Lights! Action! Camcorders!
Constantly improving video cameras offer all the options, from super-high definition to instant DVDs
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005
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Also, remember the huge difference between MiniDV camcorder tapes and VHS tapes for your VCR. The camcorder tape is recording a digital signal, a pristine stream of ones and zeros, while the VHS tape is an analog recording medium, based on magnetic fluctuations and prone to corruption and distortion. You can squeeze a whole lot of video data onto a MiniDV tape cassette. In fact, the high-definition camcorders discussed earlier use standard MiniDV cassettes, an amazing technical achievement.
Still, the number of DVD camcorders sold continues to rise. Why? Because we crave convenience, and popping a disc out of your camcorder and into your DVD player is a seductive proposition. So here's where we hit the proverbial fork in the road. There's indisputably a case to be made for DVD camcorders. They record on pint-size three-inch DVD discs (about 20 minutes per disc at the highest quality settings) that are easy to carry and store. You can easily jump from scene to scene on the disc, and even create playlists that string together scenes in the order you choose. And yes, you can play the discs on your home DVD player, after you've finished shooting with that disc and permanently "finalized" it (there are rewritable DVD discs, too, but playing them on a home DVD player is strictly hit-and-miss). What you're sacrificing, though, is video quality, and to my eyes it's too noticeable a sacrifice to accept. And if you ever want to edit your video footage on a computer, you're asking for additional image deterioration—opening up compressed video, fiddling with it and then recompressing it makes a bad story worse. At the very least, I'd urge you to look at DVD camcorder playback on a TV set (not the little camcorder screen) before making up your mind.
I took two DVD camcorder models for test drives, the oh-so-cute Sony DCR-DVD7 ($700) and the more businesslike Hitachi DZGX20A ($1,000). The Sony quickly proved to be a wonderful way to meet new people—its unique round shape consistently drew interested inquiries from passersby. As for performance, I liked the 2.5-inch touch-screen LCD menus and the solid feel in my hands (it does take two hands to hold properly), though the lack of an optical viewfinder is a problem when shooting in bright light. Unfortunately, the video image was not what I'd hoped for. My beautiful solid-white American Eskimo dog lost all detail running through a green grassy yard, and indoor shots in moderate light were a gloomy mess.
The Hitachi is a more straightforward camcorder—no crowd-pleasing peculiarities, but I did admire the new model's slender body, compared to the over-wide handful of previous versions. The ability to connect your old tape camcorder and record the footage onto a DVD on the Hitachi is a nice touch and, if you're into camcorder still photography, the two-megapixel stills are better than average. As for video quality, it's a step up from the Sony, but a critical eye will still pick out jagged lines that should be straight and loss of detail (particularly in fast action scenes).
JVC has found a different way to deliver the instantaneous scene-to-scene navigation and easy computer file transfer found in DVD-based camcorders. Its Everio line includes several models that record to internal hard drives. The JVC GZ-MC500 I tested ($1,799.99) is the top-of-the-line model, boasting a three-image-sensor system for optimal color quality and five-megapixel still capture capability. In a lot of ways, it's directly targeted at guys like me, who live on their computers, enjoy tinkering with video files and love a good job of miniaturization—the 14-ounce camera is about the size of my fist, and that's tasty tech. On the plus side, those three image sensors deliver scrumptious colors with very good sharpness. Results aren't quite as impressive indoors, where the color shifts uncomfortably toward red under regular light bulbs, although manual adjustments are available to cope with the problem. The recorded video files aren't recognized by every video-editing program, which is annoying, but JVC does supply perfectly respectable software for file playback and DVD creation. As for photos, the five-megapixel claim is a bit overstated (some mathematical manipulation is used to achieve this level of resolution), but the stills are still very good overall, and look fine in typical 4'' x 6'' prints.
On the other hand, I can get equal video quality from a compact three-sensor tape camcorder (see the Panasonic above) at a much lower price. JVC records video and stills onto a four-gigabyte removable hard drive, each of which holds an hour of video at the highest quality settings. You might spring for a spare drive (they run over $200), but inevitably you'll have to transfer files from the camera to your computer—not a difficult task, but more work than popping in a fresh tape or blank DVD. You get fast navigation through your video files, and even the option of deleting scenes that came out badly and reusing the disk space instantly, but I'm not sure the perks justify the price.
Tale of the Two Heads
One of the most ballyhooed camcorder features in today's market is the ability to shoot digital photos along with video. Sounds good—nobody wants to lug two pieces of gear, after all. The results, though, are almost universally disappointing. Camcorder photos are better than cell-phone snapshots—at least you have a lens larger than a pinhead. But the image sensor is optimized for video, not to capture still images, and that's not going to give you great photo quality. I still carry a real still camera when I travel, and use the camcorder for snaps when it's the only option. With one exception.
Back in 2003, Samsung got the wacky idea of essentially merging two separate devices, a camcorder and a digital camera, in a single body and calling it a DuoCam. Two lenses, two image sensors, no compromises. Well, OK, there was one compromise. As with Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in the beloved 1972 film The Thing with Two Heads, the original DuoCam was an ungainly
creation, too bulky to carry comfortably. The mad scientists at the company didn't give up on their experiment, though, and with the new SC-D6550 DuoCam ($800), I do believe they've gotten it right. For starters, the new model is roughly the same size and shape as any other camcorder. Weighing in at about one pound, it's 40 percent smaller than the previous-generation DuoCam. Video performance is fine, with a 10x zoom lens and controls that, for the most part, are easy to use (the exception is the video record button, which is wedged between the battery and the mode select switch in such an extraordinarily uncomfortable way, you have to assume it was designed for alien appendages). Still, I'll forgive even this gross blunder when I factor in the DuoCam's photographic capabilities—it shoots high-resolution stills with a separate 3x zoom lens and five-megapixel sensor, delivering impressive color and sharpness (and there's a separate photo shutter button, thank goodness). For mission-critical photo expeditions I'm still going to pack my digital SLR camera, which boasts a sharper lens and zippier performance. But for family gatherings and such, the DuoCam is a terrific dual-purpose device.
The world and I seem to be having a disagreement over what I'll call "casual" photos and video—the less-than-optimal-quality digital files shot with a variety of phones, cameras and oddball devices, designed mostly for e-mailing or capturing a moment when a higher-quality camera or camcorder isn't available. I knew the mainstream was leaving me off in a drainage ditch a few years ago when, on a trip to Japan, I toted my digital SLR camera from scenic wonder to historic shrine, happily grabbing high-res images, while all around me Japanese tourists were merrily clicking away with their cell phones. Today, I see the same behavior as I walk the streets of New York, as people of many lands descend on our fair city and leave with low-res cell-phone souvenirs of their stay. Guess I'm just out of step—after all, I actually walk the streets sometimes with no cell phone at all. I'll end up in a reeducation camp before the decade's over.
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