Next-Generation Camcorder

Just when you thought you’d need only your cell phone to shoot video, Sony introduces two new ideas that may change the game a bit: a gyro-stablized lens and a built-in projector. Have a look at the new, remarkably small Sony HXR-NX30, a $2,000 camcorder just arrived from the future.

Weighing about two pounds and stretching to a foot with battery attached, this small HD camcorder solves a constant problem for journalists and other hand-held videographers: the gyro system is, essentially, a built-in Steadycam-like feature. Without the extended balance mechanisms. Small enough to tuck into a medium-sized shoulder bag.

The built-in project is fairly modest, more useful for screening the days’ work on a hotel wall than for a public screening. Still, the projected images can be as large as about three feet (diagonally), and if they aren’t beautiful HD quality, they are far, far better than the images you’d be watching on the built-in 3-inch LCD screen.

Although the results are suitable for professional purposes, this is, in essence, a prosumer camcorder. It’s nice to see nearly 100GB of built-in memory (which goes quickly when shooting in HD), and it uses SD cards. There are XLR connectors for professional microphones, and a decent amount of control for just about every application. And there are a gaggle of other useful features, all common in this price category.

The news here is the built-in stabilization. Many will purchase this camera for that feature alone. And, hopefully, we’ll see lots of cameras with a similar feature–it should become standard in two or three years.

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (4 of 4)

Continuing the series about small, high-powered digital cameras, our discussion finishes up with video. And this is the part that confuses me most. These cameras shoot very pretty pictures–high-definition, widescreen, beautiful image quality. But none of these cameras allows the user to control or monitor the audio associated with that video.

Audio Rant

Let me rant on that first, and then, we’ll talk pictures. Each of these cameras can record audio with a built-in microphone, usually a stereo microphone. What’s missing: an audio meter so you can see whether the audio being recorded is too loud or too soft, a jack for an external microphone, and a jack for an external earbud or headphone to monitor the audio as it is being recorded. In comparison with the photo and video imaging in these cameras, these audio capabilities are very simple. But they are largely absent.

This Olympus device adds a microphone via the camera's flash shoe. It costs $60 at B&H, the source of this photo.

Olympus offers an $89 microphone and cable (SEMA-1) that slides into the hot shoe of the PEN cameras, and it works nicely, but the cable is short, and because it’s connected directly above the lens, the cable finds its way into the shot whenever the camera is turned or manipulated. So what we have is a high-quality digital audio recorder that’s useful only to record “wild sound”–the ambient sound on location. To record sound that’s comparable in quality to the video side, you must record audio separately, on a standalone digital recorder, and then match the audio and the video, on separate tracks, in your editing software. That’s possible, if you have time and patience, and a good set of editing skills. (This will be the topic of an article in the near future.)

End of rant.

Very Good Video

On the picture side, the cameras are very, very good good. Even the $499 Olympus E-PM1 can record up to 29 minutes of  magnificent 1080 60i HD video by just pressing a button. The newest Olympus E-M5, scheduled for April, takes a leap forward by recording H.264 .mov files, making capture and editing easier, and mostly eliminates the dreaded “jello effect” in which vertical lines wobble during a pan of even moderate speed–an improvement over current PEN cameras.

This rather ugly picture is part of a rather clear video explanation of the jello effect.

This is not to minimize the astonishing video image quality available from these cameras–perhaps more astonishing because motion video is not the primary purpose or function of these cameras. Certainly, we’re seeing professional videographers use their DSLRS, with special grips, to record television programs–digital photography has really changed the way we think about video production. And, if you place a mirrorless camera on a tripod, you can achieve stunning results. Even hand-held, with image stabilization, automatic exposure, and automatic focus, the Olympus and Panasonic cameras can do great things.

The same is true, with varying degrees with success on the focus side, and in contrasty situations, for competitors. Of course, you can use just about DSLR to shoot terrific still pictures and still video. And, in most cases, you’ll be able to do so with an earplug, an external microphone, and much more control over the video as it is being recorded. But those cameras are bigger and heavier than their mirrorless counterparts.

Summing Up

If you want to own a full-featured digital camera that takes great pictures and offers every conceivable feature, buy yourself a DSLR. You can buy a very good one, perhaps the Canon EOS Rebel T3i with an inexpensive 18-135mm lens, with an 18 MP APS-C sensor for just over $1,000.

For me, this is a camera that’s fun to use, fun to own, and likely to leave home only sometimes. It’s just too big and too heavy for me to carry along with me. Certainly, I would bring it special events or when I feel like spending an afternoon taking pictures.

I would be more likely to carry something like the new Canon G1X ($799), which offers a 14 MP sensor that’s slightly larger than the one used by micro four thirds cameras, but smaller than the typical APS-C standard. It’s a wonderful small camera, a bit heavier and bulkier than it appears to be, with an optical viewfinder (old school: you simply look through it, like a telescope) with plenty of manual control. The lens deflates my enthusiasm: it’s a zoom, 28-112 mm with not much of a large aperture: f/2.8-5.8. If this camera was offered with a normal prime lens and a maximum aperture of, say, f/2.0, I’d be all over it. Still, this is a camera I want to know more about.

