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Understanding Video

A Video Primer for Photographers


RED Scarlet Prototype
(Coming in 2009)

The world of image recording seems to consist of two isolated realities – video and still photography. Though they are similar in many ways they are worlds apart in others. But these seemingly irreconcilable worlds are converging, and I have already written on these pages about this convergence. Nikon's announcement of the D90 in late August – the world's first DSLR with video capability – just confirms that the worlds of still photography and video are on an inevitable collision course – at last insofar as equipment goes.

This page is designed for photographers who know little or nothing about the current world of digital video. It is intended to explain some of the consumer grade equipment currently (mid-2008) available, the technology used, where the industry appears to be heading, and some basics about the differences between recording still and moving images.

People with knowledge of video equipment and production techniques should note that this report is intended for newcomers, and therefore is neither comprehensive regarding equipment nor in terms of discussing high-end codecs and recording options.

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A Personal Note

Though I am and have been a photographer most of my life, involvement with film and video have also played an important professional and personal role. I have worked as a still photographer for the motion picture industry and also for broadcast TV, having been on staff at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for some nine years. In the '70s I was product manager for industrial and broadcast video products at Panasonic Canada, and for the past ten years have been involved, together with my Luminous Landscape business partner Chris Sanderson with the production of an extensive range of educational and training videos.

All of this has given me an appreciation for both the synergies as well as the differences between video and photography, as both an art and a craft. I claim no great skill as a videographer (I'm actually quite an amateur at it), but it fascinates me, and with convergence coming (at least at the equipment level) I will attempt here to share some of what I know about current amateur and semi-pro (so-called Indy) video production and equipment.

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Video Formats and Standards

Like all digital based technologies video has been going through some dramatic transitions in recent years, and the pace seems not to be slackening. At home we have seen the transition from CRT based televisions to flat LCD and plasma screens. We also are in the final days of transitioning to digital TV (at least in North America), with analog TV broadcasting going off the air in early 2009 in the US.

This year has also seen the emergence of Blu-Ray as the last man standing in the high definition disc wars, and also dramatic drops in the pricing of large screen LCD TVs.

But before looking at video equipment we need to understand some of the blizzard of buzzwords and jargon that surrounds contemporary TV and consumer video. The first of these has to do with HD (High Definition) standards.

720P / 1080i / 1080P

HD is not just one standard; it's many. The numbers 720 and 1080 refer to the vertical resolution (the number of horizontal lines on screen); either 720 lines or 1080 lines. Along with 720 vertical lines one gets a width of 1280 pixels, while the 1080 standard provides 1920 horizontal pixels of resolution.

Put another way, the 720 standard creates images that have 720 X 1280 = 921,600 pixel of overall resolution, while 1080 X 1920 provides 2,073,600 pixels of resolution. Less than 1 million vs over two million. Seems like a no brainer. Well, not quite. There's more to the story, and that's the "p" and the "i" that are appended to the numbers.

Back in the days of analog TV and CRT displays (just yesterday in fact) images were formed on the screen by having an electron gun sweep back and forth across the face of the picture tube. At least 50 images per second on the CRT were needed. However, the bandwidth to transmit a 50fps or 60fps image was just too much for the times. Things were therefore designed so that the gun would "paint" the image on the screen twice for each frame – first the odd numbered lines, then the even numbered lines. Each pass was called a "field" and two fields made a frame. This is called interlaced TV, and is what the "i" in 1080i stands for. Interlace is therefore an analogue compression scheme that allows the motion of 60fps to be transmitted in the same bandwidth as 30fps. All analogue TV broadcasting is interlaced.

Because of something called the "persistence of vision" (the human eye hangs onto what it sees for a small while) these two fields merge in our brains. Incidentally, it's this persistence of vision that allows us to see a 24 frame per second movie as continuous motion rather than a series of flickering still images.

But our computer screens, digital HD TV, and all LCD and plasma screens don't use interlacing. This is old tech. Instead they use what is known as progressive scan, which is what the "p"in 720p and 1080p stands for. We get the full frame all at once, rather than 50% (a field) at a time.

For static shots, or ones with little rapid motion of camera or subject, there's no great advantage to progressive over interlaced, and since 1080 provides twice the apparent resolution of 720 most people should find it preferable.

But (and it's a big "but") when there's fast camera or subject motion an interlaced image tends to blur. The subject moves between fields, and even when the camera is shooting at a high shutter speed, this leads to unpleasant blurring.

This is the reason why there are two broadcast standards for HD TV in North America; 720P and 1080i. ABC, ESPN and FOX television, which do a lot of sports coverage, have gone with 720P, based on their testing – which shows that even on a large screen the increased clarity of 720p's progressive scan trumps the increased resolution of 1080i. NBC and CBS have gone with 1080i. There is no broadcast 1080P because it would simply use too much over-the-air bandwidth, and is beyond what the MPEG2 and US broadcast standards allow.

