Videography for Photographers
What's the Current State of the Art?
Still photographers and videographers have an uneasy truce. There are a great many amateurs as well as working pros that shoot both, of course. But, among creative and fine art photographers video is a world apart. Film makers and videographers are to a greater extent versed in still photography, since it forms part of their craft, but usually focus on their primary passion – the moving image and story telling.
There is an interesting convergence taking place though that is being driven by the equipment makers. Increasingly video capture is being found in everything from mobile phones and PDAs to digicams. Also, the price of near-broadcast quality video gear has dropped to the point that cameras and editing systems that were the dream of creative film makers just a short while ago are now within reach of almost everyone. The Sony FX1, for example, the leading Hi-Definition prosumer video camera currently available, cost about the same as a Nikon D2x, and includes a high quality Zeiss zoom lens.
According to industry statistics there will be some six million video cameras sold in the USA during 2005. My guess is that the world-wide market is double that, if not more. Add to this the millions of digicams, PDAs and cell phones that also shoot video, and the numbers become truly staggering.
Ignoring all but the 12 million or so actual video cameras that will be sold, add these to the tens of millions that are already in use, and there are obviously quite a few people out there shooting video. Most are simply home movies – birthdays, holidays, vacations and the like. Many of course are being used to professionally shoot weddings, for industrial training applications, educational, and other professional assignments. But a vast number are being used by people like you and me – people who enjoy a creative outlet, and who have chosen video as a vehicle instead of (and sometimes along with) still photography.
With this all in mind, I have embarked on a small project to examine the current State of the Art in video film making equipment and techniques. No – the Luminous Landscape is not going video – but we have been involved in video production for quite some time, and so the addition of video topic coverage isn't wholly inappropriate. As regular readers know, for the past four years, together with veteran film-maker Chris Sanderson, I have been publishing a quarterly DVD-based magazine about still photography. Video is its medium, not the message, but video very much has been part of my professional life.
Chris has been an award-winning commercial director / cameraman / editor for more than 30 years. For the past four years he has been single-handedly producing our DVD magazine, each issue containing between two and three hours of content. We now (summer 2005) have published 12 issues. Chris has been a pioneer in the use of digital video camera gear and non-linear editing (NLE) software, including Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro, right from their beginnings though the latest HD versions. His background goes back to the days of physically cutting film, as I wrote; some 30 years worth of professional experience.
And what about me? I have been involved in video and film making for several decades. In the late '60s and early '70s I worked on staff at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a photographer, involved in productions that merged stills and video (pre Ken Burns), and then for several years did still photography for feature film productions. I was Product Manager for JVC Video in Canada for 3 years, and National Marketing Manager for Panasonic Industrial and Broadcast Video for 4 years. The first non-broadcast video cameras that I ever used weighed 15 pounds and was attached by cable to a "portable" VCR that weighed 25 pounds. Cost – over $25,000. (Complete camcorders can now weigh less than a single pound, fit in ones pocket and come with 10:1 zoom lenses).
But, I've never shot video "seriously" myself, and for roughly the past 5 years, during which Mini-DV has been dominant, my only involvement has been in front of the camera, not behind it. But I have been working closely with Chris in terms of the equipment that we have chosen for production of The Video Journal, which has included over the years a Canon XL1, a couple of Canon GL1s, and more recently a Sony HRV-Z1U and a Sony HDR-FX1. These latter two are Sony's latest High Definition cameras. Since January, 2005 we have been shooting all our content for The Video Journal in 1080i 16:9 format Hi-Def. More on this later.
Taking an effective photograph means telling a story in a single image. Through selection of subject, composition, focus, cropping and the like, the photographer selects those things that he or she wants to convey the meaning intended, or not. This is a demanding art as well as craft.
With film or video, motion pictures as they once were universally called, there is the added element of multiple viewpoints achieved through editing, as well as sound. A mood can be created. A complex story can be told. The viewers perceptions and emotions can be manipulated to achieve the creator's informational or emotional ends.
Not to start any unnecessary debates, but the creation of motion pictures is a much "richer" creative environment, because it calls upon multidisciplinary aspects of creativity – photography, editing, sound mixing, directing and more.
But, it also means that it can be very tough for a single individual to produce complex works. Someone like Chris Sanderson, with some 30 years of professional experience, can shoot, edit, mix and master a documentary style production like The Video Journal single handedly. But this is unusual, at least to the quality standard that we have set. Most comparable productions require two, or three, or more people with specialized talents to accomplish the same thing.
But, nevertheless, even those of us with lesser experience and talents can still find pleasure in producing short videos that can be creatively satisfying, and also even achieve wider recognition. There are festivals open to such productions, as well as some specialty TV channels, and I have seen some absolutely wonderful work done by single individuals using modest equipment. A fine example of this is Tom Mangelson, one of the finest wildlife photographers working today, who also produces excellent wildlife documentary features on film and video.
