How to choose a camera – new or used


I see a lot of hits on my post- Low End Gear Can Do The Job. I wanted to get into what makes it low end first and what specifically you should be looking for/what you need.

Low end to me is less than $500 (probably $450 for camera and another $50 for tax/shipping) for the camera…and less if I can possibly get away with it. The eBay ZR60 was a find at $80. I’ve worked with the Canon ZR series for about 5 years and loved the ZR60 and earlier models…but as the years have gone by and improvements have come out, the camera has become more and more compromised. In the ZR-500 & 600 versions you chose either a mike input or the ability to shoot stills, not both. The LANC control of the original ZR10 (allowed me to control the camera using a tripod handle) is long gone. The ZR10 was a hefty little metal camera…now the ZRs are smaller and plastic. Canon has the Elura 100 which allows both still shooting and mike input. You can see why you need to keep on top of what is out there: the companies constantly improve or “improve” their product.

Once we’ve decided that our maximum budget is $500, we can move on to the technical requirements. I’ve done a lot of Internet surfing, trying to find the best way to compare cameras and B&H Photo has some of the most consistent specification pages – I can see exactly what each camera offers and there is no hype. Generally their prices are competitive, so I usually buy from them – but not always. I do try to support my local stores (see note at end of posting).

So what do you look for? Consider the following:
Format – I’d go with mini-dv. It is nearly universal and you can reuse tapes. Should you find yourself in a breaking news situation, most stations now have a mini-dv deck to play the tape back, so you can sell your story. While I see possibilitiies in the DVD camcorders, they are not universally compatible with all computers (PC vs. Mac) and I am not sure of their ability to withstand rough handling and conditions. I am keeping an eye on the cameras that shoot directly to hard drive…but am waiting to see how they weather everyday use and abuse. Besides, both of the latter tend to cost a bit more and may not have the features you need.
CCD – The CCD/Charged Coupled Device determines the quality of the image. The larger the CCD and more pixels, the better the quality of your image. Cameras in the below $500 range will generally have a single 1/6″ 680,000 pixel CCD. (Higher end cameras have three CCDs)
Zoom – Only look at the optical zoom. Digital zoom is useless. In digital zoom you are zooming in on the image created by your optical zoom, the result is an extremely pixelated image. I would consider a 20X zoom or better.
Mike input – YES! Unless all you plan to shoot is images, this is the one essential feature you cannot do without. You can add on a simple $30 laveliere mike with a 6-10 foot cable and do interviews or go wireless. In either case you’ll get clean audio – and audio is the second most important part of shooting video. The two combined create the final gestalt.
Image Stabilization – yes
AV input/output – This small yellow port allows you to convert your old VHS/analog tapes into digital format (or the reverse). In most cameras it also doubles as the port to plug your headset into when shooting, so that you can monitor sound.
Aperature control – This allows you to control how light/dark your image is. Very useful if you want consistant control without the sudden shifts you usually get when something very bright passes through your shot.
Manual focus – Again, you want to decide what to focus on and not have the camera shifting as it senses other object passing through.
White balance – While not as critical for everyday use, it does give you more flexibility in choosing accurate image color. Today’s auto white balance is excellent. But sometimes I want an orange sunset and the camera white balances so it is cool. With manual white balance I can set the white using a cool white (shady side of a white car or card) and get the warmer tones I want.
Shutter speed – Most of the time the presets in the camera work. However, if you want to shoot sports and have a crisp look or if you plan to slo-mo the video in editing, a fast shutter speed gives you that option. You’ll have to experiment with aperature and shutter speed until you find the combination of speed and depth-of-field that work for you.
Top loader vs. bottom loader – If you use a tripod, get a top loader. If you are a true VJ, you use a tripod. Bottom loaders, like the Canon ZR series, require you to take the camera off the tripod, take off the tripod plate, take out and replace the tape and then put the plate back on and then put the camera on the tripod. (So now you know my dirty little secret – I love the ZR series but am stuck with a bottom loader – and it has caused the occassional problem.)
Firewire/USB – how to import/export your video digitally. You’ll need USB 2 for video. Trust me, if you are purchasing a digital video camera today, it should have one or both of these. (Or at least some other means to export to camera…and hopefully NOT analog.)

All of the other stuff cameras come with – titling, special effects, etc – are not necessary if you are a true videojournalist and plan to edit your video, because you can add effects and titles using the editing program. Plus, one of the best rules is to shoot your video clean (unaltered) and make changes later. If you shoot squirrelly video, you can’t remove whatever effects or titles are already embedded in the video.

I checked out BHPhoto just now (Sunday, January 28 @ around 9am-ish) and there isn’t a lot of choice in the under $500 range. So this is where you get creative and consider purchasing a used camera. And please, be very careful. Sellers at online auctions are not always completely truthful about the condition of their gear. What you need to ask (yourself or the seller): Does the camera power up, record and play back tapes. Do both the LCD and viewfinder work. Does the tape loading mechanism work properly and take in and eject tapes properly. Are there any problems with the lens, including problems with zoom or dings/scratches on the lens. Are there any power problems, including battery problems.
One example is postings that say “camera powers up fine.” This could mean that the camera turns on, but the LCD/viewfinder shows black and/or the camera won’t record or play back tapes. The camera might shoot video but not play back. One of the most common problems (especially with Canon low-end cameras) is the tape carriage not taking in/ejecting tapes properly. Other cameras have menu problems that need to be resolved.

The advantage of buying online is that you can obviously get more for your dollar. For example – the Panasonic PV-GS500 (see review)costs $900, but comes with 3 1/4″ CCDs that are 1.47 megapixels each. It has manual shutter, aperature, white balance, focus but only a 12X zoom. Even though the specs state that it doesn’t have a headset jack, I’d check to see if the AV port doubles as a jack for headsets. Going to eBay I see two models for sale – one new currently at $750 and a used one currently at $520. They will probably go for quite a bit more…with the new one edging up to B&HPhoto’s price and the used one going for more than $750.
The Canon ZR800 is about $350 at B&H and the prices on eBay are in the same ballpark. Do check first before buying online because occassionally you will pay more online than at a store.

Hope this covered the basics – and happy hunting. Final suggestion. If the price, including tax and shipping, is close to what you can get online, try to patronize your local stores. While I like to shop for bargins, I also believe in supporting the local economy whenever possible. Plus there’s the added benefit of local expertise and support (and a friendly place to hang out and look at the latest toys).

Oh – and don’t forget, once you have the camera you’ll need a tripod and mike. And eventually a portable light and reflector. And lots and lots of tape. And storage, i.e., hard drive space. It never ends….

….note added 7/4/10…please be aware that technology is constantly changing and some of the advice given above is outdated. We now had SD card cameras, hard drive cameras, disc cameras. Although the recording format has changed somewhat (mini-dv is still with us) the process remains pretty much the same.