Death of the camcorder, film at 11.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that recent advances in digital video aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

It’s not that they are going entirely unnoticed. This recent “review of tiny digital cameras”: in the New York Times notes the video abilities of each camera without really considering the implications of a ~$300 device capable of shooting long clips of TV quality video.

I’ve been tracking this since I noticed that the clips shot by my first digital camera, a Nikon CoolPix 990, reminded me of old 8mm home movies. The resolution was poor, the focus was questionable, the colors were oversaturated, the motion was jerky and blurred and the audio was non-existant, but it captured something that a much better still photo couldn’t.

My second digital camera, a Canon PowerShot S400 I bought 18 months ago, improved things somewhat. The image quality had improved a little, but I could shoot up to 3 minutes at a time (longer than a lot of takes in TV and movies), and there was poor quality audio to go along with it. Most importantly, I could carry it in my pocket and the movies were almost as easy to mail around as the photos I took.

Since then, I’ve been waiting for the next step, and we are finally there. My brother just e-mailed me a short clip of my nephew singing me happy birthday that he’d taken with his new Canon Powershot SD400 (or maybe it was the Canon SD500, which has identical video capabilities). The clip was 640×480 @ 30 frames/second, Details were crisp, motion was smooth and there weren’t a lot of ugly compression artifacts. The audio wasn’t bad either (which isn’t to say it was good). Best of all, the camera is about the size of a deck of cards or a pack of cigarettes (depending on your vice), so you can take it anywhere, and you can record until the memory card fills up.

I’m betting that my brother’s DV camcorder is going to see a lot less use now, and I’m sure his won’t be the only one.

Don’t get me wrong, camcorders are better by a lot of criteria. They have lenses with a wider range of zoom, they work better in low light, have better autofocus, image stabilization, more storage, better audio (including the ability to use an external microphone), and a form factor that is probably better for long stable shots but they suffer alot in the convenience department, most are relatively bulky compared to a small camera, and they transfer video in realtime (1 minute of video takes a minute to transfer to your computer).

These new digital cameras, on the other hand, offer good video quality under good lighting and I’d guess that people aren’t going to mind a little jumpyness and mono audio if it means catching a clip of their kids first step they wouldn’t otherwise get.

All this suggests a few opportunities to me. Camera reviewers should be going into more depth on the video abilities of cameras. At this point, they just cover the basics, like resolution, frame rate, and maybe average data rate and maximum clip length. I’d like to know more: what’s the image quality like? are there obvious compression artifacts? can I zoom during a clip? does the camera do a good job of adjusting the focus as the main subject of the scene moves? etc.

Software makers could make it as simple to compress a clip to share with friends and family on the net as they do for resize photos for emailing. Image stabilization in software would also be cool.

It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.

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