The Ultimate Camcorder Buying Guide: What You Need to Know Before Buying Your First Video Camera

With so many options on the market, buying your first video camera can seem like a pretty big decision--let us help you make sense of all those features and models with our ultimate camcorder buying guide.
By Hillary Grigonis, Last updated on: 4/27/2016

Shopping for a new camcorder, but finding all the options rather, well, daunting? The number of camcorders available on the market can make choosing the best camcorder a seemingly impossible task. While it'd be easy if we just spelled it out for you and said the best video camera is ________, the truth is that the best camcorder for you might not be the best option for the person sitting next to you. Choosing the right camcorder depends largely on two factors: the type of video you will shoot and your budget.

Choosing the best camera to fit your shooting style and budget means taking a look at a few key factors, yet technical specifications can seem just as intimidating. Do you need 4K or regular HD? Is a 30x optical zoom enough? What is bit rate? Well, take a deep breath, because choosing a video camera doesn't have to be terrifying. Here's all the camcorder shopping tips you need to know wrapped up in one ultimate camcorder buying guide.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Getting Started

Before you even start browsing through the available camcorders, ask yourself this: what type of video will you be shooting the most? Someone who wants to record their daughter's soccer games will look for different features than someone who wants to record concerts. Narrowing down your main objective will help you prioritize camcorder features. Someone who plans to record a lot of concerts, for example, should place a high priority on audio quality, where a soccer mom won't need the best audio money can buy.

Speaking of money, budget is always a consideration as well. The you-get-what-you-pay-for philosophy applies to camcorders—as a general rule, you'll get better videos from a more expensive camera. At the same time, you'll want to factor in your needs. For example, if you don't plan to share your videos online and don't have a need for remotely operating the camcorder, you can save a few bucks without sacrificing quality by choosing a camcorder without wi-fi. If you don't have a 4K TV (and don't plan to have one anytime soon), then it doesn't make much sense to choose an expensive 4K camcorder.

With your shooting style and budget in mind, looking at all those camcorder features gets a bit simpler.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Type

Camcorders come in a few different types to suit a few different shooting styles. Video camera types determine a few things, like features and size. Some types are suited for a variety of different uses, while others are more limited in their intent. Video camera types include:

Camcorder Buying Guide: Mainstream

Mainstream camcorders have the widest range of use and are the most common type. These cameras are good for home videos, sports games, events and more.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Advanced

Advanced camcorders offer more features than your mainstream options. These cameras are used by enthusiasts and professionals, though sometimes are used by consumers as well for the boost in image quality.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Pocket

Pocket camcorders are designed to, as the name suggests, fit in a pocket. These video cameras are often used by bloggers. While they are small, they often don't offer the best video quality.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Wearable & Mountable

Wearable and mountable camcorders are designed for point-of-view shooting. These camcorders are attached to skateboards and surfboards, vehicles, pets, people and more to capture action right in the midst of everything.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Resolution

Resolution indicates how many pixels are in the footage, with more pixels offering greater clarity and detail. Where just a few years ago the decision was between standard definition and high definition, the question is now high definition or 4K. 4K resolution means the longest side has about 4,000 pixels—that's nearly 4x the resolution of HD. Most HD camcorders have a 1080p resolution, though there's a few that still use the lower quality 720p.

While 4K is a big boost in quality over HD, the footage has to be viewed on a 4K screen or monitor to take full advantage of higher quality. Both 4K TVs and monitors are becoming more common, and even YouTube now allows some 4k videos. Watching a 4K video on a regular TV gets you just regular HD footage—something consumers should consider before spending more on a 4K camcorder.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Sensor Size

Digital videos are recorded on a sensor inside the camcorder—the size of that sensor plays a big role in the video quality. Larger sensors are needed to capture a higher resolution, but sensor size can still vary among camcorders with the same resolution. Some 4K camcorders have a large 1” sensor while others use a smaller 1/2.3”. Just remember when comparing two camcorders with the same resolution that bigger is better.

The sensor also plays a role in shooting videos in limited lighting. A larger sensor is able to gather more light, so a camcorder with a large sensor will produce better low light images than a camcorder with a small sensor. Low light scenarios are where you'll see a big difference by opting for a larger sensor, so if you plan to shoot a lot of low light footage, like at a concert or in a high school gymnasium, a large sensor should be a priority.

Sensors on camcorders tend to be a bit smaller than those used on cameras for still images. A 1/2.3” sensor is good for a mainstream camcorder, but just average for a point-and-shoot camera. Larger 1” sensors have been around for a few years on cameras, but are just now being used in camcorders.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Bit Rate

If you are comparing two cameras with the same sensor and same resolution, the next factor to look at is the bit rate. Higher bit rates mean large files, which translates into better video quality when all other factors are the same. Bit rates typically aren't as important as resolution or sensor size, but can come into play when comparing two similar cameras.

