HD video cameras: as long as tech is this confusing, we’ll need people to cut through the bullshit

A while back, I mentioned that taking baby steps into “proper” photography made me weep hot salty tears of frustration and rage, until a bit of informed advice and a few magazines cheered me up and translated the crap into plain English. It turns out that the world of digital photography is the simplest thing in the world compared to video.

It’s entirely academic at the moment – I’ll probably have to mug some schoolchildren at lunchtime in order to afford a pint or two tonight – but at some point in the near future I want to buy a video camera. I’ve learnt from my previous mistakes – best summarised as “don’t buy on price” – and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want.

It’s not complicated. I want a camera that has these features:

* High definition, because if I’m going to shell out on a camera I might as well get one that’s reasonably future-proof.

* Card storage, because I hate DVDs and like the security of being able to carry a few spare cards around.

* Mac compatibility.

And naturally, I don’t want to pay a million pounds for it. Even window shopping is suffering from the credit crunch.

So off I trot to the wonderful world of manufacturer websites and product spec sheets. And what a confusing load of crap it all is.

In no particular order, here are some of the things you need to know about:

* HD means different things depending on what you’re looking at. This camera here is HD, with 720p HD! This camera here is also HD, but it has 1080p HD! But this 720p one has better pictures than the 1080p because it has better fps and that one is better than the other ones because it is not interlaced and over here this one is the very bestest camera ever because it has magic space pixies that live inside it!

* The jargon around video cameras is even worse than with still cameras. In addition to all the f-stop stuff and JPEG profiles you’d expect, there’s CMOS and CCD and 3DDNR and BIONZ image processors and X many frames per second and face detection and AVC/H.264 and DIS and OIS and OMGWTFINEEDALIEDOWN.

* It’s not enough to go “no, Sony, your memory sticks are evil” and plump for something that uses SD cards. Different cameras have different levels of SD support, so some max out at a particular level of storage, others are utterly pointless unless you get SDHC cards. And of those, some of them don’t really work unless you go for Class 4 HD cards. Class what?

* Mac compatible doesn’t necessarily mean Mac compatible, because the combination of the highest HD resolutions and the AVCHD format used by some cameras isn’t yet supported by OS X software such as iMovie (although this may have changed by now. I’m too confused to keep looking).

Kudos to Techradar*, T3**, the Guardian*** et al for trying to explain all this stuff sensibly in reviews and product comparisons, but I can’t help thinking that this is the best option:

* Instead of buying an HD camera, take lots of still photos, print them out and wave them around really, really quickly.

* Vested interest: I write for it, albeit not about video cameras
** Vested interest: I’ve written for it, albeit not about video cameras
*** Vested interest: I’ve written for that too, albeit.. you get the idea






0 responses to “HD video cameras: as long as tech is this confusing, we’ll need people to cut through the bullshit”

  1. mupwangle

    I don’t think that the video jargon is any worse than the DSLR jargon. It’s just that you’re used to the DSLR jargon a bit now. Basic principles are pretty much the same. There are different sensors of different types (CMOS, CCD), there is resolution (Megapixels vs 720p/1080i/1080p), storage (CompactFlash/SDHC) and formats (MPEG2, H.264 Vs JPEG/RAW).

    These issues are all in the digital camera world too. Certain camera RAW files don’t work on the mac, most cameras can only take certain variants of storage card, etc.

    If I were buying I would buy a 720p camera. I’ve seen your house and I can’t imagine that you would be likely to fit a TV big enough to take advantage of any higher. To be honest, I still don’t even think that 720p is worth it in a telly under 42″ – unless you’re planning to watch the videos back at a distance of 8 inches. 1080i, to me anyway, tends to look a but fuzzy – especially with moving images. In any case, unless you’ve got a 1080 res telly then you won’t see any benefit. 1080p takes up far too much space for my liking too.

    “Class X HD cards” – all SD cards have classes. This is all about speed. SDHC is vital really as it means that you can use cards over 2gb in size, which if you’re recording HD, means you can record more than 10 seconds before changing cards. The higher the class, the higher the data transfer rate so the higher the potential resolution and frame rate. Low resolution looks rubbish and pixelly, low frame rate makes it look jerky. Always check the camera specs, but if it is a reasonably new model it will take everything that’s available. Price/Performance with memory cards usually works out best at about 1 or 2 ranges down from the best. Chances are though that whatever was the best speed-wise when your camera came out is the best it will ever do. There is no point spending loads of money on a card with a super-fast transfer rate when your camera always uses the same rate.

    BIONZ and the like. This is marketing crap. Means absolutely nothing. All digital imaging systems need microprocessors. The marketing department give them names. The names mean nothing. If your camera doesn’t have a BIONZ in it, it just means that you didn’t buy Sony. You’re processor is in there but has an equally stupid name.


    The jury’s still out on this one.

    CMOS – Uses less power but is susceptible to Skewing and wobble. Skewing is a weird skew that you get when panning. Straight objects can appear at an angle which depends on the speed and direction of panning. Wobble is a very unnatural camera shaking. It doesn’t make it look like NYPD Blue or something. More like drunk cameraman. Apparently both of these are reduced by higher frame rates.

    CCD – Susceptible to smearing in low light. Smearing is when light sources “smear” a line across the sensor. A bit like squinting at a streetlight.

    I hope that added to the confusion. ;-)

  2. tm

    >DSLR jargon

    Oh, the irony…

  3. As I said a while ago when writing something about the Flip, there’s one easy thing that internet sites at least could do to help. Can you guess what that is, children?



    Seriously. Phrases like ‘low light performance could be better’ are fine, but it wouldn’t hurt to UPLOAD SOME GODDAMN VIDEO in a regular environment to demonstrate this. Is the video jerky? Great. UPLOAD SOME GODDAMN VIDEO of you swishing it from side to side.