Which brings us to a controversial point relevant to video consumer shooting. Most people assume that 1080i must be better than 720p simply because it has more than double the resolution. Not!

In fact, it is almost impossible to see the difference between the two in terms of resolution, even on a 50" 1080P display at normal viewing distance. What can be seen though is the difference between interlaced and progressive, especially when there's fast motion in the frame.

Note that in terms of bandwidth, 1080i and 720p require almost the same amount of data. With 1080i it is being allocated to spatial resolution, while with 720p is it allocated to temporal resolution.

Note as well that when a TV or monitor or software program deinterlaces an "I" format video, it reduces the vertical resolution by half.

Another thing to keep in mind is that unless you have at least a 30" display screen for video editing you're going to have to down-res the images size on-screen to be able to see it all. On the other hand, 720p fits nicely on even a 15" laptop screen, handy for 1:1 viewing when editing in the field.

The moral of our story is that while the equipment makers will try and sell you cameras that shoot 1920 X 1080, in reality you'll likely end up shooting 720P after doing your own testing. The exception to this is higher end cameras which shoot 1080P, the best of both worlds, and the current holy grail of video.

For interlace to work, the image must be vertically filtered to avoid what is called "interline twitter", an annoying flickering that occurs. This is done in camera by row pair summation on the interlace scan readout. This reduces vertical resolution to around 70% of the number of horizontal lines, and increases sensitivity to light / reduces noise at the same time. This means that a 1080i image from a camera should have "about the same" measured vertical resolution as a 720p camera.

On fast moving images, progressive is clearly superior. On slow or static shots, the advantages of 1080i over 720p are negligible, especially as many 1080i cameras only record 1440x1080 rather than 1920x1080. However, many 720p cameras only record 960x720.... And most HD 1080i broadcasts only transmit 1440x1080 anyway...

The other piece of the puzzle is that progressive images compress cleaner and less artifacty than interlaced images, meaning, given the same bandwidth, you'd probably get a cleaner image from 720p than 1080i.

– Thanks to Graeme Nattress for this additional clarification

24 FPS

Motion pictures shot on film do so at 24 FPS (frames per second). Since the days of the silent movies this has become the standard frame rate for movies. Video has 30 FPS as its standard rate. This produces a different "look" than film, which appears a bit more blurry because of its slower shutter speed – shot at 1/60th of a second per frame rather than 1/48th of a second.

Many videographers trying to make their videos look like they were shot on film prefer cameras which shoot at 24 FPS, and their holy grail is known as 24P, of 24 FPS progressive.

Frankly, I find this similar to the affectation that some digital still photographers have for making their images a bit grainy so that they look "film-like". No thanks.

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Tape, Hard Drives, and Memory Cards

Up until a few years ago anyone shooting video didn't have to think about recording media. You could use videotape, or you could use videotape. Yes, there were choices to be made regarding format, but tape was the medium.

While camcorders that use videotape still exists, in the past few years they have rapidly been eclipsed by either built-in hard drives or flash memory cards. My guess is that HDV tape will pretty much disappear as an offering in new camcorders (both amateur and pro grade) within the next 18 months.

The real issue with using tape is that moving the information off tape to ones computer and hard drive is done in real time. In other words, a one hour tape takes one hour to transfer. From a camera with a built-in hard drive or an SDHC memory card that same one hour of content can be transferred to computer in about 5 minutes.

Similarly, when reviewing content shot in-camera, tape-based cameras need to access clips in a sequential manner. Want to see a clip at the beginning of the tape when you're near the end? Sure, just rewind until you find it. On hard drives or solid state media you can browse thumbnails and find clips or segments in moments similar to stills review on a DSLR. There's simply no comparison in terms of speed and convenience.

Then there's the matter of cost and archiving. Just as with film, tape is an ongoing expense. Of course tape can be recycled, but no one does that. For most people it's a use once medium. Hard drives and memory cards can be reused over and over again without any risk of image degradation. As for archival backup, whereas some feel that tape gives you the ideal archive, in fact tape will not last all that long. Since hard drives are now so inexpensive (Terabyte drives are under $200) an archive of a major video project costs relatively little. Just put the drive on the shelf and it should last as long if not longer than tape, and if copied every every 5-10 years to then current media technology, the data could conceivable last indefinitely.

The choice between a camcorder with a built-in hard drive and one which uses memory cards is less straightforward. Current cameras feature drives with between 60 -120GB. This is a lot of storage, equal to many hours of shooting. (A typical camera using AVCHD compression shoots about 6 – 10 GB per hour).

