Getting started: Camcorder features explained

With a digital camcorder you can make your own movies, document milestones such as baby’s first steps, and create lasting memories of every holiday.

But to choose the right camera and get the best from it you need to understand its features. This guide explains some of the main ideas.

  • Choosing the right resolution
  • Digital or optical zoom?
  • HD compression formats explained
  • Options for recording and storing your movies
  • Play your movies on your TV
  • Other important features when choosing a camera

Choosing the right resolution

Different camcorders are capable of shooting at different picture qualities or resolutions.

The number of horizontal lines is what determines an image’s resolution. More lines mean a sharper picture. For example, Full HD has 1,080 horizontal lines.

Standard definition (SD): SD offers 720 x 576 pixels and is more likely to be found in budget cameras. Standard definition lacks the clarity and detail of HD.

High definition (HD): Full HD camcorders offer superior picture compared to SD models. Full HD is the standard for current TV models, with many channels and programmes broadcast in high-definition. Much more detail is packed into the frame thanks to its 1920 x 1080 pixels.

4K: 4K offers a resolution four times higher than Full HD. Expect improved colour, saturation and contrast thanks to 3840 x 2160 pixels. Footage shot in 4K should be played back on a 4K TV.

Digital or optical zoom?

Zoom – the ability to change your field of view without moving the camera – is an important feature when buying a camcorder. When you zoom in or out you change how close your subject appears, either by moving parts of the lens itself or by zooming in on the digital image.

Optical zoom: When you use optical zoom the configuration of optical elements in the lens actually changes to give it a different focal length. The standard optical zoom is 10x, meaning the largest focal length is 10x that of the smallest, but camcorders with zoom ranges of up to 60x are available.

Digital zoom: This zooms in to the image taken by the camera sensor, rather than changing the focal length of the lens. Because the original image is unchanged, the higher the zoom ratio, the more image quality is sacrificed.

HD compression formats explained

When you record on a camcorder, your movie is compressed to keep the file size manageable. The quality of your recorded movie is generally determined by the bit rate, measured in megabits per second (Mbps). The higher the rate, the better the quality and the larger the resulting file will be.

There are several compression formats available.

HDV: The original HD format for digital camcorders – compatible with the traditional tape-based DV format. It records in full HD resolution but uses MPEG-2 compression. Not many HDV consumer cameras are made today; it is used mainly by professionals.

AVCHD: The current standard for recording and playing back footage in Full HD on consumer camcorders. AVCHD:

  • records in Full HD but has a higher compression rate than HDV, using a compression method called MPEG-4/H.264
  • records HD video without using too much memory
  • uses 1GB to record 30 minutes of footage

XAVC: This format is designed to support 4K camcorders. With it filmmakers control the size and quality of 4K files. 4K can reach a bit rate of 960Mbps – but you can reduce this to less than 100Mbps with XAVC.

XAVC is not exclusive to 4K. It can also handle Full HD

Options for recording and storing your movies

When shooting your home movies they are recorded digitally to an internal hard drive or memory card.

Hard drive: Record your footage directly to the camera by choosing a model with an internal hard drive. There are two types of internal storage:

  • HDD: a standard hard drive. Offers a large amount of storage space but is heavier and contains moving parts
  • Flash: Lighter, faster storage that contains no moving parts but offers less space

Memory cards: Record your movies to a small memory card that fits into a slot on your camera. The speed of your card is important: for Full HD with sound you will need a faster card than for SD video without sound.

The performance of a card depends upon:

Data storage: measured in gigabytes, how much a card can hold.

Card speed: How fast the card can write data. This is measured in MBps – megabytes per second (as opposed to megabits per second for the original bitrate of the recording). Cards are labelled in classes as follows:

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Creating and editing a library with PlayMemories: You can store your videos securely online with Sony’s PlayMemories. Easily access your treasured memories and organise them into your own personal library. View them on your laptop, tablet or TV with easy wireless syncing.

Find out how to transfer SD videos from a DV- or Digital8-camcorder to your PC
Find out how to transfer SD videos from a DV- or Digital8-camcorder to your Mac

Play your movies on your TV

You can connect your digital camcorder to your TV and watch your movies on the big screen in just a few easy steps.

  1. Connect your HDMI cable to the HDMI OUT port on your camcorder
  2. Plug the other end of the cable into your TV’s HDMI IN port
  3. Play your movie on your camera and it will appear on your TV

Find out more about how to play movies on your TV

Other important features when choosing a camera

Wide-angle lens: Some camcorders are equipped with a wide-angle lens, perfect for shooting sweeping panoramas of hills and mountains or historic landmarks. A wide-angle lens is also great for filming groups of people or shooting in tight spaces.
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Sensor: The sensor is the part of the camera that is exposed to light to capture a digital image. The larger the sensor in your camcorder, the more detail it can capture. A high quality sensor, such as the Exmor R CMOS in many Sony cameras, will capture rich, detailed images even in low light or when shooting indoors.

Optical image stabilisation: Moving your arm or hand, even slightly, can cause camera shake. But optical stabilisation will help keep your footage steady and free of blur. Sony Balanced Optical SteadyShot is designed to give incredibly stable recording.