Getting started in HD video, part 1

Everything you always wanted to know about HD video (but were afraid to ask).
  • Chris Jager (Good Gear Guide)
  • 23 February, 2009 17:30

Guide to HD.

These days, most people are pretty serious about digital video, whether they realise it or not. With new technology entering the marketplace — and camcorder prices constantly sliding — the archaic embarrassment of the ‘VHS-cam’ has become a thing of the past.

Whether you’re chronicling an overseas holiday for future posterity, or producing a Tropfest short in the hope of fame and fortune, there’s one thing we camcorder owners all share in common: the desire to make our videos look the best they possibly can. This is where high-definition enters the picture (and what a pretty picture it is!) Offering sharper image quality, richer colours and higher overall production values, it really is an essential upgrade for any self-respecting videographer.

Over the following weeks we’ll take you through all the essentials of high-def video; from choosing the right camcorder format, to building a non-linear edit suite. If you’re sick of living in the terminally beige world of standard-definition, this handy multi-part guide should deliver all the information you need. So without any further ado, let’s don a pair of reflective shades and step into the HD kaleidoscope!

HD 101: High-Definition Explained

HD video cameras have been around for quite a while now — over two decades in fact — but it’s only been in the past few years that they’ve become a viable option for consumers. The first commercially available models were huge and unwieldy things that could cost upwards of $5000. Most of them used a high-def version of the MiniDV format and stuck to digital tape. Since then, the options in the HD market have exploded to include a wide variety of competing formats and video codecs; we will look at each of them in turn. But before we do that, let’s talk about the concept of ‘HD’ itself. What does it mean? How does it work? And why do we need it?

Guide to HD.

An early HD-capable video camera.

‘HD video’ is a somewhat vague technical specification that encompasses anything above ‘standard’ definition (i.e. 576 lines of pixels in PAL territories). The two most common display resolutions found in HD camcorders are 720p (1280x720 pixels) and 1080i (1920x1080 pixels). As the numbers attest, the amount of pixels on screen is considerably higher than standard-definition (SD) video, which translates to sharper and more colourful footage.

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Guide to HD.

Guide to HD.

HD vs. SD. Note the image noise and dank colours in the standard-def image.

The advantage of high-definition video over SD should be immediately obvious. It offers clearer pictures, more vibrant colours, superior sound quality and features unique to the HD format. Indeed, so sharp is the picture quality that it initially sent shockwaves through the porn industry, due to the crystal-clear depictions of shaving rashes, surgery scars and cellulite. Of course, the upside to all this gritty realism is that your videos will look as true-to-life as possible.

Guide to HD.

Jenna Jameson in standard-def: still frightening, but considerably less so.

While previously very expensive, it is now possible to own an entry-level HD camcorder for around $1000. Some models, such as the Samsung VP-HMX10 (XSA), are actually cheaper than top-of-the-range standard-def camcorders. With prices continually dropping there has never been a better time to invest in the HD boom.

AVCHD vs. HDV

Currently, there are two main high-definition video formats vying for space in the HD consumer market. These are HDV — which came out in 2004 and uses the same MiniDV tapes as its standard-def predecessor — and AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition), a newer format that comes in a variety of recording formats, including DVD, hard disk and removable flash memory.

Guide to HD.

AVCHD is an advanced MPEG-4 based video codec originally developed by Sony. It is more efficient at storing high-def video than HDV, thanks to its higher compression rates. This also makes it significantly faster at transferring data from your camcorder to a computer. While once considered a nightmare to edit with, AVCHD now offers a considerably smoother ride thanks to advancements in computer technology and increased software support. Currently, all major camcorder manufactures support some form of AVCHD technology, including Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Sharp, Samsung and JVC. AVCHD will appeal to casual users and those who prefer the convenience of inbuilt hard drives and/or flash memory.

Guide to HD.

HDV is an older MPEG2-based codec developed by Sony and JVC. Designed to offer existing video users a cost-effective upgrade path, it uses similar technology to standard-def MiniDV camcorders (including an identical tape format). Having been around for several generations, HDV has had plenty of time to improve and be refined. Consequently, it is generally considered to offer superior picture quality over its AVCHD rival. (Though the latest generation of AVHC camcorders have somewhat lessened the gap.) HDV will mainly appeal to existing videographers who feel more comfortable with the MiniDV tape format.