Camcorders which use SD (preferably the higher capacity SDHC) memory cards are much smaller and lighter than those that use hard drives, and use the same data formats as those that use hard drives, therefore producing identical image quality. Cards up to 32GB are currently available for just a couple of hundred dollars. Note as well that many of these cameras also features sufficient built-in RAM (up to 32GB on the Canon HF-11, for example) that one may not even need to use a card.

My recommendation therefore is to look closely at camcorders that take SDHC cards rather than those with hard drives. They cost less, weigh less, and if you find yourself shooting more than 5 hours of video at a time you should either seek professional counseling, or simply buy another card.

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The Camera Makers

Video camera are made by the usual suspects, though there are a few company names that may not be familiar from the still photography world. Sony, Canon and Panasonic are the market leaders, offering a wide range of models, with JVC, Samsung, Sanyo, and Hitachi filling niche segments.

The HDV tape format is standard among manufacturers, and hard disk and flash memory-based camcorders are becoming increasingly popular, offering no significant standards issues. Most removable flash memory units use SD and SDHC cards, which are standardized, but Sony (as usual) has to do things differently and uses its proprietary Memorystick format.

Most cameras connect to computers for file transfer using USB-2, though some (particularly SD format tape systems) also provide Firewire. Most offer HDMI connectors, which means that they can be attached directly to an HD display screen. Some have the connectors directly on the camera, while others require the use of a docking stations (usually provided with the camera). Component video connectors are also provided and are the next best choice when HDMI isn't available. HDMI is pure digital, whereas component is converted to analogue. Also, HDMI combines video and audio in a single cable, while component needs a total of five RCA connector type cables, including audio.

Cameras with removable media (like SDHC cards) are advantageous because one doesn't need to bother with docks and cables, instead simply copying the files with a card reader, the way one does with stills. But, this isn't that simple when it comes to the AVCHD format. Some AVCHD compatible editing software, such as iMovie 08, will only recognize files properly when they are a specific directory structure on a card. Thanks Apple.

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Formats & Codecs – Oy Vey!

So you think that the tower of Babel that the still camera industry has built around incompatible raw files (more than 200 and counting) is a problem, be prepared for more of the same when it comes to video.

Currently, except at the very high-end, there is no such thing as raw video. The RED ONE camera and the forthcoming Scarlet from RED are exceptions to this rule, and will be discussed a bit further on.

In the world of still photography the JPG format is the standard form of in-camera image compression. Because video requires so much more data so much more rapidly than stills, even higher levels of data compression are required. This had lead to a great many different codecs (the processing algorithms for data compression and decompression). Though there is a considerable degree of standardization between manufacturers, there are still some incompatibilities and issues when it comes to software-based non-linear editing.

HDV is the current (and likely final) tape-based format. The Canon HV-30 is probably the last / best of this breed at the consumer level. HDV records video at quite a high bit rate, 25 Mpbs (megabits / second). In most cases the higher the bit rate the better the image quality and the less artifacting visible.

It should be noted though that HDV does not record full 1920 X 1080, but rather 1440 X 1080, which is then expanded to HD on playback. HDV is based on the MPG2 standard.

AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) is the latest format standard, and has been adopted by the big three; Sony, Canon and Panasonic. It allows for a very high degree of compression without quality loss, but during its first couple of years on the market has been plagued with issues related to artifacting, overall image quality, and difficulty of editing. Now on its third generation these issues are starting to disappear, though the format still requires the most powerful computer possible if one is interested in transcoding AVCHD. Bit rates are around 17 Mbps, but the latest Canon cameras, like the HR-11 have upped this to the format's theoretical maximum of 25 Mbps.

Because of AVCHD's high degree of data compression batch processing to a more standard (and less compressed) format is the best way to work, though file sizes balloon considerably when this is done. This is called transcoding. AVCHD is based upon the AVC/H.264 MPEG-4 codec.

AVC/H.264 MPEG-4 (AVC) is the format used by Sanyo and Samsung. It uses a lower bit rate than AVCHD (usually 12 - 16 Mbps), but is easier to edit as it requires less processing power since it is less compressed. Now that AVCHD has matured in the latest generation of cameras it's likely that AVC/H.264's days may be numbered, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Samsung and Sanyo eventually adopt AVCHD along with the big three.

MPEG-2 Transport Stream is an alternative format exclusively backed by till now JVC, and used in its Everio line of camcorders. (JVC has recently adopted the AVCHD format as well). MPEG-2 Transport Stream is reported to not offer as high image quality as AVCHD and is not necessarily compatible with a broad range of editing programs, though it needs to be said that none of the new consumer HD formats is particularly easy to work with because of their demand for the most powerful computers when decoding.

In you want to learn more about MPEG4 and its variants, AVC-H264 and AVCHD, have a look at this Wikipedia entry will provide some technical background.

