New To Video
Information for Getting Started

by John Beale   July 2001

I want to buy a digital video camera for vacation and family use. A compact size, and a good picture are important. Spare me the details; just tell me what camera I should buy?
Broadly speaking you get what you pay for (apart from my free, and yet valuable advice :-). I find Sony and Canon to be the best brand choices. At the current time (July 2001) I favor the Sony TRV20 for general home use. It is quite compact and has good quality, though it is comparatively expensive. It will shortly be replaced by the mostly-similar TRV30. The Canon Optura Pi is less expensive. These are cameras which represent a good value in their respective price ranges. If a very small camera is the top priority, you can choose between the Sony PC5 and the Canon Elura II; more about those elsewhere on my webpage. This answer assumes you are a home user, not a professional. As you will see from my page, there are certainly higher-quality camcorders available, but they are (1) larger and (2) cost more money.

I want to start video editing at home. I know I need a good camcorder, computer, video card, but what I don't know is which one, how do I put it together, where do I start? I talked to many people and they all told me different things...
Asking which camcorder, computer, or video editing system to buy is like asking what car to buy: there is no single best answer. It all depends on where you want to go, how quickly you want to get there, and how much you want to spend. Just as you'd expect, if you want to go in style, it will cost you more.

There are several different types of video cameras on the market. Listed by recording format in order of price, they are:

Recording Format    Notes
VHS/VHS-C/Video8  lowest quality, cheapest
Hi8               better quality
Digital 8         digital, can read 8/Hi8 also
MiniDV            digital, high-end consumer

SVHS              industrial, older
Betacam/BetaSP    professional analog
D9,DigiBeta       professional digital
I am a video hobbyist who has done some event video with "prosumer" level gear, specifically the Sony TRV900 and VX2000, and Canon GL1. I have no experience with professional video equipment so I will focus instead on the equipment sold in the consumer market. This ranges from VHS-C or Video8 camcorders around $350 to the high-end consumer or prosumer units up to $4000.

The least expensive cameras, using the Video8, VHS-C or full-sized VHS format, start around $350 (although I've seen close-out sales for $200). A fold-out LCD viewfinder adds $100 or more to the price, depending on the size of the viewscreen. These cameras have been around for about a decade and are very frequently used as the family camcorder. When you test the camera in the store, you will usually see the "live" image. Remember that these video formats have lower resolution and more smeared colors during playback from tape than when used "live". However they are popular due to the lower cost, and depending on your requirements they may suit your needs. The image quality is noticibly worse than broadcast TV.

The Hi8 tape format is capable of nearly twice the resolution of VHS or Video8, although the color quality is not necessarily any better. It also can record very good sound quality. Hi8 camcorders range from about $450 - $1500 depending on features. My first camera was the Canon ES2500 Hi8, which as of late 1999 cost around $500. I think it does a quite decent job. In good light, a good Hi8 camera may approach what you see on broadcast TV. Like the cheaper cameras, the image quality "live" is better than on tape playback. After using my ES2500 about 6 months I became dissatisfied with the resolution and color performance since I had seen how good the digital (MiniDV) cameras were.

The Digital 8 cameras, a recent invention by Sony, can play back existing analog Video8 or Hi8 format tapes, but record only with a digital signal which contains exactly the same information as the DV or MiniDV cameras use. The current D8 cameras have a fairly low-resolution CCD chip which makes them equivalent in live image quality to a low-end Hi8 camera. However, unlike the Hi8, the tape playback is just as good as the "live" signal, and they can also record from the external analog inputs (or DV/firewire input) a real professional-quality signal. I own the least expensive D8 camera, the TR7000. The more expensive ones have more features but have the same CCDs and the same image quality. I have some more notes about D8 cameras here.

The MiniDV format, now on the market for about 4 years, has greatly improved the quality of video recording available to the consumer. MiniDV cameras range in price from the Panasonic PV-DV910 around $800 to the Canon XL-1 at $4000. (Some professional full-sized DV cameras, like the $8000 Sony DSR-300 can also record on MiniDV tapes.) Digital video using the DV format (eg. Digital 8, MiniDV, DVCAM, full-sized DV) can record up to 540 lines of resolution with excellent color, yielding a better picture than most television sets can clearly display, and better than over-the-air broadcast TV (though not necessarily superior to cable TV). DV formats record audio as either 2 tracks: 16-bit PCM stereo (same as CD), or as 4 tracks: 12-bit (two stereo channels). Many DV cameras allow audio insert dubbing on the second stereo pair, if your original recording used the 12-bit audio mode.

Remember that a camcorder is really two separate things in one box: a video camera, and a video tape recorder. The image you get on playback depends on both of these. For the analog formats, the tape recorder is the weak link, but for D8 and MiniDV camcorders, the digital recording is very good and the limiting factor is usually the camera section: the CCD chip(s), lens, and video processing circuits. Most MiniDV cameras give a picture quality which is better than most Hi8 cameras, but this may not always be the case. In particular the cheapest MiniDV cameras (eg. Canon ZR10) are in some ways inferior to good Hi8 cameras. Image quality tends to follow the price of the camera closely.

There is a difference between single-chip and 3-chip cameras. The less expensive MiniDV cameras (under $1800) use a single CCD chip to capture the image through the lens, which in general yields less attractive color images than a 3-CCD chip camera (eg. Sony TRV900, VX2000, Panasonic PV-DV950, AG-DVC10, Canon GL1, XL1). The difference may not be obvious under all lighting conditions or on all video displays. If you are pleased with the image from a single-CCD camera, you may not wish to spend extra for a 3-CCD unit. My TRV900 page describes that 3-CCD MiniDV camera in detail, and I have links to information on other MiniDV Cameras there as well as some reviews of other cameras.

Whatever camera you use, it is worth your while to pay attention to lighting. All video cameras have more grainy images and washed-out color in low light, such as typical indoor lighting at night, as compared with daytime light levels. Remember, good video always needs good lighting (which means properly balanced and directed light, as well as simply enough of it). Even more than the type of camera, I feel it is careful attention to lighting that marks the most obvious difference in image quality between amateur and professional video production. Of course there are many other issues, see for example these production quality and film look discussions.

In my comparison of formats I have focused on video image quality. You will hear video production people say that the sound is half, or more, of the whole production so you should not ignore this aspect when you are planning your own video work. For good sound your camera should be able to use external microphone(s). Hi8 and MiniDV formats allow very good quality sound recording; the limitations will most likely be your microphones and where they are located. I have a page about microphones.

Video Editing

One advantage of digital video is that the signal can be copied without loss of quality, as inevitably happens with each generation with analog formats. Editing is almost always necessary to make a video program that is interesting for other people to watch. You can edit directly between two digital cameras, which is quick and fairly easy, although limited in the effects you can use. You can also edit with a computer: this is called NLE (non-linear editing). This can allow you almost any imaginable video effect, with the right software, but can be quite slow (depending on your hardware) and also complex to master.

I have very little to say about computers and video editing, other than this is a very fast-moving field and you should be prepared to either work with hardware more than a year old, or expect to update software drivers and generally reconfigure more than once to make things work. You will find what I know or have been told on my video editing page and I highly recommend Pat Leong's NLE page as well.

Back to TRV900 page.