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.

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.
All Sanyos off the list – minimal anything I need.
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.
Panasonics and JVCs eliminated. Interesting to note that many of the flash camcorders have few if any manual controls.
Not even going to consider the DXGs…all they have are 4x digital zooms.
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.
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?
The Canon ZR960 has nearly everything – lacking still capability – $244.
The ZR950 does stills, but has no mike input – $219.
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.
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.