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Screens and Viewfinders

All camcorders provide fold-out LCD screen for viewing, composition and playback. The best of these are visible in bright daylight, while others are poor in anything other than moderate light levels.

Sony's screens are very good, but that company uses touch-screen technology for many if not most camera controls, and this can lead to a highly smudged screen a lot of the time. Canon and Panasonic tend to use joysticks and menu buttons for most controls.

Only a few cameras in the thousand dollar and under range have electronic viewfinders as well as LCD screens, usually only on their top-tier consumer models. If you're going to be shooting a lot outdoors in bright light a camera with an EVF can be well worthwhile.

Some active sports enthusiasts also prefer EVFs because of the dangerous profile that cameras with open LCDs present, and they also use a bit less power, leading to longer battery life.

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Editing Software

Shooting video means editing video. Unless you are satisfied with simply attaching your shiny new camcorder to your HD TV and watching raw footage (nothing wrong with that, but it gets lame pretty quickly) you're going to want to edit your footage. This means not just getting rid of the poor material (accidental 3 minute-long shots of your feet taken when you thought that the camera was tuned off, but it wasn't), but also putting footage together into a coherent narrative.

If you're shooting with an older HD tape-based camera this means logging your footage (transferring the tape in real time to the computer). All of the available editing programs can do this and can subsequently edit SD and HDV footage imported this way.

Most current consumer grade cameras shoot to either an in-camera hard drive, in-camera solid state memory, or a removable SDHC card. The most common format used is AVCHD and therein lies a potential issue.

AVCHD is a recording format, not an editing format. For technical reasons too complex to go into here in detail, but which have to do with the format being based on a Long Group of Picture, with complete image information only being found in select rather than all frames, all editing software has to struggle to deal with these files. They require a very large amount of computing power to turn into editable footage, usually much more than most computers (and definitely laptops) can handle on a real time basis. (Here's your excuse to buy that new dual quad core Mac Pro).

Some programs can import AVCHD files and convert them as needed, such as iMovie 08, Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Pro Express for Macs. But rendering times can be long. Fortunatly, there is a better way.

This involves transcoding your AVCHD files to a format that is easier to edit. The simplest approach is to do this on a batch basis using a program such as Voltaic, available for both Macs and Windows machines. Copy your camera's file to a hard drive, load them into Voltaic, and then take a break (sometimes a very long one). Once transcoded your files will be in a format that any popular editing program can easily handle. But – be warned. Depending on your computer's power, this can be a long and tedious process. This is one of the dirty little secrets of AVCHD. The time that you gain by working with memory cards rather than tape (and its need to be transferred in real time) is lost with AVCHD because of the need to transcode files to an editable format.

As for which editing software to choose, this is a huge topic and beyond the scope of this article. For Mac users iMovie used to be a solid choice for beginners, but with iMovie 08 Apple has so oversimplified the interface that its usefulness has been seriously compromised for anyone beyond the absolute beginner.

Final Cut Pro is Apple top-ranked non-linear editing program and its among the best there is. Feature films have been cut with this, including by some of the industry's top editors and studios. The downside is that Final Cut is expensive. But, Final Cut Express is also available and it offers about 80% of Final Cut Pro's goodness for many hundreds of dollars less. I highly recommend Final Cut Express to newcomers who use Macs. Premier on the Mac is also a fine product, I am told by industry pros, but I have no experience with it myself.

On the Windows side there are several top ranked programs, including Adobe Premier and Sony Vegas. There are also literally dozens of $50 – $150 editing programs. A bit of web and magazine research should help you find something that meets your needs.

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Mini-Reviews

There are so many video camcorders on the market that it's impossible to track them all. As in the DSLR industry there are new models from the top manufacturers introduced every few months.

I have had an opportunity to work with a few of the current top-ranked consumer models in recent months. Here then are some brief, highly opinionated, and not terribly technical mini-reviews.

Sanyo HD1010


Sanyo HD1010

Weighing just 11oz with battery and SD card, the Sanyo HD1010 was released in July, and retails for under $700. It is the successor to the very popular HD1000.

The HD1010 is small enough to fit easily in a jacket pocket and handles quite comfortably. It's a camera that one can carry almost anywhere at any time. It shoots to SDHC cards up to 32GB in size using the MPEG4 AVC/H.264 format. This is not the same as AVCHD, which almost all other camcorder manufacturers now use.

The plus side of this is that just about any editing program can read and work with this format directly, unlike AVCHD which usually needs to be transcoded externally first by some programs (such as with Adobe's Premier). Note though that while the HD1010 can shoot in 1080P resolution, I could not find any software on the Mac that could handle this format. There is some primitive software provided by Sanyo for Windows machines that handles this camera's 1080P format, but I was not able to work with it on an Intel Mac under Windows XP and Parallels.

