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DIGITAL CAMCORDERS

Digital camcorders come in more formats than ever today, from D-8, using High-8 tapes, and playing back the analogue versions (usually) to miniDV, to DVD recorders, writing to disk or memory, to HDV, only recently introduced at anything approaching a consumer price point. Generally, the line is still drawn between one and three-chip models. With one charge couple device per colour (red, blue, green) the 3-CCD camcorders (like my beloved Sony VX2000) are a step above and many dollars more than their single chip relations. In 2003 choices expanded to include widescreen, HD (high definition) and 24p (film-like frame rate), each option requiring special attention of the prospective buyer to avoid being surprised by what else you have to buy (new editing software, new TV set, for example) to get the results you expected. To learn more about the DV format this is an excellent read.

One versus Three CCDs
Unless you can afford the best regardless of need, the choice of a single versus three-CCD camcorder will probably be made on the basis of your objectives. If you want good quality home videos you can edit on a PC or Mac virtually all of today's D8 and MiniDV camcorders provide excellent results from properly exposed and lit subject matter. But when you take your single CCD camcorder up the mountain to shoot the valley below you may be disappointed that the results aren't as sharp and detailed as you are accustomed to seeing in the travelogues and nature shows on television.

If you own a digital still camera you already know that a 3 megapixel camera does a better job with "big" subjects than the one megapixel variety. The more digital information there is to process the more horsepower you need to capture detail and keep colours separate, distinct and bright. Camcorders are the same. That distant line of rolling, wooded hillside dotted with homes and vineyards can overwhelm a single CCD (and the lens quality it comes with) where the three CCD model (and its larger, better lens) can capture more detail and separate colour changes more readily. Sony 3-CCD VX2000

While I was generally satisfied with my single-CCD D8 model (Sony TRV 525 NTSC - 37 mm lens diameter) I missed the "capacity" of three CCDs shooting the Portuguese countryside during a trip in the Fall of 2001. Since buying the Sony VX2000 in early 2002 I have been learning to use the many more professional features available. That said, the quality of 1-CCD camcorders is probably more than sufficient for anyone who doesn't plan to earn money with a camera. But you do have to be more careful with them indoors, because they like a lot of light. The VX2000 practically sees in the dark, and I'm not talking about a ghostly night shot setting. It does it in colour, thanks to lens size, and its multiple larger, sensitive chips. In the Snug Harbour video there are a couple of scenes of bears hunting for salmon. I literally couldn't find the bear in the trees with my naked eye, but the camera could and did, using the manual exposure settings.

Help in Picking a Camcorder
For those of you camcorder shopping in late 2005, Videomaker Magazine has an article you'll want to read. There's a link to their latest buyer's guide as well, and it includes editing software choices, DVD authoring apps and much more. If you're been wrestling too long with what camcorder to buy, you might want to read a January 2004 forum thread from someone with the same problem. It includes his post, my reply and his opinion of it, which happily was quite receptive. To keep it short I omitted two other posts in the thread, which will explain his reference to replies you won't see. You can view them HERE.

Another consideration in deciding on a format has to do with the capture and editing processes in non-linear editing systems. When you set up to capture clips into your PC the editing software takes control of the camcorder, allowing you to run the tape back and forth using mouse or keyboard commands on a virtual tape deck console on your monitor. If you do a lot of capture and editing the tape deck in your camcorder gets a lot more work than it would simply shooting and playing back the odd scene in the viewfinder or LCD screen. With Mini DV you have (expensive) choices in dedicated decks that accept the tape and do the shuttling in response to PC commands. In D8 only Sony makes such a device. If, after you've chosen a Digital 8 camcorder and fallen in love with desktop video, you want to upgrade to a 3-CCD model, you may be able to use your "old" D8 camera as a VTR, transferring your MiniDV footage to the D8 via firewire, then using the D8 as an editing deck. Of course, if your first camera is/was miniDV you can do the same thing without changing tape format. This saves wear and tear on your new camcorder, keeps it free of the PC connection so it's always ready to shoot, and provides perfect digital files for the editing process - there is no loss of quality transferring from digital to digital. This works best for short pieces using clips from one tape. When you have a lot of source material it is time-consuming to transfer from miniDV to D-8. After four years of owning both formats I find I sometimes use the D-8 to archive finished work, but do my editing with the VX2000 as the deck. As an enthusiast, I don't put that many hours on the unit, either shooting or editing.

Camcorder Features
Today's digital camcorders have a bewildering array of features.There are only a few, however, that you won't want to live without. Your camcorder choice should have an external microphone jack, external headphone jack, and manual focus and exposure options. A manual white balance is desireable, but not essential if you aren't selling your work. Two other features you might keep in mind are the ability to shoot 16:9 (widescreen) and the progressive scan option, which is handy for content intended for the desktop, or to pull good stills out of video footage. To complicate matters, progressive scan comes in 15, 24 and 30 frames per second (25 in PAL models). Likewise, your camcorder selection may advertise 16:9 but people in the know suggest you get your widescreen effects with your editing software or 3rd party software designed for the purpose. Inexpensive 16:9 options are not the same as true anamorphic wide screen, which requires the use of a lens adapter that costs as much as some camcorders.

Among the websites helpful to the camcorder shopper What's the best camcorder? is a good one, but up for sale as of May 2005. At ZD Net there's a digital video link (Digital photo & video) to informative and current articles. Another Camcorder's Guide offers a decision-maker which walks you through a list of questions about features/issues most significant to you and then offers alternative camcorders meeting your profile.

