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Camcorders (written approx 2004)
(NOTE: written for
conditions: prices are in $NZ, divide by 2 to get approx $US equivalent. NZ gets DV-PAL with images of 0.42 Megapixels. DV-NTSC as used in the
is 0.35 Megapixels.)
There is a lot of "buzz" that
DV cameras represent a great leap forward in making independent alternative
film-making possible. But how viable is
big-screen projection of DV video? I saw
the DV feature "Woodenhead" in
's Academy Cinema and in scenes with large flat areas
eg sky, I could count the pixels. This
is not meant to be a negative comment on the "Woodenhead" project which I
personally found effective and successful, especially with its experimental
approach to the soundtrack. But from
this and other DV-watching, I am developing the opinion that the DV medium,
with its less than Half-a-Megapixel, is simply not good enough to carry the
kind of 100 min movie which would depend largely on its photography to make its
statement. HDV is coming and that does
promise to deliver a more effective big screen result. In the meantime I suggest we recognise the DV
limitations and use it in ways where we play to its strengths eg freedom of
operation, great editing, accessible digital
effects. This means short
films. If we need the format of
longer films, go with personal experience themes which work well with most shots
in close-up. Think also of making DV
films for venues other than commercial cinemas.
Here comes that IAFILM
Super-8 and Hi-8 experience. We wise old
heads have lived through this before with Super-8mm in the 1980s as documented
elsewhere on this site. We struggled
when we went head-on at Cinema of Illusion a la
. (eg "Brave Love", "Breaking
out of Pattern") Where it worked better
was outrageous parody (eg "Space Ace and the Rain of Death", "Tailspin"),
extreme experimentation (eg "
") and the actor-centered close-up (eg "The SNAG's
Guide to Love" (Hi-8)). Note that
Super-8 is slightly superior to DV in resolution and Hi-8 slightly below.
The big DV advance is in the
opening up of post-production to common level PC Computers. Video projectors have improved and become
more common. This is very exciting but
not quite exciting enough to justify trying to make commercial-release movies
with it as some hopefuls are doing.
What is HDV?
A new technology using the
same tape but more compression to store higher resolution images.
The first 2 cameras have appeared and HDV will probably become common and
affordable in 2 years. I am not one to
sit and wait, and I have been researching the question as to what makes sense
as "DV for the meantime."
In my opinion, number 1 deep
thought is don't invest too much in DV. A $1000 camera and a $10000 camera both
deliver 0.42 Megapixels of resolution.
The $1000 camera is not quite good enough to do full-on cinema. The $10000 camera is a little better, usually
in colour rendering, but it is still not quite good enough to do full-on
cinema. HDV is going to make both of
them very obsolete very suddenly and quite soon so I am going for the modest
end of DV, with, as detailed below, the level one-up from the basic models at
about $1400 making the most sense for my needs.
In 1985-1995, we saw Super-8 silent cameras
made obsolete by Super-8 sound cameras, then all Super-8 made obsolete by
Camcorders. Excellent secondhand Super-8
equipment was going at nominal cost and this fed a worldwide wave of creative
experimentation. I predict that HDV will
roll DV and start a DV creative wave.
But in the meantime, my experience of looking to buy a secondhand DV camera was very disappointing for many months until
the right online auction happened. The
NZ "Trademe" on line auction site has many NTSC cameras bought overseas that
mismatch our PAL system here. Most other
offerings have unrealistically high prices on them and I observe that very few
camcorder auctions ever complete to a successful sale..
I have tried working with old
analogue Sony Handicam standard 8mm camcorders.
I found the digitisation card (an add-on for my computer) gave
disappointing results. Borrowing a
recent Sony Digital-8 camera to digitise the analogue tapes worked much better,
which leads me to suggest that schools could do well to buy up old Handicams at
$100 each for accessible student use, then keep a
teacher-only Digital-8 as post-production kit.
I may go that way with some of my Technical Institute teaching but for
my own filming, I have found the shoot-analogue/edit-digital approach to be
clumsy and unsatisfying. I need to be
Borrow or Hire? That is an option for me and I have begun
getting to know DV cameras this way. But
I often run film-making teams where I want to hand the camera to others to
operate while I concentrate on directing.
Other experimentation eg animation has me wanting to film over a long
period flexibly fitted into a busy life.
So I need to own one.
Survey on what's out there.
This is based on some limited
testing with borrowed camcorders, but mostly on published specifications and
reading of tests by others: mainly from
I suggest check reviews on these sites at the minimum before buying any
camcorder: new or 2ndhand.
Models are changing almost monthly, this is
written in October 2004 and revised in January 2005
Level 1 -
These have a single 0.8 Megapixel CCD imager,
but only 0.42 Megapixel is used for video, the rest provides "wiggle room" for
image stabilisation. They deliver a
full-resolution black and white image, with colours worked out over groups of 4
pixels. So this is something like the
old 1930s craft of hand-painting colours on to black and white photos. Or you can think of it as being like the
painting technique of "colour wash".
These camcorders therefore deliver a 0.42 M mono image with a 0.11 M
Ext mic socket. Even good on-camera microphones are
simply in the wrong place.
Manual control of exposure, white balance.
Latest designs from Sony, JVC
and Canon have removed the "Ext Mic" socket.
Therefore it is easy to declare a "best basic camcorder" as there seems to be
only one qualifying model available in NZ at present, the Panasonic NV-GS11
Level 1A - 0.8 M basic
cameras with card for stills photos. ($1100)
These can take still images
in a way similar to a digital stills camera.
But the stills resolution is only 640 x 480 (0.3 Megapixel) which is too
low for my uses, in particular I would like to use such a capability for
animation of physical objects, eg plasticene animation like "Wallace and
Grommit" and "Chicken Run", but I need to go up a level for better resolution
Not of interest to me.