The point is that for some people video production can be a very satisfying adjunct to still photography, if not an actual alternative. And, with the new generation of high-definition equipment that has just become available this year at down to earth prices, the visual quality of what can be produced is nothing short of amazing. (Translated – even a medium-format aficionado like me can now find happiness with hi-def video. More on this as time passes).
Me Me Me
This site isn't a blog. But, it very much is a reflection of my personal interests. From traditional materials and techniques, through scanning, inkjet printing, Photoshop practice, and from the earliest digital SLRs to today's multi-megapixel-marvels, as my interests have expanded and changed so has my coverage, both in my writings for print magazines as well as this site.
My personal interest has now turned, in part, to video production, fueled largely by the appearance of affordable high-definition equipment. As Chris has been been shooting high-def for the past six months, I've marveled at the image quality. Regular DV has always seemed constrained to my eyes. Standard NTSC video (or PAL), simply hasn't had the picture quality to do more than convey content. Now, with Hi-Def, then medium also becomes the message (to crib once again from Marshall McLuhan).
So, as of July, 2005, I have purchased a Sony HC1 high-def camera for my own use, which joins our arsenal of the Sony HRV-Z1U and HDR-FX1, which Chris currently uses to produce the Video Journal.
Coming up, between September, 2005 and March, 2006 – just 7 months – I will be doing shoots and teaching workshops in Greece, Turkey, China, Antarctica, Spain, South Africa and Namibia. I'll be shooting with the latest 35mm and medium format digital equipment. But I'll also now be shooting video with the Sony HC1.
To what end? That isn't clear yet, even to me. But with more intensive international travel coming up during the next half year than ever before in my career, it's a golden opportunity to explore this new creative outlet. I'll keep you informed both here and on The Video Journal as to where this all leads.
The Current Scene
A comprehensive overview of current non-professional video equipment (let's say cameras under $6,000), would be a colossal undertaking. There are literally hundreds of camera models from all of the names that digital still photographers are used to seeing, and a few that they aren't. The market leaders though are Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon.
Mini DV is the mainstream, and has been since 1995 when the first Sony cameras were announced. The size is small, the quality is high, and the prices are now lower than ever. A competent DV camcorder can now be had for well under $750. There are still a few low-end analog video tape systems on the market, but their quality is poor, and there really is no reason to purchase one, either from the perspective of price or image quality.
Mini-DV has the advantage of ubiquity. Tapes are inexpensive, and a 60 minute tape can contain many Gigabytes of uncompressed data.
But tape is not without its drawbacks. Most serious users do not reuse tapes. They are recorded once, and then archived. But, even if they can be, and often are reused, there is always a concern about wear and breakage. Though the data they store is digital, tape itself is a mechanical medium, and oxide flakes, lubricants dry out, and errors can be made in using the wrong tape, or recording over previous material.
There are two alternatives though that are coming on strong. The first is recording directly to mini-DVD disks in camera. The second is recording to miniature hard disks.
I've now read enough and talked enough to people in the business to read the writing on the wall. And that writing says – tape is dying. Not dead yet, but it's on its way out.
The industry has accepted MPEG-2 compression for shooting with the introduction of HDV, which is the High Definition version of DV video. Cameras like the DV format (720X480) JVC MC500 use Microdrives for storage also using MPEG-2 compression. Feature films are being shot tapeless, as can be read about in this article.
It's my belief that recording to hard disk is the way that the industry will eventually go. And with devices like the Firestore FS-4, an I-Pod like device that records about 3 hours of standard definition DV to its 40 GB drive. Just plug it into your camera's Firewire socket and away you go. Goodbye tapes. There's even an HD version coming in Q3, 2005.
At the pro end this is exemplified by Panasonic's P2 technology, which puts a RAID array on something that looks like a PCMCIA card. On the amateur side JVC has adopted the use of 4GB Microdrives in their latest generation Everio cameras. In both cases the cameras encode their output directly to MPEG-2, which is the encoding format used by satellite broadcast TV, HDTV and DVD's.
My mini-review of the JVC MC500 is elsewhere on this site (coming soon). It is the latest generation of ultra-small 3-CCD video camera for the consumer market and it uses MPEG-2 compression to record to Microdrives and other fast CF and SD cards.
Photograph courtesy Image Enhancements
BUT – now that I've convinced you of how tape is on the way out, and disk and memory-based storage is the future, there is some realities to consider. Tape is inexpensive. A high quality "Pro" 60 minute DV tape (using cheap tapes is a stupid economy), costs about US $6.00. This is less than a Happy Meal and a newspaper. Not only is the information density high but their archival keeping qualities are as well. Chris has shot dozens upon dozens of Panasonic Mini-DV Master tapes over the past five years, and the number of drop-outs has been negligible, and reliability almost perfect. You can make multiple redundant copies of your finished opus for posterity, but the Terabytes of original footage that you'll shoot over the years can remain on tape.
