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Look! There’s a video camcorder inside your digital camera.
If you’re shopping for a digital camera, chances are you aren’t paying a lot of attention to the digicams’ video capabilities. You are, after all, a still shooter. But don’t let the megapixels and your obsession with prints keep you from seeing the action- and sound-grabbing power of today’s digicams. You’ll be surprised at what they can do. Some compact digitals even rival digital video camcorders in image quality.
While a video enthusiast might laugh at the idea of using a digital camera to shoot video, a still-camera shooter is likely to chuckle at a camcorder with anything more than low-resolution snapshot ambitions. A DV camcorder that can serve up even 2-megapixel stills is the exception, and can cost $2,000 or more.
But the digital camera crowd might be able to laugh loudest…and all the way to the bank. A 5MP-6MP still camera that makes great 11×14-inch prints and captures full-motion, high-quality video with sound costs hundreds-not thousands-of dollars.
Though we don’t want to overstate the digicam’s video strengths and downplay its weaknesses, even a low-priced digicam that captures lower-quality video has strong points.
Digital cameras are typically a lot smaller and better looking than camcorders, and most have optical viewfinders that are easier to use in low light, in addition to large LCD monitors for live composition. They use durable, small memory cards, include built-in or pop-up flash (a few also have dedicated hot-shoes), offer a choice of still-capture resolutions and color options, and may have a docking station for quick hookup to a computer.
But when looking at digital cameras, how do you sort out the various video storage formats, resolutions, sound capabilities, and display options? One rule of thumb that holds here is You Get What You Pay For. Under $200? Expect a 3MP-4MP camera with a 3X zoom lens that also captures video clips. At the opposite end of the price spectrum, $800-$1,000 buys a compact digital camera with 6MP-8MP, 8X zoom, and lots of video horsepower. The differences between these two extremes is dramatic.
To help you sort it out, we compare five cameras that represent the best of the breed in five price categories from $200 to $800 (on page 83). As you’d expect, some cameras trade video quality for digital still quality (or vice versa), so study the features before you buy.
Where to start?
The major qualifiers are video resolution and frame rate. (See the dictionary sidebar.) On a DV camcorder, video is captured at a resolution of 720×480 pixels per frame, and there are 30 frames captured per second in the progressive scan mode (the National Television System Committee [NTSC] standard is actually 29.97 fps, but let’s round it to 30). Freeze frames taken from DV footage are usually stored on digital cards or on the computer at 640×480-pixel (also known as VGA) resolution to compensate for the rectangular shape of video pixels.
By comparison, most new digital cameras in the $200-$400 range capture quarter VGA resolution (QVGA) video with 320×240 pixels per frame, at rates between 15 and 30 fps. Others limit video clips to 15 or 30 seconds, or overcompress the video to squeeze it onto the tiny memory cards that ship with cameras.
Some low-priced cameras don’t even record sound with the video clips. While this keeps the price down, it limits the camera’s usefulness-unless you add a sound track later. Sound-recording capabilities and the quality of built-in microphones also increase with price. But even the highest-priced digital cameras can’t record stereo sound, a feature found on every DV camcorder. (For more DV advantages, see sidebar on the next page.)
In the video industry, most digital camcorders record DV-format video onto miniDV tapes or Hi8 tapes. But digital camera makers have not agreed on a single format for video capture. So while it’s easy to get footage from a DV camcorder into your computer for editing or viewing on a TV, the wide variety of formats and compression schemes used by digital cameras is downright maddening. Recording formats include Apple’s QuickTime (.mov), Window’s Media (.avi), and several MPEG (.mpg) and JPEG (.jpg) choices.
The amount of compression is also an important factor. Most digital cameras include controls for changing the compression level of still images, but none (so far) let you adjust the compression level of video. DV camcorders compress video at a 5:1 ratio, so a second of video requires about 3.5 megabytes to store. At this level, details remain sharp and few artifacts appear even when viewed on High Definition televisions. Digital cameras have to shrink video and sound data to fit onto small, rather slow memory cards or into limited RAM buffers. That’s why even the best digital cameras we’ve tested store video at 12:1, while the worst approach 100:1 and are rife with artifacts.
