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From the author of The Real Deal: Digital Camcorders with Zoom Lenses

The Real Deal: Digital Camcorders with Zoom Lenses

Even the most basic consumer video camera will give you options for controlling the images you create for your podcast. I could recommend models to consider, but I guarantee that they'll change by the time you read this article. Instead, look for the features that will help you to make great video, rather than checking out a specific model or brand. The following sections discuss some of the features that you should consider.

Microphone Inputs and Headphone Jacks

Most consumer cameras have mini-plug microphone inputs, the same size as you'd use for your iPod headphones. In the past, one definition of "prosumer camera" was "any camera with a microphone input," but that situation is changing. Some consumer cameras that don't have standard mini-mic inputs have a hot shoe for proprietary accessories. One Sony consumer camera includes a wireless lavalier that plugs into its hot shoe, but it has no way to monitor sound at the same time.

Avoid nonstandard jacks, such as the micro-microphone input on one popular pocket camera. You'll have to use adapters with such jacks, which can be cumbersome and add noise to your sound.

Multiple Recording Formats

Get a camcorder that makes your life easy by recording in a format you can drag off your camera and into your editing system. Digital video cameras record in: standard definition or DV, as well as high-definition, HDV, and AVC HD. DV is fine for podcasting, but high-definition (HD) cameras have become so inexpensive that many people start with HD.

HD will give you better-quality video initially, in case you need to do any image processing. But be aware that using HD can slow down editing and eat up a lot of hard drive space. Make sure that your camera gives you the option to shot in DV or to downconvert HD to DV for output to your computer.

Small cameras usually have small lenses and small sensors or imaging chips that capture less video and sound information. Despite this limitation, what these small cameras can do is nothing short of amazing. You may find that they suit your purposes (small display video formats for the Web) quite well, especially if your podcast will appear in a small size on the Web. Read the specifications for your camera to choose the right shooting format for your needs. The chart in Figure 8 compares popular video formats, such as 4 [ts] 3 and 9 [ts] 16 widescreen formats. Recording at a higher resolution gives you more options; upsizing video from its original low resolution to a higher resolution reduces quality.

Figure 8 Video resolution formats. (Image courtesy of BHPhotoVideo.com.)

Hard Disk or Flash Media

Tapeless cameras, usually SD or SDHC (high capacity), can speed your workflow from camera to editing, but at a cost. Formats for consumer hard drive and flash drive cameras sometimes provide lower video quality than that of mini DV tapes used for DV and HDV recording. This difference matters if you're ever going to blow up your images to full screen, or if you want the option to zoom in on partial frames while editing to vary your footage after you shoot. Otherwise, the lower data-rate recordings may speed up editing.

Don't even think about cameras that record to those irritating little DVDs; the formats are a nightmare. If you use these, you'll be sorry.

Image Stabilization

You'll definitely need image stabilization in a small camcorder. It keeps your camera steady when you shoot handheld. There are two kinds: optical and digital. Optical gives you better results.

Manual Controls

The most basic consumer cameras are "all automatic, all the time." Look for a camera that does a good job on automatic, but lets you take the wheel and adjust white balance, exposure, and focus when you're ready.

Auto focus on consumer video cameras uses the middle of the frame. You'll get more interesting shots if you have the option to focus your subject anywhere in the frame.

Optical vs. Digital Zoom

Forget digital zoom unless you don't have any other way to get a closeup of your subject. Optical zoom uses the camera's lens; digital zoom is just a fake-out. Letting your camera zoom in digitally on the image you have will degrade the quality of the image and make it look just plain bad.

Connecting Your Camera to Your Computer

Smaller cameras have a mini USB connector built in. More advanced models give you options including FireWire, HDMI component video, and composite video. Be sure to get the cables you need for the connections you want.

Battery Life

Check the battery life on your camcorder, and consider investing in a high-capacity battery for longer shoots.

Filters and Lens Adapters

Forget telephoto lens adapters. They'll cut off part of your frame, and they don't really get you closer to the action. But you may want to invest in a wide-angle lens adapter, especially if you find yourself very close to the action. To add filters or a wide-angle adapter, you'll need a lens that's threaded to accept standard-sized filters. Otherwise, you'll be limited to the accessories supplied by your camera's manufacturer, which can be expensive.

Tripod Connection

Make sure that your camera has a standard tripod screw on the bottom of the camera. If you're using a camera that records to tape, and it loads from the bottom, you'll have to take it off the tripod every time you need to change tapes, which can be a hassle.

In part 2 of this series, we'll talk about prosumer cameras and all the accessories you need, but I'll leave you with one favorite—BeachTek's DXA-4 audio adapter retails for about $180 (see Figure 9). You'll need this adapter to plug professional microphones into consumer video cameras. It screws into the tripod mount on the bottom of your camera and plugs into the miniplug microphone input, providing two professional XLR inputs. You can get a basic model for use with battery-powered microphones, or one that uses batteries to provide phantom power to your mics.

Figure 9 BeachTek DXA-4

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