When traveling, 5 tapes take up less room than a couple of decks of playing cards, cost less than a hard-covered book, yet hold as much as 65GB of compressed data. Not bad. As I wrote – not dead yet.
As you're no doubt aware the future of TV is high-definition. The number of HD channels available (especially on cable and satellite) grows monthly, and though the deadline has been extended by the FCC, standard definition NTSC broadcasting, in the US at least, will come to an end in not too many years. In Europe, where there is little government mandated move yet to HD, satellite broadcasters are just starting HD service.
While high definition TV continues its growth (20% of US homes as of July, 2005), up until recently consumer and non-professional videographers didn't have any real choices. In 2003 JVC introduced the first affordable HDV camera, the GR-HD1. It was in many ways a flawed product, but it pointed the way. This was followed in late 2004 and early 2005 by Sony, with their HRV-Z1U and HDR-FX1. These are essentially the same camera, but in Sony's traditional manner there is a consumer and a prosumer version, with the Z1U having niceties such as XLR audio connectors.
Photograph courtesy JVC
In the more affordable range, July 2005 saw the introduction by Sony of their HC1, a 1.5lb true high definition camera that retails in the US for under $2,000. The HC1, seen above, is going to be the wedge that opens the door to consumer HD video. The price is right, the size is right and the image quality is astonishing. I have purchased one for my own use, and will be reviewing the HC1 here in the near future.
Compared with the mature technology of DV, using an HD camera is not without its compromises, difficulties and pitfalls, and we'll look at some of these in detail further on. Note as well, that though the HC1 is that company's latest and greatest, and has only been available for one week as this is being written in mid-July, Sony has already announced on their Japanese web site the A1, which will be a more professionally speced version of this same camera. It will be available in September, and will cost about $1,000 more than the HC1. It will come with an XLR audio connector component, and the usual additional upgrades, though image quality is likely to be identical to the HC1.
Shooting High Definition
While DV records 840MB / minute, uncompressed, HD needs 9.6GB / minute uncompressed. That's right – almost 10 Gig per minute of footage shot. That's why HD needs to use MPEG-2 compression technology. Anyone who has watched enough HD knows that there are compromises that can be seen. These include various forms of artifacting, including so-called mosquito noise and quilting. But, MPEG-2 does allow us to compress the huge bandwidth required for HD down to something that can be recorded, edited and distributed, so we must learn to live with its failings, at least till something better comes along.
This brings up the issue of disk storage. Even traditional compressed DV needs 12 GB per hour, while compressed HDV requires 46GB / Hour. So if you come back from a vacation with 4 or 5 hours of footage, be prepared to need a 250GB drive to store all of this data. Kind of makes shoots from even the largest digital still images seem small in size by comparison.
But of course, most people don't "capture" all of their footage. The most sensible way of handling this is to only transfer from tape to hard disk those clips that are actually needed for your eventual use. This means having to sit and review and "log" all of the footage that you shoot, somewhat more onerous than reviewing thumbnail images of your stills, because this needs to be done in real-time. Five hours of footage takes at least 5 hours of logging and review. Then, the actual capture will need to be done in real-time as well, so do plan on spending more time sorting out your video than you ever did your still images.
The same applies to editing. Working on a single photograph in Photoshop can be the work of minutes, or sometimes even hours. But editing video, even a simple family vacation, can be the work of days. These will be enjoyable days, no doubt, but never underestimate how much time editing and sound mixing even the smallest video project will be.
Every Macintosh computer now comes with iMovie HD and iDVD. These are really fine beginner's tools for editing DV video and creating DVD's of final content, along with attractive menu structures. The first time I used iMovie I was able to edit a pleasant little video of a family gathering without even opening the manual or looking at the help screens. It's that simple and intuitively designed. iDVD is another matter. It's very competent, but a bit of time with the manual will pay dividends.
Note that in 2005 IMovie was upgrade to iMovie HD. Yes, even simply little iMovie can now edit HDV video footage, shot with one of the Sony cameras (and others soon, I'm sure), since HDV is a standard adopted in 2001 by all of the major camera makers. The fly in the ointment is that there is no way currently (summer 2005) to put HD content on disk with full 1080i image quality. More on this in a moment.
Windows PC owners are not left out, because Windows XP computers now comes with Microsoft's Movie Maker 2, though without HD support at this time.
