If you already own a DV camcorder, you can safely skip to the next chapter—unless you’ve always wondered what this or that button on your camcorder does. In that case, surveying the following pages may enlighten you.
Like any hot new technology, DV camcorders started out expensive ($2,500 in 1996) and continue to plummet in price. At this writing, basic models start at $350; prosumer models hover around $2,000; many TV crews are adopting $3,500 models like the Canon XL1 or Sony’s high-definition FX1; and the fanciest, professional, commercial-filmmaking models go for $10,000. All of these camcorders are teeming with features and require a thick brochure to list them all.
FireWire is Apple’s term for the tiny, compact connector on the side of most DV camcorders. When you attach a FireWire cable, this jack connects the camera to your FireWire-equipped Mac. Other companies have different names for this connector—you may see it called IEEE-1394, i.Link, DV In/Out, or DV Terminal.
If the camera you’re considering doesn’t have this feature, don’t buy it; you can’t use that camera with iMovie (or any other DV software).
This single feature may be important enough to determine your camcorder choice by itself. Analog inputs are connectors on the camcorder (see Figure 1-2) into which you can connect older, pre-DV equipment, such as your VCR, your old 8 mm camcorder, and so on. There’s no easier, less expensive method of transferring older footage into your DV camcorder—or directly into iMovie.
Figure 1-2. Most camcorders offer inputs known as RCA connectors. Better models offer an S-video connector too, for much higher quality. (Most compact models require a special cable with RCA connectors on one end and a miniplug on the camcorder end, like the one shown here. Don’t lose this cable! You also need it to play your camcorder footage on TV.)
This technique is described in more detail in Chapter 4. For now, note only that the alternative method of transferring pre-DV footage into DV format is to buy a $200 converter box—an unnecessary purchase if your DV camcorder has analog inputs.
Using analog inputs, you can fill a couple of DV cassettes with, say, a movie you’ve rented. Then flip out the camcorder’s LCD screen, plug in your headphones, and enjoy the movie on your cross-country flight—in economy class. Smile: The people up front in first class paid $1,000 more for the same privilege.
Professional camcorders offer three individual image sensors, one for each color component of a video picture: red, green, and blue. These camcorders are advertised as having three chips or CCDs (charge-coupled devices—electronic plates, covered with thousands of individual light sensors, that convert light rays into a digital signal). The result is even more spectacular picture quality, resolution, and color rendition than the less-expensive, one-CCD cameras.
Unfortunately, most three-chip camcorders are larger and more expensive than one-chip cams (see the photos in Figure 1-7)—but they deliver much better color.
Not all three-chip models are big and pricey. Panasonic sells one for $500 that’s no larger than a standard MiniDV camcorder. Note, however, that it contains three very small CCDs, so the quality improvement is visible primarily in bright, outdoor scenes.
In the olden days, you’d set up your shots and monitor your filming by looking through a tiny glass eyepiece. Today, virtually all camcorders offer a small swing-out LCD screen (Figure 1-3). (LCD stands for liquid crystal display, the technology used to produce the image. As you may have noticed, it’s the same technology used in laptop screens.)
Figure 1-3. Your camcorder’s LCD screen can rotate 180 degrees to face front; that’s useful when you want to film yourself. Without an LCD screen, you’d have no idea whether or not you were centered in the frame.You can usually flip the LCD so far around, in fact, that you can press it flat against the camcorder, screen side out. That’s a nice way to play back your footage for a couple of onlookers.
The LCD means that when you’re shooting, you can see what the camcorder sees without having to mash your face against the eyepiece. Better yet, after shooting, you can play back your footage. And thanks to the small, built-in speaker found on every sub-$1,500 camcorder, you can watch and hear your work played back on the LCD screen while still “on location.”
Now, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. For one thing, the LCD panel usually has its own brightness control, which, if not adjusted perfectly, may trick you into thinking a scene is lit better (or worse) than it actually is. The color and exposure revealed by the LCD screen may not exactly match what’s going onto the tape, either.
When picture perfection counts, therefore, use your camcorder’s eyepiece viewfinder instead of the LCD panel. You may also want to use the eyepiece when it’s very bright and sunny out (the LCD display tends to wash out in bright light), when you don’t want people around you to see what you’re filming, and when you’re trying to save battery juice. The LCD display depletes your battery about 50 percent faster than when the LCD is turned off.