In addition, a variety of compression algorithms and levels used can affect quality and compatibility with editing programs. For example, 320×240-pixel, 15-fps video clips captured by the Olympus Camedia D-580, and saved using the camera’s Photo-JPEG compression, refused to open in some editing software until we resaved them using M-JPEG compression, with Apple’s QuickTime Pro software. If you’re planning to edit video from a variety of cameras or camcorders, we recommend upgrading the free version of QuickTime Player to the Pro version (www.apple.com; $29). This program works with Macs and PCs and lets you view nearly every type of video, plus reformat your movies for use on the web or in DV-editing software.
Other, less obvious factors that affect video quality are the color-bit depth and sampling rate of the audio. In most cases, digital cameras capture color at the same 24 bits (or 16.7 million colors) as they do with still images. But some cameras (such as the Canon PowerShot A70) drop to 16-bit color in video mode. Sound also varies in quality, with the better models capturing 16-bit sound at a 32-44 Hz sampling rate, while lower-end cameras capture 8-bit sound at 8 Hz.
Frame rate: the number of images captured per second. 30 frames per second (fps) appear as smooth motion video when played on a TV.
Video resolution: DV camcorders capture 720×480 pixels per frame in video mode and 640×480 pixels (VGA) in still mode. Some still cameras achieve this res, but others capture 320×240 pixels (QVGA) per frame or less.
Compression ratio: compares the size of uncompressed video data to the size of stored data. Generally, the lower the ratio, the higher the image quality.
Tips for shooting video with a still camera
1) Don’t shoot vertical in video mode.
2) Use a tripod to minimize shake.
3) Use the highest-quality video-resolution setting, unless you’re running low on memory. You can always resize clips later to send as video e-mail.
4) Don’t overzoom during video recording (if you can zoom at all).
5) Keep clips short and stop between action instead of leaving the camera on.
6) Set manual white balance when possible before shooting.
7) Get closer to your subject in order to improve sound quality.
It’s show time!
How do you show off the videos you take? The easiest way, of course, is to play them back on your camera’s LCD. But not all cameras have a speaker for audio playback, and some have just tiny LCDs.
The next easiest method is to hook the digital camera to a TV through the video-out port. (They’ve all got ’em.) Problem is, the raw footage usually includes gaffes and background commentary. Only a few top models offer in-camera editing that lets you shorten a video clip and resave it, and most lack even the most rudimentary pause and rewind features found in all camcorders.
To make video clips shine like the prints you make from the same camera, you must enter the world of video editing. Here’s the good news: you don’t need a fancy FireWire (IEEE1394) connection like you do with a DV camcorder-you just need a card reader or a USB connection from your camera to the computer. Video clips can be dragged from the card to your hard drive, then opened in a variety of low-cost video-editing programs. (Some cameras are bundled with video-editing software and a few also have in-camera editing features.)
We could go into all the neat things you can do on your way toward becoming the next Steven Spielberg, but let’s just say video-editing software lets you add titles, dub sound, add fancy transitions and effects, and spruce up your video image quality.
So the next time you have folks over to see the wonderful prints you’ve added to your living room wall or den, make sure they stop by the wide-screen TV to see your latest movie. When they ask you what camcorder you own, reach into your pocket and show them.
Don’t think you can make enlargements from your video frames! Photo A (above) shows the detail from a 320×240-pixel video frame shot filming a dancer. Pretty lousy, eh? Photo B shows increased detail available from a VGA-res (640×480-pixel) digital camera or DV camcorder frame. But it can’t compare to the detail and image quality shown in photo C, which is a still shot from the 3.2MP Minolta Dimage Z1.
Don’t toss your camcorder just yet
Digital still cameras have come a long way in their quest to conquer DV camcorders, but for video enthusiasts, they still have a ways to go. There’s the lack of stereo sound recording, and some cameras have short video-clip length. But even the best digital camera can’t come close to recording the 1 to 1.5 hours of video that a DV camcorder can. And no digicam features a 22X optical lens, like the Canon ZR90 (shown, $599 street), or an analog-to-digital conversion feature that lets you turn older VHS and Hi8 tapes into DV footage. In addition, DV camcorders do a much better job of adapting white balance and focus during changing lighting conditions while recording. Most digital cameras lock in white balance at the start of the clip and lose track of moving subjects during video recording. And few digital cameras let you zoom while recording video, a common feature on DV camcorders. Also, DV camcorders generally feature larger LCD screens for playback, built-in titling, image stabilization, and speakers for audio playback. Perhaps the most-missed feature on digital cameras is controllable shutter and apertures when in the video mode. Without shutter control, most action shows up with significant blur, even in bright light. But at the rate digital cameras are improving on the video front, these features may all be in next year’s top models.
