Color Viewfinders in camcorders are not just expensive gimmicks, but very useful tools to ensure that your videos are not underexposed.
By Carter B. Horsley

The advent of color television was a long time aborning, and not surprisingly color viewfinders and small color LCD monitors and sometimes both are now becoming standard in new camcorders.

Camcorder technology has moved pretty slowly on the consumer front for quite some time until recently. The biggest change since the introduction of the Hi-8 format has been the introduction of digital camcorders, which are now entering their second generation. But the digital camcorder, clearly a spectacular advance, remains too expensive still for the average consumer.

Color viewfinders and monitors, on the other hand, have not dramatically escalated the price of camcorders and, like their television set counterparts, it's hard to imagine how we survived before. It's not just that they are snazzier. They are better.

When IBM introduced its personal computer in 1981, it argued that its green characters against a black background was superb and it took several years before color rose above a very primitive status in personal computers despite the fact that more colors provide easier recognition of screen components, such as different windows, to say nothing about what they do for graphics.

Color is a lot more complicated and therefore more expensive, but in video it's not just pizzazz that it adds, but also very critical information.

Some of the new camcorder color viewfinders may have lower resolution that some of their black-and-white predecessors and be less sharp. They nonetheless offer reasonable accurate clues to the quality of the exposure, especially in low-light conditions in which camcorders suffer from a drastic fall-off in quality. (Although many of the better, and more expensive, models, boast of light sensitivity as low as 5, or less, lux, the standard light measurement for video in which lower numbers are better and indicate better recording capability, most manufacturers and reviewers note that results shot in less than 100 lux are likely to suffer from excessive graininess and poor color saturation, which explains why television lights tend to be very bright and are widely used.)

Most black-and-white camcorder viewfinders, however, give little indication of such graininess and lack of saturation, although some may have a flashing symbol superimposed on the image to warn of such problems.

While some video artists, of course, may like the impressionistic effects of poor definition and pastel-like colors, the unpredictability of such effects makes a guessing game of such exposures for most videographers, very few of whom actually switch to manual operation from the incredible convenience and high quality of most automatic operations on today's camcorders.

For many novice users of camcorders, this problem of the black-and-white viewfinders is a very rude shock, indeed, since the viewfinders has usually indicated a pretty clear image.

Like most technological advances, the early models with color viewfinders or monitors, carried a hefty price tag. Given the major changes planned for the industry, such as high-definition and wide-screen format, it's not surprising that manufacturers want to get as much as they can while they can.

Much of the impetus for the new color viewfinders comes, of course, from Sharp's very impressive Viewcams, the ones touted by Wayne Gretsky on television with the large color LCD screens on the back of the camcorder that make little 1-inch-or-so viewfinders seem pathetic, at least out of the bright sun that tends to make viewing of the larger LCD screens problematic. Sharp has continued to improve and enlarge its models and has escalated its position in the industry. Some of the better Sony and Canon models now have color viewfinders and Sony has recently introduced a new digital model that has both a traditional viewfinder and a flip-out, pivotable LCD monitor on the side of the camcorder to offer the best of both worlds.

While one always seems to want one of everything, some videophiles probably disdain the side monitor as merely an amateur gimmick and would prefer that its not inconsiderable added costs be applied to better optics, or special digital effects. Of course, the proliferation of different models by the major manufacturers offers a variety of choices. Inevitably, the consumer should be aware that most major features often involve trade-offs and that one should make a careful list of the most important and desirable features one needs in a new camcorder and not be swayed by razzle-dazzle and convenience if it means missing on important features like firewire connections, three chips, strobe effects and wide zoom range.

The flip-open, pivotable side monitors are helpful for posturing actors and self-portraits and permitting other people to see recently shot video. Of course, such monitors are conceivably prone to damage because they can be twisted and turned and flipped, and they obviously add a bit more bulk to camcorders.

One need not chuck one's old camcorder right away, however, for Citizen offers a 2.9-inch color monitor attachment for most camcorders that has a street price of about $150 and it recently introduced a 3.9-inch unit that costs about 50 percent more.

Garbage-in, garbage-out, the saying goes. Anything that will help the photographer get better pictures with greater consistency is something to be considered.

Well, next month there will probably be a newer unit with better features, so maybe you should wait? Not.

Unlike personal computers, camcorders do not change very quickly. The most important decision now is whether to get an expensive digital camera, or a relatively inexpensive non-digital camcorder with at least one color viewfinder, and that decision is purely economic. If you can afford it, go digital. If you can't, go non-digital without breaking the bank and start perfecting your video techniques and capturing those precious fleeting moments.

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