Camcorder Buying Guide

If you want more than just a smartphone for video capabilities, a camcorder is your best choice.
If you want more than just a smartphone for video capabilities, a camcorder is your best choice.
Tom Grill/Photographer's Choice RF

Even those of us with great memories like to capture daily life on video, whether it's something candid and funny from the street, or something special like child's first steps or a relative's wedding. And you've probably noticed that it's getting easier to do so, especially when it's possible to shoot some quick footage with a smartphone and then upload it onto the Internet in a matter of seconds.

Buyers are faced with a shifting landscape of quality, formats, size and capabilities. Even abbreviations, like AVCHD or HDD, can leave the most tech-savvy buyer reeling from information overload.

However, camcorders and the technology behind them are easy to navigate with a little information and some planning. Once you get the basics under your belt and pick the features you want, the trip to the store won't seem as daunting, and you should walk out with the best device for the best price.

So, what kind of camcorder should you get? Even before considering the question, try to make a mental list of what you would like in a camcorder, how it will be used, and whether your current computer and television can handle the serious bells and whistles offered in even basic models.

  • Do you want high definition video or standard definition? If you have an HDTV, high definition is a good route, if it's not out of your price range. If you have a standard definition television, it likely won't have the capability to show HD video.
  • Are you planning on filming simple home videos -- or shooting the next indie breakout movie?
  • Do you want something truly portable, or something with a little more substance?
  • Do you want the ability to shoot in low light, or no light?
  • Do you want the capability to add on external microphones or supplemental lighting, or do you want to do loose editing as you shoot?
  • Is your computer capable of handling new editing software, and does it have enough storage to hold video without crashing?
  • Will you need a special card reader to read the camcorder's format, or an accessory hard drive to store the information?
  • What's your budget like?

Ponder these questions while you read on and find out more about some of the different types of camcorders.

HD Camcorders

High definition is quickly becoming a larger share of the overall market, but prices are still relatively high for consumer models -- anywhere from $300 to $1,000. So-called prosumer models, camcorders on the high-end of the consumer scale, range from $1,000 to $3,000, and they can go even higher. HD offers slicker video shooting, better editing capability and higher production values. The trade-offs are cost, the frequent need to upgrade a home computer to handle editing, the need to buy good editing software and the occasionally limited cross-platform capabilities of the video format. However, for someone who's serious about video and looking into what's coming down the line, HD camcorders are the future.

If HD turns out to be a little too flashy (and pricey) for you, there's always the standard definition (SD) camcorder. This makes up the majority of the hand-held market. Prices range from about $150 to $350. These are great entry-level camcorders with acceptable video and a price tag allowing the user room to buy extra batteries, good editing software and external accessories. There's also little need to upgrade a home computer system to handle a new standard definition camcorder, and the video format is common across many platforms.

What if you want to shoot on the go, but don't want to carry around a bulky bag stuffed with a camcorder and its accessories? We'll take things to a smaller scale on the next page.

Flip and Pocket Camcorders

Smaller camcorders let users flip and shoot on the run.
Smaller camcorders let users flip and shoot on the run.
White Packert/Iconica/Getty Images

Prices for flip and pocket camcorders range from about $80 to about $250. They're about the size of a smart phone, and tend to have simple optics, limited battery life and average, standard definition video quality. But for the video artist who just wants to record and share memories, they're the perfect accessory. Most offer plug-and-play capabilities, simple and free editing software, and step-by-step directions on posting your indie shorts to the Web.

If you're using your camcorder frequently, and for long periods of time, weight becomes a significant consideration. Even a relatively light camcorder becomes heavy the longer you use it. Try holding a can of soup, which weighs about a pound, at chest level for an hour. You'd be surprised at how quickly the seemingly simple action becomes difficult. This is one of the reasons portable and mini camcorders dominate the market, despite providing relatively poor video. Consider a camcorder you can hold in your hand easily. If it's too heavy, you'll probably end up leaving it at home, and it would have been better not to buy it in the first place.

Most camcorders use an LCD screen to show what the optics are picking up. A larger screen makes it easier to shoot and see playback, but that larger screen uses a significant amount of battery power. Some of the largest LCD screens on the market, upwards of 3 inches (7.6 centimeters), also make the camcorder larger.

Water-proof and Low-light Camcorders

Most versions of camcorders, from pocket to HD, have a waterproof version, though pocket camcorders offer the most range. Waterproof generally means that the camcorder is usable up to about 10 feet (3.05 meters) below the surface of the water. Video quality tends to suffer underwater, as does audio (if sound is even an option). But for travelers -- and beachgoers with butter fingers -- having a water-proof camcorder is a little more insurance against losing those precious vacation memories.

Clearly, a camcorder won't work well without light. Even low-light and no-light models use optics to make the technology viable. The quality of the lens is important, but more important is the optic zoom number. Most models have a standard 10X zoom -- don't go for anything less unless you'll always be shooting very close to a subject. Don't pay too much attention to digital zoom numbers, however, since this indicates only how much the electronics can artificially enlarge the image the lens captures. The more it enlarges the image, the less quality the footage will have.

Although low-light and infra-red camcorders are useful for fixed surveillance posts and ghost hunting, they don't offer much for the average consumer, and high prices don't justify the limited use.

For lots more information on gadgets and appliances, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information


  • Buchanan, Matt. "Giz Explains: Every Video Format You Need To Know." (Nov. 24, 2011)
  • Harris, Tom. "How Camcorders Work." (Nov. 23, 2011)