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View Finders : Once they were all big and bulky. Now camcorders come in an array of sizes with a host of gadgets. Here's how to take your best shot. : THE GOODS


Portable camcorders are as common among tourists, doting parents and grandparents as the ubiquitous point 'n' shoot camera. Once bulky behemoths that required strong shoulders to heft, camcorders today often are not much larger than a full-size 35-millimeter single-lens reflex camera. And their key attraction is instant--or near-instant--gratification. Shoot your pictures, then watch them at once on your own TV screen.

But where virtually all popular still cameras--SLRs as well as point 'n' shoots--use standard 35-millimeter film, consumers looking to buy their first video camcorder have no fewer than half a dozen tape formats from which to choose--from full-size VHS that use the same tapes as your home VCR, to small 8-millimeter systems that make up in portability what they may lack in convenience, to sophisticated recording systems that require their own viewers.

With all the choices, I'm in the same boat as any other first-time buyer. To get expert help on what's out there, I asked two pros for advice on today's camcorder market. Jenny Lehman, owner of A-Plus Video Services of Ft. Washington, Md., is one of the Washington area's most sought-after wedding and event videographers. Mike Gerry, manager of the Pro Video Group for Washington Professional Systems of Wheaton, Md., buys and reviews thousands of dollars' worth of top-of-the-line video equipment each year. Each weighed the pros and cons of different video formats and different cameras--and each wound up recommending some of the same equipment.

Among the hottest new features on camcorders is electronic image stabilization--a boon when shooting long zoom shots, but not much use with close-ups. Electronic stabilization is done by a microchip that electronically compensates for an amateur's shaky camera work. Some of the higher-end Canon and Sony models offer a more sophisticated optical stabilization system that allows the camcorder's prism to, in effect, "float" and thus absorb vibration before it reaches the camcorder lens. Similar technology is available today on only a handful of still cameras.

Other desirable features on today's camcorders include improved color viewfinders and, in some cases, wide-screen video monitors that supplant the old camera-like eyepiece for a kind of Watchman-like viewing screen. Consumers should weigh carefully what features they need--and are willing to pay for.

But, as Gerry notes, "the consumer has a job just to determine what format to go with." Regular VHS camcorders tend to be the largest of today's camcorders (often weighing in at four-plus pounds with battery--as heavy as the biggest 35-millimeter cameras 30 years ago), but, as both Gerry and Lehman note, the advantage here is that the consumer can pop out the cassette and play it as he or she would a rented movie on the VCR.

"This is a big advantage to people who still have trouble programming their VCRs," Lehman says. She adds that to play a tiny 8-millimeter video, or the higher resolution Hi-8 tapes, one has to plug in special AV cables and use the camcorder to broadcast its images over the home television.

Both regular VHS and 8-millimeter offer far longer recording times--up to two hours--than the 20 to 30 minutes offered on Compact VHS tapes (VHS-C) or on the new Compact Super VHS format (S-VHS-C). For now, anyway, consumers looking for hours of recording time, high resolution and portability may find that Hi-8 camcorders (weighing about two pounds with battery in some cases) may be the way to go.

Like a dry sponge, I soaked up what Lehman and Gerry had to say about some of the most popular video cameras. Following are their picks for the three most widely used videotape formats. (Weights include battery pack. Prices are manufacturer's suggested list; shop around for the best deal.)

Regular VHS: These camcorders use full-size VHS tapes up to two hours in length.

* Panasonic PV 950. This camcorder features "switch hitter" design to accommodate right- and left-handed users. The PV 950 does not have electronic image stabilization but does offer a color viewfinder, as well as fully automatic operation. A good first camera. (4.5 pounds, $799 list price.)

* Panasonic PV 960. This updated version of the 950 has more bells and whistles: electronic image stabilization and some special effects capability, including digital zoom. Comes with a black-and-white viewfinder, automatic operation. Many pros prefer looking through a black-and-white viewfinder because they say the image looks sharper. Amateurs may be more comfortable with color. (4.2 pounds, $859.)

Compact VHS: Compact VHS, or VHS-C, tapes--20 to 30 minutes in length--can be played on home VCRs with use of an adapter.

* Panasonic PV IQ 405. This conveniently designed camera for the amateur shooter features electronic image stabilization, excellent resolution as well as a built-in light to enhance color in low-light situations. Date and time encoding option. Playback adapter included. (Two pounds, $800.)

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