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Class Act: Where’s the Teaching Camera of Today?

This article first appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

Recently Apple caused yet another carefully crafted stir in the video world by finally enabling video recording on the newest iPhone, the 3GS, and then rolling out an iPod Nano that also doubles as a camcorder. As is so often the case with Apple product announcements, the only thing newsworthy about these announcements was that the House of Jobs decided to throw its hat in the ring. In fact, the consumer video market has been awash in tiny, easy-to-use camcorders for a few years, ever since Pure Digital Technologies introduced the Flip Video cam in 2006.

I was initially skeptical of this stripped-down camera that barely matched the performance of low-end miniDV camcorders. Brashly featuring an absolute minimum of controls, no manual adjustments, and a big, red record button, the Flip managed to repopularize home video for the Internet Age. It did so by throwing away the complexity imposed by functions that most users never touched in the first place. Apple’s entry into this market segment confirmed that immediate, no-frills video recording is more than a passing fad.

My own skepticism came from the fact that I am a member of the minority that uses those functions. Moreover, as an educator, I’ve relied upon manual focus and exposure controls to teach students the fundamentals of composing and capturing good moving images.

A few months before the video iPhone debuted, I was engaged in a nostalgic conversation with a couple of colleagues about the first generation miniDV camcorders. It’s hard to recapture the revelatory feeling of suddenly going from the barely NTSC resolution of analog Hi-8 and SuperVHS to the clean, broadcast-quality digital miniDV. Finally, underfunded educators could spend less than $2,000 and come out with video that would have required five times the investment a few years earlier.

It wasn’t just nostalgia—we also missed the feature set of those first consumer miniDV cameras. With basic and easily accessible exposure and focus controls, along with microphone and headphone inputs, these cameras seemed like they had been designed both for serious users and the average mom or dad. Around 1999 I bought a bunch of Canon’s first Elura Camcorders because they combined these features with small size and a high image quality for barely $1,000.

The Elura’s simple exposure wheel allowed me to show students how to correct for difficult lighting conditions that still fool most autoexposure systems. For instance, in interview and lecture videos I could ensure student videographers were able to prevent backlit subjects from becoming silhouettes (such as a professor standing in front of a window or projection screen).

The Elura wasn’t the only early miniDV camcorder with accessible manual controls; pretty much every major manufacturer offered such models. But as the decade wore on and digital camcorders were aimed more and more at mass-market consumers, these controls started to disappear from the consumer models.

I compare these early miniDV camcorders to the workhorse manual SLRs of the film era. Inexpensive enough for schools to buy them in useful quantities and tough enough to hold up to handling by hundreds of students, these cameras also provided no automation, so students could learn the basics of focus and exposure.

Now, barely a decade into the digital video era, we have camcorders costing under $200 that fit in a pocket, have no moving parts, and capture high-definition video. Nevertheless, a strong backlight still gives you a silhouette on the screen instead of a person.

I’m not saying you can’t capture compelling video with a Flip camera or an iPhone, only that there comes a time when you want to take control of making your video look the way you want rather than just hoping it might come out right. That’s the role of the teaching camera.

Still, I don’t think the teaching camera is a lost cause. Remember that iPhone 3GS? In addition to video capability, Apple added real autofocus and the ability to pick your focus point just by touching it on the screen. That’s like manual control, only smarter. Even professional photographers use autofocus on their digital SLRs; they just know how to make it focus where they want. There’s not much difference.

Maybe what lies ahead are superior camcorders that give us that level of control, but in more innovative and intuitive ways. I’d love a pocket HD camcorder that would let me fix the exposure with a simple touch of the screen (and not by drilling down through three layers of menu options). The point is for the videographer—student and veteran alike—to be able to master the tool in order to create video, not just take it. Any camera that allows this mastery is a teaching camcorder.