Digital Video Cameras

They're an ideal way to record footage of your family, friends and those special occasions: but which one is right for you?


Digital Video (DV) is an ideal format for anyone wanting to use a camcorder (DV camera) to work with video on the PC or the Web. The most exciting aspect of DV editing is the purity of the content. No matter how much you work with your video, if you keep the data in a digital format, the video quality will be exactly the same.

However, deciding on the right camcorder can be difficult when you look at the many choices available. The type of media you want to use, the quality you need and the price you want to pay are all important aspects to consider.

Several pieces of the DV puzzle had to come together to bring movie making to the masses. PCs had to be sufficiently powerful to deal with the demands on storage and performance that video makes. Next, there had to be a way to connect a camcorder to a PC quickly and easily. Finally, there had to be a way to preserve the quality of the original footage so that it could be used without degradation.

Most dual-core PCs released over the last few years will provide more than enough processing power to deal with video transfers. The increases in storage capacity and dramatic reductions in the cost of RAM have also served the DV user well. The arrival of Windows XP (and more recently, Windows Vista) has provided crucial operating system support for Digital Video connectivity features such as FireWire, and Plug-and-Play support for removable hard drives and DV camcorders. In addition, the Vista version of Windows Movie Maker allows you to import, edit, manage and share high-definition video (HDV).

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Analogue and Digital video


Analogue and Digital Video: What's the difference?

The ageing analogue process transmits video as complete frames, with the receiving device then interpreting and translating the signal into video and audio on a monitor. It is at this interpretation stage that a progressive loss of data, however small, leads to a loss in image quality.

DV Camera

Digital video, on the other hand, stays digital (such as '0's and '1's ) with the data constructed to describe the colours and brightness of a video frame. On the receiving end of this data transmission, there is no translation or interpretation, just the delivery of the data into another digital device. This consistency of delivery is the crucial advantage that digital video has over analogue video when it comes to working with video on the PC.

If you're still using an old 8mm or VHS handycam, now is the time to upgrade to digital.

FireWire (other terms include iLink, IEEE 1394 or 1394EEE) provided both the transfer speed, at 400Mpbs, and consistent rates to allow the average PC user to edit their video like a pro.

What About USB 2.0?

In the not too distant past, there was a clear distinction between USB and FireWire. USB 1.1 could not transfer high quality DV; loosely defined as 25 frames per second (fps) with each frame being 640x480 resolution, due to USB's transfer limit of around 11Mbps (or around 1.5MB per second). Transferring DV requires a transfer rate of at least 3.6MB per second, which left FireWire as the only option due to its ability to work at 400Mbps, or up to around 50MB per second. Then along came USB 2.0 with a transfer rate of 480Mbps or around 60MB per second.

At first glance it would appear that USB 2.0 is even faster than FireWire; however speed is not the only issue when it comes to DV. One serious issue with USB 2.0 is that it can not guarantee a specified data transfer rate. This is due to USB 2.0 being a master-slave technology, which means it needs a computer's CPU to coordinate the appropriate data transfers. While not a problem when dealing with low demand peripherals such as Web cams, scanners, printers etc, digital video requires dependable performance to avoid dropping video frames. (Incidentally, the currently-in-development USB 3.0 is targeted at 10 times the current bandwidth, roughly 4.8GBps, utilising a parallel optical cable.)

FireWire is a much more independent technology in that it works in a peer-to-peer relationship. More importantly, it delivers data consistently at a specific rate. If you want to work with video, even to edit the family movie, go with FireWire.

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DV camcorders: which one to choose?


DV camcorders: which one to choose?

From the introduction of the first DV camcorder using the MiniDV tape format, the choices of DV camcorder have expanded, and there are now several format options to suit the way that you want to work.

If you want to prepare video for the Web, or to write to DVD or VideoCD with little or no editing of video, a disc-based camcorder may be the ideal solution. DVD cameras record footage onto digital video discs which can then be inserted straight into your DVD player. However, if you want to edit your video on the PC, a tape-based camcorder should be at the top of your list due to its ability to transfer video to the PC in a format suited to editing. MPEG in all its forms is first and foremost a delivery format, which makes it less than ideal when it comes to editing on the PC.

