Buying used Mini DV camcorders

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As people have moved digital, there is a glut of decent tape-based camcorders on the market. Camcorders have existed since the 1980s with the earliest models taking full size VHS tapes. This article focuses on the Mini DV format, which was popular form the late 90s until quite recently, and represents a bulk of the best used camcorders available today.

Mini DV is a digital format recorded onto mini sized tapes. The digital format makes conversion to and from computer much easier. Also unlike analogue formats, digital recordings can be duplicated with little to no loss of quality. This makes digital an excellent choice for editing and sharing recordings. With an abundance of really good equipment, very low cost tapes, and the ability to transfer to and from computer easily, Mini DV is still an excellent format to choose.

Benefits of Mini DV
  • Cost of tapes makes archiving and backup of recordings very affordable
  • Great choice of low cost camcorders
  • Support of IE1394 (firewire) for easy connectivity to computers
  • Digital format means practically no loss of quality
  • Resolution is reasonable even when viewed on modern high definition TVs or comparing with Digital SLR video resolution
  • Tapes are less likely to suffer complete loss, are still slightly cheaper than hard drive space to store on, but do have a limited shelf-life of 10-15 years so not a permanent archive option

Disadvantage of Mini DV
  • Recordings have to be transferred to computer in real time (so a 10 minute recording takes at least 10 minutes to transfer)
  • Editing software can be temperamental with which Mini DV equipment they're compatible with
  • A recording on a Sony camcorder may not play back at all or properly on a Panasonic (or any other band combinations you can think of)
  • Tapes are limited to 60 minute recording time limited by physical length of tape
  • Mini DV camcorders have many moving parts so fragile
  • Moving parts use battery quicker than modern digital tapeless cameras
  • Nobody makes Mini DV cameras any more, although there is likely to be plenty of used equipment for years to come

What are the basic functions of a Mini DV Camcorder
The camera serves two basic purposes. Recording via the camera and playback of recordings. In order to utilise its full capabilities, the camera must be able to record to tape and play back the tape on a TV or to a computer for editing. A firewire (IE1394) connection is required to output to a computer easily. If you want to record from a computer back to tape (e.g. an edit of a recording), then the camcorder should have firewire input as well as output. Many UK camcorders do NOT have the capability of recording back to tape. Those that do usually have the letter i after the model name, e.g. MV730i.

What you should look for
The following is a basic checklist of features, functions and accessories which most people will need. Whether you do or not depends on your own needs.

Absolute essentials
  • Camcorder capable of recording and playing back
  • Power adaptor and DC cable (allows powering the camera from the mains)
  • Battery (if intending to use the camcorder to record, especially outside)
  • Working viewfinder or pull out screen (at least one must work for recording via camera)
  • Working microphone
  • Native widescreen capability if you already have recordings in this format
  • Firewire output. Almost all Mini DV camcorders should have this, technically known as an IE1394 connection. If you plan on editing your recordings this is a must-have.
  • A key question to ask a seller is whether firewire works. This may sound a bit odd but firewire is not a fool-proof system and is a frequently broken feature on older cameras and recorders sporting it. Ask the seller if it works and get them to check it. Without it you'll need an extra player to transfer footage to computer.

Nice to have
  • Firewire input. This is only required if recording back to the camera, e.g. after editing. This uses the same connector and cable as the output. The equipment work out whether they're the player or recorder automatically.
  • Remote control. This is mostly useful during playback but also handy to make recordings where you are part of the shoot, or want to draw attention away from the camera, e.g. during candid shoots at social gatherings
  • Microphone input. This allows a higher quality microphone to be used instead of the built in one. Almost any dedicated microphone will deliver far superior sound quality, not least allowing positioning away from the camera to avoid picking up the sound of the camera itself and handling by the operator.
  • Headphone socket. This allows sound to be monitored, to at least make sure that the microphone is working. Particularly important when an external microphone is used. Also handy if needing to listen to the audio playback in a noisy environment like outdoors, or discretely. Some camcorders have built-in speakers but these are useless unless the environment is quiet enough

Questions to ask a seller
Ask if the camcorder is fully working. If it is described as "used" then it should be, but to protect yourself do ask the seller. Sometimes cameras are described as "spares or repair" because the seller does not know if they are working. That's fair enough if for example the seller doesn't have a tape to try the camera with. However there are unscrupulous sellers who will knowingly sell a faulty camera but adding the disclaimer that they have not been able to test it. There is often little price difference between a camera which is known to be working and one that is untested and therefore not known to be working. With plenty of working camcorders on the market, common sense suggests there is little reason to take the chance.

Also ask reason for sale. In most cases people stopped using their Mini DV camcorder a few years back and so it's no surprise that many are on the market. Check what other items they are selling to verify their story. There are dealers who sell camcorders who may appear as private individuals. An advantage with a business seller is that they often provide a returns service and in some rare cases a warranty on the camera. Business sellers usually publish their contact details on the listing.

Price to pay
This is a tough one. The Mini DV format transcended cheap basic camcorders all the way up to broadcast quality  cameras. So prices vary wildly. Expect to pay a premium for top brands such as Sony and Panasonic. Mini DV camcorders can easily exceed the cost of more modern memory card cameras by the same manufacturers. 

What to watch out for
Generally I steer clear of camcorders that are missing essential parts for two reasons. Firstly the cost of acquiring certain parts can be prohibitively expensive or even near impossible, making the bargain price you won the auction at, not so attractive. Even a used battery that cannot hold charge could easily cost as much as the camcorder on auction to replace.

Secondly, a camcorder missing essentials is a sign that the camcorder may be stolen. Where a camcorder is being sold with battery  and possibly a case, but no leads and no power adaptor is always highly suspicious in my opinion. Sure items get separated legitimately as people don't usually store everything together. But not only is a camcorder missing such vital parts suspicious, it's also going to be expensive replacing them.

There are plenty of complete camcorders for auction with a credible story and no parts missing. No need to take a risk as the saving (if any) rarely works out to be worthwhile.

Final tips
Thankfully a vast majority of eBay sellers are honest decent people. It's always worth asking questions and using your intuition to guide you in choosing whose item to bid on. Most people are up front about damage and any deficiencies in what they sell because of reputation, and also because they know people can return an item which has not been described correctly.

If you'd like my free advice on any of the above or have questions please contact me.

Paul 
AVIATIONAUCTION

Paul is building a community production and TV studio, in particular developing courses in media for young people to teach them about production. Many of his purchases on eBay are to acquire equipment for the group that he runs voluntarily, and funds unaided out of his own wallet. He trades equipment to allow the group to acquire better equipment. If you'd like to donate anything or have items for sale which the group may be interested in, please contact Paul via eBay. Thank you.

Why the name "AviationAuction"? I like aviation related items, particularly used airline equipment. As a certified commercial pilot and a flight simulation nut, I frequently dabble in various unusual parts, including airline seating, window paneling, cockpit pieces and components and even a bullet proof cockpit door!
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