Seeing the light

Chris Oaten
4 November, 2009
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Readers of the Australian Macworld November edition will be expecting this blog entry, as it was promised in the magazine’s camcorder buying guide. So here I am, and here you are.

Let’s make a start with pointing you at the camcorder product matrix guide, which you can see in all its glory by clicking on the picture at left.

I haven’t listed the standard-def camcorders on the market for two reasons. One is that the market for these products has plateaued.  Secondly, I’m guessing most of you just aren’t interested.

I hope the matrix is of some help to you as it was to me in assessing the state of the market. Be sure, however, to shop around. The prices in the matrix are those listed at the vendors’ web sites as recommended prices. You will do a lot better on the street or via Web sites such as StaticIce.

Each of these cameras – Flip Mino HD, Sanyo Xacti, Lumix FZ-35 and the Canon HF20 – was used in a range of conditions and situations to arrive at my conclusions about them.

There’s a lot of footage I recorded that you won’t see, but the test footage you will see here was designed to involve everyday situations that were easily repeated with each camera so that you and I could compare apples with apples. The first two clips involve a bright toy and a basket of fruit set up on a white card under halogen lighting to test each camera’s auto white balance response and, using the toy, the ability to resolve a small detail moving through the scene. Most cameras fared OK in this step.

The thing to remember, of course, is that you can manually set  the white balance yourself with all of these cameras (but not the Flip Mino HD) so the results aren’t critical in this test. That said, how many users understand what white balance is? And so we  expect camcorders to do a good job of automatically adjusting for changing light conditions.

I then took the toy and the basket of fruit into natural light in the  late afternoon to see how the cameras handled high contrast and flatly lit situations.The pond shot, with the texture of the rocks and the fountain, provided a test of the camera’s ability to record detail and how focus  was handled while zooming in on it.

After the pond shot, the lavender flowers tested lenses at the  opposite end of their zoom range, with the flowers shot with the widest zoom setting allowed by each camera and with the subject at the closest focusing distance. The crazy pans and tilts that follow are awful to look at but it’s a test I do to see how well the camera handles the changing scene. The jerkiness that you see in the test clips, along with the so-called  “jelly” effect in which the image wobbles as you pan across the subject (something you’ll see in the iPhone 3GS but not in any of these cameras), is a weakness of many video camcorders.

Testing for jerkiness in pans and action footage is something you should try for yourself if you’re handling a camcorder in a store. Why? It can be very disappointing to buy what you think was the right camcorder, only to discover too late as you shoot a sibling’s sporting event that action footage is jerky. It’s not pleasant to watch in high-def on a big TV screen. I’ve used too-fast pans and tilts to emphasise the effect but my theory is that if a camera renders smooth video across these kinds of pans and tilts, it’ll handle the slower, more deliberate pans and (if  you must) tilts with aplomb.

The final scene brings a human into shot to see skin tone and detail  and to see how the camera’s auto setting handles exposure in mixed  lighting. The video combines the test footage from all four cameras into one  sequence and to do so, the Canon’s 1080/50i footage had to be  conformed to the 720p sequence used for the other cameras, so the quality of this camera’s footage is even better than is apparent.

And, of course, the video was compressed for web distribution, so bear  that in mind. No post-processing was applied to the clips, other than compression for web viewing. Also, so you know beforehand, the video is about 250MB. An iPhone version at 52MB is available for download.


Now, for those of you with a keen interest in the very final section of the camcorder buying guide in the November edition of AMW, the section in which Pieter de Vries suggests the Sony HVR-Z5P as a good choice for budding semi-pro shooters, I have an apology.

I meant to include a link to Pieter’s web site where you can find information on his training and workshop opportunities. I figure that if you’re interested in that kind of camera you’d likely be interested in sharpening your videography skills.

So here it is:

Pieter is a leading cinematographer with many credits to his name and is a mad Mac man to boot. So you’re in good company.

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