Tape-based camcorders


Tape-based camcorders

MiniDV tape-based camcorders are the oldest form of digital video, with the first model arriving in the mid-1990s. A mini-DV cassette is of similar dimensions to an audio cassette and about half the size, with tapes priced from around AUS$10 each. The tapes hold from 45 to 90 minutes of footage and capture an impressive 500 lines of resolution. In recent years, high-definition MiniDV tapes have entered the marketplace, but these will only work with specific HD cameras (more on this later).

The advantages of MiniDV include a proven tape format with widespread availability. Most PCs with a standard FireWire connection will automatically recognise a MiniDV-based camcorder in much the same way that a USB device, such as a printer or scanner, is recognised when connected to a USB connection.

Tape-based camera tot

Digital 8 camcorders allow you to use your old 8mm analogue cassettes while also offering a direct DV connection to your PC, so you can store DV footage on 8mm tape. This solution could be a useful option for schools and learning institutions with a large collection of Hi8 and 8mm tape footage. Note: As of Q3 2007, Sony no longer manufactures Digital8 camcorders, although the tapes are still available to buy from most retailers as well as from Sony's Web site.

Other DV tape formats include DVCam and ProDV, offering high-end features such as a more robust tape construction, lower compression ratio and an interchangeable lens system, specifically designed to appeal to professional moviemakers. These formats should only be considered when working within a professional environment, as prices for such camcorders start at around $10,000 and go much higher.

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HD-based camcorders


HD-based camcorders

High Definition (HD) is the latest technology in the digital video arena. It captures images at a resolution of 1080 interlaced lines or 720 progressive lines (for comparison, an analogue television offers just 525 lines, so the increase is significant.) What this means is that your video will have much more vibrant colours and crystal clear image quality. All digital video formats - including MiniDV, DVD and HDD - offer high definition models.

Whether you need HD or not depends on your situation. If you neither own nor plan to buy a television with HDMI capabilities (such as a high-def LCD or plasma), then the benefits will be mostly lost on you. Plus, HD video takes up more storage space and can therefore be difficult to edit. Nevertheless, high-def video is definitely where the future lies.

When high-definition video first entered the market place, the cheapest models costed around $7000. Thankfully, prices have since dropped significantly, and it is now possible to own a good quality HD video camera for around $1000. HD cameras currently come in two different recording formats - HDV and AVCHD. AVCHD is an advanced video codec that is more efficient at storing high-definition video thanks to higher compression rates. Most high-def cameras from Sony and Panasonic now come with AVCHD recording capabilities.

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Disc-based camcorders


Disc-based camcorders

Tape is not the only option when it comes to DV camcorders, for there is a variety of different media including mini DVD discs, removable storage and even hard drives.

DVD-based camcorder

DVD video cameras are one of the fastest growing formats on the market due to their familiarity and ease of use. Most of the big camcorder manufactuers have released DVD-based camcorders that can record from around 20 minutes up to 1 hour of MPEG-2 video (depending on the quality selection) directly to small 8cm DVD that can then be played directly in a home-based DVD player.

It is the best format for people who want to watch their home movies quickly, without any fuss. Because the discs can be played on most DVD players, there is no need to muck around with cables or computers before you watch the footage on your TV - simply transfer the disc from your camera to your DVD player.

One disadvantage of DVD camcorders is that they are not well suited for extensive editing. While it is possible to transfer DVD footage to a computer for editing, it can be a complicated process and the video quality can suffer during the conversion. Some DVD models from Panasonic and Sony record in high definition, using the AVCHD recording format. However, you will need a Blu-ray disc player or other compatible device to view these movies on your TV.

It's important to determine the compatibility with your home DVD player before going with a DVD Camcorder, as users are presented with the same -RW, +RW compatibility issues that exist with PC-based DVD recorders. The latest DVD-based camcorders also provide support for write-once discs such as DVD-R and DVD+R, which means that, once finalised, the disc can be played on most DVD players without any trouble.

Hard drive-based camcorders, utilising a non removable drive (about the same dimensions as one used in a notebook) to store video straight to the drive, have been around for some time. Hard disk camcorders operate by storing captured video in either MPEG-2, MPEG-1 or AVCHD format. Limitations include the inability to add additional storage, as well as the relative fragility when compared to other storage options such as Flash Memory and CD-based media. However, new models are entering the marketplace with increasingly impressive storage capabilities. The HDR-SR8E, for example, has a built-in 100GB hard drive, capable of recording up to 38 hours of high-definition footage.