Learning to Shoot
I have ignored since bringing up this site the issue of actually learning to shoot better video, regardless of the camcorder you choose. While browsing the Videomaker Forums page I came across a site recommendation which contains some very good material on the subject, and on much else of interest to folks like us. Here's the direct link to the shooting tips area.
Despite the Canon XL-1 that greets you at betterdigitalvideo.com, the site's top ten hints for videographers focus on editing in the camera. Introductory video courses often include discussion of analogue editing options, and in-camera editing is covered. As I considered this entry I found I wasn't sure whether or not practising in-camera editing was a good thing for someone editing DV in a PC or MAC. It's probably great practise for a shooter, in terms of disciplined shot-making, but for an editor it must provide too little with which to work. Well worth visiting and reading!
And speaking of shooting tips, USE A TRIPOD. Absolutely nothing will dissapoint you more than discovering that what you expected to be great footage looks like it was shot during an earthquake. At risk of belabouring the point, once you're on a tripod make sure the camera is level, unless you're making a "Land of Slanted Lakes" piece.
Despite what you might read, steadyshot (electronic or optical) will NOT remove camera shake to the extent you want to believe. Even high-end optical IS, while much better than electronic, can't simulate a properly supported camera.
Finally, for now, comes a site I discovered in March of 2003 and find hard to categorize, but easy to appreciate. Christina Fox is a camerawoman (her term) in the UK who, among other things, trains network personnel on cameras like the VX2000 and PD150. Her site has great images illustrating what gain is and looks like, what white balance options exist, with images illustrating results, and practical tips on shooting interviews, shooting yourself and much more. If it seems beyond you right now, make sure to go back when you feel more confident.

What About Tape?
Once you own a digital camcorder you'll begin to wonder about the choices in tape. The D-8 format will use anything from low grade 8mm tape to high end metal evaporated tape. According to Henry's Cameras in Toronto, Sony tells them that the quality of image capture is unaffected by the grade of tape you use. The info on the back of some tape packaging describing increased image quality with each move up the price spectrum applies only to shooting analog video to 8 mm tape. On the other hand, Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine (Dec. 2001) claims in a review that Hitachi recommends ME tape for their D8 camcorders. In a D8 camcorder the tape records a binary file (1's and 0's). Better quality tape extends tape life and minimizes the likelihood of drop-outs (particles coming unstuck from the tape medium) threatening the readability of parts of the digital file. According to Hitachi, it also improves resolution and colour capture.

All Mini-DV tape is ME. (Perhaps that says something about whether or not tape grade affects capture quality.) Metal Evaporated is less robust that Metal Particle, tends to shed particles moreso than MP and demands that MiniDV camcorder owners pay attention to cleaning the heads regularly. The shortcourses.com web site has an interesting illustrated segment on miniDV tape. After a couple of years visiting video forums I'd make two points on tape. Whatever you choose stick with it. Tape makers use different lubricants and switching back and forth can gunk up your heads. Use a cleaning tape monthly if you shoot regularly and follow directions - it's mildly abrasive itself so short duration contact is important.

A good fact sheet on tape types, and particularly the nature and care of MiniDV tape is available from High Tech Productions. They also provide good links and some downloads, including the old test pattern images and a colour bar image you can drag into your desktop editing arsenal. You'll find a lengthy article on preserving and archiving tape at Video Experts, along with a ton of other info for videographers.

Recording Audio
After you've moved from your on-board mic to one that plugs into your mic-in jack you can begin to have fun with things like fake newscasts from places you visit on vacation, or video letters to family and friends wherein you want the camera some distance from you. Unless you have a high-end camcorder your mic input is 1/8th inch stereo. I wondered for many months what advantage there would be in purchasing an XLR adapter, aside from being able to input two mics at the same time. Then I ran into a BeachTek rep at a meeting and had the chance to ask. First off, XLR stands for "ground -left-right" - a three wire arrangement versus the two in cheaper microphones (like all of mine!). I'm no engineer but as he explained it, the adapter shifts the phase of the signals in the L and R inputs. Without the phase shift a twenty foot microphone cord functions like a radio antenna, attracting all kinds of frequency noise from the immediate enviroment. With the phase shift this goes away, leaving you a clean audio signal. Of course, as an added bonus, using two mics in the adapter you can separately control the gain for each, wearing headphones, which you should always do with external microphones. Another advantage of a device like this one is the ability to connect to a mixer or other audio board, to record a concert or conference - or to take advantage of a variety of wireless microphone units. Click here for a picture and description of the BeachTek unit I use.

Advice About Accessories on a Budget.
After four years and two camcorders I've learned a few things about selecting accessories. To my mind there are two kinds - those that affect what you see and hear, and those that don't. An external microphone, wide angle lens, filter kit, lens cleaner, fluid tripod head, light kit and so on affect what you see in your finished work. Camera/tripod bags, rain covers and tape storage boxes do not. Generally, my approach has become one of putting on my wish list any great accessory I come upon, and moving to my gift list any that don't affect what I see and hear. I bought myself a Canon WD-58 wide angle lens (for the VX2000) one Christmas. I let friends and family get me a tripod bag, a miniDV tape rewinder and a USB dual-card reader for transferring stills from my digital cameras. For me it's the best of both worlds, until I win the lottery. If you can't afford everything you want right away, try analysing each prospective purchase based on whether or not it will improve the finished product. You can keep misty rain off with a towel but you can't widen your view without a lens.

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