Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Camcorder Research

After 24 hours of research, talking with Sony, reading everything i could find online, chatting with my old friends in the pro-video industry, and picking the "brains" at Circuit City... this is what I now think.

1) MiniDV is great, and has at least a few more years left. If I wasn't writing a book right now, I'd stick with this format for at least one more year -- for the time when my big TV is highdef, when my DVD player is Blu-Ray HD, and when the prices for good stuff has dropped a bit more. But this is the decision of a guy with lots of MiniDV tapes and who likes to edit.

If I might be forward looking, and giving advice for the next 10 years, I'd play this differently;

2) Until late last night, my preference had been to opt for a big honkin' hard disc in my camcorder, but after some more thought, frankly, they make me nervous. Discs crash. The bigger the disc, the more stuff you lose when they crash, and each month the disc they insert into the camcorder grows... i was looking at 30-40GB HDDs, but i think they grow harder to find, and newer, "better" camcorders have 80GB-100GB HDDs... which is HUGE. The typical HiDef video on these camcorders appears to run around 7.25mins/GB... in otherwords, at top quality, a 100GB camcorder will hold 12 HOURS of video. This is not a feature. It's a curse. I'm serious. You do NOT want to be shooting this much video, you don't have time to watch this, and you don't want to (a) just toss it or (b) save it on an archive hard disk. It's insane and I'll say it now. For those interested in editing, I recommend shooting bits in 20 minute chunks (that can be edited down to a few minutes).

AND THUS: The memory stick camcorders -- while appearing more limiting due to the small size of a 4GB or 8GB "Memory Stick Pro Duo" (which holds either 30-60 mins of HiDef video), is really quite nice and manageable. Over the next year or two, the storage on these things will go up smoothly, and be plenty good - they are robust and solid-state (no moving parts), and removable. And while I haven't had first-hand experience with these (yet), my inclination is to move toward this type of media in my camcorder. (Downside to be revealed as i uncover it).

Since I am a Sony fan (the hardware they make I have found robust and reliable), I am leaning towards a device like the $800 Sony HDR-CX7. Expensive but not outrageous for what it is; high end, but not top of the line, etc.

Still researching, but i thought i'd report how it was going.

FOOTNOTE - Comparable camcorders include:
Samsung SCHMX10 ($500)
Panasonic HD CSD1 ($1100) but it's 3-chip, which is good.
Cannon HF100 ($840)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Circuit City

So, just to take stock of the situation, i went down to my local Circuit City and spent the morning at the camcorder table, listening to the sales pitches from the staff, and messing around with a few dozen featured devices.

Sure enough, there are a bunch of MiniDV camcorders still available, many very good, but they are priced (around $200-$300) to move. Not a great sign, although the salesrep did mention that if I was "into editing" that it might be a good choice. Also priced to dump were the cameras that recorded to various forms of DVD-like disc. I was never into these for a number of reasons - both logical and emotional - and was steered by the salesrep and the architecture of the display itself to explore the Hard Disc recording camcorders.

NOTE: One must be exceptionally careful with these "HD"devices, for the "HD" stamped on the outside is not the High Definition "HD" you might be looking for. They use "Full HD" to refer to high definition video (usually accompanied by a resolution measurement); and "HDD" to refer to "Hard Disc Device" recording. And there are a number of high-quality HD HDD camcorders - the top of the line in fact are of this variety.

If I was going to trade up I would go from my 3-Chip workhorse, the Sony TRV-900 (circa 1998) (measurably more attractive images than from the one-chip varieties more common); and move to a 30-80GB hard disc (I think i'd rather smaller, but that's my first impression) 3-Chip High Definition camera, probably from Sony. These range in the $1000-$1200 range, a little LESS than what I got my TRV for a decade ago. I had come to Circuit City thinking that even a lousy HD camera is going to be better quality than my Sony, so trade size and cost for resolution, and get a mid-range high def -- spending $500-$800. It's still a lot, but not for a great camera. I just spent in that range for an excellent Digital SLR (mine is from Olympus, but it's an old brand attraction from my youth), and that's just an SLR. This is a high def camcorder.

They seem to be touting how much video can be recorded on these camcorders. At standard def a 40GB camcorder can hold something like 10-30 hours, but at High Def it's in the range of 5-10 hours.

Still: 10 hours is an organizational nightmare. You don't want 10 hours in a load, do you??? Breath. Think. Is this antiquated values washing their inertial old school bodies on a new value proposition? Or is it learned wisdom from years of experience? Think. Think.

I have a day or so to figure out (a) what kind of camcorder would I want for myself. I cannot advise if i'm not in the game for real. And what other kind of camcorder should I check out seriously, that might not be what i'd naturally choose for myself but represents a fairly typical purchase of consumers interested in video, but not all that confident in whether they liked the hobby or not... Would they get an $800 Sony or would they get a $450 Panasonic? Would you pay for High Def?

This is what I'm thinking about today.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Little Digital Video Book, 2nd edition

I got an email today that says the contract is on its way to me. On a lark, I checked amazon, and sure enough, the book has already got a page (well... a placeholder...) Wow.

As i've been editing this week, and thinking about consumer video, i've been stunned to realize that the heyday of consumer editing that got me jazzed (beginning around 1998) is just about gone! It was the remarkable combination of MiniDV tape (virtually pro quality video), Firewire (plug the camera into the computer and the thing works like a charm, it's just another device with a high bandwidth, uncompressed signal), and the first versions of Final Cut Pro (super powerful, very simple).

But now 10 years later, the era of videotape is gone. MiniDV is still out there (and there are still millions of camcorders in use) but new camcorders record to hard disks or flash drives or, sometimes, direct to DVDs... which means your video isn't always "instantly" archived when you shoot, you have to do something to it. Firewire is gone from most consumer cameras, so connectivity is a bit wonky, and Final Cut Pro has become SO good you can't really use it as a consumer, and the consumer tools (like iMovie) aren't really much about editing...

This isn't to say consumer video is dead. On the contrary - the recording of video is almost ubiquitous - on every phone and camera in the land, even the cheapest of computers can manage hours of video and the required processing... DVDs are nonlinear and in spite of the compression issues, are probably better for consumers than MiniDV (in some respects), and finally, the distribution and sharing potential for video is massive (think YouTube), something hard to imagine a decade ago... and thus, the need for the second edition is ripe. Still, an era is gone and it's going to take a fair amount of experimentation to figure out how to use all this stuff to make fun, simple, home videos.

That's what I get to do these weeks, if you're wondering what i'm up to. And if you see me with a camera, just ignore me. It's better if you do.