21st century shots

Introduction

21st century shots Consumer digital camcorders tested and rated. By Sean Ashcroft Consumer technology has never been so much fun. Just five years back VHS camcorders were leading-edge consumer items, but now are more dated than Brotherhood of Man - cumbersome analogue breezeblocks. In their place emerged digital camcorders, which continue to push the technology envelope, getting smaller, better and cheaper all the time. Apple is also doing much to further enrich life for camcorder users, providing excellent consumer video-editing software such as iMovie and the recently announced Final Cut Express (£249 inc VAT, see page 49), a professional editing tool at a consumer price. The consumer digital-camcorder market is growing ever-more crowded, and manufacturers are cramming units with so many features it can make your head spin. Some are useful, and some are white elephants. First, let's take a look at the generic technologies behind all digital camcorders, and what the key statistics mean in real terms to you, the punter. The technology
Mini DV This format delivers the very best picture quality (as many as 500 lines of horizontal resolution) and has CD-quality stereo sound with the ability to perform audio dubbing. Because Mini-DV tapes measure just 65-x-48-x-12mm (about the size of a slim matchbox) digital camcorders are among the smallest in the world, and continue to shrink as the technology advances. Footage can be transferred from digital camcorders in three ways: as a composite analogue signal via the composite AV leads, like analogue camcorders; as an S-video analogue signal; and lastly as a DV signal. Unlike a traditional analogue camera, it doesn't store an analogue signal on tape. Rather, a camcorder digitizes and compresses a video signal and stores a digital stream on tape, in a process similar to writing a computer file to a tape drive. With all of the compression hardware in the camera rather than on a special video card, you need only a speedy processor, a good-size hard drive, and a FireWire interface. All the camcorders on test are DV-in and -out, meaning you can transfer footage to the Mac and then back to the camcorder once edited. This requires a FireWire cable (also known as IEEE 1394 and iLink). FireWire 400 offers more than 30 times the bandwidth of USB, and is the standard for high-speed data transfer. It makes it possible to move video into and out of your Mac without expensive digitizing hardware. Unfortunately, manufacturers don't bundle FireWire cables with camcorders, so you'll have to buy one yourself. They're available for around £15 from most high-street computer and camera stores. When transferring footage from the camcorder to a Mac there's no loss of quality of sound or audio - one of the main reasons why the DV format is so popular. Resolution This determines picture sharpness and is measured in lines of horizontal resolution. Horizontal lines of resolution measure how sharp a picture is from left to right. Although vertical lines of resolution always stay the same because of the way the pictures are made, horizontal lines of resolution vary with the quality of the equipment. The more lines of resolution, the sharper the picture. CCD Light from the lens hits the Charge-Coupled Device (CCD), which is responsible for translating the light into electronic signals. Often referred to as the image chip, the CCD is made up of thousands of cells, or pixels. These are arranged in a grid, and each pixel produces its own electrical signal when touched by light. Circuits in the camera measure these electrical charges, turning them into video signals. The general rule is that the larger the chip, the more pixels, and so the better quality the image. However, recent developments have seen 0.3-inch and 0.25-inch CCDs, which continue to offer impressive levels of detail on smaller chips. LCD screen Since Sharp launched the first ViewCam in 1992, LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) screens have become de rigeur, with most people electing to use the screen more than the viewfinder to compose footage. The advantage of the screen is it's possible to film without holding the camcorder to your eye, and, because they can be swivelled through 180-degrees, they allow for shooting over a crowd. The downside is screens drain the battery twice as quickly as the viewfinder, and bright sunshine usually bleaches out the image completely. The quality of the screen is determined by the number of pixels - the more pixels, the better the image. One of the models on test - the Sony DCR-PC8 - makes play of its colour viewfinder. However, black-&-white viewfinders offer a more-genuine guide to light and shade conditions lighting conditions than colour. Zoom There are two types of zoom - optical and digital. The important one is optical. Optical mechanisms use two moving lenses to enlarge images, and typically will offer 10x magnification, although the Samsung VP-D130 alone ups the ante to 12x - and being the cheapest model on test, that's quite a bonus. Digital zooming blows-up the image electronically, which results in marked image degradation, because no matter how it tries, the camcorder cannot add information that isn't there. If digital zoom is activated, the camera will digitally enlarge the image once you've passed the optical zoom limit of the lens. As with traditional photography, another unwanted side-effect of excessive zooming is increased camera shake. Best practice is to turn the digital zoom off, so that you always shoot strictly within the optical limitations of the camera. Light sensitivity This is measured in lux, or candelas. Physicists define a candela as the brightness of one candle. The lower the number of lux in the spec, the more sensitive the camera. For example, a 3-lux camera can shoot in less light than a 10-lux camera. Check for low-light sensitivity. Lighting in the field is hard to control. The more sensitive the camera, the better. The extras
