By Greg Pak
With a variety of manufacturers making digital video camcorders ranging between $600 and $9000 dollars, it’s easy to get confused about what kind of camera for low-budget filmmaking. Here are a few pointers for your consideration.
1. Make sure the camera has manual focus and manual exposure controls
Many inexpensive camcorders are almost entirely automatic, with no manual controls for determining focus and exposure. This may be handy for the casual home movie shooter, but it’s unacceptable for anyone needing creative control for serious shooting.
You need manual focus so you can focus on exactly what you intend to see sharply and can quickly adjust as needed. Automatic focus mechanisms have a tendency to surge back and forth a bit as the frame changes — a distracting and nasty-looking effect.
Similarly, you need manual exposure control to control the images you record. Some auto exposure mechanisms will make a character’s face too dark if the character is standing in front of a brighter background. Or the reverse can happen — in one common, ugly glitch with auto-exposure, a close up of a pale character will look fine — but if the camera tracks backwards, the character’s face will begin to blow out as the camera tries to expose for a darker background.
2. Be certain the camera has a jack for an external microphone and a jack for headphones
Some of the cheapest consumer camcorders don’t have a jack for an external microphone. This means that you’re stuck with the sound from the built-in microphone on the camera. These microphones are notoriously substandard — again, they’re fine for home movies, but if you’re making a fiction film in which you need to have your camera across the room while your characters whisper to each other in bed, you need to be able to get a microphone on a boom near those actors. If your camera has no audio input jack, you’ll have to record sound separately on a DAT player, for example, which opens a whole new can of worms we won’t go into here.
A headphone jack is also essential for monitoring your sound. Without a headphone jack, you’re not certain what kind of sound you’re recording until you play the tape back through a television set or monitor. And you don’t want to get back from a weekend of location shooting in Alaska to discover your sound is screwed up.
Also, an XLR sound jack is superior to a mini sound jack. But very few of the affordable cameras will have the XLR option – the Sony PD 150 comes to mind.
3. Ideally, get a camera with manual control of audio levels
This is a tough requirement — very few of the cheaper cameras have any manual control of audio levels. The cameras set audio levels automatically as they record. For documentary shooting, this is often preferable. But for fiction shooting, you have a better idea of your characters’ volume and would benefit from being able to preset sound levels. The disadvantage of letting the camera set the levels automatically is that when characters fall silent, you’ll hear the room tone surge as the camera tries to find sounds to record. It’s an unpleasant sound which you can deal with when you’re editing, but it’s a pain that you could avoid if you have a camera which lets you preset sound levels. Also, if you have a camera that lets you preset sound levels, you can use an external mixer for even more precise control of sound levels.
4. One chip versus three chip
The sensitivity of cameras is gauged by the size and number of computer chips they contain. The bigger the chips and the more chips you have, the better your image quality. Generally cameras are one chip or three chip. Three chip cameras are preferable. One chip cameras can generate great images — particularly under good lighting conditions. But three chip cameras hold up better in low-light situations. Three chip cameras tend to be considerably more expensive than the cheapest one chip cameras.
5. MiniDV versus DVCAM
I’ve been told different things about these different formats. MiniDV and DVCAM cameras use the exact same tapes, so there’s no difference in tape quality. But DVCAM cameras use more feet of tape to record the same amount of material — a tape that runs for 60 minutes with a MiniDV camera may only run 45 minutes or so with a DVCAM camera. The impression this gives is that DVCAM cameras are recording more information and hence have a better image quality. I do not know what the clear answer is here. I do know that material I’ve seen from a Sony DSR 300 DVCAM is much sharper and cleaner than images recorded under the same conditions on a Sony VX-1000 Mini DV camcorder. But that may have as much to do with chip size and lenses as tape format.
6. NTSC versus PAL
If you’re producing solely for television or the web, the NTSC versus PAL issue isn’t important for you — you should get a normal American NTSC camcorder and not worry about it. But if you’re hoping to transfer your video to 35mm film for theatrical projection, you should seriously consider getting a PAL rather than an NTSC camera.
NTSC is the American and Japanese video standard. PAL is the video standard used throughout Europe. PAL has about 100 more lines of resolution that NTSC, meaning it’s about 20 percent sharper and cleaner. In demos of video to film transfers from lab like DuArt and SwissEffects, PAL footage always transfers much better than NTSC footage.
The disadvantage is that PAL records at 25 frames per second. Film runs at 24 frames per second. So when labs transfer PAL video to film, they do it frame for frame, which means the program slows down by 4 percent. (When transferred to 24 fps film, every second of 25 fps PAL footage has an extra frame. All those extra frames add up…) I haven’t gone through the process with one of my own films, so I haven’t had to experience and deal with this slow-down. But I’m concerned about it — in particular, if I were making a comedy, I’d wonder seriously about the effect this slow-down would have on the timing of the gags.
I’ve heard that filmmakers can prepare for these effects by slowing the footage down 4 percent when they’re editing — this allows them to preview the exact timing of the final film print. But this still means the footage is 4 percent slower than it actually was when it occurred on the set. I haven’t yet heard of filmmakers being outrageously disturbed by these effects. But it’s something I’m considering as I think about how to shoot my next films.
The quality of the lens can make a big difference in image quality. I’ve been very happy with my Sony VX-1000 for the DV shorts and documentaries I’ve made. But some filmmakers prefer the Canon XL-1 over the Sony VX-1000 because different lenses can be used with the Canon camera body. And the gorgeous lens of the larger format Sony DSR 300 DVCAM camera, for example, blows the VX-1000 lens out of the water. In general, I’d advise prospective buyers to test different cameras by shooting and comparing footage. People have different opinions about the looks from different cameras — your best bet is to test some cameras and develop your own opinions.
If you plan to use filters with your DV camera, it’s a good idea to confirm that filters are available which will fit the size of the lens on the camera you’re buying. I know that Tiffen makes many filters which will fit the Sony TRV 900 and the VX-1000, for example. But I don’t know if it makes filters which will fit the lenses of the many smaller camcorders from different manufacturers. You can always create work-arounds, taping filters to lenses, for example, but it’s always nice to be able to get the exact right filter for your camera.
9. Various other features
Different cameras provide various nifty features which, while unessential, may be very attractive to certain filmmakers. In this category, I’d list fold out viewfinder windows, flash memory card slots for still photos, titling options, and various digital effects.
Another subjective preference issue is whether you prefer a black and white or color viewfinder. Many of the larger, professional cameras only have black and white viewfinders. B&W viewfinders tend to be sharper than color viewfinders, allowing more precise focus control. Some cameras, like the PD 150, have a B&W viewfinder and a color LCD fold-out panel, giving shooters both options.