The video camera has come a long way from the shoulder-bruising behemoths that only parents with small children could love. Today's diminutive models are lightweight gizmos whose features are improving faster than any product since the desktop computer. TV news crews are even using the same models consumers buy.
The key to camcorder shopping is deciding which features are important to you and how much you want to spend. Be aware that list prices never apply: If the camera isn't already on sale, you can usually negotiate with the dealer. The weekend videographer can find a good, older-model camera for $500 and a superb compact for $800. The most advanced gadgetry will run around $1,500.
First, decide what video format you want. The full-size VHS is convenient because the tapes pop directly into your VCR. But the cameras are large and heavy compared with newer compact VHS-c models or 8mm tape systems pioneered by Sony. VHS-c tapes will pop into your VCR with the aid of an adapter, but you can also play tapes by plugging the camcorder directly into a TV set.
For my money, nothing beats 8mm camcorders. One 8mm tape records up to two hours vs. 30 minutes for most VHS-c cameras, and it has better sound quality. Whichever type you choose, consider getting the "high-band" versions, such as Super VHS, h-VHS, Hi8, or Hi-band 8mm. The improved picture quality is worth the extra $100 or $200.
ENERGY SAVER. One of the most popular cameras has been Sony's TR-81, a Hi8 model that fits snugly in one hand for $1,400. But this summer, Sony outdid itself with the TR-101, almost identical in appearance except for a larger lens. The real innovation of the TR-101, which lists for $1,800, is its ability to steady the image even when the hand holding the camera is shaky. Called Steady Shot, it's based on technology Sony licensed from Canon. Tiny sensors measure the camera's shake and actually bend a flexible lens back and forth to keep the image centered. Canon, for some reason, has put the image-stabilizing feature only on its semiprofessional versions, such as the $2,999 L1, the Hi8 camera cnn took to the Persian Gulf.
Other makers offer digital image stabilization. This approach, which uses software technology, saves power and battery life but sacrifices some image quality. jvc, Panasonic, and Hitachi offer it on several VHS and 8mm cameras. In its $1,800 VM-H39A, Hitachi compensates for image-quality loss by using larger ccd chips, the electronic circuits that actually capture the image.
If reaching for the lightest, smallest camera is your priority, choose 8mm. Most VHS-C or 8mm camcorders weigh about two pounds not including the battery, but the bantam-weight competition increases almost daily. Canon offers the UC1 ($1,799) 8mm camera, and the UCS2, a $1,699 high-band version, both just 1.2 pounds. Hitachi's high-band VM-H39A weighs in at 1.3 pounds. Sony's smallest Hi8 is the TR-200 at 1.5 pounds and $1,600. That one also comes with a separate docking station that plugs into the TV. You can then simultaneously play back your video and recharge the batteries.
SLOW FADE. If simplicity is your bag, try an automated camera. Many pick the right focus, shutter size, and speed when you make a simple selection, such as a sports setting to catch quick action. In this category are Sony's fx models and Fisher's FVC10.
Beyond that, the difference between a useful feature and a gimmick is largely a matter of taste. Interested in water sports? You can drop Hitachi's 8mm VM-SP1A into a lake. Special effects? The Canon L1, jvc's compact VHS GR-M7PRO, Canon's UCS3, and Sony's V-Series cameras can add titles, instant closeups, dissolves, and freeze frames. Think you'll need different lenses? Unscrew the front lens from jvc's GR-SZ1 and you're left with an ultra wide-angle camera. Sharp's Twincams come with super wide-angle and zoom lenses built in, and even let you shoot through both at once, for an image within an image. A few cameras have color viewfinders, but Lancelot Braithwaite, technical editor for Video Magazine, warns that it may be harder to tell if you're in focus with these systems. Sharp's VL-HL100U ViewCam comes with a flat-panel viewfinder, so you can hold the camera over a crowd and see what you're filming.
One more note: Many manufacturers sell their cameras to other companies, which market them under their own names. Sony sells to Ricoh, Nikon, and Yashica, while Panasonic makes cameras for Quasar, and JVC for Minolta. You can find out the equivalents by checking video magazines or Consumer Reports Buying Guide. When deciding between clones, you'll want to get the best combination of price and warranty. But think twice about paying extra for one model just because it has a longer warranty. Retailers admit that camcorders rarely break.