Hard drive-based camera

Some companies have released camcorder models that rely on flash media - such as Memory Stick Pro Duo and Express Cards - for recording purposes. This has led to the release of a series of pocket-sized camcorders that can record over an hour of high-quality MPEG-2 video. Thanks to improved storage capacities in removable memory, some of these models can even capture high-definition video. Unfortunately, the current price of MS cards and related media (i.e. - $100 and up) makes these cameras expensive to run if you plan to record lots of footage.

Removable media-based camera



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Controls and features


Controls and features

The central part of a DV camcorder is the Charge Coupled Device (CCD). This sensor creates a video picture by recording light intensity to recognise an image shape, and levels of red, green and blue (RGB) to reproduce a full-colour picture. A single CCD captures information on RGB colours in one go, while a three-chip CCD (found on more expensive camcorders) devotes a CCD to each of the three colours.

Many tape-based DV camcorders have both colour eyepiece viewfinders and a flip-out TFT LCD screen to view the action as well as preview video footage. However, most tape-less models only offer the TFT screen to preview captured video and to view while recording footage.

When you need to get close to the action, a good zoom lens can be a valuable feature. However, don't be swayed by the digital zoom figure, no matter how large; always base your buying decision on the optical zoom. The optical zoom gives a true indication of the video image, whereas digital zooms interpolate the available pixels to zoom in on an image. Optical zooms generally range around the 10X mark, with digital zooms ranging from 120X and above.

Auto focusing systems are great, although a manual focus option can be very handy in conditions such as low light or when focusing on a subject against a landscape. Available on most camcorders, the manual focus control can be found either as a ring on the lens itself or as a dual-button system on the camcorder's body. Most expensive, high-end models will typically have a large focus ring located near the end of the lens. Cheap models usually only offer rudimentary focus options located via the menu screen.

Program AE (Auto Exposure) allows the camcorder to set all the functions for shooting certain types of footage, leaving you simply to point and shoot. Situations covered include Portrait, Sports, High Speed Action, Twilight, Spotlight, Sand & Snow, and Low Light.

Playback and record controls are much like the ones on a VCR, with all camcorders including the basic functions of Play, Stop, REW, FF and Pause.

Most video camcorders these days provide a titling feature in the camcorder itself; however, this feature is to be avoided at all costs unless you do not intend to edit the footage on a PC. The title effects on many camcorders are quite limited and can't be removed afterwards.

Virtually all new camcorders use a rechargeable Li-ion battery, although a spare battery may be useful as the batteries are unique to each camcorder maker and often each model.

Many of the latest DV camcorders allow you to capture digital still images onto a removable flash memory card. The most popular media choice is SD/SDHC or MMC memory, but Sony and Samsung camcorders capture still images to a Memory Stick. Some of the latest models have broken the megapixel image barrier and a few offer up to 6Mp still image capabilities.

Note: DV camcorders are unlike digital still cameras in this regard. Most camcorders offer no more than 2Mp, with anything above considered to be a distinctive feature.

If your camcorder doesn't have still image capabilities, you can always do a capture of the screen in your editing program. Remember that the image resolution when capturing a still in this manner will always be 640x480, which is less than 1Mp.

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DV and the Web


DV and the Web

Modern PC systems can quickly and easily capture video from a camcorder or webcam, ready to edit and deliver to viewers online. There are some issues to consider. Do you want to stream the video or send it in as a complete file? Will your audience be a targeted group such as an e-mail list or just one individual? Will it be available to everyone on your homepage?

A popular way to create small audio and video files is to use MPEG.

MPEG-1 was the format devised for VCD and also happens to be a good option for Internet distribution over a broadband connection due to the transfer rate of 1500Kbps, which is comparable to a high-speed broadband connection. However, the widespread adoption of MPEG-4 by most movie makers wanting to show their video on the Web, makes MPEG-1 a less attractive option for video distribution.

MPEG-4 is a great video format for the Web because it can deliver good video quality at extremely low data rates, even down to 10Kbps. Yet, when needed, the bit rate can be lifted to around 1Mbps, providing near-DVD quality video. DivX, one of the most popular formats on the Web for distributing movie titles, is based on the MPEG-4 format.

