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Choosing a Camera for Online Video Production

If you bought a camcorder 10 years ago, chances are it was DV or DVCAM, and it stored its video on DV or DVCAM tape. If you bought one 3 years ago, it was likely HDV and DV tape. Today, it could be any one of five or six HD formats (AVCHD, HDV, DVCPRO HD, XDCAM HD, or AVC-Intra) stored on four or five different storage mechanisms (tape, SD or SDHC card, P2, SxS, hard disk, or optical disc).

Are you concerned about navigating through this maze of options? Well, if so, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next 3,000 words or so, I’ll detail these options and others, and I’ll tell you which questions to ask before buying your next HD camcorder. I’ll even detail the top four camcorders to consider in 2009.

To make my word count and to maintain my sanity, I’ll focus on 3CCD camcorders that cost between $3,500 and $5,000, which I think is the real sweet spot for high quality and value. If you’re a bargain-basement shopper, an indie filmmaker, or a wannabe, you might learn some valuable information, but you’ll probably want to buy a different class of camcorder. With so much to get through, let’s jump right in.

Question One: Parlez-Vous Progressive?
At this point, it’s generally accepted that progressive-scan source video produces higher-quality frames for streaming than interlaced source material, so if you’re purchasing for streaming production, be sure to purchase a camcorder that shoots in progressive mode. Unfortunately, there’s lots of debate as to which camcorders actually shoot in "true" progressive.

To explain, Panasonic and JVC have traditionally been credited with true progressive recording, while other vendors have used a variety of techniques to simulate progressive. Sony’s CineFrame mode, as implemented by Sony in the HDR-FX1/HVR-Z1U class of camcorders, produced noticeably lower-resolution video than the interlaced mode, which translated to slightly fuzzy detail. For this reason, in most instances, shooting in interlaced mode and deinterlacing in your editor or encoding tool would produce better results than shooting and producing in CineFrame mode. Interestingly, Sony’s HVR-Z5U, which will replace the Z1U in 2009, records in true progressive mode, making it a good choice for streaming production.

Figure 1
Panasonic’s HVX200 is credited with "true" progressive video, which provides source video suitable for streaming.

Conversely, though Canon never claimed "true" progressive for the Frame mode used in its XH A1 line of camcorders, I found the quality identical to side-by-side progressive shots from the Panasonic HVX200, which is credited with true progressive. For this reason, I use Frame mode when shooting for streaming, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy or to recommend the XH A1S for those users buying a camcorder for streaming applications.

Figure 2
Though Canon never claimed "true" progressive for the Frame mode used in its XH A1 line of camcorders, I found the quality identical to side-by-side progressive shots from the Panasonic HVX200.

Fortunately for us, true progressive-scan capture is supported in most newer camcorders, though more for indie filmmakers trying to achieve the filmic look than for streaming producers seeking top quality. If you’re looking at older models, however, you may need to scratch beneath the surface to figure out if the progressive is true or faux.

Question Two: What Format, Dude?
The next question to ask is which storage format is used by the camcorder. Table 1 contains the most relevant formats, though I won’t extensively discuss Sony camcorders in the XDCAM HD class since they’re too expensive for our price filter.

Table 1
Storage formats used by the camcorders discussed in this article.

Starting at the top, the display aspect ratio is the way the video is displayed during full resolution (think TV), and as you can see, all HD formats have a display aspect ratio of 16:9 with a maximum display resolution of 1920x1080. In contrast, the maximum storage resolution represents the pixels actually stored in the format’s digital file. For example, you probably knew that HDV files are stored at 1440x1080 resolution, which is zoomed to 1920x1080 during display, hence the pixel aspect ratio of 1.33 (1440x1.33=1920). Why is that significant?

Not all camcorders work this way, but some, such as the Sony HVR-HD1000U, do, so roll with me on this. Specifically, the camcorder captures each frame at a full resolution of 1920x1080, but then it stores the frame at the HDV maximum resolution of 1440x1080. During this process, the camcorder essentially discards every third pixel. Then, during display, the camcorder or other player zooms the video out to 1920 and essentially recreates the pixel by interpolating from the surrounding pixels.

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