click to shareFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Bell & Howell 8mm home camera
Image via Wikipedia

In the first post in this series I’ve reviewed the basic considerations in buying a camera for online video production. This post will cover advanced camera features, for savvy buyers (or latent video geeks like me). Understanding them can help you make better choices when buying your next video camera. Just like the previous post, I will focus on sub $1,000 cameras, as an entry level for most videographers. So let’s start:

Interlaced vs. Progressive Formats

Many of the cameras you’ve seen state that they support 60i or 30p formats (or other combinations of this type). The letters P and I refer to¬†¬†progressive and interlaced formats. I won’t go into too much technical details about what is each format. The important points are the following:

1. Interlaced formats originated in the broadcast world, where basically each frame was chopped to lines that were interlaced with other images. This format is aimed at older TV sets.

2. Progressive formats are based on progressive scanning of images – the way that computer screen and flat panel TVs are analyzing images.

Why should you care? Because your videos will be watched, in 99% of cases, on progressive screens. So, if you’d like to get the best video quality, you should output your file in progressive format. Which means, that if you shoot in interlace format, you need to do a process called De-interlacing, before sending your clip to YouTube, Vimeo and such. It is not rocket science – every editing system has this feature as a video filter or encoding option. It just means that you need to spend time and resources to do it.

 

So, if possible, choose a camera that supports progressive formats – less work for you in post production.

You can find more information about interlacing here.

White Balance

White balance is a simple feature – the camera automatically identifies white objects, and correlates its image parameters to that definition of white. All cameras do it automatically, but there are cases you’d like to do it on your own. In some cases because you’d like to give the image an artistic look, or because you believe that the camera doesn’t calibrate automatically well enough, or because you want to fool it to think that there is more or less light than its sensors indicate. Most sub $1,000 cameras do not support manual white balance but some do. If you can, choose one of those. This flexibility is important for your production value, and is not complicated to manually white balance your camera if it supports it.

Zebra Stripes

We all love Zebras. They are cool animals, with funny stripes. But in the video world they have another important role – they tell us when our video is over exposed. Video, just like film, can be “burned” by too much light. Every camera has its own sensitivity to light, and you will see many videos where the skies are white, or bright elements look completely white. These elements are over exposed. Some cameras have a function called Zebra, that shows you in the camera’s viewer which areas are over exposed.

 

If your camera has manual exposure control, you can reduce the exposure to the right level. In other cases (for example if you’d like to get the Apple ads look of white space) you’d like to do just the opposite – over expose parts of the shot. Zebra lines can help you light and configure your camera properly to get this look.

Frame Rate

in every camera spec you will see parameters such as supports 30p, 60i, etc. We reviewed the difference between the i and p, but frame rate has its own importance. First of all make sure that your camera supports either 30 or 60 fps (the cool way to say frames per second). The reason is that most online video sites reduce video frame rates in multiples of 15. This way, if your video is for example in 50 fps, it would look choppy a bit when uploaded to YouTube.

Now, there is a holy grail of frame rates, the El Dorado of video makers, the most coveted frame rate ever (you got the picture) – 24fps. Why people are so hot for that frame rate? Because many videographers really want their video to look like film (what the cool kids call cinematic look). I am one of those guys. And film frame rate is 24 frames per second.

But things get a bit more complicated. Most cameras in the $1,000 price range don’t support 24fps at all, but not all of those who claim they do, do it in the same way. Some are supporting it natively, meaning, they really shoot in 24p. But some require an additional step in the way before this 24p material could be edited, that is called Pulldown. We won’t go into to many details on why this process is needed, but it is important to remember that if your camera requires this step in 24p formats, it means you need to do another encoding process, that takes time.

Digital and Optical zoom

You know those cameras that have X40 digital zoom, and tons of people buy cause this number is huge? Well, don’t be one of them. Digital zoom is just a manipulation of the captured images, which, in short, sucks. Optical zoom is king. Most cameras have X10 optical zoom – which is great for most use cases.

Shoe

A shoe is a slot on the external body of the camera, used to attach accessories to it, such as external lights, microphone and so on.

Like in any industry, some of the camera companies have their own shoe, while other use a standard shoe. If you are planing to use accessories, especially external mike as I’ve recommended in my previous post, make sure your camera has either a standard shoe, or buy a mike that fits it.

Manual Controls

The more manual control you have, the better. However, most sub $1,000 cameras don’t have a lot of those, and they are not as easy to reach and use as in pro cameras. Look for the following manual controls: Focus, Zoom, Exposure, Shutter, and Aperture.

Sensors

Digital camera sensors are capturing images, instead of the traditional film. There are two sensor technologies – CCD and CMOS. Comparing sensors between cameras is not that straight forward, but the following thumb rules can help:

1. The bigger the sensor is, the better low light performance the camera will have.

2. CCD cameras with one sensor are inferior to cameras with 3 sensors (labeled as 3CCD in the specs)

3. Some say the CMOS sensor is less battery intensive, though I take this fact with a grain of salt.

Note that bigger sensor doesn’t mean that the image would look better. . Each company has its own image analysis algorithm, that improves the overall video look,

What isn’t important

All camera vendors cram their low end cameras with tons of features that look great on paper but are either useless, or the same effect can be achieved easily in post production. These are the features I couldn’t care less about when evaluating a camera:

1. Digital zoom

2. Digital transition effects

3. Digital image effects such as Sepia and black and white

4. Quality or features of onboard microphone

Summary

This way too long post provided a bit more in depth view on camera features, and adds some more insight to the first post in this series. In the next post we will review some of the popular cameras today.