On the hunt for the wildly elusive affordable camcorder…

In the beginning I had ten Canon Elura 100s to run my broadcast program at Ronald E. McNair High School. Two were heisted over the past few years. Of the eight remaining, two have tape carriage problems and three (not the same ones of course) had the threads stripped in the tripod holes. The latter is fixable…just drill out and insert a slightly larger bushing with the correct diameter threads for the tripod (thanks to Larry Nance for his suggestions and a couple of samples).

Now…I have to make a rather quick decision about whether to fix the cameras with carriage problems or purchase new. Now these cameras can still be used for still photos (I do have a couple of assignments that require stills only)…so what to do?

The cost of a Canon fixit via mail runs around $160 including shipping. Been there done that and they do a good basic job. Pretty quickly too – in time for school in a few weeks.

Now for the hard part (oh I dread this) – checking out what is on the market. Used to be simple.

But there’s more out there and many more formats. Mini DV, flash cards, hard drives, DVD. Personally I reject the hard drive and DVD camcorders. The latter is a gimmick – the only real use I would have for them is shooting sports when I need to do a quick turnaround and get copies out for other teams. Camcorders that record to hard drive would cause issues in determining who shot what – I will have two periods of about 36 students each this coming term (July-December and then a second batch of 72 in the spring). Tapes and flash cards allow the media to be labeled with student names and removed from the camera.

So here goes. My dream camera would have the following:
Removable media
Manual iris/aperature, focus, white balance
Mike input (and I think this will be the issue this time out)
Decent zoom (15x or more)
Headset out to monitor sound
Variable shutter speed
Top loaded (if tape)

I’m not concerned about the CCD/CMOS size…they’ve gotten better over the past few years. I am very concerned about the non-tape cameras being compatible with my antiquated eMacs.

So now on to my favorite photo site in the whole universe – B&H Photo Video to check the specs.

So here goes…first choose “Camcorders,” then “Standard Def,” cause I don’t think our eMacs can handle high def. I’m checking out both Mini DV and Flash formats. “Standard” camcorders (we can’t afford even Prosumer). I’m not choosing an optical zoom…want to see pricing first. LCD size is not an issue. And I’m not choosing a price range…want to see what you get for the bottom/top ends.

My choices are two Aipteks ($59 and $89), eleven Canons ranging from around $219 to $599, six DXGs from $79 to $89, six JVCs from $179 to $269, ten Panasonics from $149 to $359, nine Samsungs from $149 to $299, four Sanyos from $174 to $219, and eight Sonys from $229 to $329. Fifty two possible candidates.

Now to choose which features I have to have. Manual controls and mike input/headset out. Let’s see what makes the cut this time.

1:07pm
All Sonys eliminated. The flash card versions have virtually no manual control and no mike input. The mini dv version has the manual control, but no mike input.
1:09pm
All Sanyos off the list – minimal anything I need.
1:18pm
Samsungs eliminated
This is getting frustrating…I’ve made note of some models that almost have what I want in both mini dv and flash card…but no mike inputs so far.
1:24pm
Panasonics and JVCs eliminated. Interesting to note that many of the flash camcorders have few if any manual controls.
1:25pm
Not even going to consider the DXGs…all they have are 4x digital zooms.
1:26pm
Success – of sorts. The Canon ZR930 has a mike input, but no still ability. Its says no headset input, but I’ve found in the past that the AV port takes a headset (no guarantees). Manual focus and exposure…not white balance. Cost is around $199.00.
1:30pm
More success, but at a price. The Canon FS22 flash camcorder has it all for $599. Let’s see – one of these or three of the 930s?
1:33pm
The Canon ZR960 has nearly everything – lacking still capability – $244.
The ZR950 does stills, but has no mike input – $219.
1:38pm
A few more – FS21 has what I want at $499, as does the FS200 for $319, and the FS11 for $349.
Kind of glad to see Canon still makes cameras with options…and I’m hoping the chargers and batteries can cross over. I try to keep everything the same brand because if I lose something or something goes down, chargers and batteries and remotes (etc) can be substituted.
On to the final brand.
1:41pm
That was quick – Aiptek eliminated due to digital only zooms.
(CORRECTION JULY 12) There are several models with 3x and 5x zooms. I was only looking at standard def models. See first comment below.

Now the internal debate: what do I really need to teach properly? Do I need cheap cameras so as many students as possible can be shooting/editing? In other words just a point and shoot? Do I want more – manual controls so students can learn a bit of what the professionals do? Mike inputs?

A lesson learned during the workshop I taught at San Joaquin Delta College this summer was that using professional editing software made the difference. Students saw the power and possibilities. They didn’t have Final Cut Pro at home and would never have even guessed at what they could do without the three day exposure this workshop gave them.