The HD1010's user interface is very straightforward and easy to become familiar with. There is sufficient manual control for most people's needs, though far less than on some of the top units from competitors.

Overall I have found the HD1010 to be a very enjoyable camera to use for non-critical applications; ie: home movies. It lacks a viewfinder (something which I regard as almost a must for hand-held shooting) and which unfortunately is disappearing as a feature in many consumer grade camcorders as manufacturers try and reduce size and price.

Image quality is quite high, but the HD1010's biggest failing is its poor LCD screen. Though fine on an overcast day, or certainly indoors, in bright sunlight the screen is almost invisible, making the camera itself essentially unusable. There is a screen brightness control, but on my camera it is unavailable from the menus.

Sony SR12


Sony SR12

The Sony SR12 is the current king-of-the-hill in sub-$1,500 camcorders. Using AVCHD and a built-in 120GB hard drive, this is the camera to take along when you need to shoot a great deal of footage without access to a laptop for offloading. (The SR11 is the same camera, but with a 60GB drive, at a somewhat lower cost). These cameras also shoots to Sony's proprietary Memorystick cards, which have come down a lot in price this year, but which are still higher priced that the ubiquitous SD and SDHC cards used by almost every other camera maker.

Among the reasons for the SR12's top ranking is excellent image quality combined with a wide range of user controls. Some reviewers claim that in bright light the SR12 (and sister camera the SR11) have image quality close to the Sony EX1, and many EX1 producers are reportedly using the SR12 as a B camera or a "crash cam" (expendable in tough conditions). I've compared the two closely myself, and while the SR12 is quite good, it is let down by too much shimmer and artifacting when their is on-screen motion, unlike the EX-1's exemplary image quality under almost all conditions.

Sony uses a touch screen interface on the SR12, which is not to some people's taste, but which I generally don't have a problem with. Along with full automation, the camera also features a moderate degree of manual control, using an innovative front control wheel. Though not as feature-rich and easy to control as with separate mechanical controls on Sony's higher end cameras like the EX-1 (see below), the amount of control available is likely more than sufficient for its intended users (non-commercial types, like you and me).

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The High End

The camcorders that we've discussed so far have been priced under about $1,400 list. These cameras, especially the higher end units in this price range, such as the Sony SR12, Canon HG21, and Panasonic HS100, all provide state-of-the-art high bit rate hard disk and memory card recording along with viewfinders and other features required by serious amateurs.

But, just as in the DSLR world where there are products above the sub-$1000 DSLRs, in the video world there are prosumer products priced under $10,000 that offer the serious video producer (creative / industrial / wedding) extremely high quality and a great depth of features. These are the equivelents of the Nikon D3 and the Canon 1Ds MKIII, in price points and in appeal.

Panasonic HMC150


Panasonic HMC150 – Due October, 2008
$3,999

There are two non-tape cameras that are worth mentioning in this category. The first is the about-to-be released Panasonic HMC150. At about $3,500 retail this is Panasonic's first foray into a solid state camera in this price range. The HMC-150 uses AVCCAM, a variation on the AVCHD format, recording to SDHC memory cards. It is based on the highly successful HVX200(a) series cameras, which have been a mainstay of the mid-range independant video producer for the past couple of years.

For the serious amateur, industrial, and indy film maker this new Panasonic looks to offer a great deal for the money. We'll have to wait until October though to see how it performs in this new incarnation.

Sidebar – Panasonic also has the model HPX-170 coming out in September. This camera costs about $1,500 more than the HMC-150 and uses Panasonic's proprietary P2 memory cards as well as a higher speed encoding type called DVCPRO HD.

This could well be a superior choice to the very similar HMC-150, because of the higher data rates that DVCPRO HD provides (with no need to transcode before editing, the way that AVCHD requires). But it is held back by a major concern.

P2 cards are based on the PCMCIA standard, which has now all but disappeared from current laptop computers. External readers are available for Windows, but not for Macs. More to the point, P2 cards are hugely more expensive than SD and SDHC cards. This is fine for anyone making their living with the cameras, but it seriously raises the price for non-professionals. Also, given that a very large percentage of people in the video production field are Mac users (access to Final Cut Pro and the usual other reasons), this makes using P2 cards problematic.

Not only is this an issue for Mac users, but also for anyone with a current Windows laptop lacking the now discontinued PCMCIA card slot. Since copying cards and reviewing footage on location is almost a must for many video producers, P2 card equipped camera users are forced to use external readers using USB-2, which are much slower than the internal bus speeds offered by the new Expresscard standard, let alone a PCMCIA slot.