The downside to higher bit rates is that your memory card (or internal memory) will fill up much faster. If you purchase a video camera with a high bit rate, you'll also want to get a large, fast SD card, unless the camcorder has plenty of built-in memory.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Memory

Speaking of memory, that's another good factor to consider. Most modern camcorders will record to either an SD card (or a mini SD card) or internal flash memory. The difference between the two is largely convenience. With enough built-in memory, you don't have to buy an SD card or even remember to bring one with you. High-end camcorders with large bit rates and a high resolution will have large file sizes and fill up an SD card much faster. Big SD cards can get expensive, so camcorders with built-in memory are often worth a little extra cash.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Image Stabilization

Nothing quite destroys a video like shaky footage. Image stabilization helps prevent that, and it comes in a few different forms.

Electronic or digital image stabilization relies on software to reduce camera shake. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but the bottom line is that it is the least effective option.

Optical image stabilization steadies the video by actually moving parts of the glass inside the lens. This process is much more effective than electronic stabilization, though often means a higher price tag. Optical image stabilization can also be described by axis—this just indicates how many different types of movement the camera will compensate for. A camera with 5-axis image stabilization will be stabilized for five different types of motion, where a 3-axis type is only stabilized in three types of movement.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Zoom

Zoom can make a significant impact on your videos, especially when shooting sports or wildlife. But all zoom is not quite equal. Like in image stabilization, optical is the better option over digital or electronic. Optical zoom works by adjusting the camera's lens, where digital zoom simply crops the image. Some manufacturers also use an intelligent or smart zoom, which is a type of digital zoom that doesn't degrade the image as much, but still doesn't measure up to the optical option.

How much zoom do you need? Again, that depends on what you shoot the most. If you want a close-up of a person or object thats in the same room, a 5x to 10x zoom is plenty. Shooting sports from the stands or a performance from the back of he auditorium requires a much bigger zoom, at least 25x.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Aperture

If you'll be shooting in a lot of low light scenarios (like in concert halls and gymnasiums), you'll want to consider the maximum aperture too. The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that lets in light; the larger the opening, the better your low light shots will be. The aperture is indicated in f-stops, and smaller numbers mean bigger apertures. An f1.8 aperture is excellent for low light, while an f3 or more is just average.

Camcorder Buying Guide: Audio

Many consumers focus solely on video quality, forgetting one big factor: the audio. Good audio is essential to shots of musicians or recording interviews, but goes well hand-in-hand with solid video footage in any scenario. A good audio quality indicator is the type of microphone used.

A mono microphone is the most basic type—they're common in budget camcorders. Mono mics record in just one channel, which gives the audio a rather flat feeling. Think of mono like a single speaker.

Stereo mics collect sound on two channels. They're the most common and offer better audio than a mono mic. If a mono mic is a single speaker, a stereo mic is a pair of speakers or a pair of headphones.

If mono is one speaker and stereo is two—multi channel is like surround sound. Multi-channel mics are less common, but can be found in some advanced camcorders.

Along with the type of mic, location is important too. Mics pick up sound that is close, so the placement of the mic will often determine what sounds are picked up the best. For example, the Sony MV1 is designed to record musicians—it uses two multi-directional mics at the front to capture sound within a 120 degree range.

Camcorder Buying Guide: More Things To Consider

Depending on your needs, you may want to consider other smaller factors before making your purchase as well. If you are still having a hard time narrowing it down to just one option, consider a few more elements.

  • Wi-Fi allows you to connect the video camera to a smartphone or tablet. It's a particularly nice feature because you can then use your phone as a remote control. Depending on the manufacturer, you may even be able to preview the footage on your phone. This comes in handy for selfies, or, our favorite, shooting shy wildlife.
  • Battery life should be a big consideration if you plan to shoot more than just short clips. Check the camcorder's tech specs for the length of time you can record before the battery quits.
  • Maximum record time indicates how long you can shoot. Some camcorders can't process all that data fast enough to shoot for extended periods of times, though this is more commonly an issue with shooting video on a dedicated camera instead of a video camera.
  • Size can play a big role too. How much weight will it add to your travel luggage? Is it light enough to use on a drone? How hard is it to carry on a hike? Depending on the type of shooting you want to do, size could be a big consideration.
  • Extra features can often sway consumers in one direction over the other. For example, Sony offers a line of camcorders with built-in projectors for sharing movies (or even Powerpoints), while Panasonic offers a line with a secondary camera so users can shoot picture-in-picture video without any editing.

Camcorder Buying Guide: The Bottom Line

Buying the best camcorder all comes down to buying what is best for you. The best camcorders for new parents is not the same as the best camcorder for shooting sports or the best camcorder for YouTube. Understanding elements like zoom and image stabilization will help you to prioritize features, so the video camera that wins out in the end is the best suited for your needs and budget.

Still not sure about a tech spec or about what camcorder you should buy? We love to hear from our readers—send us a question in the comment section below and we'll do our best to answer as quickly as possible.

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