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Camcorders are ingenious tools that allow us to record images of the events that make up our lives or to get creative and produce unique and interesting films that previously only professional videographers could craft. For beginners, it is important to understand a little bit about the basic anatomy of a camcorder in order to be better equipped to make a selection when shopping.
Although every camcorder model is a bit different and may offer unique features there are basic components that are common to them all.
The Image Sensor: A camcorder uses either a CCD, charge-coupled device, or CMOS, complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor, to convert light into electrical signals and record the resulting images. They basically perform the same function as film in a traditional camera or camcorder.
A CCD consumes much more power than a CMOS chip but tends to produce a higher quality image. Images produced via a camcorder with CMOS tend to have more "noise" due to lower resolution and less light sensitivity. As with most technologies however, CMOS as the newer development is gradually gaining ground. The primary advantage of CMOS at this time is it's affordability versus the more expensive CCD sensors.
The lens of a camcorder provides the opening for light to pass through onto the CCD/CMOS and focuses it so that the image is sharp. By adjusting the lens users can alter what items within a scene are in focus as well as how much light is entering to control the look and quality of the resulting images. Lens controllers are sometimes purchased to allow a user to adjust the lens from the handle of the tripod.
Add on lenses and filters can be used. For instance a telephoto lens allows subjects at a distance to be magnified, a wide angle lens broadens the horizontal field, and a fisheye lens allows for an extreme wide-angle view. Common filters include polarizing filters to reduce glare and UV filters to protect the lens from harmful rays.
An important feature with camcorder lenses is optical zoom which allows the lens to magnify images; a function that allows users to obtain better pictures of subjects at a distance. Optical image stabilizers help to detect and reduce unwanted movement of the camcorder to produce a smoother, more stable film. Digital versions of zoom and stabilizers are available on camcorders but do tend to produce a somewhat lower quality image.
The average camcorder has a built-in multi-directional microphone. These microphones tend to pick up audio from any direction; from behind, in front of, and at the sides of the camcorder. Thus many home movies end up difficult to hear due to undesired "background noise".
A camcorder also often has a microphone jack. If the camcorder has such a jack, purchasing an external microphone to attach to it can greatly improve the audio captured. External microphones can be moved closer to the sound source in some instances and in others they can focus on the sound that is desired versus any background noise. Wireless microphones and lapel microphones are useful when recording individual speakers. Shotgun microphones pick up sound from in front of the microphone at a distance while cardioid microphones pick up sound from in front which is nearby. Each option helps to reduce the intrusion of unwanted sound that distorts the audio desired.
The View Finder and LCD Panels
The viewfinder on a camcorder allows users to see what they are filming. They can be black and white or color. Size varies as does resolution. Some users select a larger viewfinder with higher resolution to aid their visibility but others simply use the LCD screen for this purpose. LCD screen sizes vary as well, and are selected based on personal preference. Viewfinders can often provide greater visibility when filming in sunlight while use of the an LCD screen that swivels allows greater visibility if filming overhead.
Inputs and Outputs
A camcorder will have AV sockets and ports to allow connectivity to other devices such as a television or computer. These sockets allow film to be downloaded, played back, or copied. To allow the camcorder to hook up with a TV or other device it is important that the inputs and outputs coincide. These may be composite video or S-video for analog signals or DVI/HDMI for digital signals.
Most camcorders will hook up with a PC via a USB 2 or FireWire port which allows much faster transfer than a USB 1.1 port. Again, the camcorder must be compatible with the computer to allow hook up.
Although the construction of a camcorder can be much more complex and there is variability in features from device to device, if beginners understand these basic parts they will be well on their way to being able to make a knowledgeable selection when shopping.
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After investing in a good camcorder, a sales person may suggest a lens filter for your new purchase. You wonder, are they just trying to make another sale or is there a justifiable reason for considering adding on a filter? Most of us aren't professional videographers and have no intention of producing a feature film with our camcorder, but lens filters do have a purpose even for those of us who use a camcorder only for recreational purposes.
There are many types of filters for camcorder lenses, each with their own purpose but some of the most common may be of interest to the average consumer as a way of assuring better films and protecting their investment.
A clear filter can be used over the lens of the camcorder to protect it from dirt, fingerprints, and other debris which may scratch or otherwise damage the lens. Replacing a damaged filter is far less expensive than replacing the lens. Using a UV lens filters can also protect against damage from ultraviolet light. Protective lenses are often attached and remain on the camcorder throughout its lifetime.
A polarizing filter can act to reduce glare caused by reflected light that bounces off of surfaces such as glass, snow, and water. These camcorder lens filters are particularly useful when filming outdoors where it can be particularly difficult to control reflective light or when shooting a film through a window.
Neutral density filters
Attaching a neutral density filter on your camcorder can help to reduce over exposure in shots as they decrease the amount of light entering the lens. The darker grey the lens filter the more light they filter out and thus the darker the resulting images in the film.
