very close quality video to what they do photo.

    My camera takes images about 3,000 X 3,000 at an extremely high quality (10.1 MP). The video at full quality is just as good as the photo quality although it’s around 400 X 400(?). The ‘LP’ quality which I guess is a form of compression takes videos at the exact size for youtube.

    It’s always also good to check for the file format the cameras video saves in. A high lossless quality would be stupid if you were using it for online video. The Sony z-1000 saves them in .AVI which is also a recommended format for youtube.

    One major issue you have to think about if you’re going to buy a still photo camera for video producing is the length of the clip before the camera automatically stops the video (I guess it’s a feature to make sure you know how much space you have left on your memory card). The Sony z-1000 takes 10minute clips, which again is perfect for youtube as you can’t make your video too long :P.

    I just use it for video and macro shots because I’m that kind of person. If you are thinking about getting this camera I have a profile on flickr with some (weird) images taken from the camera, just search for tripplehelix. If you want to look at the video quality then my profile on youtube (link is on my name on this post), the two or three newest videos are saved in mp4 and are virtually at the same quality as the videos are when taken strait off the camera.

    I type to much in response to random posts of yours…

  2. ok now after all my excitement over Nalts psychic powers… a couple of camera shops I meandered into said I should get the Canon500 or was 300 or was it $300, I forget… Anyone have a preference when it comes to brand and or model? Am I on the cusp of getting last years technology when tomorrow will be here next week? I really need a very very very good beginners camera.


  3. They way I get advice on choosing a camera is to ask friends.

    I really like the small form factor of the Nokia N93. You can keep in in your pocket or backpack and have it on you all the time. It takes 640×480 video.

    Now I’m testing the N95. Smaller form factor and same video quality, plus I can upload directly to the net via it’s inbuilt WiFi. I’ve posted to VOX so far because that come pre installed.

    They both record to SD cards so you don’t have to log and capture footage which is sweet.

    Tests and reviews of both are over here:

    One other camera to consider is the rumored upgrade to the Canon HV10, the HV20.

  4. Heres a massive ramble for you i hope its not too boring and maybe just 1 person may get something from it….ulp.

    If your interested in a more niche comparison between “normal” cam and semi-pro cam especially in the field of video FX production then read on.

    I use a semi-pro class Sony VX2100 the results are amazingly stunning right down to 1 lux (even indoors with just a normal light there is zero grain), but after web compression the quality can go down somewhat, but the important thing with this cam is the quality of the raw footage, which is essential for special effects work, the pinsharp, 3ccd video vs the usual 1ccd is crucial to enable accurate motion tracking and enough detail to manipulate in After Effects and Photoshop.

    I also have a “normal” camera a JVC DX77 I got this just to rewind the tapes and capture the video from the “big cam” I only use the VX2100 to shoot with and thats it not even for playback, hoping to preserve the lifespan of this mighty cam.

    Occasionally I do use the DX77 to shoot with, for its price it has features that you just don’t usually get at this range, like a lockable iris and light meter, crucial for “in-scene” special effects compositing, where the change in light will give away the “magic”.

    If i compare the footage of the JVC DX77 to the Sony VX2100 the Sony image quality stands out a mile even if i shoot outside in bright overcast conditions (which a camera ccd’s function best in, as a rule).

    Also in another experiment to compare the footage from a normal cam to a pro cam, I can let the computer judge the quality. HOW? I hear you ask. Well i put the footage from both cams and ran it through some motionmatching software namely “2d3 Boujou” an extremely high end motion tracking application that calculates where a 3d camera would be and how it would move in “real life” based on the footage you run through it (used in hollywood blockbuster films to seamlessly place computer generated 3d objects like cars or space ships etc into handheld or shakily shot footage) I ran the Sony footage through it and it tracked perfectly on one take. I ran the JVC video through it and it just couldn’t track it, not enough resolution and data is taken in.

    Another thing about the more hi-end cams apart from the increased video performance is the plethora of knobs and buttons. The reason for these external mounted extra controls is simply to minimise the use of on-screen menus to trawl through to get to a particular function, like gain, exposure etc so when you shoot you can access them on the fly at the press of one button or dial, so in theory the user can devote his/her time into the shoot rather than navigating through a maze of menus and submenus.

    Both my cams are SD and hi-def is a relatively new tech, there are a few things to consider before jumping into this arena that most salesmen wouldn’t tell you or even know, such as…

    There will be a quadruple strain on your computer systems CPU to process the extra info, so rendering and editing will take a lot longer.

    Your camera firewire dumps, rendered videos and mpgs will be a lot bigger than SD on your hard drive.

    On the home user front, the cams record in MPEG2 format which is ok for a final render but not really ideal for editing with and there are reports of artifacting on the video itself.

    Not all NLE’s support it, altho most are starting to do so.

    You have made your hi-def masterpiece how do you deliver it to your client/friends….you can’t lol. At this moment in time the home user can’t transfer hi-def mpg2’s onto regular home play DVDs. So ulness you upload to the net or take your cam round to show them thats it….”You can” i hear you say, but what really happens is that people DOWNSCALE the video to SD or the software they use automatically (sometimes without them knowing) downscales it to SD.

    Of course all this is changing constantly but for now there are a lot quirks and over expensive hardware for it to be worthwhile just yet.

    One thing tho, the arrival of the Playstation 3 will quicken the development of the technology needed to make hi-def videos distributable by way of the Blueray disc.

    Mass, cheap production of burnable blueray discs will eventually be the hi-def DVD norm.


  5. I use a Canon ZR-100. It’s just about the cheapest camera Canon makes. I prefer Canon and Panosonic to other brands of digital cameras. Here’s my beef: You can give a monkey a $25,000 Sony HD camera – his videos are still gonna suck poo.

    I think my videos are okay. If I had a top-of-the-line digital cam, they would probably still only be okay.. I think that who is behind the camera is much more important than which camera s/he is behind.

  6. I’m trying to find a HDD camcorder that has good quality. I have a JVC Everio, and it is only 1CCD. I’m looking for 3CCD of course, and I pretty much have to chose between Sony and JVC it seems. I think Sony is the way to go, but I don’t know. Any ideas?

  7. I’m a pro videographer (ie, I make my living doing it) and I shoot with a Sony VX-2000 (one model older than the one Davideo has). I’ve owned it for almost seven years now and it’s absolutely incredible. Amazing. I can’t recommend this camera enough. It’s been across continents on buses, through jungles, dropped, covered in dust and snow and everything in between and it’s still going. I think it’s about on its last legs right now, but if you’re looking for a camera that will be worth its weight in gold, go with a Sony VX-Series (or a PD-series, though they are more expensive). If you’re looking for something a little smaller, the Sony TRV-900 is a fantastic camera. In fact, for an amateur looking to bump up the quality of their work, I would highly recommend finding this camera (they’re not made anymore, but there’s always Ebay or Craigslist)- at the time it was released, it was the smallest 3CCD camera made.

    I’ve been looking into HDV cameras lately. Canon just announced their tiny little Ivis HV20- comes out in March and will be around $1,000. I don’t know anything about it, but I hope it features some improvements on the HV10 which I’ve read has major sound and functionality issues. I’ve also looked at their XHA-1 (prosumer, mid-sized) which is pretty much getting RAVE reviews from everyone who touches it. But my real camera crush right now is the Sony HVR-A1U. It’s just a bit bigger than most palmcorders, this baby is totally loaded with pro features, including pro audio. It’s a traveling videographers dreamboat. And its a Sony. *sigh*

    Hope this was of help to someone…

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