The camcorder has become a fixture on the American landscape. In the right hands, it can yield a documentary of pivotal moments in your life. But in the wrong hands - like mine - it can yield results that make 12 hours of Monica Lewinsky's deposition look like an Emmy winner.
The average video camera in the hands of the average user produces a few memorable moments trapped in a quagmire of quirky pans, shaky zooms and footage of the photographer's feet. The picture is frequently blurry even when it's in focus and the audio sounds like you've been yelling into a cheap cassette recorder in a high wind.
If only you could get clean video and sound - and get rid of those frames of your sneakers - maybe those tapes wouldn't sit around around decomposing.
Well, if you're prepared to pay about as much as you spent five years ago on that first 8 mm minicam, you can end your video misery. With the latest digital camcorders, you can get broadcast-quality video and CD-quality sound.
Many digital camcorders have built-in editing tools and special effects, while some include a connector that hooks up with your PC. With the right video editing software and a little practice, you can be the next Barry Levinson - or at least keep the family awake.
What makes digital camcorders better? They're digital, which means they store images as sequences of ones and zeros, the same way compact discs store digital sound. Traditional camcorders use the same basic analog TV technology that has been around for 50 years, recording magnetic waves that represent patterns of light and darkness.
Digital camcorders can store more information about each frame, which means a sharper, more detailed picture than an analog recording. Digital images are easier to edit and manipulate, and the picture quality doesn't degrade with repeated playing.
I tested two middle-of-the-line digital camcorders - Canon's Vistura ($1,050) and JVC's CyberCam GR-DVF10 ($1,200). Both are about the size of standard 8 mm camcorders, and they pack plenty of features into a small package. But they won't do you a lot of good unless you learn how to use them.
Now consider the issue of tape. Both cameras use the Mini DV tape format, which is slightly smaller than today's standard 8 mm cassettes. So don't don't expect to pop the tapes out of these and throw them in the VCR, or use the tapes from your last camcorder.
(If compatibility is paramount, Sony recently released the Digital8 HandyCam, which can record to 8 mm cassettes and play back tapes made with a Hi8 camcorder).
Next, there's size. Smaller is usually better for most of us. Canon's compact package is a 2.8-inch diagonal color LCD view screen, which can be used as a viewfinder instead of the traditional eyepiece, or turned 180 degrees to show your subject what the camera sees.
Because the Canon has a built-in speaker, you can play back the footage you've just shot with full audio using the LCD screen.
The JVC CyberCam also has a built-in color display and speakers. It's slightly larger than the Canon - 1 inches longer, though its weight is similar. The additional length is put to good use with an integrated mini-floodlight for dark scenes.
Most digital cameras can take stills as well as full-motion video. They can store hundreds of snapshots on a tape. You can view the stills as a slide show on your TV or download them to your computer for editing and e-mailing.
Canon's Vistura is designed with the still photographer in mind, with a hot shoe for an external flash unit on the top which can also be used for other other accessories such as a boom microphone.
Both cameras deliver video that's close to broadcast quality, with crystal-clear sound in stereo if you like, so you can relive those family reunions in Sensurround.
Remember the fuzzy distance shots you used to take with your old camcorder? Both of these cameras can zoom up close and personal without losing sharpness. The JVC CyberCam has a more powerful zoom with a maximum 160X magnification, compared to the Vistura's 64X. The CyberCam also sports a built-in lens cover, a nice touch for klutzes like me who can lose things even when they're tied down.
One other plus for the CyberCam is a standard external recharger, which was faster than the Vistura built-in recharging unit.
Although they're small and light, digital camcorders can still produce shaky images, particularly you're grabbing a one-hand around-the-corner stealth shot of a child who's camera-shy (or worse, a ham). The same goes for shotom a moving car and other stupid videographer tricks. Fortunately, both cameras offer image stabilization - but of the two, the Vistura was better in smoothing out a shaky camera hand.
But enough of plain old good-looking shots - what about the bells and whistles for budding cinematographers?
If you have a preference for video noir, both cameras can record images with a sepia effect that gives your footage the look of an old, fading black-and-white print. There's also a strobe effect, which provides the flicker of an old home movie or silent film.
The Vistura also has an art tool which adds a paint-like effect to the borders of images, a technique known as solarization to photo-editing buffs.
Both cameras allow you to turn off automatic exposure and make manual adjustments for shooting conditions. The shutter speed can also be varied, typically by speeding it up for better quality slow motion playback. This is great for a frame-by-frame analysis of your golf shot or finding the exact moment that your child dropped the ice cube down the back of Aunt Jeannie's blouse.
For those with true cinematic ambitions, there are plenty of high-end tricks. The Vistura, for example, will change the focal point of a scene from a small object in the foreground to a person or object further away from without making you change the focus manually. And the CyberCam offers the option of "letter-boxing" your video, giving it the long, narrow format of a theatrical movie instead of a boxier TV screen.
For professional transitions from scene to scene, you'll find "fades," "dissolves" and "wipes. The Vistura offers three choices of transitions, the CyberCam 17.
In a fade, by the way, the picture gradually fades in or out to a black screen, while wipes are animated effects that replace the end of one scene with the beginning of another (much like dragging one postcard over another). The CyberCam boasts a varity of these-diagonal wipes that start in a corner, side wipes that go straight across, or split wipes that open from the middle or close from both sides like a sliding door.
These effects can be applied directly to the video in the camera because as digital devices, they can store images being manipulated in memory before committing them to tape.
Speaking of editing, both cameras have features that enable them to select a sequence of scenes and automatically dub them to a VCR in the order you specify. The Vistura supports this remote-controlled editing with a wider range of VCRs because it uses a built-in infrared port to simulate the VCR's remote control. The CyberCam uses an interface cable that works with some JVC recorders and its own remote control - which can control a smaller variety of VCRs.
The Vistura also includes an interface for FireWire, also known as IEEE 1394, which allows computers and other gadgets communicate at high speed. With an optional video capture kit, you can grab frames from your videos, or download still images you've taken in snapshot mode, and edit them with software.
If you have a computer with a FireWire capture port (standard on many new PCs and Macs), and you have plenty of hard disk space and memory, you can a desktop video editing suites such as Adobe Premiere to capture clips from your video, re-arrange them, add additional effects, mix in music and make other changes. But you can do many of these things with the camera itself.
With this many features to play with, it's easy to forget the basics of shooting good video. But if you keep your shots simple and action focused, you can use the tools both these cameras offer to create the unthinkable - home videos someone might want to sit and watch. And remember - keep your feet out of the picture.