The History of Camcorders – The Smaller the Better

Have you heard what the car experts are saying these days? They say that any new car built today is better than any car built ten years ago. It’s simply a function of technological advancement. That’s probably true of anything today that progresses with improved technology. And the camcorder is no exception. As we look at the history of the camcorder, we’ll see that there was a definite race going on between the manufacturers, each trying to be the first at introducing the newest features. But the whole industry had something in common – they wanted to produce a simple way for people to create interesting and entertaining movies, from the first-time amateur to the professional. And you’ll see that they did just that.

Early video-making was anything but simple

In the early days of video, you had to be strong and rich. Although that doesn’t seem to make much sense, here’s why this was a fact in those days. In 1963, a company called Ampex introduced their VR-1500 video recorder, the world’s first “home” video system. Actually it wasn’t very practical for home at all. The camera and TV monitor were large (the camera weighed in at 100 pounds), and the cost was about $30,000 – not something a consumer could afford. And professionals who took the leap into this new technological pool had to drive the equipment around in trucks. It was anything but portable.

So portability became the challenge. The solution was Portapacks. These systems worked in similar fashion to the earlier Ampex model, but on a smaller scale. The problem with these ones was the hassle with the film. This unexposed film had to be threaded carefully into the recorder, being careful not to expose it to light. Then, when the recording was over – a whopping 3 minutes worth – the film had to be rewound and put into a lightproof container to be sent out for developing. And when it got it back in about a week, you had to wind it through your 8mm projector and find a wall or a screen to display it on. And if the projector stopped in the middle, the powerful light was hot enough to melt the film. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Another challenge back then was editing. To edit a film, you had to run it through a machine that might tell you where the beginning and end of each frame was. But it really wasn’t clear. So you had to guess where to cut the film – that’s right – cut the film, with a razor blade. And then when you finally got it cut in the right place, you had to scotch-tape it back together. What a messy business!

Technology picked up the pieces

But then Sony brought portability into reality when they introduced their first portable system, the DV-2400 Video Rover, in 1967. It filmed in B&W (black and white) only, and required a separate unit for playback. Panasonic and JVC followed soon after with their own portable models. The stage was set and the curtain was about to rise. “Smaller is better” was the cry of the researchers in their quest to satisfy consumers.

And editing got a facelift, too. A new method was introduced that allowed editing to be done from one machine to another. You just stopped the tape at just the right moment (hopefully), and hit “Record” on the other machine. No more splicing.

Then, in the early 70s, time coding was introduced, which numbered every frame. Now it was easier to track where you wanted the editing to be done. But there was a downside to this type of editing – this was an analog system, so every time you edited or copied a film, the picture lost some of its quality. Another problem was that the camera and the recorder were separate units, and the manufacturers had only got the weight down to about 30 pounds.

But for some, 30 pounds was a great improvement. The Portapack became popular among amateur film artists and professionals alike. With Life and Time magazines focusing on the visual side of current events, a new wave was sweeping the world. People were making videotapes of all kinds of activities, from cultural events to political rallies. Portapack video systems became the tool of the day for photojournalists making newsreels. Camera tripods were set up everywhere.

In 1971, Sony came up with another first, the U-Matic – a recorder that used ¾” tape, rather than the 2” tape first used. The machine wasn’t portable, but its big advantage was that you could just pop in a cassette – no more threading tape. Meanwhile, Sony and JVC were both working to develop smaller ½” tape machines for home use. The culmination of their work was a revolution in the industry.

The videocassette tape – smaller, better

Sony and JVC were running neck and neck in the race. At first glance, it was a tie. Sony introduced Betamax, while JVC introduced VHS. Both used videocassettes that could be put into a recording device to play back movies. The Betamax cassette was smaller than the VHS but, other than that, they were fairly similar.

But we all know who won that race, don’t we? All those people you invested in Betamax machines were stuck in the same sinking boat as those who had 8-tracks. VHS became the standard, and in 1976, JVC improved on it by introducing color VHS.

The camera and the recorder unite

All these developments were fine, but the camera and the recorder were still two separate units. You had your color camera, which by then, had a built-in microphone for sound recording, and a separate VCR, which could be connected by a cable for playback.

In 1982, with the race still running at a heated pace, and Sony and JVC still running neck and neck, the first combinations were introduced – the camera recorder, or camcorder. Actually, JVC won the race, because in June of that year, they brought out their mini-VHS camcorder. A few months later, in November, Sony offered their Betamovie Beta, which came with the slogan “Inside This Camera is A VCR”.

In 1984, Sony video cameras were competing with the first digital still cameras with their MAVICA, a video camera that recorded images on semiconductors, instead of film. This camera used freeze-frame technology to produce still photos.

All the new camcorders were definitely a hit with the public. In 1985, half a million were sold. Within 3 years, that number had multiplied to 3 million, with Sony, JVC and Matsushita (Panasonic) as leaders in the market. In 1985, Sony came out with their first Handicam, the Video 8. That same year, JVC introduced a smaller videocassette, the VHS-C (compact), which allowed them to make a smaller camcorder.

Then, in 1989, with technology exploding into the market, JVC introduced the S-VHS (Super-VHS) format. This analog system separated the video signal into two separate channels, producing better color and higher resolution (brighter, sharper picture). The big attraction to this system was the copying and editing capabilities – no matter how many times it was copied, there was no deterioration in the quality of the image. At the same time, Sony introduced its first Hi8 camcorder – the digital camcorder market was in full swing!

The race got tighter as technology got better

Camcorder research and development teams were really pushing into high gear. The new digital technology had opened up a whole new world of possibilities for digital camcorders. The industry needed to develop cameras with sharper lenses, wider digital bandwidth, faster data rates, more storage space, more pixels. And the statistics showed they did just that. In 1991, the electronic imaging industry had reached $1 billion in sales. However, a good part of that figure related to the professional field.

