Defindit Docs and Howto Home

This page last modified: Oct 31 2007
title:Camcorder feature list and video hints
description:Hints about choosing a quality consumer digital camcorder, and creating good movies.

I've done quite a bit of reading about digital video and
camcorders. Here are some things I've learned:

People have noticed (complained) about Panasonic covering the Firewire
port with the battery. With most (all?) Panasonic camcorders you must
remove the battery and plug the camcorder into the external power
supply to use the Firewire (to download the video to your
computer). This turns out to be a feature: the battery is covering
most of the connectors on the camera protecting those connectors from
damage and dirt. Besides, moving 60 minutes of video (a full miniDV
tape) from the camcorder to your computer takes 60 minutes. That eats
up a battery and you do not want the battery to die in the middle of
the transfer.

The port on my Sony is exposed on the bottom of the camcorder, and
that worries me. I'm thinking that I'll keep a cover plate there
attached via the tripod mount.

The quality of miniDV movies is better than DVD, flash memory, or hard
drive camcorders. (I'm not sure about quality issues with DVD, hard
drive, and flash memory High Definition camcorders.) You can more
accurately crop the length of miniDV video. DVD and hard drive video
is compressed and as I understand only has a key frame every x frames,
thus you can only edit down to xth frame, but not in between (for
instance frame x+1). Here is an example that I think is accurate: if
you wife sneezes on the birthday cake and you want to shorten the clip
so that it starts playing a hundredth of a second after the sneeze,
miniDV allows that (you crop out the sneeze). I've had this happen all
the time. People make a stupid mouth noise right before they start
talking, and you want to edit that noise out. You'll need fine grained
editing capability, if you are going to edit.

Also, DVD and hard disk video has to be ripped (or transcoded) for
editing. This extra step is an extra loss of quality. There is a
persistent rumor that Apple's iMovie can't read miniDVD format,
especially Sony's VOB format (which may be slightly different from
other VOB formats).

Sony and Panasonic miniDV work flawlessly with iMovie. I tried the
Panasonic PV GS320 and Sony DCR HC96.

Additionally, I asked a few questions of a friend JJ who
is a professional.

Tom: There is a rumor that different tape manufacturers use a different
lubricant, and that switching tapes will somehow gum up the tape
mechanism. I'm guessing that this would refer to using a mixture of
tapes leaving residue on the head or pinch roller, that is somehow
worse than normal deposits. 

JJ: You should run a cleaning tape through any system periodically, I
think 10 hrs of operation is the recommended period. This will clean
any gunk left by tapes of any type. But I've not found any big
differences in brands of tape, though I would stick with the major
brands. You may find tape cheaper online than locally, especially if
you buy boxes of 10.

Tom: I couldn't find a Sony or Panasonic under $500 with an external
microphone (mic) input. An external mic is important because the
built-in mic is limited in what it can do. It is far more difficult to
get good sound than to get a good picture. Crazy but true: the sound
is a huge headache. An improved external mic will help, and an
expensive mic helps even more, but even high-end microphones don't
solve all your sound problems.

JJ: The gold standard for mics is a hard wired mic. The
wireless models can get very close in quality to a hard wired mic, but
cost a lot more. You can get a very good hard wired lavalier mic for
$150. If you've got an XLR jack on your camcorder you just plug it
in. If you've got a 1/8 inch microphone jack, you have to get a
Beechtek pro microphone input device, which screws into your tripod
mount on the bottom of your camera and gives you a couple of XLR
inputs. That box is around $100 or $150.  Getting good sound quality
is much more difficult than getting good video quality on small
camcorders. One of the reasons I got the Panasonic DXA100a is that is
has a pair of XLR jacks on the camcorder, and they are more solid than
those found on a equivalent Sony. (Tom: notice that JJ is using a
camcorder that is far more expensive that most of can afford.)

JJ: Generally built in mics are only good for people speaking 3 feet
or less from the camera. You can get a decent wireless lavalier for
around $400 from Azden that is specifically designed for DVCams. You
need to look at the audio inputs in your camera though. Less expensive
models have 1/8 inch jacks and more expensive have the XLR type
connection. Be sure to get the right type of connector for your mic.

Tom: I exported a movie clip from iMovie, but my parents Windows XP
computer can't play Quicktime. What format works and how to I keep the
quality decent and get a reasonable file size?

JJ: Quicktime can export as Windows Media if you buy the Pro plugin
from Flip For Mac. I think it is around $40.  About 60% of all PCs
have Quicktime already installed. But you can run into compatibility
problems with Windows Media as well if you use the latest version,
which few people have installed. Stick with Windows Media v. 7 or 8
for best backwards compatibility. That's not really an issue with
Quicktime, just use the MPEG-4 h.263 codec. Unless you've got a lot of
action, you can usually get by with 15fps for web video. That cuts
your file size in half. You can get pretty good quality VHS type
quality for around 800 kbps, which works fine on DSL and Cable Modem
connections. Quicktime Pro lets you define a target bandwidth when you
compress, though there are better tools out there if you want to spend
some money.