Monday, August 04, 2008

Video Cameras Getting Better and Less Expensive

Since I work for a TV station I have never been a real fan of consumer quality video cameras and editing systems. Since they first became available in the 80s, I’ve always found the quality of the final product to be lacking. Even well into the 90s the cameras were not very good. Because at work I was always surrounded by high end, and high priced cameras that provided great video, I was spoiled. Even the best of the consumer grade cameras left me unimpressed.

This has changed big time. The current models aimed at the consumer market are nothing less than amazing. They are small, easy to use, and more important; they will render very high quality pictures and sound. There are some models that will come close to recording video as good as we use in the broadcast industry. Many are able to record high definition video. And good news, prices have dropped.

These video cameras come in many “flavors” each with a host of features and capabilities. This week and next I will try to provide some pointers on what each type offers so you can compare what you need with what is available.

Let’s start with the recording media itself. In other words how does the camera store the video that you are shooting. There are four basic types. Each type has pros and cons.

Many of the most popular cameras are still tape based. Many use DV tapes. These inexpensive digital tapes are smaller than the older analog 8mm or Hi 8 format tapes and much smaller than the “ancient” VHS tapes. Unlike the former, DV tapes store the video images in digital form. This allows for very high quality images and sound. The tapes do require a motorized system and as a result these cameras consume a bit more electricity than some of the others. This results in shorter battery life. Also there are many mechanical systems and many moving parts in the tape transport mechanism. This can be prone to damage from dirt and sand.

A newer technology is based on DVD storage. Although smaller in size than your regular 4.5 inch DVD, the technology is about the same. The images are stored in digital form on a mini DVD disc and can be played out from the camera or imported into your computer for editing. Again, the DVD drive uses an electric motor but it consumes less energy than the tape based cameras. While the disc reading mechanism has some moving parts, it is much less complex than the tape based systems. You can easily transfer the videos to a computer for editing or play them on a DVD player

The third type of storage is based on “hard drive” technology. Just like the hard drive in your computer or some MP3 players, the images and sound are stored on computer disc. Unlike the hard drive in your computer, these are sealed mechanisms and specially designed for rough handling. They are a permanent part of the camera, so when you have filled it up, you need to transfer the video files to another media before shooting more.

Finally there are cameras that use flash memory. There are no moving parts as the video is recorded onto memory cards just like many digital still cameras. When the card is full you replace it with another. The cards can be inserted into a PC or MAC and you can transfer the video for playback or editing. There are very few moving parts and power consumption is low.

More next week about lens optics and controls

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