It’s time to sit back and consider these things…I have my meeting with my principal tomorrow and want to be clear in my head what I am teaching and what I expect students to learn so I can make the argument for the gear that will do the job.

12 thoughts on “On the hunt for the wildly elusive affordable camcorder…

  1. Larry Nance sent an email asking if I had considered the Aiptek Action-HD GVS High Definition Camcorder. It has mike input, removable media, 5x optical zoom, and still ability. No manual options though. Plus (my big fear) HD may not be compatible with the school’s older eMacs. So, as I told him, I’ll meander down to one of our local stores and run a trial shoot and see if I can download to iMovie 6 on a six year old eMac. If yes, then this is on the list. If you have a newer computer, you might also take a look at this model.

  2. For learning/teaching – Manual controls are top of the list for sure. But a close second has to be manual controls that you can access while you are shooting. I suspect that pushes the price up dramatically. But camera specs don’t detail how the manual controls are accessed.

  3. I agree – my biggest grip is that the controls are often accessed through the menu, which is painful and slow.
    I like the Elura 100s because all you do is use the toggle to access most manual controls or they are at the top of the menu list.
    The old ZR series had them right on the panel that controlled the playback/rewind/etc. Very handy.

  4. yes – especailly for the run and gun vj style.

    Do you find that teens prefer a more dynamic/fluid shooting style, specifically that they prefer handheld to tripod? In my limited experience I have found that to be true – but I have never worked with the palmcorder units.

    My preference for a teen camera for high school video class would be less cameras with more controls, failing that maybe 1 or 2 controllable cameras for the kids who really do want to learn camera craft. I would go with used canon gl1/gl2 if possible. But I suspect school districts are wary of buying used cameras.

  5. Teens will do what they like to do – which is not necessarily the right way. They all come in “knowing everything” and I have to teach them the proper way. They do not like tripods, but find when I “suggest” using them two things happen. Their shooting is much better and their grades go up. The added advantage to me is that they are forced to slow down and take enough time to really see the shot and learn the lesson.
    And yes, I’d like better cameras, but my district can only afford low-enders. And with the current budget, we may have to keep those dying ones in the hands of students even longer.
    Used is out of the question unless I purchase them myself (which I’ve done with about eight low-enders just to have enough cameras in the classroom). The district won’t consider used.
    We do have two three-chip Panasonics, which I allow advanced students to use.

  6. Yes I figured used would be a problem. Having one or two better cameras allows a much more flexible approach. What portion of the student body signs up for video production? One local high school only has 150 kids total.

  7. The first few years I only taught one class per term (we’re on a four by four block schedule). So about 70 kids annually. The blocks are 90 minutes long. I have eight school cameras and 12 eMacs and divide students into teams of three. They rotate, but that would be one camera person, one producer/reporter, and one editor per team.

    This year for the first time I’m teaching two classes per term – I’d guess 140 annually. Our student body is hovering at 2000 this year I think. If I’m ever allowed to teach three (or four) broadcast classes, then I’d need to purchase more batteries for current cameras or more cameras…need time to recharge between classes. Fortunately this year I get at least one ninety minute period between my two classes.

    Where are you/what courses are you teaching?

  8. Interesting….I was experimenting with Larry Nance’s Aiptek 1080p and it works with my school’s six year old eMacs and iMovie. When I put some Quicktime files from my HV20 in hi-def, they would barely play. Today I’ll run a quick comparison between the two and post by tomorrow.

  9. It seems that most high school video courses emphasise video production rather than videography (camera craft).

    So the video course will start kids out on point and shoot cameras and go straight to an NLE, unlike a photography course which will typically go for DSLRs and start finessing manual controls before they get in to photoshop.

    Would that be your experience?

  10. The class can be taught almost any way you like. You can teach the entire process (which I prefer), just the shooting part, the editing, studio, videojournalism, digital filmmaking.

    I’m kind of in a bind due to camera issues so am changing my usual method. In the past I’ve started off with the basic shots assignment (https://cyndygreen.wordpress.com/2007/02/18/basic-shots-assignment/) and then animation (teamwork/understanding of how to change time), then autobiography, and so on. Each assignment builds on the prior one.

    Since some of my cameras are down (as far as shooting tape), I’m using them as still cameras (Canon Eluras shoot mini-dv tape and stills to an SD card) to teach composition, lighting, manual control. Then I’ll get to the other assignments as shown above. And yes, they will import stills to iMovie and edit the stills and lay down titles, music, etc. That way when we get to editing tape they’ll only have to learn how to cut clips and manipulate audio.

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