Certain film techniques scream “Amateur!” to audiences. One of them is the instability of handheld filming. In a nutshell, professional video is shot using a camera on a tripod (Woody Allen’s “handheld” period notwithstanding). Most home camcorder footage, in contrast, is shot from the palm of your hand.
A digital or electronic stabilizing feature (which may have a marketing name, such as Sony’s SteadyShot) takes a half step toward solving that problem. As shown in Figure 1-4, this feature neatly eliminates the tiny, jittery moves present in handheld video. (It can’t do anything about the bigger jerks and bumps, which are especially difficult to avoid when you’re zoomed in.) It also uses up your battery faster.
On some camcorders, you get an optical image stabilizer instead. This mechanism involves two transparent plates separated by a special optical fluid. As the camera shakes, these plates create a prism effect that keeps handheld shots clearer and steadier than many electronic (digital) stabilizers. The images are clearer because optical stabilizers don’t have to crop out part of the picture as a buffer, unlike the stabilizers illustrated in Figure 1-4.
Figure 1-4. Digital stabilization features work by “taking in” more image than you actually see in the viewfinder. Because the camcorder has some buffer, its computer can compensate for small bumps and jitters by keeping an “eye” on prominent features of the image. On less expensive camcorders, unfortunately, this buffer zone means that your camcorder is absorbing less video information, to the detriment of picture quality.
Here’s another plan for getting your older footage into iMovie: Buy what Sony calls a Digital8 camcorder. This fascinating hybrid doesn’t use the MiniDV videotapes used by all other DV camcorders. Instead, it accepts the less expensive 8 mm or, as Sony recommends, Hi-8 tapes.
Onto these cassettes, Digital8 camcorders record the identical DV signal found on MiniDV camcorders. But they can play back either digital video or traditional, analog video. (When recording digital video, however, the camera runs twice as fast—you still get only one hour of recording per tape, just as on MiniDV tapes.)
This kind of camcorder, in other words, may be a good solution if you have a library of old 8 mm tapes that you’d like to edit in iMovie. Your Mac can’t tell which kind of tape the Digital8 camcorder is playing.
On the other hand, full-blown DV camcorders and tapes are no longer much more expensive than their 8 mm predecessors, and Sony’s Digital8 camcorder family has already begun to wind down.
Better DV camcorders let you turn off the automatic focus, automatic exposure control, automatic white balance, and even automatic sound level. This feature can be useful in certain situations, as you’ll find out in the next chapter. If you’ve decided to pay extra for this feature, look for a model that lets you focus manually by turning a ring around the lens, which is much easier than using sliders.
When you read the specs for a DV camcorder—or read the logos painted on its body—you frequently encounter numbers like “12X/300X ZOOM!” The number before the slash tells you how many times the camera can magnify a distant image, much like a telescope. That number measures the optical zoom, which is the actual amount that the lenses themselves can zoom in. Such zooming, of course, is useful when you want to film something that’s far away. (As for the number after the slash, see “Digital zoom,” on the following page.)
You should know, however, that the more you’ve zoomed in, the shakier your footage is likely to be, since every microscopic wobble is magnified by, say, 12 times. You also have to be much more careful about focusing. When you’re zoomed out all the way, everything is in focus—things near you, and things far away. But when you’re zoomed in, very near and very far objects go out of focus. Put into photographic terms, the more you zoom in, the shorter the depth of field (the range of distance from the camera that can be kept in focus simultaneously).
Finally, remember that magnifying the picture doesn’t magnify the sound. If you’re relying on the built-in microphone of your camcorder, always get as close as you can to the subject, both for the sound and for the wobble.
As you’ll discover in the next chapter, professional video and film work includes very little zooming, unlike most amateur video work. The best zooming is subtle zooming, such as when you very slowly “move toward” the face of somebody you’re interviewing.
For this reason, when shopping for camcorders, test the zooming if at all possible. Find out if the camcorder has variable-speed zooming, where the zooming speed increases as you press the Zoom button harder. Some camcorders offer only two different speeds—fast and faster—but that’s still better than having no control at all. (Variable-speed zooming isn’t something mentioned in the standard camcorder literature; you generally have to try the camcorder in the store to find out how it does.)