Essentially, I want the equivalent of a good DSLR, but I am not willing to carry around anything that’s bulky, large or heavy. This is why mirrorless cameras intrigue me. So far, I believe the Olympus E-P3 offers the best combination of solid construction, good design, superior image quality, and, most important of all, very good prime (non-zoom) lenses at reasonable prices (and, zoom lenses, too). I love the fact that these cameras (like their DSLR siblings) shoot high quality video as a kind of bonus. And as much as I have come to enjoy the EP-3, I am very intrigued by the new-ish Panasonic GX1, and even more intrigued by the E-M5, the first new Olympus for 2012.

For a complete rundown on all mirrorless cameras, circa December, 2011, click here.

And, BTW, here’s a really clear review of the E-P3.

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Here are the links to the rest of The Quality Camera That Goes Everywhere:

Part 1: Lens

Part 2:  Sensor

Part 3: Body

Why Buy a Camcorder?

On my iPhone, I can shoot video. I can edit, too. I can shoot video on my camcorder, but I can’t edit (not easily, anyway). And that got me to thinking about just what I might want or need in a standalone video recording device.

Although you can find camcorders that record onto videotape or DVD, the standard recording format is now the SD card–the same type of card used in most digital cameras, but with far more available storage capacity.

Less than $200 buys a pocketable video camera and recorder, similar in design to the Flip camera that was popular a few years ago. JVC sells about eight different models, all quite similar to the Flip cameras and to one another. All shoot HD-quality movies, 5MP still images, and easily transfer creative work to a nearby computer via USB connection. The GC-WP10A is especially appealing because it’s waterproof, records time lapse, includes face detection, a 3-inch touch screen, and an image stabilizer to reduce shaky videography (which is a common problem with small hand-held cameras). Compare it with JVC’s GC-FM1BUS, which shoots 8MP still images and offers an HDMI output to digital TV screens, but lacks face detection. Spend fifty dollars less, and you’ll save money but sacrifice some features. If not JVC, you will find similar products from Kodak, Samsung, and lots of other companies. In this price range, there will not a tremendous difference in features or reliability.

If you’re heading in this direction, be sure to check out the Zoom Q3--made by a company now well-known for high-quality portable audio recorders (which I will write about in a future blog post). I really like the design of the Q3–and its emphasis on audio recording.

Beginning around $250, you can buy a digital camcorder with a long zoom len

s, image stabilization, and adequate low-light shooting capability in a package that easily fits into your jacket pocket. Try, for example, Panasonic’s HDC-SD80R, which sells for less than $300, with a 32x zoom lens (that is, if you are 32 feet away, you will appear to be just 1 foot away from the camera). If you visit Panasonic’s camcorder website, you w

ill find 23 similar Panasonic models with prices as low as about $200 and as high as $1,000+. What’s the difference? The HDC-TM900K sells for about $900, and includes three image sensors, which means superior image quality, manual control over exposure and focus (with manual control, more professional results are possible, but these require skill, practice and patience). The lens is better, too. Is one camera worth $600 more than another? If you’re shooting video for YouTube, the answer is probably “no” (though the manual controls would be useful). If you’re shooting video to be seen on a 50-inch HD monitor, the answer is “yes.”

For a few hundred dollars more, you can buy similar camcorders with interchangeable lenses.

But wait! That’s just the beginning!!

For professional quality results, plan to spend about $2,000 for a model similar to Sony’s HDR-FX7. The big difference between these lower-priced pro models and lesser lights is three-fold: image quality, technical capabilities, and creative control.

Image quality is easy to understand, and easy to see. The sensor and the associated image processing technology is superior to lower-priced models, and so is the lens. The viewfinder offers more detail, better contrast, more accurate color, and more detailed information about camera settings. The lens is, roughly, a 20x optical zoom. The zoom controls are smooth, and can be handled with nuance.

Jump to the $3,500 model HDR-AX2000 for professional XLR microphone connectors, even better image sensing and processing, and vastly improved low-light shooting. You could shoot a television series for a cable network with this camera. In fact, many professional production companies now use these cameras–and others like it–for just that purpose.

Look for a post about dual system audio recording in the near future.

So: which camcorder is right for you?

If you shoot a few minutes of video from time to time, and post your output on the web, then you may be able to use your smartphone.

If you shoot some videos, and some still pictures, and you really don’t need high quality audio, or even a microphone for the occasional interview, then you can use a recent vintage digital still camera. If yours is more than 2-3 years old, it may be time for an update if you want to shoot video.

If you are serious about still photography and videography, then you should consider a digital SLR, with its long zoom lens and substantial body size. Although most digital SLR bodies include a built-in stereo microphone, your work will be better if you attach a stereo microphone, or shoot “double system” with an entirely separate audio recorder (the topic of a future blog post).

In fact, it makes more sense to invest in a digital SLR than a standalone camcorder in the $300-$1,000 range. These are useful if you shoot a lot of video–but you can do the same, with greater flexibility–with a digital SLR.

If you serious about videography, then a serious prosumer or low-range professional camcorder is the appropriate choice. Most people who use these cameras devote considerable time to video editing–the camera alone isn’t going to make anyone a star. Fortunately, video editing software is now widely available at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, professional quality video editing requires a lot of time and careful work.

With any of these HD camcorders, the work can be stunning. For the best results, professionals rely on quality lenses, sensors, image processing and microphones.

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