How Camcorders Work


Analog Formats

Analog camcorders record video and audio signals as an analog track on video tape. This means that every time you make a copy of a tape, it loses some image and audio quality. Analog formats lack a number of the impressive features you'll find in digital camcorders. The main difference between the available analog formats is what kind of video tape the camcorder uses and the resolution. Analog formats include:

  • Standard VHS: Standard VHS cameras use the same type of video tapes as a regular VCR. One obvious advantage of this is that after you've recorded something, you can pop the tape out and play it on most VCRs. Because of their widespread use, VHS tapes are a lot less expensive than the tapes used in other formats; they also give you a longer recording time. The chief disadvantage of standard VHS format is that the size of the tapes necessitates a larger, more cumbersome camcorder design. They have a resolution of about 230 to 250 horizontal lines, which is the low end of what's now available.
  • VHS-C: VHS-C camcorders record on standard VHS tape that is housed in a more compact cassette. You can play VHS-C cassettes in a standard VCR, but you need an adaptor device that runs the tape through a full-size cassette. Basically, though, VHS-C format offers the same compatibility as standard VHS format. The smaller tape size allows for more compact designs, making VHS-C camcorders more portable. But the reduced tape size also means VHS-C tapes have a shorter running time than standard VHS cameras. In short play mode, the tapes can hold 30 to 45 minutes of video. They can hold 60 to 90 minutes of material if you record in extended play mode, but this sacrifices image and sound quality considerably.
  • Super VHS: Super VHS camcorders are about the same size as standard VHS cameras, because they use the same size tapes. The only difference between the two formats is that super VHS tape records an image with 380 to 400 horizontal lines, a much higher resolution image than standard VHS tape. You cannot play super VHS tapes on a standard VCR, but, as with all formats, the camcorder itself is a VCR and can be hooked up directly to your television or to your VCR to dub standard VHS copies.
  • Super VHS-C: Basically, super VHS-C is to super VHS as VHS-C is to standard VHS: It's just a more compact version that uses a smaller size cassette.
  • 8mm: These camcorders use small 8mm tapes (about the size of an audio cassette). The chief advantage of this format is that manufacturers can produce more compact camcorders, sometimes small enough to fit in a coat pocket. The format offers about the same resolution as standard VHS, with slightly better sound quality. Like standard VHS tapes, 8mm tapes hold about two hours of footage, but they are more expensive. To watch 8mm tapes on your television, you have to attach your camcorder and use it as a VCR. Photo courtesy Sony Sony Hi-8 Handycam
  • Hi-8: Hi-8 camcorders are very similar to 8mm camcorders, but there are several important differences. For one, Hi-8 camcorders have a much higher resolution -- about 400 lines. Also, Hi-8 tapes are more expensive than ordinary 8mm tapes.

Digital Formats

Digital camcorders differ from analog camcorders in a few very important ways. They record information digitally, as bytes, which means the image can be reproduced without losing any image or audio quality. Digital video can also be downloaded to a computer, where you can edit it or post it on the Web. Another distinction is that digital video has a much better resolution than analog video, typically 500 lines. There are two consumer digital formats in widespread use:


  • MiniDV: Photo courtesy Canon MiniDV Camcorder MiniDV camcorders record on compact cassettes, which are fairly expensive and hold about 60 to 90 minutes of footage. The video has an impressive 500 lines of resolution, however, and can be easily transferred to a personal computer. DV camcorders can be extremely lightweight and compact -- many are about the size of a paperback novel. Another interesting feature is the ability to capture still pictures, just as a digital camera does. Sony has recently introduced MicroMV, a format that works the same basic way as MiniDV but records on much smaller tapes.
  • Digital8: Photo courtesy Sony Sony Digital8 Handycam Digital8 camcorders (produced by Sony exclusively) are very similar to regular DV camcorders, but they use standard Hi-8mm tapes, which are less expensive. These tapes hold up to 60 minutes of footage, which can be copied without any loss in quality. Just as with DV camcorders, you can connect Digital8 camcorders to your computer to download your movies for editing or Internet use. Digital8 cameras are generally a bit larger than DV camcorders -- about the size of standard 8mm models.
  • DVD: Photo courtesy Sony Sony DVD Handycam DVD camcorders are still relatively rare, as compared to MiniDV models, but their numbers are growing steadily. Instead of recording magnetic signals on tape, these camcorders burn video information directly onto small discs. The main advantage of this format is that each recording session is recorded as an individual track, just like the individual song tracks on a CD. Instead of rewinding and fast-fowarding through tape, you can jump immediately to each section of video. Other than that, DVD camcorders are pretty close to MiniDV models in performance. The picture is a little better on DVD models, however, and DVDs can store more footage. Depending on the camcorder's settings, a disc can hold 30 minutes to two hours of video. The newer DVD camcorders support two DVD formats: DVD-R and DVD-RAM. Both are three-quarters the size of DVD movie discs and are encased in plastic cartridges (at least while in the camcorder). The advantage of DVD-R camcorder discs is that they work in most set-top DVD players. The drawback is that you can only record to each disc once, which means you need to buy new discs regularly. You can record over DVD-RAM discs again and again, but you can't play them in ordinary DVD players. Like MiniDV tapes, you have to either use your camcorder as a player for your TV or copy your movie to another format. Photo courtesy Sony The Sony Network Handycam IP records onto both MicroMV and Memory Stick.
  • Memory card: There are now some digital camcorders that record directly onto solid-state memory cards, such as Flash memory cards, Memory Sticks and SD cards.

These days, you can get a digital camcorder for $600 and pick up some tapes for under $10. Digital video editing programs simplify the editing process to the point where you can master it in an afternoon.

Even low-end analog camcorders have so many helpful features that anybody can get decent footage with a little practice, and you can create quality movies with more in-depth studying. The technology that was once the exclusive domain of television professionals is now available as hobby equipment. Whether you simply want to record birthday parties and recitals or you hope to produce ambitious video projects, the newest camcorders certainly have a lot to offer.

For more information on camcorders and related topics, check out the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Camcorder Video: Shooting and Editing Techniques, by Joan Merrill
  • CamcorderTricks and Special Effects, by Michael Stavros and Richard Lynch
  • Video Camcorder School: A Practical Guide to Making Great Home Videos, by Malcom Squires
  • Digital Video for Dummies, by Martin Doucette
  • How to Use Digital Video, by Dave Johnson
  • Troubleshooting and Repairing Camcorders, by Homer L. Davidson
  • The Videomaker Handbook, by the editors of Videomaker Magazine
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Making Home Movies, by Steven Beal
  • Maintaining and Repairing VCRs and Camcorders, by Robert L. Goodman