Franco Darioli helps us wade through what has become a confusing kaleidoscope of digital video options.
A long time ago, when I was still wearing school uniform shorts, at home we had a large wooden box with some thick glass inside that, using some devil-inspired trickery, was capable not only of reproducing close to real sounds but also bluish images we called Black and White. The only channel started transmitting at around noon and at six o?clock we had the Catholic version of the News. Decades later we have cable TV in glorious colour and surround sound and with so many channels we find it hard to settle on the least offensive. So we practice program bites, 10 second grabs of each program as we survey the list. Choosing a video camera can be like that.
There are more than 80 models from six competing brands, four types of media (tape, DVD, Hard Drive and flash memory), and wait for it – different standards. Yes, after we have settled for a brand and a type of media, we still can choose between Standard and High Definition. But there is more: compression. MPEG1, Mini DV, MPEG2, MPEG4 (AVCHD/ H264) are all used as ?Standards?. In new speak ?standard? means ?variety? Maybe we should start from a different point. Or, as they say, if you want to get there, don?t start from here.
Formats and Media
To simplify, tape is still the best value for money. It is still also the easiest format to edit from. DVD is the easiest for mum and dad that just want to shoot and playback it on TV.
Hard Drives are for the YouTube generation and generally fun to use for computer dependent folk.
Flash memory (SD, Memory Stick) is the future. For the moment it?s still a bit pricey and hard to edit.
Standard or HD?
All of the above formats offer models that can record a standard 4:3 image or High Definition 16:9. You can also get 16:9 (wide screen) recording from a non-HD camcorder. But Beware! Many of the so called ?wide screen? and ?16:9 playback? camcorders just crop the original 4:3 image to fit the wider screen. What this simply means is that you lose the top and bottom of your frame and enlarge the middle part. This means less pixels and a bigger image, which only reduces quality. How can you tell? An easy way to find out what the camera is recording is to divide the capture size by itself. For instance, if the resolution your camera offers is 1920×1080, divide the larger number by the smaller one. If you end up with 1.77 as your answer, you have true widescreen. On the other hand if the result is 1.33 the image is recorded on 4:3. This would be the case if your resolution was 768×576, which is standard PAL.
Your lens is of primary importance. A good indication of the quality of the lens is its size: the higher the zoom and the smaller (in diameter) the lens, the worse it will be. Contrary to what you read elsewhere, a 25x zoom is obscenely huge. Anything more is just point scoring. You will find that the higher quality cameras have a 10x or 12x zoom and even then you need a good stabilizer or a tripod. There are a few good 20x lenses, but those that are worth having are very expensive.
Image stabilization is very useful when it works correctly. The optical variety is the best but some digital versions also work well. As a test, set the lens at around 10x, point the camera to something with lots of detail, such as printing or handwriting and then pan and tilt the camera, switching the stabilizer on and off. If you cannot tell the difference or the image starts to jitter or look pixellated when the stabilizer is on, just pretend that it is not there. It?s of little use to you and shouldn?t be factored in to your purchasing decision.
Inputs and Outputs
Does the camera you are considering have (and will you need) manual focus, microphone in, headphone jack, line in, filter thread ,wired remote control, or any remote control? Most of the above are not required by the casual family shooter and so they are often omitted by the manufacturers. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to have a customer return to the store asking where a certain socket is, only to discover that their new model doesn?t have it. Consider your needs carefully before you buy.
You will need to decide whether or not these things are important to you and much will depend on how serious you are about your video. For instance, a wide angle adapter is quite handy, enabling you to get very close to your subject while still fitting quite a bit in the frame. It?s also better for sound as the camera?s microphone is closer to the subject and so other noise is reduced. But for this, your camera?s lens will need a filter thread. Also, if you are planning to use filters like polarisers and graduated filters (and this is a good idea for landscapes and travel videos) once again, a filter thread is a good idea. The same is true of the microphone. Directional microphones are very handy for narrating on location and they reduce a large percentage of background and peripheral noise. If your camera does not have this option you will not get the full benefits or have them available to you at any time.
Remote control is also very handy, especially when you travel or shoot alone. It spares us all watching the obligatory opening footage of each sequence in which you feature that shows you turning the camera on, and then of course, leaning forward to turn it off! And, something as simple as Line In is ideal copying older footage or for dubbing. So consider your options, needs and budget carefully. What you think your limitations are now may change once you get the bug!
Well, if you are not thoroughly confused by now, you have not been paying attention. You should have just about enough information to be very annoying to most salespeople. So go and show it off before you forget. Have fun!