The Moving Picture: From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come

The nice thing about DV is that when it arrived, it arrived alone, at least in the prosumer/consumer space, which was too price-sensitive for DVCAM and DVCPRO. There was analog and there was DV, and that was it. Unfortunately, new products have significantly clouded the waters since then, so let’s sort through the current market for digital video cameras.

We’ll start with MiniDV cameras, which convert incoming video into DV format stored on a MiniDV tape. DV is a motion JPEG-based format that stores each frame separately, simplifying editing and maximizing quality. DV’s bandwidth is a hefty 3.6MB/sec and 60-minute MiniDV tapes cost around $6.99 (all tape and DVD±RW prices quoted here are single-quantity from All MiniDV cameras transfer video to the computer via FireWire.

The first DV derivatives were Digital8 cameras from Sony, which convert incoming video into DV format stored on Hi8 tapes. Some models, but not all, can read and write Hi8 analog format, and all use FireWire to transfer video from camera to computer.

Digital8 cameras were great alternatives to DV back when DV tapes cost significantly more than Hi8. Now—with Hi8 tapes costing $4.99 and MiniDV tapes around $7—the delta is minimal, especially since MiniDV tapes are more robust. At $399, Digital8 cameras are still around $200 less than the cheapest DV camcorder, making them an attractive alternative for those seeking low-cost access to DV.

Next came Sony’s MicroMV cameras, which store video in MPEG-2 format on tapes roughly 70% smaller than MiniDV, which allows Sony to build extremely small but pricey ($1,199 minimum) cameras. With a data rate of 1.5MB/second (or 12Mbps, top-end for MPEG-2), MicroMV tapes store 60 minutes of video and cost $11.99.

Though MicroMV cameras have FireWire ports, they’re non-standard and incompatible with most video editors, so you may have to capture MicroMV video using Sony-supplied software, a minor inconvenience. I’ve not tested any MicroMV cameras, but most reviewers report video quality similar to DV.

Though I love the portability of smaller cameras, editing in MPEG-2 format is always more sluggish than DV because the computer has to constantly decode the compressed MPEG-2 stream. If you intend to edit your video extensively, this is definitely a consideration.

2001 saw the introduction of DVD camcorders, which store video in MPEG-2 format on miniature DVD discs. Most offer multiple quality levels, typically at around 6-8Mbps for full resolution (720×480) MPEG-2 and 3Mbps for half-height (352×480) MPEG-2.

Most DVD camcorders use 1.4GB DVD-R/RW ($11.99 for -RW) or +R/RW discs that store about 20 minutes of video at top quality or up to 60 minutes at lower resolutions and data rates. After shooting, you can use the camera to cut and paste videos and then finalize the disc to play on either a DVD-ROM drive or DVD player. Or, you can transfer the video to your computer via USB for editing or authoring.

Video compression is never free, and quality drops in direct proportion to data rate. At 6Mbps (half the data rate of MicroMV), DVD camcorder quality is fairly good, similar to that you would expect after encoding DV video into MPEG-2. At lower rates, quality drops noticeably, so most camera owners will likely shoot at the highest quality setting. This means $36 of media per hour of video, an expense you can minimize by using rewritable discs and copying all video to 4.7GB DVD±R discs on your computer for long-term storage.

DVD camcorders serve two classes of users particularly well. First are those who need immediate access to the video, whether it’s interviews or videos of homes, cars, or other inventory. And with disc-based formats ( unlike tape) you can easily jump to any scene.

These cameras also make sense for consumers who want the easiest possible way to create simple DVDs. You can master a disc on the camera, copy it to a full-sized DVD-R on your computer, and send it to Grandma with minimal muss or fuss.

However, if you plan to edit your video and then output it to DVD, starting out with 6Mbps MPEG-2 video is a major concern. Not only will you experience the lag time discussed earlier with MicroMV, but you’re starting with much lower-quality footage. After adding titles, transitions, and special effects, and then re-encoding, quality will degrade significantly. In addition, some DVD cameras store audio in Dolby Digital, which is incompatible with many consumer NLEs, so you may not be able to edit the video at all. So if you’re shooting primarily to edit, DVD camcorders are probably not your best choice.

Today’s pocket-sized cameras store video on thumbnail-sized SD memory. With the highest-capacity widely shipped SD cards holding 512MB, the tiny Panasonic SVAV100 D-SNAP offers multiple quality settings that deliver between 10 and 20 minutes of MPEG-2 video. The Fisher FVD-C1 Pocket CameraCorder stores in MPEG-4 format, promising 30 minutes of “DVD-like” quality on the same SD card.

Transfer to your computer from these cameras is very convenient. You can connect camera to computer via USB or purchase a USB-based SD reader for under $40. Like DVD camcorders, however, quality at the highest settings is generally sufficient for direct authoring to DVD, but not for serious editing.

Most significantly, each additional 512MB SD card costs around $350 (, so media for shooting 60 minutes at top quality with the D-SNAP costs around $2,000. If you’re planning on shooting a wedding weekend, better keep your laptop strapped to your side, or break the bank for additional in-camera storage.

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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