Level 2 - 1.1 to 1.3
Here is where my
(incomplete) research indicates the best value may lie: These feature:
Higher resolution stills of around 1280 x
960 = 1 Megapixel.or better. Some
writers comment that this is still too low for doubling-up as a general
purpose stills camera
I like it because it can take my animation at least to
high definition in video terms.
0.84 Megapixels used for Video. The end result is the same 0.42
Megapixels but the extra in-camera pixels give a better "colour wash" of
0.21 Megapixels rather than the 0.11 M of the basic models.
Ext Mic and Vision Manual controls as
following this design pattern are:
name, relevant to finding reviews, is "Canon
My impression (and I have not
had a chance to test any of these) is that the Sony HC40 would be good for on
the fly filming eg documentaries while the Canon MVX250i would be good
for controlled film-making eg drama and animation.
Note, these are extremely small, especially the Canon MVX250i, and this may
cause problems with some filming situations if you want to create a high status
impression. This is not the kind of game I play, but it can be important
in some situations, eg filming a wedding commercially and needing to
impress the clientele. Alternatively, having high tech moviemaking
looking so innocent could be useful for improvised drama in actual locations.
Level 3A - Big CCD for almost-True-Color (approx $1900)
Similar to "Level
2" above but with:
Even Higher resolution stills of around 1600
x 1200 or better.
1.26 or 1.68 Megapixels
used for Video. This is "True
Colour" obtained by using groups of 3 or 4 pixels to deliver each 1
pixel of the 0.42 Megapixel end result.
Ext Mic and Vision Manual controls as above.
Current Cameras following
this "3A" design pattern include:
name, relevant for finding reviews, is "Canon
camera provides the advanced option of manual control of sound recording
I have been able to borrow one of these and I have had excellent
results from it for both videos and stills.
On testing line resolution I
get a horizontal reading of 620 lines which is very high
for DV technology of this kind. Most DV cameras deliver 500 to
3B - 3CCD Basic
These get a "true colour" effect = no "colour wash" compromises, by the complex
arrangement of splitting the light into 3 beams, filtering them Red, Green,
Blue, and giving each beam its own 0.8 M CCD chip. Many reviewers have high praise for these designs. I am
less enthusiastic about them because:
In my opinion, the space for the beam
splitter forces compromises in the lens design which explains less lens
capability, eg zoom range, than provided by some lower level designs.
do not offer improved-resolution widescreen, see note below as to what that
In my opinion, with the current state and trends in DV, "true
widescreen" is worth more than "true colour".
To my eye, the colour improvement over
Level 2 is nothing much to rave about
In my opinion, these are getting too expensive for what
the DV medium is worth
a Panasonic design approach as seen in model GS200
Level 4, 3CCD (or triple-size
single CCD) with True Widescreen and
Manual Audio Control
If you have $3000 and can get enough use out of one of these in 2 years to
justify the likely short life before HDV hits,
Or you need to professionally
present yourself as running the DV medium at its best (like impressing the
peasants when doing those Wedding jobs) then these may
be of interest.
Panasonic GS400 (3CCD)
Canon MVX3i (big single CCD of 2.2
Megapixels for stills and 1.3 Megapixels for Video)
About "Widescreen" aka "16:9"
In my opinion, "Widescreen" also known as "16:9" will soon become
the standard movie format so I suggest it is important to shoot with it as
much as possible to get to know it, and to future-proof current
Some cameras give a choice between "squeeze" and "letterbox" methods. If
you have that choice then I suggest "letterbox" is the best all-rounder giving
you the most options later from video editing. Some film festivals will
only accept "letterbox" and reject "squeeze".
If you camera has neither, I suggest taping strips of black paper at the top
and bottom of your LCD, then later, in video editing, "crop"
the image to that same degree. If your camera has squeeze-only
with high-resolution 16:9, then produce a letterbox copy from your video
editor. ULead can do this with its "moving path" settings. If you
camera has squeeze-only with no resolution enhancement, then I suggest ignore
it and run normally with the strips of black paper as above.
What is "True Widescreen" or
"High Resolution Widescreen"?
With DV cameras, "16:9" really
means "Short Screen", meaning cutting off the top and bottom 12.5% of the
image. Therefore shooting in "16:9" means losing vertical resolution
although you do maintain the same horizontal resolution. In our PAL
system, we go from 720x576 standard to 720x432 for Widescreen 16:9.
Some cameras, eg Sony HC40, Canon MVX250i, Canon MVX25i, offer a better
widescreen setting. This gives you the option of sacrificing the digital
stabilisation to give you a bigger chip area. My
measurements on a borrowed Canon MVX 25i suggest a boost to 816 x 489
pixels. The tape can only handle 720 pixels horizontally so the 816 gets
sampled back down to 720, but the payoff is that increase in effective vertical
pixels from 432 to 489. This is still less that the theoretical best of
576, but about a 13% improvement over what other DV cameras deliver.
About my own camera:
I have recently bought a basic secondhand DV camera which cost me $270 in
an on-line auction. This JVC GR-DVL800, dating from 2000, is missing
the feature I tell everyone is a "must", the external mic socket. I
therefore need to return to one of my fine old film traditions and use a
separate sound recorder. I train my groups
to operate an iconic device, a clapper
board, to mark which video clip belongs to which sound
recording. Clumsy, although less so than in the classic days, but my
groups do seem to enjoy maintaining this fine old tradition.
On the plus side, this JVC is strong on picture manual control. Some
reviews of new designs suggest that older units like this JVC have good low
light performance because of their physically larger chips. My low-light
results so far seem good, but I have nothing to compare it with.