Fashioning fabulous flicks

Introduction

Whether your goal is to immortalize your kid’s school play or to shoot a feature-length movie, à la The Blair Witch Project, a digital video camera will yield far better footage than you could ever get with a consumer-grade analogue camcorder. With 500 lines of horizontal resolution, DV formats have twice the resolution of VHS and 8mm film’s 250 lines – and 25 per cent more than Hi-8’s 400 lines. In addition, DV provides much better colour fidelity with far less colour bleeding and noise than traditional analogue consumer formats. Best of all, some of these new camcorders now cost just over £1,000 and sport interfaces that make it easy to get your footage onto your Mac, where you can edit and enhance it. How it works
The problem with video is it takes up a lot of room – a single minute of video contains about 210MB of data. And anyone who’s ever duplicated a file on a Mac knows that the average computer can’t move huge amounts of data around quickly. DV lowdown In the past, if you wanted to work with video on your Macintosh, you had to get specialized – and expensive – hardware that not only took care of digitizing a video signal, but could also compress it for storage on a very fast hard-drive array. Not so with a DV camera: unlike a traditional analogue camera, it doesn’t store an analogue signal on tape. Rather, a DV camera 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. The speedy interface known to Mac users as FireWire (technically IEEE 1394, and I.Link in Sony’s nomenclature) is now standard on most desktop Macs. This previously missing link makes it possible to move video into and out of your Mac without expensive digitizing hardware. Types of tapes The most popular DV format for less expensive cameras is MiniDV. Although the MiniDV, DV, DVCam, and DVCPro formats all provide the same image quality, MiniDV tapes and hardware are usually much cheaper. For users who already have an investment in 8mm or Hi8 equipment, Sony produces a proprietary Digital8 format that, in addition to recording in a new digital format, can play back regular 8mm and Hi8 tapes. Though this is a great way to edit older tapes using your Mac, the Digital8 tapes have slightly lower-resolution video than DV. The eyes have it As in a digital-still camera, the lens in a DV camera focuses light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD), a grid of light-sensing electrodes that acts as the camera’s eye. CCD size has much to do with the sharpness of your final image. Quality counts
No matter what you choose to buy, the high resolution of the DV specification ensures image quality that would have been unaffordable just a few years ago. As with any type of camera, final image quality depends largely on the quality of the optics. In other words, a DV camera with a better lens will do a better job of focusing an image onto the camera’s sensor. Through the looking glass Sony and Canon both equip their cameras with high-quality lenses, which produce excellent detail and sharpness. All digital cameras apply sharpening to their images, just as you might apply sharpening to a picture in an image-editing program. Although sharpening can greatly improve image detail, it can also have some unfortunate side-effects. For example, over-sharpening images gives lines with jagged edges or, in some cases, lines that appear to flicker and blink. At the other end of the scale, cameras can produce slightly soft images. Although all of the cameras had some colour quirks, in general they produced very good images. If you’re used to shooting with an analogue video format, the DV format’s ability to show bright colours without bleeding or blurring will surprise you. And with the format’s higher resolution, a DV camera produces better detail than its analogue predecessors – although annoying artifacts from sharpening do occur. Come in closer If you enjoy nature or sports photography, you know getting closer to what’s going on isn’t always easy – that’s where the zoom lens comes in handy. The better to see you with As with the analogue video cameras of old, all of the DV cameras we looked at have built-in zoom lenses that let you zoom between wide-angle and telephoto views of your action. Unless this feature is critical to your work, don’t hold out for a more powerful zoom – it’s more important to choose a camera with good image quality. Zooming in Most of these cameras offer a digital zoom feature in addition to their optical zoom. With this option activated, the camera digitally enlarges your image once you’ve passed the optical zoom limit of your lens. Just as zooming in on a picture in an image-editing program shows you a blocky, pixelated mosaic, digital zoom increases jagged lines and distortion and can turn your image into a grid of large, distorted colour blocks. Models with huge digital zoom numbers will turn the family cat into an unrecognizable grid of pixels. Unless you’re deliberately trying to achieve a grungy, stylized look, avoid using digital zoom and don’t let a salesperson sell you a camera based on this feature. The bottom line None of the cameras we tested provides flawless images. Overall, they do produce very good images – meaning that once you’ve decided which quality trade-offs you can live with, you can base the rest of your buying decision on the camera’s features. Fantastic features
