If you’re starting from scratch, this is about the cheapest option you can go for if you’re going to buy something for making videos. Sometimes you can get away with using your basic digital camera or even your phone these days, but remember our two principles? If you’re buying cheap gear, then you should make audio your priority (unless you’re making videos where all the audio is imported – eg Music videos). My opinion is that most camcorders will have much better sound recording capabilities than other cheap video recording devices.
So what do you look for in a camcorder?
First off, make sure it has an input socket for an external microphone.
Then, as soon as you have another $50-100 available, buy one. You can sometimes get cheapish shotgun mic (like the one pictured) off ebay for this kind of price. It won’t be a Sennheisser, but it will get you much better and clearer sound than the inbuilt mic on the camera. The shotgun mic is also pretty versatile, allowing you to capture a good range of sounds without being in shot. It should have it’s own power-source (like an AA battery), and come with a wind sock and an XLR cable – this will need a converter to get into the camera input (which you may be able to get included in your package).
Preferably, it should also have an input for your headphones so you can monitor the sound. This is especially crucial if you’re thinking of doing any filming in places with background noise (which you most probably are!). Even if you don’t have an external mic, get a pair of headphones so you can listen in to the audio that the camera is picking up – preferably ones that cover your ears ($50?).
Next, consider the video quality. HD camcorders are now cheap enough that I’d be surprised if you had to consider something of lower quality. Make sure it is full HD (1920×1080 pixels). After that, look at the lens and the censor – the better they are the better the footage. In Australia, we use the PAL system (25 frames per second), so make sure it shoots at this rate if you live here. If you live in America on the other hand, you want an NTSC camera (30 frames per second).
The other thing to notice with video quality is how it records the footage – check how much it is being compressed for storage. Full quality footage (minimal compression) should take up a lot of space! Be ready for that – which will probably mean buying a big SDHC memory card for storage (since that’s where the storage seems to be heading).
Any features beyond this don’t tend to matter that much. You can do effects in editing – they just put them on the camcorder to try to make it look more attractive.
Most camcorders you can find that have the above specifications should be around the $300-400 price range. One that I’ve found online which looks like a good entry level is the Canon Vixia HF R10. It’s got the above specs, and you could potentially attach a lens converter on later (check the next filming setup for what I’m talking about). I’m sure there’s loads more. So look around, read and watch reviews, and maybe even see if you can give something a try. (It’s hard nowadays to find a cheap camcorder with an audio input. Two mentioned in the comments below are the Kodak Zi8, Aipetek Action HD, and GoPro Hero, but each come with their own downsides. Another option you could try is to add the input yourself, but you’d want to make sure you knew what you were doing! Check out this for an example on a JVC Everio)
Moral of the above? The best thing you can do for your video is get an external microphone! All up, that puts the above set up (camera, mic, headphones?) at $350-550. Not bad! (I paid $1500 for my first video camera – and that was cheap for a MiniDV camera back in the day. Hi8 was still around!)
Also, check out this video for a good comparison of Mobile phone cameras and Camcorders:
Not for you?
Check out other setups in this series:
Cheapish setup: Camcorder with adapted lens
Not-so-cheap setup: DSLR + digital-audio-recorder
Necessories: tripod, mic, headphones, (audio recorder)