Color correction filters
There are a variety of color correction or color compensating filters that can be used to create different effects. For instance, to make a sunset more red or an ocean more blue. As these tend to be used for more creative or artistic purposes these lens filters are used less frequently by the average consumer.
Both diffusion and fog filters on a camcorder can soften images. Diffusion filters in particular are used when filming up close shots of people to flatter their faces by softening any lines or imperfections on the skin.
Although many consumers do not opt to purchase additional accessories for their camcorder, lens filters can be very useful. While some provide a very affordable alternative for protecting expensive camcorder equipment, others allow users to produce better films with less overexposure and more creative effects.
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When camcorders went from analog to digital a few years ago, the ability to capture and edit home movies leapt forward light years. With a digital video camcorder and computer, scenes can now be deleted or rearranged and graphics, special effects, and even sound tracks added. The ability to produce near professional quality film is now within the grasp of the average consumer. However, the proper equipment is necessary to perform these miraculous feats and an up-to-date computer is as critical to the process as the camcorder itself.
The Right Stuff
The ability of a computer to successfully work with the digital video from a camcorder depends primarily upon things such as having enough memory, processing power, and the right connections. Inadequate memory can limit the editing function and insufficient processing speed can slow the editing process to a crawl while limited disk space will be gobbled up at the rate of 215MB per minute of film.
How Much Is Enough?
When working with digital video from a camcorder, it's important to realize that more is better! The suggestions offered here are certainly not maximums, but they are also not absolute minimums. They are merely general recommendations to assure that the task of video editing camcorder film is a creative, rather than painful, experience.
- 512MB of RAM is recommended. It's possible to work with about half this amount of memory but editing such as adding special effects, titles, and graphics becomes difficult with less memory. The video card should also have at least 32MB RAM.
- 60GB hard drive is recommended but 100GB is better. Again, it is possible to work with digital video with as little as 30GB but disk space will disappear very quickly. Certainly, budget constraints can influence selection.
- 1GHz or higher processor to help assure that editing can be done without unreasonable delays.
- FireWire or USB 2.0 port for the fastest transfer from camcorder to computer.
Other Elements of Success
- Windows XP and Mac OS X are the applications of choice
- Video editing software. Numerous products are on the market making it easy to select a program that is compatible for any computer model. It is important to investigate the minimum system requirements as stated in the literature of any software purchased.
- Higher resolution monitors can make editing easier and most editing software will dictate the minimum resolution.
- A DVD burner is not required for digital video editing but does allow the user to burn movies to disk and view them on a DVD player.
Although the list of requirements for a computer to handle digital video from a camcorder is somewhat lengthy, most up-to-date computers are certainly up to the task. Once all of the requirements are met, creating home movies that will win the "critical acclaim" of family and friends is just a few mouse clicks away.
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For those of us who have lost precious home movies on removable media that becomes damaged or inoperable, who have misplaced those same disks or flash media never to be found again, or who have missed capturing an important moment because we forgot to bring additional storage media, it is time to rejoice.
The age of the hard disk drive camcorder has dawned. Finally.
The first offerings were introduced nearly a year and a half ago. JVC and Sony have led the way with camcorder models which offer 30GB hard drives. Although even greater feats are surely in the future for the newest members of the camcorder family, these forerunners certainly offer some impressive advantages for home movie makers.
• Large storage capacity.
Depending upon the recording mode, a 30 GB HDD camcorder can capture and store up to 7-21 hours of film without stopping to insert alternate media or to download to computer.
• Cost efficient.
Current HDD camcorder models start around $500 and therefore, are at the mid to high end of the market. However, savings are to be had as the purchase of miniDV tapes, media cards, compact flash, and the like are no longer necessary.
• A fix for the forgetful.
For those who forget to tote along separate storage media, an HDD camcorder can be a life saver. In addition, for those who have inadvertently filmed over existing movies, the HDD camcorder will eliminate these heartbreaking moments as they automatically begin recording where the film left off.
• Functions that make working with movies easier.
Current HDD camcorder models have received acclaim for allowing users to easily sort through footage without the need to rewind or fast forward. Images appear on a thumbnail grid and can be sorted, deleted, rearranged, and dubbed directly on the camcorder.
Obviously, even a great hard drive does not have infinite storage and certainly damage to it can occur, so back up will continue to be necessary. Current JVC models tout a shock absorbing suspension system to protect the hard drive and even a sensor that can shut power off when the camcorder is in the process of being dropped but in the case of prized footage, it's better to be safe than sorry. Downloading to a PC which allows further editing and storage or burning to DVD is advisable. Hitachi is said to be developing a model that will allow users to burn directly to DVD from the camcorder; no PC required.
It appears that everyone should stay tuned as bigger and better things are surely in store for the HDD camcorder. However, for consumers currently shopping for their next device, a hard disk drive model is certainly worthy of consideration today; not only for HDDs future as the leader in the camcorder industry but also for the features they currently possess that make home movie making a joy.
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