From wacky special effects to image stabilization, today’s DV cameras are feature packed. Although you may find the nifty ‘old-movie effect’ on one camera tempting, you need to concentrate on the most essential features. In the palm of your hand DV cameras come in a number of shapes and sizes, and one of your first considerations should be the camera’s ergonomics. If small size and maximum portability are important to you, take a close look at the Sony, the smallest camera we tested. Both the Canon models are bigger, more traditional shapes – better for tripod-based shooting, but not too heavy for carrying. Steady going Though compactness is generally convenient, it can have a negative impact on shooting stable footage. The light weight of these camcorders can make smooth pans and steady shots hard to achieve. Although all include some sort of image stabilization feature, there’s no substitute for a tripod – and some cameras are better suited to tripod use than others. Dropping anchor To offset the difficulties of holding a one-pound camcorder steady, many vendors include either an electronic or an optical-image stabilization feature. Electronic stabilization works by moving the image around digitally to compensate for shaking. If you shake the camera to the left, the camera moves the image in the other direction to keep the picture steady. Optical image stabilization uses special prisms, reshaped on-the-fly to redirect the light striking the CCD. This allows the camera to compensate for slight shaking – as opposed to intentional large movements. In the past, electronic-stabilization features could adversely affect image quality. The camera’s digital fiddling with your image data could sometimes create artifacts and weird motions. Now, electronic stabilization provides a more stable picture than before – without harming image quality. Optical stabilization, on the other hand, works by adjusting optics rather than by manipulating image data, so there’s no concern that it will add strange artifacts to your footage. Cause and effect Each camera offers a good assortment of special-effects features, such as sepia tones and mosaics, but the ergonomics, battery life, and viewfinder should weigh much more in your buying decision than esoteric features. User friendly
Though DV video cameras are technologically sophisticated, you’ll find using one no different from using an older analogue camcorder. A view to a kill An important part of a DV camera is the colour display. Every model apart from the Canon has both a large, flip-out LCD viewfinder and a smaller eyepiece viewfinder. You’re going to spend a lot of time looking at those tiny screens, so make sure your camera provides a sharp image that doesn’t tire your eyes. Manual adjustment The modern camcorder is a wonder of automated cinematography. With autofocus, auto-iris, and auto-white balance, you can just switch it on and start shooting. However, even the best algorithms can’t handle every situation, and manual control can be a lifesaver in a difficult situation – such as shooting against a bright window, or trying to capture fast action at a sporting event. To make matters easier, your camera should provide manual control for focus, white balance, and exposure. Autofocus mechanisms base their settings on what’s in the centre of the frame. This is fine if you always centre your subject, but if you want to be more creative, you’re out of luck. Say, for example, you want to shoot a friend standing at the left of a frame, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Because your friend isn’t in the middle of the frame, the camera’s autofocus mechanism will most likely focus on the distant tower, rendering your friend as a blur. With manual focus, you can be sure you’ve framed and focused the picture just as you wish. All cameras tested have manual focus. The blink of an iris Nothing is more typical of bad video footage than that overexposed, washed-out look. But, most auto-iris mechanisms tend to expose things a little on the hot side – bright areas flare and bloom, and in those spots colour may actually bleed and blur. Outdoor conditions can exacerbate this problem, and none of the cameras we tested had auto-iris features that could handle a difficult backlit situation. Although Sony and Canon provides exposure presets, a manual exposure control is best for difficult situations. Bright lights How a camera reproduces white varies greatly depending on the light conditions in which you are shooting. If the white balance of the camera is not set properly, all of the other colours will be off – usually they shift to red, blue, or green, making mum’s bread pudding look like lime jelly. Although most cameras provide good auto-white balance controls, they’re not always accurate in mixed lighting situations; for example, a fluorescent-lit room with daylight streaming through a window. All models provide manual white balance. Fast action Manual shutter-speed control is a great tool for shooting fast action, such as little Johnny’s Sunday park football games. At higher shutter speeds, the camera can stop fast-moving action, giving sharper detail in each frame. But, because high shutter speeds remove much motion blur, your video can look too sharp. Macworld buying advice The good news is that all these cameras offer quality far better than the typical analogue camcorders, so what you see will pleasantly surprise you. They’re ideal for iMovie and Final Cut Pro movie-making. MW Ben Long is a co-author of the forthcoming Digital Filmmaking Handbook (Charles River Media).
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