Canon ZR Camcorders: Fair Sound, Good Video, Great Price

Although digital still camera manufacturers are making great strides in improving the video capabilities of their products, they still have some distance to go before they catch up with conventional camcorders.

Sure, we’d all like to haul around less tech when documenting our lives, but for now, two cameras are still better than one. The good news, though, is that falling prices and diminishing sizes make that dual hardware requirement less burdensome than it used to be.

A case in point is the new ZR series of Mini-DV camcorders from Canon. The units are wonderfully compact. They measure 2.2 by 3.6 by 4.7 inches and weigh a fluffy 13.4 ounces, without battery. I popped my review unit of the ZR830 into one of the bellows pockets in my photographer’s vest and barely sagged the fabric.

Their prices are attractive, too, ranging from US$279 to $329. My ZR830 has an estimated selling price of $299.

Best Bang For Buck

While video storage on digital media such as hard drives, DVD discs and flash memory have camcorder makers in a lather these days, the best bang for the buck — especially for entry-level videographers — is a tape-based camera.

That’s certainly true of Canon’s ZR series of camcorders.

They all have 35x optical zooms — Canon’s longest to date — and a solid image stabilization system that does an excellent job of eliminating camera shake.

Along with the optical zoom, it has a 1000x digital zoom.

Intuitive Controls

The camcorders are designed for ease of use. I found the controls on my review unit easy to reach and intuitive to learn — once I got over the lens cover hurdle.

When I turned the video camera on and pointed it at a subject, nothing appeared on the unit’s LCD or in its electronic viewfinder. It took me some time to figure out I had to release the vidcam’s built-in lens cover by sliding down a control on the side of the device.

The unit has a pivoting 2.7 inch widescreen LCD. When you’re not using the display, it can be folded into the side of the camera.

The camcorder’s color electronic viewfinder also supports widescreen viewing. Beneath it is a dioptic adjustment lever for adjusting the viewfinder to a user’s eyesight.

Widescreen support makes it easy for you to shoot video for rectangular screens. The aspect ratio supported by the camera — 16:9 — is ideal for plasma and LCD TV sets.

Easy Widescreen Editing

My previous bouts with editing widescreen video have been less than successful. My editing software didn’t support the format, and I ended up with a lot of footage full of people who looked like reflections in a funhouse mirror.

This time, though, I fed the widescreen video from the Canon ZR830 into iMovie HD on an Apple Intel Macbook. The software automatically converted the digital video into the proper format — after some labor. It took more than 16 minutes to convert 10 minutes of video into widescreen.

I found the video that I shot with the ZR830 to be very good. It had true color fidelity and was sharp.

The camera’s sound was adequate, but often marred with motor noise from the unit. I found that I could take out most of that noise by using the audio tools in iMovie.

The motor noise problem could be averted with an external mic, but only one of the new units supports that, the ZR800.

Nice Feature Package

In addition to supporting video, the new units also allow you to take still pictures. The maximum size of stills on the ZR850 is 1152 by 864 pixels; on the ZR830, 1024 by 768 pixels; and on the ZR800, 640 by 480 pixels.

All the units have an SD card slot so you can store your photos on flash media. You can quickly toggle between tape and card modes by flipping a switch on the top of the camera.

Canon has built a nice package of features into its new ZR line without complicating the cameras. That should tantalize budding videographers. However, even newbies will want to massage the sound accompanying the camera’s video before burning anything to disc.

John Mello is a freelance business and technology writer who can be reached at [email protected].

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