HD Camcorders: The Perfect Camcorder

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There's now a wide variety of affordable HD camcorders on the market, with many fantastic features (see our buyer's guide for all the details). But what would the perfect camcorder look like, good for both consumers and aspiring prosumers? A composite of what's already out there (but rarely in one place). Here are some ideas.

Must Haves

1080p Interlaced video is cute--if you're shooting for old-school broadcast. We're not. A 1080p camcorder that shoots at both 24p and 30p is ideal.

Mic and Headphone Jacks Sound is a good 60 percent of the experience of any story. Being able to hook up any external mic a person needs (as well as monitoring it during recording) is more than an extra, it's a necessity.

Manual Control for Focus, Gain, Zoom, Aperture, Shutter Speed Using an Analog Ring There are many times even an amateur shooter needs to deal with mixed lighting, low lighting, and other creative challenges. The ability to make manual adjustments is hugely important.

Expanded Focus Option When your eyes are focusing on a tiny screen, you aren't really seeing the whole picture. Expanded focus options, like one-to-one pixel viewing and peaking, allow you to make sure your focus is spot on. With one-to-one pixel viewing, the camera displays every pixel of a small area on the LCD screen so that you can really see what's happening. Since you are shooting 1,920 by 1,080 resolution and your LCD screen is, at best, one quarter this resolution, this process makes a big difference. Peaking looks for edges in the scene and changes their color so you can see them. When you are in focus, many of the fine details (eyes, glasses, and so on) will turn red.

Cine-Like Gamma and Sharpness Control Just a little control in this area would really make a big difference for budding filmmakers because it creates a more film-like look by not "punching up" the image (which consumer cameras are very prone to do). Over-saturated, over-contrasty video contributes to camcorder video looking like camcorder video. By flattening the response curve, Cine-Like tends to look a little low contrast but more film-like. Being able to turn down the sharpness makes a huge difference for anyone doing greenscreen in the garage because "sharpening" in the camera is created by finding edges and making the dark side darker and the light side lighter. When you are shooting greenscreen, it gives a subject's dark blazer a black edge with a white halo.

Image Stabilization and Face Recognition With these two features, minor camera-holding tremors are gone and everyone stays in focus. iMovie's image stabilization may be cool, but it's no replacement for good optical image stabilization (which also reduces motion blur--iMovie's process can't).

Uncompressed HDMI Out A camera may record at 2MBps to its flash memory or hard drive. The HDMI port can pump out 118MBps of video goodness, meaning you can pull broadcast-quality greenscreen keys from a US$500 camera.

Going Ultimate

Realtime Digital Output As FireWire vanishes from cameras, we loose the ability to easily view the video image in realtime on a connected computer. This is why people are still buying Canon HV30s.

1/2-inch Progressive Sensor The larger the sensor, the sharper the image the better the camera deals with low-light conditions. New Canon and Sony camcorders are getting close to that size, but the progressive part will require manufacturers to realize that interlace is dead and give it up.

Open Spec Hotshoe It seems like every manufacturer has its own standard for its hotshoe, which really stifles innovation for camcorder add-ons.

120 Frames Per Second Continuous Shooting Sony has a great 240 frames per second (fps) feature, but it only lasts three seconds. I'd prefer letting a shooter capture half the resolution at four times the standard 30 fps. That means you could capture slow motion video without any spike in video data rate.

Timelapse Some cameras let you shoot timelapse images, but not enough of them. Timelapse at full resolution should be available on every still and video camera. It's fun, it's not rocket science, and it's just firmware.

Night Shooting Sony's Nightshot is a great feature and really should be as standard as face recognition and optical image stabilization. Nightshot lets you shoot video in complete darkness by using infrared lights in the camera. The result is a green 'military' look--even if it's just your two-year-old son running around in the backyard.

GPS Once again, Sony is leading the pack here. iPhoto knows where we shot our still images. How long will it take iMovie to figure it out? Probably about three months less than it takes the manufacturers to get on board.

Apple ProRes Allow us to record a higher bit-rate using Apple ProRes codec. You could theoretically use a high-bit rate H.264 (AVCHD is capped at 24Mbps) but it would be easier to just use a video standard already supporting 100-plus Mbps bit rates. This may seem outlandish now, but with solid-state drives finding their way into cameras and SD cards getting faster all the time, it not that far away.

[Alex Lindsay is the founder of Pixel Corps, a training and production guild specializing in digital media. Alex has been involved in computer graphics work for nearly 20 years.]

This story, "HD Camcorders: The Perfect Camcorder" was originally published by Macworld.

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