Sony EX1

Available at under $7,000 is the Sony EX-1, probably the most exciting and affordable broadcast-quality camcorder for the prosumer currently on the market. The EX-1 has been certified as having "Silver Status" by the Discovery HD channel, and as acceptable for full broadcast use by the BBC, for example, meaning that it is certified suitable for 100% of a program's content by those and other networks.

The EX-1 and its just released upmarket brother the EX-3, use the new SxS memory card format, required to handle the higher data transfer rates of these XDCAM standard cameras. These cards are Expresscard 34 standard size and fit directly in most current laptops, both Macs and PCs.

Here at The Luminous Landscape we have been working with a Sony EX-1 since they first came out in late 2007, and have just bought our second one, subsequently retiring all of our previous DV and HDV camcorders.

The Sony EX-1 may be the greatest value in a video camera ever. Image quality is superb, the camera has a fantastic lens, and features and specs are pro grade. The real problem is handling. It can a very awkward camera to hand hold. It was designed and made by Sony's CineAlta group, who are responsible for their highly regarded professional broadcast cameras. Unfortunately, the EX-1 appears to have had its physical controls and ergonomics created by industrial design school drop-outs.

The things that help make it special though, in addition to top image quality and depth of features, are the use of three 1/2" CMOS sensors (no Bayer matrix), an excellent 14X Fujinon zoom lens with f/1.9 maximum aperture, and full manual controls, including focus, zoom, and iris – a first at this price point. (The larger sensors are a first in this price range, and advantageous in achieving narrow depth of field – discussed further below).

I am now shooting with our second EX-1 for some personal projects and will have more to say about this camera in the days ahead.

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Seeing Red


Red Scarlet – Due Early 2009
Under $3,000

The RED One camera, introduced in 2007, represents a revolution in video production technology. It is a 4K camera (meaning that it has 4,000 pixels on its wide dimension) using a 24.4 X 13.7mm 12 Megapixel sensor. Yes, 12MP. And, it produces raw video, one of the few cameras under $100,000 that does.

There's much to be said about the RED One, and a bit of web research will show that it has taken independent film producers by storm. More to the point for anyone shooting stills and video is the RED Scarlet announced in early 2008 and scheduled for release in early 2009. Little is known about the camera's specifics yet, other than that it has promised to cost less than $3,000 and to have a 3K sensor and raw video capability like its larger and more expensive RED One sibling.

Keep in mind that RED cameras need lots of kiting-out to become fully operational, including lenses, viewfinders, and the like. It's a highly modular system. These are also all pro-level accessories, so don't expect to walk away spending much under $5,000 – $6,000 for an operational Scarlet system. But, since this is the price range of a Panasonic HMC150 or Sony EX-1, there's a lot to be excited about here for the serious videographer.

You can read more about RED here in a recent article in Wired magazine online.

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A Matter of Depth

One of the things that has film makers and videographers excited about the introduction of Combocams (a word I've coined for combined DSLR and video cameras), as seen in the Nikon D90 and other forerunners to come in Q3 and Q4, 2008, is their depth of field.

One of the problems with camcorders is that like consumer still digicams they use quite small sensors. The smaller the sensor (aperture and focal length being equal), the greater the depth of field. It's simply physics, and there's not much you can do about it.

With their short focal lengths and small sensors it is very difficult to achieve selective focus with most video cameras. Everything is pretty much always in focus, really cramping the style that we have become used to in movies of selective depth of field, one of the "conceits" of the language of film.

This is the reason for the popularity of devices such as the Letus35 which allow attaching a 35mm DSLR lens to a video camera. The camera effectively shoots a ground glass in macro mode, onto which an image is projected by an attached DSLR lens. It's a bit of a kludge – bulky and pricey, but it does the job, as attested to by the fact that a great many creative film makers use them, and do so with considerable success.

By comparison, a combocam with an APS-C or full-frame 35mm sensor has DOF exceeding that of cine-35mm, the holy grail of videographers.

Be aware though that all will not be roses when we get our combocams. As we've seen, there are few things worse than shaky video. Yes, stabilization exists in camcorders, and usually does a good job of eliminating the worst of hand-held shakiness. But 35mm still camera lenses are bulkier and heavier, and along with their reduced DOF will likely lead to us seeing more shakycam shots than ever. Use a tripod!!

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On Screen

One upon a time we used to haul out the 8mm projector to show the family and friends our home movies. This was enough of a hassle that thankfully we didn't subject people to them too often.

Recently, most people found that burning a DVD after SD video footage was edited was easy enough that we could subject unwary visitors to our videos by simply popping them into the DVD player in the living room and watching them on TV.

But with today's HD cameras, Blu-Ray DVD players, and large flat screen HD TVs, what's the solution?

