Guide to Camcorder Frame Rates

A camcorder's frame rate impacts video quality

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In reviewing camcorder specifications, you’ll frequently see the term "frame rate." It’s expressed as the number of frames captured per second, or “fps” for “frames per second.”

A frame is basically a still photograph. Take enough of them in quick succession and you have full motion video. Frame rate, then, refers to how many frames a camcorder will capture within a single second, which determines how smooth a video will look.

Choosing a Frame Rate

Typically, camcorders record at 30 frames per second (fps) to give the appearance of seamless movement. Motion pictures are recorded at 24fps and some camcorder models offer a "24p mode" to mimic feature films. Recording at a slower frame rate than 24fps will result in video that looks jerky and disjointed.

Many camcorders offer the ability to shoot at faster frame rates than 30fps, usually 60fps. This is useful for capturing sports or anything involving fast movement.

Slow Motion Recording

If you speed up the frame rate to, say 120fps or higher, you can record video in slow motion. That may sound counter-intuitive at first: why would a faster frame rate give you slower motion?

At a higher frame rate, you’re capturing even more details of movement in each passing second. At 120fps, you have four times the amount of video information than you do at 30fps.

It's the higher number of still shots that allows the camcorders to slow down the playback of the video and provide you with slow motion footage.

Shutter Speed

If you've heard the term "frame rate," you've maybe also heard about "shutter speed." These two concepts are definitely related when it comes to cameras, but they are not the same.

While frame rate refers to the number of images that are captured every second—and therefore the smoothness of the video, the shutter speed refers to how long the camera shutter is open while taking a picture—this translates to the amount of light that the image sensor can use to record the picture.

When the frame rate is really low, the video might look choppy because not enough images were taken. If the shutter isn't open long enough (i.e. the shutter speed is too short), the image won't get enough light and is considered underexposed.

It's common for the shutter speed to be double the number of fps for the recording. For example, if your camcorder is set to record at 30 frames per second, the shutter speed should be 1/60th of a second. This means that every frame (30 for every second) is being exposed for 1/60th of a second.