    Instead, we get reams of video reviews where someone just holds the bloody device while being filmed by a much better camcorder, and often forgets to talk about the video quality at all. What a great use of bandwidth that would absolutely be wasted by UPLOADING SOME GODDAMN VIDEO of real-world situations like parties and indoor rooms and things, instead of well-lit studios and shots of pretty things at midday of the kind that the manufactures would kill for everyone to use the bloody things to film. Grr!

  4. mupwangle

    The other issue is that if they do upload video, they upload it to youtube or somewhere. The clip you end up with is so poor quality that you can’t work out feck all from it.

  5. Gary

    I was going to say that. What the fuck is the point of uploading a video to show HD video performance when it’s crushed down to dial-up modem bitrates?

    Richard, I feel your pain, but I’ve encountered something even more painful: the review whose footage turns out to be… buffering… wait for it…


    In an ideal world anybody who tried to make an unboxing video would be targeted by God, who would shout NOBODY GIVES A FUCK in his Big God Voice.

  6. Jesus, unboxing. Anyone who does that should have their new toy taken away and smashed in front of their eyes. It’s a box! It has the product in it! It will likely have a lanyard if it’s small, and a manual you won’t read!

    It’s almost as bad as those YouTube game reviewers who launch into an endless diatribe about some ROM they’ve just pirated without taking so much as five minutes to play it. The guy who ‘reviewed’ Ghostbusters as the game where all you do is drive around a map screen freezing things and leaving little dots is probably the king, but…

  7. Oh, I’d also like some kind of capital punishment for any review that starts “Okay, um, I’m just trying out my new-”

    Learn to use your tool. Then inflict the results on the web.

  8. Squander Two

    > Learn to use your tool. Then inflict the results on the web.

    Well, no, those reviews are very useful. How quickly something can be figured out by someone who’s not used it before is valuable information. But they should be two-part reviews: part 1 on what results you get when ignorant, part 2 on how it’s going a couple of weeks later.

    Don’t Amazon have an upload-your-results function? Not sure many people are using it, though.

  9. I believe the prosumer version of the Red One will be pretty amazing. But if you can’t wait that long, the Flip HD looks sweet…

  10. mupwangle

    >>I believe the prosumer version of the Red One will be pretty amazing.

    The Red Scarlet? The one that they reckon will give Nikon and Canon a good run in the SLR field as well? It’s going to be bloody expensive. By all accounts it’s going up against the Nikon D700 and Canon 5dMkII so you’re looking at least £1500 which is more than double the most expensive consumer HD camcorder out there. It’s a bit like saying that you shouldn’t buy a Mondeo as the new Aston Martin might be quite good.

  11. Gary

    @Squander two:
    I think it depends on how the review is done. I’ve seen far too many reviews where there’s about 1 second of actual information in five minutes of footage. And it’s often exascerbated by people’s lack of skills and lack of preparation – and in some cases, their FREAKISH HEADS.

    I have the same attitude to podcasting sometimes. Many podcasts are good, but they’re the ones where interesting people have interesting things to say, and they’re often scripted/planned and then edited. Whereas the ones where it’s just two uninteresting people saying whatever comes into their heads and mumbling…

    I did a column about this a while back:

    Over the years, I’ve been asked to do the odd TV thing, and without fail, each one has been a fiasco. On one BBC breakfast broadcast, I treated early birds to a case study in how much sweating one nervous Scotsman can do in three minutes. On an ITV programme, I provided a vivid illustration of the term “face for radio”. And on a (thankfully unreleased) programme audition, I proved that fear can make you vibrate so quickly that you disappear from the visible spectrum and can only be found by using infrared equipment and a mosquito net.

    Each disaster happened in front of some of the world’s most expensive cameras, which were fed into hugely expensive editing suites manned by some of the best editors in the business. All of that talent and all of that technology couldn’t fix the fundamental flaw: me. Some people are naturals in front of the camera, but I’m not one of them.

    Ze Frank is an internet celebrity for a very good reason: most people can’t do what he does. So, if you’re considering adding podcasting or vidcasting to your burgeoning media empire, or if you’re thinking that video’s easy and cheap to add to your site, don’t be fooled: technology can do great things with talent, but it can’t hide its absence. If you or your presenters aren’t up to doing the job well, your viewers or listeners will feel like Austin Powers spotting a mole on someone’s face. Sure, they’re sat there pretending to pay attention, but inside, they’re screaming “Moley moley moley MOLEY MOLEY MOLE!”.

  12. Gary

    “The guy who ‘reviewed’ Ghostbusters as the game where all you do is drive around a map screen freezing things and leaving little dots is probably the king, but…”

    No! Really? That’s brilliant.

  13. Gary

    “The Red Scarlet?”

    Gizmodo says “Price? We’re hearing under $3000”. You’re right, a tad out of my price range :)

  14. Gary

    @Richard, just wandered around the website of a certain gadget mag specialising in video reviews. Cameras > Camcorders > Video review of an HD camera. Guess what they didn’t do? UPLOAD SOME GODDAMN…

    And the reviewer was kinda funny-lookin’.

  15. Heh. There’s another one here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/nov/06/flip-mino-kodak-zi6-video

    At least we’ll always have Dr. Ashen.

  16. Gary

    Ashen’s Toshiba review is brilliant.

  17. Hmmm, maybe I should have used those irony tags that I left on the last American blog I commented on. Didn’t think I’d need them here…

    Anyway, you can still give the Red camera a whirl if you win the lottery. Same with the Aston Martin.

  18. Gary

    I can use one to film the other!