But amateurs were catching on to the possibilities, too. Photography was quickly becoming America’s most popular hobby. So the camcorder designers looked for affordable ways to reel the everyday consumer into the field. They worked to develop camcorders that everyone knew how to use.

CCD technology, the use of electronic sensors to form an image, rather than chemicals on a film, was what really changed the camcorder market. Simply put, the CCD creates a superior video signal which, in turn, creates a sharper, brighter picture, with more radiant colors. And that’s what people wanted. They were always looking for image quality that matched 35mm film, just like in the theaters.

In 1992, Sharp, in its quest to make filming easier, introduced the first color LCD screen, so videographers could see the display on a screen, without having to squint through a viewfinder. Today, this is a standard feature on all camcorders.

Then, in 1995, the next big breakthrough – Panasonic and Sony introduced the first digital video cameras. Sharp and JVC followed soon after. Not to leave out the professional field, Sony gave them the DVCAM, an advanced video format good for high-end users. Sony also kept the amateur happy with the introduction of their Digital8 (D8) video format, in 1999.

The 21st century brings easy-to-use digital camcorders

“Smaller is better” was never heard so clearly in the digital electronics industry as it was at the turn of the millennium. The year 2000 brought with it the introduction of a new video format for consumer digital camcorders – DV. The DV format produced increased luminance (brightness), with just over 500 lines of resolution. It also made productive use of an increased bandwidth, from .5 MHz to 1.5 MHz, which produced much brighter colors. And camcorders were increasingly smaller, while producing these increasingly better images.

The year 2000 was a big one for the camcorder industry. Video-related sales grew 15% to $19.2 billion. Actual camcorder sales were up to 5.7 million units, with total sales of $3.3 billion. They must have been doing something right!

By then, digital camcorders, like the JVC digital video camera, were fairly small and very portable. Mini DV camcorders were the rage, joining DVD camcorders as a great way to record memories. And camcorders come with a complete line of cool accessories. Most professionals, as well as some amateurs, like to have a tripod to get that quality look to their movies. And the lenses available can be used to create many effects. And speaking of effects, most digital camcorders have a wonderful array of built-in special effects that you can add to your movies as you film.

Another aspect of digital video the camcorder industry had to look at was editing and copying. Now that they’d got the basics of simple recording down, videographers needed somewhere to store all those images. Sony’s answer to this request was their DCM-M1 MiniDisc Camcorder. One of its best features is that it allows in-camera non-linear editing. And for copying images to your computer for storing and editing, there’s the iMovie software for Mac users, and Microsoft’s Movie Maker, that allow you to do all kinds of professional-looking things with your movies.

What’s the camcorder industry doing these days?

In October 2001, Matsushita (Panasonic) was given an award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the key role they played in bringing the consumer video camera to reality. This was only one of Panasonic’s 14 Emmys, 11 of which were for achievements in digital video technology – more than any other company. So it might be a good idea to take a close look at their camcorders.

Of course, there are many camcorder manufacturers competing for your business. If you go online, you’ll find many websites that help you find the best camcorder to suit your needs, complete with reviews, ratings and comparisons. Here are just a few names to look for: Canon, Hitachi, JVC, Panasonic, RCA, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony. With each manufacturer offering many models, you can see that you have hundreds to choose from.

The trend for 2004 is lower prices – well below $500. And keep this in mind if you’re shopping – as new models come in with lower prices, last year’s models will have to be discounted, or they won’t sell. That may be a good way to go. We’ll take a look here at a couple of examples of what’s available today, to give you an idea of what’s on the market:

  • Canon – new models of their ZR Mini DV camcorders, priced from $399-$599. They offer full optical lenses, which are better than digital zoom. They have electrical image stabilization; slow-shutter speed, for low-light filming; night-mode; SD flash memory card; and up to 12 hours of continuous recording with a battery pack – you won’t need to use those camcorder battery chargers as often.
  • Sony – largest selection of camcorders. They’ve introduced newer versions of their Hi8 camcorders. They also have PicturePackage software, which allows you to create music videos. Another unique feature is NightShot, an infrared lens which allows you to shoot in total darkness. And their Mini DV camcorders can stream video to computers, which allows them to be integrated into video conferencing systems. 

According to reports by the Consumer Electronics Association in March, 2003, camcorder sales have increased by 66% over the past 5 years. With all these features that allow the amateur to create the professional look, it’s no wonder!

Where are digital camcorders going tomorrow?

What other surprises should we expect from the digital camcorder industry? How about this one – most camcorders today record at 5 frames per second (fps). Now, you can get one that records at 30 fps, with a 640 x 480 resolution, and sound. That’s pretty close to 35mm film quality – the ultimate goal of camcorder filming. They’re getting there!

At the same time camcorders are getting better, they’re also getting smaller. Many camcorders today fit into the palm of your hand. And speaking of palms, you’ll soon be able to play back your video on your Palm Pilot, or other PDA. Remember, the goal was “go anywhere, shoot anywhere.” Do you think underwater video cameras achieve that objective? There seems to be no end to what you can do.

And if you happen to have an accident with your camcorder and it’s gets damaged, there are all kinds of qualified technicians on the Internet who will repair your camcorder, and get you back to your filming as soon as possible.

So as you look at all the digital camcorders available today, think of the history of the camcorder, and how far the industry has come in providing consumers with the theater-quality video they seek. And if George Lucas, the great Hollywood film director, has seen the value of digital filming with his Star Wars movies, then the future of digital camcorders is indeed bright!

About The Author

Gareth Marples is a successful freelance copywriter providing valuable tips and advice for consumers purchasing digital camcorders, digital video cameras and camera tripods, mounts and accessories. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

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