Fortunately, the problems exhibited by camcorder batteries of old—such as the “memory effect”—are a thing of the past. (When you halfway depleted a pre-DV camcorder battery’s charge several times in a row, the battery would adopt that half-way-empty point as its new completely empty point, effectively halving its capacity.) Today’s lithium-ion battery technology (used by DV camcorders) eliminates that problem.
Sony’s InfoLithium batteries even contain circuitry that tells the camera how much juice the battery has remaining. A glance at the viewfinder or a small side-panel readout tells you how many minutes of recording or playback you’ve got left—a worthy feature.
The number of minutes’ recording time advertised for camcorder batteries is continuous recording time—that is, the time you’ll get if you turn the camcorder on, press Record, and go out to lunch. If you stop and start the camera to capture shorter scenes, as almost everyone does, you’ll get much less than the advertised amount of time out of each battery charge.
As you can read in the next chapter, insufficient lighting is one of the leading causes of “amateuritis,” a telltale form of poor video quality that lets viewers know that the footage is homemade. In the best—and most expensive—of all possible worlds, you’d get your scene correctly lit before filming, or you’d attach a light to the “shoe” (light connector) on top of the camera. Those few cameras that have such a shoe, or even have a built-in light, give you a distinct advantage in filming accurate colors.
Most DV camcorders come with a number of canned focus/shutter speed/aperture settings for different indoor and outdoor environments: Sports Lesson, Beach and Snow, Twilight, and so on. They’re a useful compromise between the all-automatic operation of less expensive models and the all-manual operation of professional cameras.
Some DV camcorders come with a pocket-sized remote control. It serves two purposes. First, its Record and Stop buttons give you a means of recording yourself, with or without other people in the shot. Second, when you’re playing back footage with the camcorder connected to your TV or VCR, the remote lets you control the playback without needing to have the camcorder on your lap. You may be surprised at the remote’s usefulness.
Although few consumers appreciate it, today’s camcorders also set their aperture automatically. The aperture is the hole inside the barrel of your camcorder’s snout that gets bigger or smaller to admit more or less light, preventing you from under- or overexposing your footage. (Inside the camera is an iris—a circle of interlocking, sliding panels that move together to reduce or enlarge the opening, much like the one in a still camera.)
The automatic aperture circuitry works by analyzing the image. If it contains a lot of light—such as when you’re filming against a snowy backdrop or aiming the camera toward the sun—the iris closes automatically, reducing the opening in the camera lens and thus reducing the amount of light admitted. The result: You avoid flooding the image with blinding white light.
Unfortunately, there may be times when you have no choice but to film somebody, or something, against a bright backdrop. In those cases, as you may have discovered through painful experience, the person you’re trying to film shows up extremely dark, almost in silhouette (see Figure 1-5). Now the background is correctly exposed, but the subject winds up underexposed.
Figure 1-5. Without the backlight mode, your camcorder is likely to turn your subject into a silhouette (left). The backlight button compensates by brightening everything up (right).
A Backlight button, then, is a valuable asset on a camcorder. Its purpose is to tell the camera, “OK, look, it’s a bright scene; I can appreciate that. But I’m more interested in the subject that’s coming out too dark at the moment. So do me a favor and open that aperture a couple of notches, will you?”
The camera obliges. Your subject no longer winds up too dark—in fact, modern camcorders do a great job at making sure the subject turns out just right. But overriding the automatic aperture control undoes the good the automatic iris originally did you—now everything around your subject is several shades too bright. Alas, there’s no in between. Either your subject or the background can be correctly exposed in very bright settings—but not both.
If your camcorder has a manual-exposure knob, you can similarly compensate for backlit scenes, but with much more control. Professionals and semi-pros, in fact, turn the auto-exposure feature off completely. True, they must now adjust the exposure knob for every single new shot, but their footage is then free from the bizarre and violent darkening or brightening that auto-exposure electronics can create as you pan across a scene.
All camcorders offer automatic focus. Most work by focusing on the image in the center of your frame as you line up the shot.
