Hi, I am a complete newbie at camcorders. I do know a lot about binoculars and telescopes and a bit about photography.
- camcorder for nature observations (birds, scenery, ...)
- optical zoom of at least 40x
- budget maximum : $500 or €350
- not to fragile
- compatible with Mac OS X and Linux (editing tools)
- if I have to choose between a 40x zoom and a 70x zoom, I would choose the one with the best quality at 40x (halfway the 70x zoom)
- do I have to carry a 3 kg tripod with me to shoot stable movies with a 250 gram camcorder
- good light sensitivity (no night shoots, but able to film on a very cloudy day)
- ability to connect external mic
- good sound recording (meaning for that price range)
Some camcorders in the price range:
Canon LEGRIA FS200 SD Camcorder (40x)
Sony DCR-SX31E Memorystick Camcorder 8GB (60x)
Sony DCR-SX50E (60x)
Canon Legria FS20 (45x)
Panasonic SDR-H80 Harddisk Camcorder 60 GB (70x)
Some other questions.
These cameras are lightweight, approximately 250 grams, but will I have to carry a 3kg tripod with me to shoot stable videos at maximum zoom? The rule of thumb for binoculars is that the maximum magnification for holding in your hand is 12x and I know a lot of people who can't handle that (I have a 12x50).
As I was looking at the specifics of camcorders I noticed that the larger the optical zoom the cheaper the camcorder. I find this very suspicious.
I don't want to spend too much money. It is for starting with a new hobby. If it works out, I can go for a more expensive and better quality model in a year or two. If there are no camcorders in that price range available for nature observations, so be it. I do not want to shoot movies for National Geographic or Discovery channel. Movies that will look a lot better than the average youtube video is ok.
What doesn't get mentioned in technical specs however is the output format of the movies.
Be careful with those cameras that have the large zoom features. Once a handycam gets pushed into the realm of over its optium zoom, you begin to lose a lot of pixles. I have a Sony handycam with the Carl Zeiss lens. I can push it to it's optimal 20x zoom, if I try and run it up to its 800x zoom the picture looks like a bunch of small squares. I will say one thing about this little camera though. I have made a full length dvd with it and am extremely happy with it. Are you looking for NTSC or PAL? Depending on what country you live in it could be pal or ntsc. If your going to be using the camera at full zoom you might also want to consider finding one with a wide angle lens and remote control. That way your video isn't getting jared when you are zooming in or out. Are you looking for a mini DV or mini DVD. Also look for a camera that has 3ccd that is the camera breaks down the red, green, and blue and you get a superb picture. You could also go with HDVR camcorders. Most of these cameras can be purchased pretty cheap on ebay. Lots to choose from in their camcorder section. Hope I wasn't rambling to much for you.
Check the zooms on those cameras you listed as I suspect that the figures quoted are multiplications of the digital and optizal zoom (most cameras have both) It is rare to see a camera with optical zooms greater than 10X - 20X, so you might need to look into an adapter to get the reach you need (you will need to make sure the camera you get has the option to add accesory lenses or has a standard photographic filter adapter as many of them either have a propriatory fitting or a non standard thread size)
size and weight are normaly listed in the product specs, but a trip to your local good camera store definately helps as they should be able to let you hold a couple of models so you can work out what suits you best.
As for lugging a heavy tripod, if you spend the money you can get carbon fibre tripods, but for anything over about 10X zoom the image stabiliser in the camera is pretty useless, so your footage will be as good as the stability of the camera. In the field you might find photo clamps onto trees etc and solid mini tripods on a rock are as usefull as a big tripod, but that really depends on where you are going and there really isn't a subsitute for a solid tripod, especially if you will need to pan or zoom the camera whilst recording. if you are going to set it and leave it you will be able to use a much lighter tripod.
In terms of mac compatibility I am assuming you will use Imovie to edit ? you really can't go wrong here. With linux it really depends on the distros and how they handle peripherals, is the camera going to use firewire and does your linux distro support that? or is the camera usb mass storage class or some other format? I have been meaning to play with ubuntu studio but I don't have a spare computer for it at the moment so I haven't really explored that option.
Sound, good sound will make a big difference in quality, but in your budget you don't have a lot of options. most reputable camera manufacturers have pretty good built in mics these days, sometimes even 5.1! but they will still pick up your noise and any button pushing etc you might make. a mic jack on the camera and or a propriatary hotshoe zoom mic will help but you then have the expensive of buying that extra mic. trial and error is the only way out here, get the camera, see if the sound is ok if not get the extra mic.
Low light - some manufacturers offer stupid low light settings 0 lux type of stuff. the problem is there are two ways to acheive good low light and they both have issues. the first is using infra red spectrum recording wich gives that characteristic green shot. The second is to electronically boost the recorded light levels (boosting the gain) this results in a washed out fuzzy image known as gain grain. It looks terrible. again if your local store lets you try recording some dark areas of the shop or if the shop is brightly lit the inside of a box or bag with something to focus on inside it. also when looking at the camera specs err on the side of cameras whose lenses naturally let in a lot of light (lower F number for the aperture/iris value)
also check out the links in my signature as they talk about some of the background technologies that will help you make sense of the many many formats that are now available and this should help you decide what format is best for your needs and keep your budget down.
I hope that has answered everything. if not ask more! and when you get your camera write us a review and post some footage if you can!