Camcorder makers such as Sony, Canon and Panasonic are providing live Web streaming capabilities using an MPEG-4 encoder in their DV camcorders, with the latest models taking advantage of the greater transfer speeds available when using USB 2.0. This allows you to connect your camcorder to the PC through a USB connection and send live video over the Web at various quality levels, depending on the internet connection speed of your audience.

Another option with many new camcorders is to record Web-quality video to removable storage media such as an SD card or Memory Stick/Memory Stick Pro. This option allows you quickly and easily to transfer your video to the PC via a USB connection or through a card reader.

MPEG-2 is the format used in DVD video distribution and has playback rates from around 500 to 1000Kbps. By altering the playback or delivery rate, users can tailor the delivery of a video to meet the speed of a connection or to store more video on a DVD disc. The arrival of MPEG-2 camcorders allows users to distribute video immediately via the Web through the PC, or through wireless technologies such as Bluetooth.



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Editing your video for the Web


Editing your video for the Web

The general video rule of 'if in doubt, leave it out' couldn't be more relevant when working with video for the Web. This means that elaborate transitions and complex 3D effects should be avoided unless necessary.

MPEG compression deals with video by creating a reference video frame, and providing information on the changes or motion taking place on the frames before and after. This means that the more action in a series of frames, the harder it is to compress the video.

Complex transitions usually create a lot of motion, which in turn limits interframe compression and the ability to optimise compression quality.

Most video editing applications allow you to scale an entire video to a new resolution such as 320x240 for video on broadband, down to 176x144 for streaming over the Internet via a modem connection.

Most DV camcorders come with a basic selection of video editing tools, although these applications are generally light versions with some features and tools removed. As you become more experienced, you may want to look at the more powerful options available.

Entry-level video editing applications


Entry-level video editing applications

Starting out on the road to DV can be daunting when it comes to editing your video footage. The following programs provide a mix of guidance and user control to help you create a great-looking video straight away.

Windows Movie Maker 2.5 (Windows XP) is a great introductory video editing application and is available free as part of the Windows XP operating system (version 2.6 is included in Windows Vista). The 'collection' area contains all the relevant assets you need to make a movie, with a surprisingly large range of titles, effects and transitions to select from. Users can choose the AutoMovie option if they want to create a movie with a few mouse clicks. Movie Maker is only available on Windows Me, XP or Vista, so Windows 98 users will have to look elsewhere.

Click here for a screenshot example.

Pinnacle Studio 11 from Pinnacle (www.pinnaclesys.com) uses a simple, drag-and-drop interface to help new users get creative quickly. Some of the features not normally found in entry-level packages include custom audio and over 100 transitions including Hollywood FX 3D effects.

Studio 11 writes MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files for output with presets for S-VCD and Video for the Web. It will also recognise HDV and AVCHD footage from the latest high-def handycams. The excellent Make Movie process guides the user through the whole video making process with little fuss.

There are several variations of VideoStudio, with the Plus version adding more support for interesting effects such as a Chroma Keying, where you can place yourself against another video background like a weatherman on TV.

VideoStudio 11 from Ulead (www.ulead.com) provides a series of clear steps to help the video editing novice gain confidence in the movie making process. The user is guided through processes including Capture, Editing, Effects, Overlay, Titles, Audio and Sharing (or Output). When you have completed editing, the finished movie can be output in a variety of formats including MPEG-2 for DVD-quality video or MPEG-1 for VHS-quality video.

Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 (www.adobe.com) offers a more substantial option for video editors frustrated with the level of "hand holding" with most consumer-level video editors. Premiere Elements 3.0 provides the same click-and-create options to simply let the application do most of the work; but also allows you to add more input or control to how the final movie will look. The workspace is simple to follow and more closely resembles a more professional video editing application such as Adobe Premiere Pro.

Vegas Movie Studio+DVD software (www.newmagic.com.au) has been around for a while, known as Vegas MovieFactory until purchased by Sony and renamed. However, the feature set has remained, with an easy-to-use video editor and the most powerful audio tools available for the consumer. Capturing and organising video files couldn't be easier, and the tools to add titles, music and effects are intuitive without being simplistic.

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High-end video editing applications


High-end video editing applications

Adobe Premiere Pro (currently in its CS3 iteration) (www.pacific.adobe.com) is still the most widely used video editing application in the semi-professional market.