What about ‘Full HD’?

Some of the latest high-def camcorders offer a 1080 ‘progressive’ mode, otherwise known as Full HD. This is basically a marketing term used to differentiate it from lesser HD modes. Instead of using an interlaced signal, which divides each frame into two fields, 1080p records video as an entire frame.

Guide to HD.

Products that offer a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels commonly display a ‘Full HD’ sticker.

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Step 1: Choosing a camcorder

As we have already discussed, HD camcorders come in a variety of recording formats, each with its own distinct advantages and drawbacks.

HDV (MiniDV)

Guide to HD.

MiniDV is the oldest and most widely supported format of digital video.

Tape-based camcorders are the oldest form of high-definition video. While support for HDV is beginning to wane, the recording format isn’t going anywhere — with a huge preinstalled customer base going back to the mid-'90s, MiniDV will continue to be manufactured for many years to come. (Indeed, some supermarkets still stock analog tapes for the Super8 format, which has been effectively dead for years.) This makes HDV a solid investment despite its reliance on ‘old’ technology.

Examples of HDV camcorders:

1. Canon HV30 (RRP: $1699) — “The Canon HV30 is a superior high-def camcorder that offers exceptional value for money. If you can get over your anti-tape prejudice and embrace MiniDV, this model will deliver on every level.”

Guide to HD.

Canon HV30.

2. Sony HDR-FX7 (RRP: $5299) — “If you're an indie filmmaker with a medium-sized budget on your hands, you could do a lot worse than this consumer/professional hybrid camera..”

Guide to HD.

Sony HDR-FX7.

3. Canon XH-A1 (RRP: $6499) — “Falling somewhere between the professional and high-end consumer markets, the XH-A1 is an outstanding high-definition camera that should suit anyone who is career minded about video.

Guide to HD.

Canon XH-1.

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DVD/Blu-ray camcorders

Guide to HD.

High-def DVD camcorder with 8cm disc.

DVD/Blu-ray camcorders are a popular choice for entry-level users due to their familiarity and ease of use. Most camcorder manufacturers offer at least one high-def DVD model in their current line-up. As the name of the format implies, DVD camcorders record video directly to 8cm discs which can then be played on your Blu-ray player or a HD-capable optical drive. This makes them a convenient choice if you want to quickly enjoy your high-def movies with a minimum of fuss (i.e. there's no need to muck around with cables or computers).

Guide to HD.

One disadvantage of Blu-ray camcorders is that they are not suited to extensive editing. While it is possible to transfer the footage to a computer, it can be a complicated process and the video quality often suffers in the conversion. Naturally, you’ll also need to buy yourself a Blu-ray player as the AVCHD format won’t run in a regular DVD player.

Examples of high-def DVD camcorders:

1. Sony HDR-UX20 (RRP: $1599) — “Sony's HDR-UX20 delivers reasonable high-def visuals for the asking price, but some of the issues that plague DVD camcorders remain unchecked.”

Guide to HD.

Sony HDR-UX20.

2. Canon HR10 (RRP: $2099) — “The Canon HR10 is a decent enough DVD camera, offering impressive high-def visuals at a relatively affordable price. However, there are several competing models on the market which offer a superior performance.”

Guide to HD.

Canon HR10.

3. Panasonic HDC-SX5 {RRP: $1700) — “Despite being soundly beaten with the ugly stick, this is a quality piece of hardware capable of capturing beautiful high-def video. If you can get past the bulky design, you won't be disappointed.”

Guide to HD.

Panasonic HDC-SX5.

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Hard-drive (HDD) camcorders

Guide to HD.

An early HDD camcorder model.

HDD camcorders utilise small, non-removable hard drives to store and record high-def media. Currently, hard disk–based camcorders are the fastest and best-selling format in the AVCHD market, although removable flash memory models are also gaining in popularity.