That’s fine if the subject of your shot is in the center of the frame. But if it’s off-center, you have no choice but to turn off the autofocus feature and use the manual-focus ring. (Using the camcorder isn’t like using a still camera, where you can point the camera directly at the subject for focusing purposes, and then—before taking the shot—shift the angle so that the subject is no longer in the center. Camcorders continually refocus, so pointing the camera slightly away from your subject makes you lose the off-center focus you’ve established.)
Some Canon, Sony, and Sharp camcorders let you point to a specific spot in the frame that you want to serve as the focus point, even if it’s not the center of the picture. (This feature is called FlexiZone on the Canon models, or Push Focus on high-end Sony models. On Sony cams with touch-screen LCD panels, it’s especially easy to indicate which spot in the frame should get the focus.) If the model you’re eyeing has this feature, it’s worth having.
Most Sony camcorders offer a mode called NightShot that works like night-vision goggles. In this mode, you can actually film (and see, as you watch the LCD screen) in total darkness. The infrared transmitter on the front of the camcorder measures the heat given off by various objects in its path, letting you capture an eerie, greenish night scene. Rent The Silence of the Lambs for an idea of how creepy night-vision filming can be. Or watch any episode of Survivor.
The transmitter’s range is only about 15 feet or so. Still, you may be surprised how often it comes in handy: on campouts, during sleepovers, on nighttime nature walks, and so on.
All DV camcorders offer a snapshot mode in which you can “snap” a still photo. The camcorder freezes one frame of what it’s seeing, and records it either on the tape (for, say, a 7-second stretch) or on a memory card.
The still-image quality captured by most camcorders is pretty terrible. The resolution is OK on recent models (some camcorders offer two- or even three-megapixel resolution), but the quality isn’t anywhere near what you’d get using a dedicated digital still camera. It turns out that the lenses and circuitry that best serve video are all wrong for stills.
If the camcorder you’re considering offers this feature, fine. But it may be redundant for the iMovie owner. iMovie can grab one-megapixel still frames from any captured video, as described in Chapter 9.
This special kind of image sensor is primarily useful for capturing still images. It ensures that the entire image is grabbed, not just one set of alternating, interlaced scan lines (the usual video signal). If you plan to catch still frames from your camcorder, a progressive-scan CCD will spare you some of the jagged lines that may appear. However, if your primary goal is to make movies, this expensive feature is not worth paying for, especially since you can buy a digital still camera, with much greater resolution, for about the same added cost.
Some camcorders let you superimpose titles (that is, lettering) on your video as you film. In your case, dear iMovie owner, a title-generating feature is useless. Your Mac can add gorgeous, smooth-edged type, with a selection of sizes, fonts, colors, and even scrolling animations to your finished movies, with far more precision and power than the blocky text available to your camcorder. (Chapter 7 shows you how.)
Infact, as a general rule, you should avoid using (or paying for) any of the in-camera editing features described in this chapter—title generator, fader, special effects—because you can do this kind of editing much more effectively in iMovie. Not only are they redundant, but they commit you to an editing choice in advance, thus limiting how you can use your footage.
Most DV camcorders offer a Fade or Fader button. If you press it once before pressing the Record button, you record a smooth, professional-looking fade-in from blackness. But iMovie offers much more graceful and controlled fade-ins and fade-outs. For example, you can specify exactly how many seconds long the fade should last, and you can even fade into a color other than black.
In a few fancy camcorders, you can rerecord only the soundtrack on a piece of tape you’ve already shot. You could conceivably use this feature to add, for example, an accompanying rock song to a montage of party scenes.
But iMovie offers far more flexibility. For example, iMovie lets you add a piece of music to a scene without deleting the original voices, as your camcorder’s audio-dub feature would.
Most DV camcorders offer a selection of six or seven cheesy-looking special effects. They can make your footage look solarized, or digitized, or otherwise processed (see Figure 1-6).
Avoid using these effects; iMovie comes with a number of such special effects—and gives you far greater control over when they start, when they end, and how intensely they affect the video (Chapter 6). And even then, unless you’re shooting a documentary about nuclear explosions or bad drug episodes, consider avoiding these effects altogether.