Burning a Blu-Ray disk is one, but this assumes that you have a Blu-Ray burner on your computer, and not that many people yet do. And, unlike DVDs, blank Blu-Ray disks are expensive, so it isn't quite as simple and inexpensive to do this as it was a year or two ago with simple DVDs.

One solution, and the one that I use, is to send the completed HD video to my Apple TV. This is simple to do, convenient, and makes the videos that I've produced instantly accessible. An Apple TV is basically a hard drive / WiFi enabled device that connects to both your computer and the Internet via WiFi, and to your TV via HDMI or component cables. (This all works equally on PCs as well as Macs).

Once hooked up, viewing your HD videos on your large screen HD TV in another room is as simple as selecting them in iTunes and then pressing Sync. The file is transferred wirelessly to the Apple TVs hard drive and from then on is always available. Even a child can do it.

The only fly in the ointment occurs when grandma (or the Sundance Film Festival) wants a copy of your video. Then you still need to burn a down-sampled DVD or a Blu-Ray disk.

On Air

Of course everyone is familiar with Youtube, and this is where most amateurs put their videos online. More serious independent film makers put their work on either Vimeo or ExposureRoom.

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Movies Move

The languages of still photography and video are quite different. Video involves a narrative. In other words it tells a story using a succession of images which have been woven together. There is a language to video that has evolved over the past hundred years and which just about every visually literate person in the world understands, whether consciously or not.

From the perspective of the still photographer looking to explore the world of video and motion for the first time there is a temptation to string together a sequence of still images. This can be effective a la Ken Burns effect, but movies need to move, and that implies both camera and subject motion. That motion needs motivation, and implicit in this is that movies tell a story.

This is the core difference between still photography and motion pictures. A still image captures a moment in time at a particular location. A motion picture (film or video) has a temporal as well as a spatial element, involving both a succession of places and moments.

So, whereas a still photographer can head out to an interesting locale, and if the light is good capture one or more images that are communicative, and possibly even of artistic merit, a movie maker needs to know beforehand what they might want to say about that place and time. The differences can be subtle, but just heading out with a video camera is unlikely to yield anything compelling. There is the need to have a story to tell, whether it's about a place, a certain time, or something or someone to be found there.

Let's reduce this to the simplest example. When you go to the Grand Canyon with a still camera you'll take a lot of images, but there may just be a handful that capture the location and the light in a manner that makes them worth printing or displaying.

Pointing a video camera at interesting locations and light at the Grand Canyon will produce a series of video clips, each of a certain duration, but at this point they are nothing more than video versions of still photographs. To become something more than that requires that they be edited – linked together in a certain sequence that makes them coherent and interesting. But that's not enough. A video of The Grand Canyon needs to tell more than does a still image. Maybe it's about the family visit, showing piling into the car and heading out west. On a more "serious" vein, maybe it's about the birds that live within the canyon, showing their nesting and feeding patterns. Maybe it's about people hiking the canyon or white water rafting. There needs to be a narrative, a story, even if not in words, then in what you as the film maker desire to show and the sequence in which you decide to show it.

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Sound Advice

Video also means sound and music. Turn off the sound while watching a nature show on TV and you'll see how much the visual experience is degraded by the lack of sound. Producing good sound is sometimes more than half the battle when producing a video.

The quality of the sound produced by your camera is likely quite good. The real issue is the built-in microphone. These are subject to handling noise as well as being susceptible to wind noise.

Most cameras above the beginner level have either an external mike jack or a proprietary shoe and accessory mike. This can help a great deal.

At the next higher level is the use of wireless mikes transmitting to a receiver attached to the camera. These can work well, but unfortunately their weak link (this is not just a turn of phrase) is the ubiquitous mini-jack connector. These break if you look at them the wrong way, and as often as not lateral stress on the connector can easily break inside the camera, leading to expensive repairs. Over the years this became such a frequent occurrence as we shot Video Journal segments in the field that we completely gave up on small digicams, opting instead for cameras that have XLR connectors for audio.

XLRs are pro-grade three pin connectors with locking collars that are resistant to the types of breakage and strain that mini-jacks suffer from all-to-frequently. They are bulky though, and this means that they are only found on larger and therefore more expensive cameras.

With sound being such a critical part of video, this means a need for not only clean audio recording but also editing. Spending the time to make the sound right, whether it's just dialog or with music added as well, is a critical part of putting together a compelling movie narrative.

It will be interesting to see how Nikon, Canon, and Co., handle the audio issue. Unless they build in decent audio facilities (mikes and connectors), serious videophiles will eschew their offerings, except perhaps for specialized applications, convenience, and their DOF advantage.

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Tripod / Heads and Stabilization

As I wrote above, "movies move", but that doesn't mean unintentional motion. We've all become used to the cinema verite look of hand-held movies and reality TV shows, and accept them as some sort of norm. But, this is no free pass for you to produce jingly hand-held footage when it isn't necessary or is unavoidable.

