A camcorder is a portable consumer electronics device for recording video and audio using a built-in recorder unit. The camcorder contains both a video camera and a video recorder in one unit, hence its compound name.
The earliest camcorders employed analog recording onto videotape. Since the 1990s digital recording has become the norm, but tape remained the primary recording media. Starting from early 2000s tape as storage media is being gradually replaced with tapeless solutions like optical disks, hard disk drives and flash memory.
All tape-based camcorders have removable media in form of video cassettes. Solid-state camcorders can have either removable media in form of memory cards, or built-in memory, or both. HDD-based camcorders usually have non-removable media in form of a hard disk drive (HDD).
Camcorders that do not use magnetic tape are often called tapeless camcorders. Camcorders that use two different types of media, like built-in HDD and memory card, are often called hybrid camcorders.
Video cameras were originally designed for broadcasting television images — see television camera. Cameras found in television broadcast centres were extremely large, mounted on special trolleys, and wired to remote recorders located in separate rooms. As technology advanced, miniaturization eventually enabled the construction of portable video-cameras and portable video-recorders.
Prior to the introduction of the camcorder, portable video-recording required two separate devices: a video-camera and a VCR. Specialized models were introduced by both JVC (VHS) and Sony (Umatic & Betamax) to be used for mobile work. The portable VCR consisted of the cassette player/recorder unit, and a television tuner unit. The cassette unit could be detached and carried with the user for video recording. While the camera itself could be quite compact, the fact that a separate VCR had to be carried generally made on-location shooting a two-man job, however the advent of these portable VCRs helped to eliminate the phrase "film at eleven". Rather than wait for the lengthy process of film developing, portable VCRs and video cameras allowed video to be shown during the 6 o'clock news.
In 1982, two events happened that eventually led to the home camcorder boom: JVC introduced the VHS-C format, and Sony released the first professional camcorder named Betacam. VHS-C was essentially VHS with a reduced-size cassette that had been designed for portable VCRs. Sony's Betacam was a standard developed for professional camcorders, which used component video to provide a superior picture. At first, cameramen did not welcome Betacam, because before it, carrying and operating the VCR unit was the work of a video engineer; after Betacam they came to be required to operate both video camera and VCR. However the cable between cameramen and video engineers was eliminated, the freedom of cameramen improved dramatically and Betacam quickly became the standard for both news-gathering and in-studio video editing.
In 1983, Sony released the Betamax-based Betamovie, the first consumer camcorder. A novel technique was used to reduce the size of the spinning video head drum, which was then used for many subsequent camcorders. The unit was bulky by today's standards, and since it could not be held in one hand, was typically used resting on a shoulder. Some later camcorders were even larger, because the Betamovie models had only optical viewfinders and no playback or rewind capability. Most camcorders were and still are designed for right-handed operation, though a few possessed ambidextrous ergonomics.
Within a short time JVC released its own camcorder using its pre-existing VHS-C format. The VHS-C cassette held enough tape to record 40 or 120 minutes of VHS video, while a mechanical adapter enabled playback of VHS-C videocassettes in home VCRs. This first model can be seen in the movie Back to the Future. After seeing the popularity of the small VHS-C "palmcorders", Sony redesigned its Betamax system to create the Video8 standard. Video8 eliminated the problem of short running time, by using an all-new metal composition video cassette. 8 mm video used a tape whose width is 33% less than VHS/Betamax tape (~12.7 mm), allowing even further miniaturization in the recorder's tape-transport assembly and cassette media.
Both VHS-C and 8 mm video represented a trade-off for the consumer. Although the Video8 and Hi8 camcorders produced quality equal to VHS-C and Super VHS-C camcorders (250/420 lines horizontal), the standard 8 mm cassette had the advantage with up to two hours length (four hours in slow mode). On the down side, since the 8 mm format was incompatible with VHS, 8 mm recordings could not be played in consumers' VHS VCRs. Equally important entry-level VHS-C camcorders were priced less than 8 mm units, and thus neither "won" the war. It became a stalemate. (Side note - In 1986 companies like Panasonic began releasing full-sized VHS/S-VHS camcorders, which offered up to 3 or 9 hours record time, and thus found a niche with videophiles, industrial videographers, and college TV studios.)
In the mid-1990s, the camcorder reached the digital era with the introduction of DV and miniDV. Its cassette media was even smaller than 8 mm media, allowing another size reduction of the tape transport assembly. The digital nature of miniDV also improved audio and video quality over the best of the analog consumer camcorders (SVHS-C, Hi8), although some users still prefer the analog nature of Hi8 and Super VHS-C, since neither of these produce the "background blur" or "mosquito noise" of Digital compression. Variations on the DV camcorder include the Digital8 camcorder and the MPEG2-based DVD camcorder.