Professional-level features in Premiere Pro include strong colour correction options and new motion controls. On the audio side, AC-3 export, 5.1 surround sound mixing, the ability to record voice recordings to the timeline, and sub frame audio editing should please all experienced Premiere users.

MediaStudio Pro 7 from Ulead (www.ulead.com) offers quality editing with software only, real-time preview and output, and DVD Workshop AC3 for DVD authoring. Rounding out the bundle is Ulead's image editor PhotoImpact 8, and COOL 3D Studio for 3D text and object animation.

PC users will be pleased to know Ulead do not support the Mac platform with this software. This means that all interface, workflow and design parameters are developed with a Windows user in mind. Unfortunately, there hasn't been an update in features for a while, apart from a HD plug-in, and Ulead seems more interested in developing its consumer VideoStudio product.

Pinnacle Edition 5 from Pinnacle Systems (www.pinnaclesys.com) uses a familiar Windows interface, following a three-point editing system preferred by most professional video editors. Clips can be dragged to the source window with all the set in and out points. The ability to provide multiple sequences allows you to treat a collection of video clips as one object, which is a great timesaver when working on large projects.

If you want to get seriously into your video as well as working out your soundtrack, Vegas Video (www.newmagic.com.au) is a good option. However, be warned, all the applications in the prosumer space assume a certain level of competency; so don't expect the same wizards and step-by-step walkthroughs that are commonly available with entry-level video editing applications.

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Camcorder pricing


Camcorder pricing

Consumers have never had it so good when it comes to purchasing a new DV camcorder. Prices can range anywhere from $500 for a budget handycam to over $10,000 for a professional model. Naturally, the price you pay will depend on the camera's image quality and the amount of additional features it offers. As a general rule, models that cost over $3000 are aimed at the serious user, while anything below $1000 is strictly for amateur shooting. Most video cameras fall somewhere between these two price points, offering high quality visuals at a semi-affordable price.

DVD camcorder models are generally priced between $700 and $2000, with more expensive models offering larger optical zoom lenses and high digital still image resolutions. DVD camcorders are not recommended unless you have a specific need for this type of model. As all who have used DVD media are beginning to realise, the discs are not as indestructible as the industry would have you believe, and the price per MB is still too expensive compared to alternatives such as tape.

A MiniDV-based camera

On the MiniDV camcorder front, models for around $1000 should provide all you need to take great video: 20X optical zoom, LCD viewfinder, a simple menu system, and compact size. Other features on offer may include some wireless connectivity and multiple megapixels in still images. You can also expect to buy a 3CCD camcorder in this price range, though high-definition models tend to go for a bit higher.

DV Camera Shopping Tips
Check out the LCD screen in daylight, if possible. Some screens will wash out in bright sunlight, and you'll want to make sure you can easily see what you're recording in any conditions. If you can't see the screen in bright daylight, look for a viewfinder. It can help get the job done without eating up a lot of battery power.

Look at the lens's optical zoom ratio instead of the digital zoom ratio. With a digital zoom, the camcorder is only enlarging the lens's image instead of really giving you a closer look. The optical zoom spec is more important--you'll want at least 10X optical zoom.

For longer recording times, buy a higher-capacity battery. The battery that comes with most camcorders only lasts an hour or so. For around $100, you can buy a longer-lasting battery, so factor that into your cost if you think you'll need it. (Remember, however, that larger batteries add to the camera's weight.)

Front-mounted microphones get better results. Top-mounted microphones tend to capture the voice of the person using the camera, and drown out everything else.

Buy an external microphone for the best sound. Factor in an extra $100 to $150 for an external microphone if you want the best sound possible. Of course, make sure your camcorder has a place for you to plug it in.

Try out the camera's controls before you buy. Sometimes the smallest camcorders can be difficult to use, especially if you have large hands. A larger model may work better for you if it's more comfortable to use. Some cameras, such as Sony's handycam range, utilise a touch screen interface that almost does away with buttons and directional sticks entirely. Make sure to check both interfaces out, as some people prefer one over the other.

Low-light options let you shoot in the dark. Many cameras offer an infrared light or long shutter mode to help you capture images in dark settings. Most dedicated Night Modes will continue to work in nearly complete darkness, but the footage will have little or no colour. Long shutter modes will usually shoot in colour, but at a vastly reduced frame rate, which can cause a severe strobing effect.