The most obvious means of avoiding camera shake is to use a tripod. One that use you for a similarly weighted still camera will be fine. But what will differ from still use is the head. Most photographers use ball heads, but for video you'll want a fluid head. These allow the camera to move smoothly on either axis. The least expensive one that I know which does a decent job with camcorders up to about 6 lbs is the Manfrotto / Bogen 501 HDV.

When a tripod isn't available, or its use possible, just as with stills work image stabilization is a necessity. The best is optical stabilization, while less expensive cameras offer electronic stabilization. Be aware that video camera, like many digicams, have zooms with long reach. That often translates into excessive shake, so be aware of this when racking the lens out to maximum magnification.

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So What Should I Buy?

Since this article is targeted at the still photographer who might want to delve into the new world of high definition digital video, you'll have two basic decisions to make – what camera and what editing system?

In the mini-reviews above I've discussed what I regard as the best current cameras, both in the under $1,400 and the under $8,000 ranges. I have left out all tape-based cameras, simply because I believe that they are now history, in the same way that film based still cameras are. It's all over but the shouting.

As with still cameras, my recommendation is that you look at ergonomics and handling as closely as you do specifications. The numbers don't tell you everything that you need to know. A visit to a dealer that has demo units of the cameras that you are considering is well worth your time.

The choices within the consumer grade camcorders are now the latest SD card based AVCHD models from Sony, Canon and Panasonic. Just be aware that though the costs are low, and the image quality is relatively high, transcoding this highly compressed format is time consuming, and the few non-linear editing packages that do support it need the fastest possible computer to work well.

For anyone who has aspirations beyond making home movies, and a budget that stretches into the high 4 figures, the current choices come down to the SxS card based Sony EX-1, and the Panasonic P2 card based cameras. Of these my choice is the EX-1, in large measure because I regard P2 cards as being obsolete technology, are harder to use, and slower than SxS. Mac users will particularly want to consider an SxS based camera simply because all current Mac laptops feature Expresscard 34 slots, taking these cards directly. Workflow, especially with Final Cut Pro now that it support Sony's XDCAM EX format directly, is a dream.

When it comes to a non-linear editing software system for Mac users on a budget I recommend Final Cut Express 4. At under $200 there simply isn't anything that can touch it. Between it and its bigger brother, Final Cut Studio (under $1,300) they pretty much have the Mac editing world sown up, and are arguably the finest editing programs around.

Windows users have a much broader range of editing choices, with Adobe Premier Pro CS3 (under $700) and Adobe Premier 4 Elements (under $100) being leading choices. Sony Vegas Pro 8 (under $550) and Avid Media Composer (Windows and Mac) are all strong alternatives.

There are too many under $100 editing packages for me to be familiar with, or mention here. If video is going to be simply a hobby to produce home movies then one of these is fine. But, if you have thoughts of your video activities becoming something more, then I would urge you to consider one of the more professional packages. Good video is as much if not more about editing than it is about shooting. Learn to edit (technically and esthetically) and the rest will fall into place.

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Sites

A couple of sites about consumer grade video and camcorders that I can recommend are camcorderinfo.com, and for indy / semi-pro grade gear and technique DV Info is the preferred place to hang out, chat and learn. Finally, and notwithstanding its name, DVX-User also has lively forums covering non-Panasonic cameras as well.

September, 2008

 

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Concepts: High-definition television, Camera, Video, Digital single-lens reflex camera, High-definition video, HDV, Camcorder, Blu-ray Disc

Entities: the market leaders, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Apple, Adobe, Sanyo, Mac, JVC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Panasonic Canada, Samsung, ABC, NBC, Sony's CineAlta group, Fujinon, FOX, Vimeo, Youtube, Wikipedia, CBS, Intel, BBC, North America, US, AVCHD, LCD screen, video equipment, HDV, frame rate, progressive scan, flash memory, archival backup, PCMCIA, Grand Canyon, Windows, Michael Reichmann, Chris Sanderson, Graeme Nattress, Oy Vey, Ken Burns, Wired magazine, D90, Apple TV, Macs, Blu-Ray, TV, RAM, SD, Blu-Ray DVD, ESPN

Tags: cameras, video, image, cards, hard drive, AVCHD, camcorders, image quality, standard, Sony, memory card, video camera, Final Cut, movies, Final Cut Pro, sdhc cards, editing programs, computer, 720p, 1080i, p2 cards, hd tv, consumer, Sony EX-1, consumer grade, editing software, bit rate, film maker, Mac users, footage, non-linear editing, built-in hard drive, vertical resolution, motion picture, high definition, tape-based cameras, red one camera, home movies, real time, shows