The good news for consumers is that whichever model you buy it's unlikely you'll end up disappointed. All are capable of capturing stunning footage, and the key features discussed above differ little from one to the next. By far the biggest problem will be your skill as a videographer (over-zooming, over-panning, poor composition, etc). However, there are features that some manufacturers do better than others, and that helps differentiate the models on offer. Image stabilization Perhaps the biggest problem with today's increasingly small camcorders is camera shake. Some are barely palm-sized and are difficult to keep steady while filming - the result being that footage can look like you shot it on rollerskates. To compensate for this, manufacturers have developed image-stabilizing systems, the most common forms of which are digital and optical. As with zooming, the optical option is the better of the two. Digital stabilizers compare the live image with one that was taken immediately before it (which is stored in the digital memory). The camcorder then works out if the picture has moved, and compensates accordingly. It works by using those sections of the image that most closely match the previous one, and enlarging them to fill the frame. The downside of this enlargement is some loss of picture quality, although this is still preferable to a shaky image. Optical image-stabilization is controlled by a pair of sensors in the zoom mechanism that constantly adjust to the camcorder's movement to keep the image steady. The system can compensate for a 1.4 degrees horizontal or vertical movement - enough to hold the picture still in typical shooting conditions. Because there's no adjustment to the image itself, there's no loss of quality. It produces a sharper picture than digital stabilization, and works better in low-light conditions and also when using zoom. However, the optical system can be considerably more expensive, uses more battery power, and adds to the weight of the camcorder. Ofall the models on test, only the Canon MVX2i employs the optical approach. Sound One of the key differences between consumer and professional digital camcorders is sound quality. Lower-end models come with low-power, built-in microphones, while pro cameras boast high-quality stand-alone microphones. A built-in mic is a pain, because it picks up both some handling noise and the whirring of the unit's motor. This noise pollution can be a real drag in low-noise shooting situations, when it's likeliest to be audible. (Zooming is a no-no while shooting - not only because it makes your audience dizzy, but because the built-in mic picks up zoom-motor noise.) The optimum mic position is at the front under the lens, where it's able to pick up more sound. However, in their rush to cram in as many features as possible, most manufacturers seem to compromise on this, with only Panasonic offering front-positioned mics. The others place theirs on the top of the camcorder, where it not only picks up less of the noise you want (that of your subject and surroundings) but more of the noise you don't (your breathing, particularly when using the viewfinder.) If you're going to invest in one camcorder accessory only then make it an external microphone, because this will add immeasurably to the quality of your footage. External mics cost around £10-£15 for the tie-clip variety, £25 for basic stereo-mics, and £100 for decent zoom or directional mics. High-street camera retailers such as Jessops (www.jessops.com) are your best bet. Some manufacturers offer an accessory shoe on the top of the camcorder that can be used both for external mics and flashes, while some offer just a mic socket, meaning you'll need a rig to hold the external mic in place. Only JVC sees fit to offer neither accessory shoe nor mic socket, so leaving you lumbered with the built-in mic. For those planning to remain strictly hobbyists, this isn't a problem, but anyone wishing to improve sound quality should maybe consider another model. Card mode Digital camcorders have for a while offered a stills-shooting mode, but it was little more than a cursory nod to still-image capture. The trouble was that the images were captured to MiniDV tape at 640-x-480 pixels, and so were fit for little little other than email attachment or for use on Web sites. The current crop of models, though, are taking the first serious strides to providing genuine digital-stills camera quality. Most of the models on test provide a dedicated stills mode, with images being captured to an 8MB Secure Digital/Multimedia Card (SD/MMC). The top resolution of these stills is between 1 and 1.3 megapixels. Models with a stills function offer USB connectivity for retrieving still images from the SD Card. Although the still-imaging sub-system of camcorders is neither as flexible nor feature-rich as a dedicated 1-megapixel stills camera, the feature does adds real value to a camcorder, making it a more-flexible tool. Things are developing, too, with some higher-end camcorders already offering genuine 2-megapixel stills. If having still-image capability is important to you, then opt for a model that offers an accessory shoe. This means you'll be able to add a more-powerful flash and be able to wring the most out of the still-image function. Some models come with both a shoe and a built-in flash, some with one or the other, and some with neither. See the specs sections of the product breakdowns for details. Night vision Infrared night-shooting modes allow for shooting in total darkness, capturing footage in black-&-white so that quality is at best sketchy. However, some models now offer colour night-shooting, which, instead of using infrared, reduces shutter speeds in order to operate in low-light conditions. However, because shutter speeds are so slow, getting the best from this feature requires a slow moving subject and a tripod. As exciting as night-shooting modes sound, don't lose sight of the fact you bought a camcorder to shoot great movies in daylight, not to use on covert missions in the woods. Image quality No matter what you choose to buy, the high resolution of the DV specification ensures you'll enjoy image quality that just a few years ago would've been strictly high-end and prohibitively expensive. However, there are colour foibles from one manufacturer to the next: for example, the Canon DM-MV5i's images are slightly warmer by default than the Panasonic models, but this is hardly a question of quality - more preference, and is something that can be adjusted if necessary using the manual white-balance settings. But as with any type of camera, final image quality is dependent on the quality of the optics: a digital camcorder with a better lens will do a better job of focusing an image onto the camera's sensor. Sony and Canon both equip their cameras with high-quality lenses, which produce excellent detail and sharpness. Design Camcorders surely cannot get much smaller, because all but the JVC GR-DVL767 are palm-sized, and neither is weight an issue. The nitty gritty of design comes down to where everything is positioned. Only Samsung and Sony choose not to place button controls behind the LCD screen. This is preferable, because when controls are positioned here, it means the screen is open often, whether you want it to be or not, and this ends up draining the battery twice as quickly. Special effects Most camcorders now come with masses of special effects, and transitions and wipes. However, assuming you have a Mac and intend editing footage in either iMovie or Final Cut Express then you'll never need them.
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