Hard disk–based camcorders offer anywhere between 12GB and 120GB of inbuilt storage space, depending on the cost of the device. One of the obvious advantages of HDD camcorders is that you don't need to carry around recordable media, such as tapes or DVDs. Not only is this more cost-effective, but it also makes them more user-friendly for beginners (all you need to do is turn the camera on and shoot).

One disadvantage of the HDD format is that you’re stuck with the storage space you pay for (with the exception of additional memory cards). Plus, if you happen to break your camera, any footage stored on the hard drive could be gone forever. If you haven't recently backed up your footage, this could result in hours of lost memories.

Bear in mind that HDD stands for 'hard disk drive', not 'high-definition'. Many HDD camcorders record in standard-def, so make sure the model you’re looking at is HD-capable.

Examples of HDD high-def camcorders:

1. JVC Everio GZ-HD6 (RRP: $2199) — “The Everio GZ-HD6 is a solid HDD camcorder that can match most high-def cameras when it comes to picture quality.”

Guide to HD.

JVC Everio GZ-HD6.

2. Sony HDR-SR12 E (RRP: $1299) — “The HDR-SR12E may be a little more expensive than most of its rivals, but it represents a bargain nonetheless. It ticks all the major boxes that make a great camcorder; including superb image quality and ease-of-use.”

Guide to HD.

Sony HDR-SR12E.

3. Canon HG10 (RRP: $2199) — “A great all-round camera, the HG10 is streamlined towards delivering high quality video in ideal conditions. The lack of manual controls may frustrate advanced users, however most will find it to be an excellent camcorder.”

Guide to HD.

Canon HG10.

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Removable flash memory–based camcorders

Removable flash memory is currently the 'new black' of the camcorder industry, with all major vendors supporting a high-def version of this format. Its benefits over digital tape and DVD are numerous, including the ability to hot-swap between camera and computer, less power consumption (and thus longer battery life), sound-free operation and compact camcorder sizes. Indeed, the smallest high-def camcorders on the market all adhere to the flash memory format. This makes them a good option for frequent shooters.

Guide to HD.

Flash-based camcorders are generally smaller than their HDD/DVD counterparts.

Removable flash memory comes in a variety of different ‘flavours’, depending on the camcorder manufacturer at hand. The main types are SD/SDHC (used by Canon and Panasonic), Micro-SD (JVC) and Memory Stick (Sony). They all basically do the same thing, although SDHC cards are more widely supported.

Guide to HD.

SD/SDHC is the most widely supported memory card format.

Examples of removable flash memory-based high-def camcorders:

1. Panasonic HDC-SD9 (RRP: $1869) — “The HDC-SD9 is an evolutionary upgrade of the SD5. While the majority of changes are arguably minor, they combine to lift the camcorder head-and-shoulders above its predecessor, not to mention the majority of competitors.”

Guide to HD.

Panasonic HDC-SD9.

2. Sony HDR-TG1 (RRP: $1599) — “The HDR-TG1 is the smallest HD camcorder we've ever reviewed. To a certain extent, its portability comes at the expense of video quality. However, it still offers an impressive performance across the board. Enthusiastically recommended.”

Guide to HD.

Sony HDR-TG1

3. Canon HF10 ($1699) — “For an AVCHD removable flash memory camcorder, the HF10 is close to flawless. It offers superior video performance, better build quality and more modes and features than any of its high-def rivals. Highly recommended.”

Guide to HD.

Canon HF10.

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Hybrid high-def camcorders

The hybrid format refers to any camcorder that is compatible with more than one type of recordable media. Typically, this will be a combination of an inbuilt hard drive and a memory card slot, such as SDHC. One of the most versatile hybrid camcorders we've looked at is the Sony HDR-UX20 . This camcorder lets you record high-def video to DVD, Memory Stick, or its inbuilt 8GB hard drive.

Guide to HD.

Close-up detail of a Memory Stick slot.

These days, almost every HD camcorder on the market can be viewed as a hybrid, with the exception of some HVD models.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some essential accessories your high-def camcorder requires, as well as tips on building a non-linear edit suite.