Rolling, rolling, rolling

Introduction

Digital video is changing the world. This may sound a grand statement, but it’s one that Apple – with its vision of the Mac as a digital hub – has embraced wholeheartedly. At the heart of this hub are Apple’s bundled multimedia-authoring software, iMovie 2 and iDVD 2. Broadcast-quality cameras have been brought to the masses, and even mainstream TV shows – such as documentaries, movie shorts, makeover shows, and fly-on-the-wall docudramas – are all shot on digital-video cameras that are largely available from high-street electronics stores. In the past, hugely expensive broadcast-quality video cameras were the sole domain of television companies. Now, with a Mac and a pro camera costing as little as £5,000, amateurs can make entire shows on tiny budgets – ideal for the plethora of TV channels sprouting up everywhere. Here, we’ll examine a selection of what’s on offer in both the professional and consumer digital-video camcorder market. Your choice of either an entry-level or high-end model will be determined by what you wish to use the camera for. With a pro camera, you’ll be able to make a TV show. The consumer models, meanwhile, are great for weddings, birthdays and holidays. But even at the consumer end, you’ll be amazed what can be achieved with a few shooting tips, an iBook and iMovie 2. There is a bewildering array of digital camcorders available from high-street electronics stores. They come in all shapes and sizes – and prices. However, there are a number of key factors that you, as a Macintosh user, should bear in mind. Format
Not all cameras use the same tape format, though most seem to be settling on MiniDV as the format of choice. In pre-digital days, video cameras used VHS tapes – which made for pretty bulky cameras. Although there are now various types of smaller VHS camcorders, these are analogue and not ideal for using with a Mac. There was a minor revolution when HI8 was introduced, because its 8mm tape offered better quality than any of the VHS standards. However, Hi-8 is also analogue. And, although HI8 has been upgraded to Digital 8 (which, as the name suggests, makes it a digital format), this is more of a reaction to the success of MiniDV than any real innovation. Digital 8 cameras may be cheaper than their MiniDV counterparts, but they’re also bulkier. The palm-sized cameras available today invariably use MiniDV tapes. These tapes are similar in size to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) tapes, measuring just 65-x-48-x-12mm (about the size of a box of TicTacs). To cram moving images onto MiniDV’s 4mm tape means that data needs to be compressed. Even though you needn’t worry about this (it happens automatically, thanks to special internal hardware in the camera) it may be of interest to you to know what’s going on. Analogue video uses signals that are recorded as fluctuating values, while digital video translates the values into numbers before recording them. This creates a lot of information, which is why it needs to be compressed. Digital footage is compressed using something similar to JPEG compression, though it’s more sophisticated than this. This reduces the data at a ratio of 5:1, meaning a 5MB clip is reduced to 1MB – in real time as you record. This offers far-better quality than previous heavier compression levels found in digital camcorders. There are formats that don’t use compression at all. Cameras that use D1, an uncompressed composite format, sell for tens of thousands of pounds. It’s the highest-quality video that’s available – the kind of camera used for top-end broadcast television. Programmes such as sitcoms, sporting events, and TV movies use this format. In this feature, it’s only the pro Sony model, the DRS PD150P, that uses a proprietorial format – DV Cam. All the others use MiniDV – a format that spans both the consumer and lower-end broadcast-quality models. How high do you fly?
Software
Broadly speaking, iMovie 2 home-users splashing out more than £2,000 on a digital camcorder are probably over-spending. Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere users working in a commercial environment, on the other hand, may wish to consider the more-expensive pro models. However, there are no hard and fast rules here. Some people will happily edit commercial footage on iMovie 2, because they don’t require special effects or fancy transitions. Scenes are cut together without frills, something iMovie can handle easily. Others will use Final Cut Pro to produce ultra-slick home movies. Final Cut Pro may be a high-end editing package, yet it can’t make a Speilberg out of a Michael Winner. The quality difference between consumer and professional camcorders will always be noticeable. Sound
If software doesn’t define what’s low and high-end, then certain camera specifications do. One of the key differences concerns sound quality. Low-end cameras tend to come with low-power built-in microphones, while pro models often boast high-quality stand-alone microphones. If you were to watch two pieces of footage – shot with a consumer and pro camera – the sound is likely to be the first noticeable difference. Image quality
Footage shot on a consumer model will appear shakier, because they rely mostly on optical image-stabilization, as opposed to the superior digital-stabilization technology of the pro models. And footage appears harsher in the consumer models, because they lack the fancy image-processing features of the pro models, whose images appear softer and more silver-screen-like. However, even the top-end cameras on test don’t approach the quality of a decent feature-film camera. Pro models tend to be all business and no fun; they lack the frivolous features that consumer models come stuffed with – such as night vision and visual effects. Such special effects typically include negative-image and sepia modes, and the consumer models also tend to offer a still-camera mode, and use Flash memory cards – just like a digital still-camera. However, be warned: a good digital camcorder doesn’t necessarily make a good stills camera just because it has a still-image feature. By the same token, a digital-stills camera that offers a mini-movie mode offers little competition to any digital camcorder.
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