Choose A Professional Video Camcorder

The Writer with a Sony BVW 400A

In the early ’90s choosing a professional camcorder was simple. Betacam, Sony’s pro version of its failed Betamax format, ruled the roost. If you bought a BVW-400A you could be assured every network and television station could play back your tapes. True, the cameras were expensive compared to equivalent quality today, but this format was practically universally accepted. Today the choice is more complicated.


1. First determine what you plan to do with your camcorder. There is a vast variety of professionalism within the video business: event videography; shooting weddings, proms and funerals; working as a broadcast news stringer; creating instructional DVDs; supplying high definition programming; electronic cinematography and more. Although there is some overlap, be very clear as to how you plan to earn a living with your camcorder.

2. Next decide on your output. If you are an event videographer, do you want to be able to offer your clients high definition memories for which you’ll charge a premium, or is your target demographic barely past the transition from VHS to DVD? If you plan to shoot for local television news as an overnight stringer, actually ask the local stations or bureaus in bigger markets what kind deliverables they expect. Even though there have been a few movies shot on mini-DV, and blown up to 35mm, our standards have changed. If you plan to shoot for eventual theatrical distribution, your really do need to shoot on high definition video.

3. Determine your budget. Some high definition camcorders, like Sony’s top end HD Cam can cost you as much as a small house. There is an inherent element of seductiveness to buying a new camera. Don’t buy more than you need. Remember, unlike that home, camcorders will only depreciate in value. Leasing is an option, but by the time you’ve paid off your lease, your equipment will inevitably be worth less than you paid for it.

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4. Learn the differences in recording formats. Mini DV and HDV capture plenty of detail on small tapes but skimp on color information retained. They are perfectly adequate for event videography and news, but they are 4:1:1 formats where the luminance is sampled four times to each sample of red and blue, compared to the 4:2:2 formats of Digital Betacam, DV 50 and HD Cam, where you have twice as much blue and red information captured. You simply can’t do complex color imagery or clean chroma keying on a 4:1:1 format. Also, although you can do DVDs with a 4:1:1 format, because DVDs are also highly compressed, the quality will be noticeably worse than shooting in a 4:2:2 format.

5. Make sure that your camcorder has three chips, either CCDs (charge couple devices) or CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor). The two different transducers work differently. Until recently CCDs had the edge but CMOS is catching up. The bigger the chip the better is the image. 2/3-inch chips are the professional standard.

6. Get an interchangeable lens. There are good professional camcorders with permanently mounted zoom lenses, but lens interchangeability offers you far more flexibility for attaching wide angle primes or extreme zooms.

7. Make sure your camera can generate color bars for reference. Some offer tone generators, an added bonus.

8. For fast run and gun shooting it is useful to have full auto, but for backlight shooting, fluorescent lighting or a host of other conditions, be sure that you have easy to use manual override of all controls, from iris to auto focus, and white balance to audio levels.

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9. Favor shoulder mounted camcorders. They are essential for long hand held shooting. Panasonic’s HVX 200A is a wonderful camera, but it’s difficult to hand hold for long periods of time.

10. Choose XLR microphone inputs for direct connection with professional mics.