The evolution of the camcorder has seen the growth of the camcorder market as price reductions and size reductions make the technology more accessible to a wider audience. When camcorders were first introduced, they were bulky shoulder-operated luggables that cost over $1,500 US dollars. As of 2008, an entry-level camcorder fits in the palm of a person's hand and is sold at a retail price of approximately 100 US dollars (http://cameras.pricegrabber.com/camcorders/m/17729872).
In consumer units, the above adjustments are often automatically controlled by the camcorder's electronics, but can be adjusted manually if desired. Professional units offer direct user control of all major optical functions.
The imager converts light into electric signal. The camera lens projects an image onto the imager surface, exposing the photosensitive array to light. The light exposure is converted into electrical charge. At the end of the timed exposure, the imager converts the accumulated charge into a continuous analog voltage at the imager's output terminals. After scan-out is complete, the photosites are reset to start the exposure-process for the next video frame.
With the first (digital) camcorders, an analog-to-digital (ADC) converter digitized the imager (analog) waveform output into a discrete digital-video signal. The images in these cameras was a CCD which was analogue by nature. Modern cameras will generally have a CMOS chip in place of a CCD as a CMOS is completely digital in nature and there is no analogue voltage signal to digitize because the light is sampled directly by each pixel and converted to a binary digital signal per each pixel.
CCD chips will generally see better in low light conditions because of the CCD's nature of capturing more light in the infrared range, but will severely lack in the human visibility spectrum, thus sacrificing color, on the other hand CMOS imagers do not have great low light capability but will capture the visible spectrum better and thus displaying color properly.
All but the most primitive camcorders imaginable also need to have a recorder-controlling section which allows the user to control the camcorder, switch the recorder into playback mode for reviewing the recorded footage and an image control section which controls exposure, focus and white-balance.
The image recorded need not be limited to what appeared in the viewfinder. For documentation of events, such as used by police, the field of view overlays such things as the time and date of the recording along the top and bottom of the image. Such things as the police car or constable to which the recorder has been allotted may also appear; also the speed of the car at the time of recording. Compass direction at time of recording and geographical coordinates may also be possible. These are not kept to world-standard fields; "month/day/year" may be seen, as well as "day/month/year", besides the ISO standard "year-month-day". And the Danish police have the speed of the police car in the units "km/t" sic (time being Danish for "hour").
It should be noted that the take up of digital video storage in camcorders was an enormous milestone. MiniDV storage allows full resolution video (720x576 for PAL,720x480 for NTSC), unlike previous analogue video standards. Digital video doesn't experience colour bleeding, jitter, or fade, although some users still prefer the analog nature of Hi8 and Super VHS-C, since neither of these produce the "background blur" or "mosquito noise" of Digital compression. In many cases, a high-quality analog recording shows more detail (such as rough textures on a wall) than a compressed digital recording (which would show the same wall as flat and featureless). Although, the low resolution of analogue camcorders may negate any such benefits.
The highest-quality digital formats, such as MiniDV and Digital Betacam, have the advantage over analog of suffering little generation loss in recording, dubbing, and editing (MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 do suffer from generation loss in the editing process only). Whereas noise and bandwidth issues relating to cables, amplifiers, and mixers can greatly affect analog recordings, such problems are minimal in digital formats using digital connections (generally IEEE 1394, SDI/SDTI, or HDMI).
Although both analog and digital can suffer from archival problems, digital is more prone to complete loss. Theoretically digital information can be stored indefinitely with zero deterioration on a digital storage device (such as a hard drive), however since some digital formats (like miniDV) often squeeze tracks only ~10 micrometers apart (versus ~500 μm for VHS), a digital recording is more vulnerable to wrinkles or stretches in the tape that could permanently erase several scenes worth of digital data, but the additions tracking and error correction code on the tape will generally compensate for most defects. On analog media similar damage barely registers as "noise" in the video, still leaving a deteriorated but watchable video. The only limitation is that this video has to be played on a completely analogue viewing system, otherwise the tape will not display any video due to the damage and sync problems. Even digital recordings on DVD are known to suffer from DVD rot that permanently erase huge chunks of data. Thus the one advantage analog seems to have in this respect is that an analog recording may be "usable" even after the media it is stored on has suffered severe deterioration whereas it has been noticed that even slight media degradation in digital recordings may cause them to suffer from an "all or nothing" failure, i.e. the digital recording will end up being totally un-playable without very expensive restoration work.
Some recent camcorders record video on flash memory devices, Microdrives, small hard disks, and size-reduced DVD-RAM or DVD-Rs using MPEG-1, MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 formats. However because these codecs use inter-frame compression, frame-specific-editing requires frame regeneration, which incurs additional processing and can cause loss of picture information. (In professional usage, it is common to use a codec that will store every frame inidividually. This provides easier and faster frame-specific editing of scenes.)
