When looking for a camcorder, it’s easy to get lost in a flood of features. What do you need? What do different terms mean? And is a given feature relevant to what you’re going to use it for?

Never Once you’ve got a basic understanding of how to operate a camcorder, it’s time to sort through the noise, and figure out what’s right for you. If you’re on a budget, these should be considered your minimum requirements, but even more luxurious models should have these as well.

We’re here to help you make sense of it all. Here are the top five features that no camcorder should be without.

Number 1: The Viewfinder

As technology progresses, tech gets smaller and cheaper – and camcorders are no exception. When battling on price point – trying to make the cheapest possible product – manufacturers start looking at where they can cut costs. With camcorders, this lead to viewfinders no longer included and relying on LCD screens instead.

Don’t make this mistake. LCDs are great, but they have serious limitations. If you’re filming outdoors in sunny conditions, forget about trying to use your LCD, and regardless of conditions, it’s difficult to keep your camera steady when using the screen instead of a viewfinder. Holding a camera steady against your eye is just much easier, to say nothing of the way that LCD screens gobble up battery power.

That’s not to say that LCD screens are bad; they offer some serious advantages. Reviewing footage, navigating menus, and allowing you to shoot at different angles; they have a lot to offer.

So get the best of both worlds, and pick up a model with both.

Number 2: Image Stabilization

Even when shooting through a viewfinder, you’re not going to be a stable filming platform; shaky hands are an inevitability. Image stabilizers are meant to counteract this issue. There are two primary types of stabilizers; optical, and digital.

An optical image stabilizer is built right into the camera’s lens, its sensors counteracting the myriad small movements that hand held filming produces. Digital stabilizers, on the other hand, work by centering your image during recording, which tends to reduce your resolution.

This is a tricky situation, as image stabilizers can vary greatly in efficacy, even in top end models. This is where it pays to do your homework; read user reviews, and figure out which image stabilizers are getting people real results.

Number 3: An External Microphone Port

Your camcorder has an internal microphone, it’s true, and the quality of the audio is going to be dreadful. That’s not a knock – inside a camera is a terrible place for sound capture to occur, and tiny microphones simply can’t keep pace with their larger siblings.

So make sure you’re able to use an external mic.

Nothing says “amateur hour” like static laden, fuzzy audio. Using an external microphone can drastically improve the quality of your videos. So make sure your unit has a mic-in port, a stereo jack, or some other way to access an external microphone.

Number 4: Optical Zoom

“Mr. Deville, I’m ready for my close up.” Not if you’re relying on digital zoom, you’re not.

Camcorders and cameras, in general, have two kinds of zoom; digital, and optical. Digital zoom is like enlarging a web page; it makes the image bigger, sure, but also blocky, fuzzy, and distorted. Optical zoom, on the other hand, is the same type used in SLR cameras, where the lens moves to highlight and focus on an image.

There’s no debate; if you’re going to zoom, you want to use an optical zoom if you have any desire to see what you’re filming. Which is kind of the point of shooting in the first place, right?

Number 5: Manual Controls

Your camcorder has default settings for how you capture video, and those are great. But you’re going to want to change them now and then, and for that, you’ll need manual controls. Focus, shutter speed, exposure, and especially white balance – these are integral to getting a clear, crisp image. White balance is necessary for capturing color accurately, and adjusting focus and shutter speed lets you adjust how much light hits the lens – something that is incredibly useful when the camera can’t figure it out on its own.

Without manual controls, you’re stuck with whatever your camera can come up with on its own; with them, you can always ensure that you’re able to film.

Other Considerations

Once you’ve got those five basic parts of a video camera accounted for, there’s some quality of life factors worth considering. Foremost is ease of use; most camcorders are point and shoots, and it’s nice to be able to just film. Don’t neglect lighting; like microphones, using an external source can add an enormous amount of quality to your videos.