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What price for good video?
In the range from affordable to expensive, these five cameras represent the best in their class.
Under $200? Concord Eye-Q 4360z ($199 street)
The Concord Eye-Q 4360z is the first 4MP camera in its price range, featuring a 3X, f/2.8-5.6 optical zoom, 16MB internal storage, and compatibility with optional SD memory cards (for a full review, see May 2004). As a video camera, however, there’s less to brag about-although it does capture QVGA (320×240-pixel) resolution video at a smooth 30 fps until the memory card fills up. The video is low-res, pretty noisy, and the white balance was way off in our test clips. Oddly, there’s also a sound track saved with the Video For Windows .avi file (which uses M-JPEG compression at about 36:1), but it’s blank since the 4360z lacks a microphone for recording audio.
Under $300? Olympus Camedia D-580 Zoom ($299 street)
As a more-typically priced 4MP camera, the D-580 Zoom features a 3X, f/3.1-5.2 optical zoom, a burst-shooting mode of up to eight frames at 1.3 fps, advanced evaluative and spotmetering, and xD-Picture card storage. On the video front, it captures QVGA (320×240-pixel) frames at a slightly jumpy 15 fps until the memory is used up. Video files are saved in QuickTime (.mov) format using Photo-JPEG compression at about 12:1, which may explain their higher quality when compared with the Concord’s. Sound quality is nothing to shout about, but the camera does feature fast forward and rewind controls during playback, a plus.
Under $400? Canon PowerShot A70 ($350 street)
This 3.2MP camera costs a bit more than the two 4MP models above, but it features a bright, 3X, f/2.8-4.8 zoom lens, five-point TTL AF, shutter speeds from 15 to 1/2000 sec, creative presets and manual exposure-as well as remote control from a computer. It gives you VGA video resolution (640×480 pixels) at 15 fps, and records decent mono sound. Movies can also be shot at QVGA and 160×120-pixel resolutions. Clip lengths are limited to 30 seconds and stored in .avi format using M-JPEG compression at about 34:1 ratio. There’s also an adjustable-volume speaker, fast forward and rewind, and in-camera movie editing.
Under $500? Minolta Dimage Z1 ($420 street)
Pay more than $400 for a 3.2MP camera? Only if it boasts a 10X, f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens that gives you a 38-380mm (equivalent) field of view-and you see what you get through the Z1’s unique viewfinder. This camera’s most impressive features are its rapid AF system, progressive-capture burst mode, manual focus and exposure controls, advanced metering choices, and TTL flash control (for built-in and external units). On the video side, the Z1 captures up to full-frame VGA resolution at 30 fps, with other choices for QVGA and 160×120-pixel res at 15 or 30 fps. There’s also a color night-movie mode for shooting in very low light. Clip length depends on the capacity of the supported SD card and video settings, and movies are stored in QuickTime (.mov) format using Photo-JPEG compression at about a 28:1 ratio. The camera also records sound-unfortunately, the noise of the AF motor makes it fairly useless (advice: turn AF off).
If price is no problem? Fuji FinePix S20 Pro ($899 street)
Following in the footsteps of the Fujifilm FinePix S7000 (reviewed February 2004), the S20 Pro takes a step back in still resolution and a step forward in its video capabilities. On the still side, the camera’s Super CCD SR sensor features 3.1 million S-pixels and 3.1 million R-pixels, for a total 6.2MP rating. This sensor improves dynamic range over the S7000 and many other cameras in its class, but offers overall resolution closer to a 5MP camera-not the 8MP res of the S7000 in 12MP mode. The S20 Pro also features a 6X, f/2.8 optical zoom lens, a sharp electronic viewfinder, dual-media slots for xD-Picture and CF cards, shutter speeds from 30 to 1/10,000 sec, and a wide assortment of exposure and metering controls. Up to 10 hi-res images can be captured at up to 4.5 fps in burst mode. Video can be captured at full VGA resolution at 30 fps with mono sound or at lower quality levels. Clip length depends on the memory card capacity, and video is saved in .avi format using M-JPEG compression at about 25:1 ratio. This camera captures the best video quality we’ve seen short of a DV camcorder.