I won’t get into any specific makes or models of cameras, but I’ll tell you what I think are the bare minimum features your camera should have.
1) Manual control of everything.
If you are serious about MAKING movies, about capturing the images YOU want, you must have a camera that allows manual control of EVERYTHING. You can’t learn camera techniques for yourself if the camera is making the exposure decisions for you.
2) External microphone and headphone jacks.
Sound is 50% of the picture. To make a good movie you need good sound. The mics. built into most camcorders aren’t very good and pick up noise from the camera (tape transport, zoom and focus motors), and any physical fumbling you do with your hands. Also, the further away your actors are from the camera the worse the sound will be.
An external mic. on an extension cord lets you get away from the noise the camera makes and closer to your actors. Headphones allow you to monitor the sound while it’s being recorded. This will let you know immediately if there are any audio problems (mic. bumps, airplanes flying overhead, etc.) instead of later in the editing room after all the actors and crew have gone home.
3) MiniDV or Digital8
The only difference between MiniDV and Digital8 is the size of the tape. Digital8 gives you the bonus of being able to play the old 8mm formats with your new camera, but MiniDV is much more wide spread and I would suggest you go for it instead. Some film festivals will accept movies on MiniDV, but not on Digital8.
Stay away from cameras that record to DVD. The image quality isn’t as good, the data format isn’t as “editing friendly” and there is way more support and options for the DV format.
I would strongly suggest you get an extra battery and external microphone. A wide angle lens adapter is also a nice thing to have.
There’s plenty of other features that would be great (audio record levels, progressive scan, 16:9 aspect ratio, image stabilization (optical is better than electronic), high definition, interchangeable lenses, etc.), but they will of course cost more.
If your camera meets the above 3 criteria, you will have a very good foundation for learning and experimenting with the basic movie making techniques.
Here’s a great page that compares and rates just about every camcorder out there. I highly recommend it:
NOTE: Don’t spend ALL your money on the camera. Keep in mind you will still need to buy some support equipment such as a microphone, tripod, computer software (and a computer to run it on!), etc.