Every camcorder offers the ability to stamp the date and time directly onto the footage. As you’ve no doubt seen (on America’s Funniest Home Videos or America’s Scariest Cop Chases), the result is a blocky, typographically hideous stamp that permanently mars the footage. Few things take the romance out of a wedding video, or are more distracting in spectacular weather footage, than a huge 20 SEP 05 12:34 PM stamped in the corner.
Figure 1-6. Using the stock collection of special effects built into your camcorder, you can create special, hallucinogenic visuals. The question is: why?
Nor do you have to worry that you’ll one day forget when you filmed some event. As it turns out, DV camcorders automatically and invisibly date- and time-stamp all footage. You’ll be able to see this information when you connect the camcorder to your Mac; then you can choose whether or not to add it to the finished footage (and with much more control over the timing, location, and typography of the stamp).
You, however, have a far superior editing console—iMovie—and a far superior connection method—FireWire. Control-L and Lanc are worthless to you.
Much as computer owners mistakenly jockey for superiority by comparing the megahertz rating of their computers (higher megahertz ratings don’t necessarily make faster computers), camcorder makers seem to think that what consumers want most in a camcorder is a powerful digital zoom. Your camcorder’s packaging may “boast” zoom ratings of “50X,""100X,” or “500X!”
When a camcorder uses its digital zoom—the number after the slash on the camcorder box—it simply enlarges the individual dots that compose its image. Yes, the image gets bigger, but it doesn’t get any sharper. As the dots get larger, the image gets chunkier, coarser, and less recognizable, until it ends up looking like the blocky areas you see superimposed over criminals’ faces to conceal their identity on Cops. After your digital zoom feature has blown up the picture by 3X, the image falls to pieces. Greater digital zoom is not something worth paying extra for.
Virtually every camcorder manufacturer has adopted the DV format, including Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Sharp, RCA, Hitachi, and Canon. Each company releases a new line of models once or twice a year; the feature list always gets longer, the price always gets lower, and the model numbers always change.
Figure 1-7. The model lineup changes constantly, and new formats come and go. Here, for example, are three of Sony’s digital camcorders.Top left: At its introduction, the world’s smallest and least expensive high-definition camcorder: the HC3, complete with widescreen (16:9) flip-out screens.Top right: The PC series represents some of the tiniest MiniDV camcorders you can buy.Bottom: The awesome, three-chip, semi-pro HDTV camcorder known as the HDR-FX1 (not to scale) is a camcorder that Apple calls a perfect companion for iMovie HD.
Cameras come in all sizes, shapes, and price ranges (see Figure 1-7). In magazine reviews and Internet discussion groups, Sony and Canon get consistently high marks for high quality. JVC and Sony make the smallest, most pocketable models. Still, each manufacturer offers different exclusive goodies, and each camcorder generation improves on the previous one.
To look over a company’s latest camcorders, start by reading about them at the relevant Web site:
Sony. Visit http://www.sonystyle.com, and then navigate your way to the Digital Camcorder page.
Canon. Go to http://www.canondv.com to view the various models.
Panasonic. Details are at http://www.panasonic.com/consumer_electronics/camcorder.
Sharp. For more on Sharp’s ViewCam series, hit http://www.sharpusa.com/products/TypeLanding/0,1056,70,00.html (or just go to sharpusa.com and navigate your way to the camcorders).
JVC. These camcorders have come a long way since the early days, when JVC’s models were incompatible with iMovie. Now they work smoothly, and come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes (including several that record onto hard drives instead of tape). Visit http://www.jvc.com and navigate to digital camcorders.
Camcorders, as it turns out, are famous for having hopelessly unrealistic list prices. The high-definition Sony HDR-FX1, for example, has an official price tag of $3,700, but you can find it for under $3,000 online.
Once you’ve narrowed down your interest, then, go straight to a Web site like http://www.shopper.com to see what the real-world price is. Such Web sites specialize in collecting the prices from mail-order companies all over the world. When you specify the camcorder model you’re looking for, you’re shown a list of online stores that carry it, complete with prices. (All of the prices in this chapter came from listings on those Web sites.)
As you’ll quickly discover, prices for the same camcorder cover an extremely large range. Use the price-comparison Web sites if saving money is your priority.
Of course, you can also find DV camcorders at electronics and appliance superstores (Circuit City, Best Buy, and so on), mail-order catalogs, and even photo stores.