These free programs provide the budding video film maker with just about everything needed to become familiar with what computer-based non-linear editing is all about. At the high end are programs like Apple's Final Cut Pro. In between are literally dozens of programs in the $65 – $149 range, many of which are quite competent for newcomers. In addition there is software that one can use for more advanced audio mixing and title creation, as well as programs of varying complexity and different price levels for DVD creation.
Possibly the most highly regarded non-linear editing program (NLE) is Apple's Final Cut Pro. It is a Mac only program, but many PC owners have been known to switch to Macs just so that they can use it. Adobe's Premiere Pro and Avid Express are available on the PC, and each is very well regarded. (A free scaled down version of Avid for both Macs and PCs is available as a try-out). One little-known, but reportedly powerful NLE for Windows users is Sony Vegas 6.0, which is also fully HD compatible.
But if you talk to videographers, editors, film students and industrial video producers you'll find that Final Cut Pro is the class of the industry, with more user groups, training videos, books and other training resources than any other program. It's similar to the dominant position that Photoshop has in the still imaging world. It's the 800 pound gorilla of NLE.
And, just to give you an idea of how mature NLE has become, you might find it fascinating to read Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema. Cold Mountain was an $80 Million feature film, and the first to be solely edited with FCP. A fascinating read.
What needs to be understood about NLE is that it is nondestructive. What is meant by this is that when editing you are not touching your original footage. You take video clips and organize them they way you want them to appear, with the length of time that they are seen, and the effects that happen between them. But the program doesn't actually do anything to your footage other than to note where on each piece of video you want to start and where you want to stop. In other words, an edit is simply a table that says – take these few seconds and put them before those other few seconds of footage, and then do a dissolve lasting 2 seconds between them. No footage is actually cut, spliced, deleted or added – just a list of instructions is created. Then, when you're ready to create footage for distribution, be it an online Quicktime movie or to burn a DVD, the program assembles everything, including your sound mix, and produces an appropriate file for the purpose.
For the non-professional I recommend Final Cut Express HD. This is a $300 program (FCP is about $1,000), that has 90% of its big brother's capability for less than a third of the price. And for most non-professional users the things that have been left out of Express may not be of much importance. Most of the power features are there. One of the "bargains" of the computer world. But, just as with Photoshop Elements, once you've started the long climb up the Final Cut learning curve, and your needs become more sophisticated, you may quickly find that you're only really happy with the full version.
The Blu Ray of Confusion
As I mentioned in the section above, while there are now inexpensive HD cameras and editing software, there is currently no way to create a DVD with true HD content. High definition DVD players and recorders, along with HD format Hollywood movies, have been promised by late 2005, but as frequently happens in the electronics industry, there is a standards battle shaping up. There are two contenders, Blu Ray and HD-DVD. Each has about half the electronics companies and half the movie studios behind them. Blu Ray appears to be the more advanced technology, but HD-DVD is simpler and less expensive to produce. In early 2005 there were talks going on to try and bridge the gap between these two camps, but as this is being written these talks appear to have failed. It's therefore hard to say what is going to happen. Lots of corporate egos and billions of future dollars are involved, so what's going to happen is anyone's guess.
For those that are subscribers to The Luminous Landscape Video Journal you will likely be aware that we have been shooting new content for the Video Journal in 1080i High Definition since January, 2005, when we got our first Sony HD camera. This footage is being reduced to standard SD format and released on regular DVD's for the moment. But all of this original HD footage is archived, and in 2006 when there is (hopefully) a High Definition DVD disc standard available we will begin releasing in that format.
The point is – don't let the lack of high-def DVD's stand in your way of getting into shooting and editing HD today. You can view your HD footage on an appropriate monitor, and produce SD format DVD's. You just can't yet produce your own HD DVD's.
Two Current Cameras
I have recently been shooting video with two very different cameras. Each is brand new, having come to market in July of 2005. The JVC is the smallest and lightest 3-CCD standard definition DV camera available. What also sets it apart is that it doesn't use tape, rather using CF or SD memory cards, the same type as you use in your digicam or DSLR.
As pointed out earlier in this article, videotape is going the way of film. It may soon be history. And with the JVC MC500 video shooters have an opportunity to find out why.
The second camera is the Sony HC1, the smallest and lightest true HD camera on the market. It still uses DV videotape, but both cameras record in MPEG-2 format.
Why these two? As I wrote, there are literally dozens of video cameras on the market, and the choices of which ones are best for any user aren't easy. These are the two that appealed to me for various personal and technical reasons. When you investigate the market, as I suggest you do if getting involved with video appeals to you, you may make other choices.
These reviews are both now online.
A reader sent along the following link about using a Canon 1Ds
and Final Cut Pro
to produce a new animated feature film by Tim Burton, called Corpse Bride,
scheduled for release on September 23, 2005. Fascinating reading.