Most other digital consumer camcorders record in DV or HDV format on tape and transfer content over FireWire (some also use USB 2.0) to a computer, where the huge files (for DV, 1GB for 4 to 4.6 minutes in PAL/NTSC resolutions) can be edited, converted, and (with many camcorders) also recorded back to tape. The transfer is done in real time, so the complete transfer of a 60 minute tape needs one hour to transfer and about 13GB disk space for the raw footage only - excluding any space needed for render files, and other media. Time spent in post-production (editing) to select and cut the best shots varies from instantaneous "magic" movies to hours of tedious selection, arrangement and rendering.
For the sophisticated hobbyist, high-end units offer improved optical and video performance through multi-CCD or multi-CMOS components and name-brand optics, manual control of camera exposure, removable optics, and more, but even consumer camcorders which are sold for $1000 such as the Panasonic GS250 are not well-suited for recording in dim light. When dimly-lit areas are brightened in-camera or in post-production, considerable noise distracts the viewer. Commercial special noise reduction algorithms are available to fix this as those available from Neat ImageNeat Video.
Before the 21st century, consumer video editing was a difficult task requiring a minimum of two recorders. Now, however, a contemporary Personal Computer of even modest power can perform digital video editing with editing software. Many consumer camcorders bundle a light (feature-limited) version of such software, as do some computers, and more advanced software is widely available at a variety of price points.
As of 2007, analog camcorders are still available but not widely marketed anymore; those that are still available are often less than US$250, but require special capture hardware for non-linear editing which may run into the thousands of dollars due to the plethora of sync and signal problems that may not be resolved with cheap capture equipement. In terms of sales, miniDV camcorders (and to a much lesser extent, Digital8) dominate most first world markets. Camcorders which record directly on DVD media are also on the rise, primarily among users with no plans to edit their footage. Nonetheless, software for editing video files created by DVD camcorders is available, including Womble DVD and VideoRedo. A user may also choose to recode the transport files of a dvd to that of an MPEG2 file which is supported by many other editing suites.
Hard disk based camcorders are appearing as well; JVC and Sony are the primary manufacturers of these units. Increased storage capacity over other types of media is the main advantage with these models; however, with this follows a slightly reduced image quality and loss of flexibility when compared to other formats such as MiniDV, making the ease of transferring the footage to a PC for quick editing the main attraction of Hard disk camcorders. Another downside Hard Drive based camcorders is the recording device itself which can be damaged irreparably by power failure or physical shock to the unit.
All are limited somewhat by having to serve as both cameras and camcorders. Compared to a dedicated camcorder they have poor low light performance, limited options, and many do not offer zoom during filming. (This is because the noise from the zooming motor is heard on the clip, only a few digicams have a manual zoom). Many either have fixed focus lenses, or autofocus lenses that are sluggish and noisy compared to a camcorder.
The quality varies widely depending on the compression format used and the type of device. Frame rates can range from 30 frame/s down to 10 frame/s, or can be variable, slowing down in dark settings. The length of clips can also vary from "unlimited" (up to the capacity of the storage media) down to as little as 30 seconds.
Low end MPEG-4 camcorders can often record unlimited length video clips at 320 X 240, but the quality is far below even a VHS-C camcorder. In addition, MPEG-4 is currently not widely supported in many video editing programs. Cameras recording in Quicktime format produce videos of acceptable quality, but the compression appears as a grain or static in the video. Some cameras can offer exceptionally good video quality using the MJPEG codec, but because it is a lossless codec, the files are so large that the recording time at high quality with a 1GB card is up to ten minutes.
The use of digicams for recording video clips is limited mainly to circumstances where quality is not an issue. This is gradually being offset by the greater sophistication of the cameras, the increasing storage capacity of flash cards and microdrives, and the desire of consumers to carry only a single device.
Camcorders have found use in nearly all corners of electronic media, from electronic news organizations to TV/current-affairs productions. In locations away from a distribution infrastructure, camcorders are invaluable for initial video acquisition. Subsequently, the video is transmitted electronically to a studio/production center for broadcast. Scheduled events such as official press conferences, where a video infrastructure is readily available or can be feasibly deployed in advance, are still covered by studio-type video cameras (tethered to "production trucks.")
Even high-budget cinema is done using camcorders in some cases; George Lucas used Sony CineAlta camcorders in two of his three Star Wars prequel movies. This process is referred to as digital cinematography.
Many low-end tapeless camcorders, however, do not support any operating system but Windows, requiring either third-party software or a switch to a more standardized format such as DV.