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Video Camera for Shared Movies

I have never felt inclined to create content for Youtube due to the low resolution of the display and the fact that only one format is supported (Flash which is totally non-free).

The existence of blip.tv has inspired my interest in creating videos for distribution on the net. blip.tv has higher resolution than Youtube and supports multiple formats. Currently the multiple format support is limited to allowing users to upload whatever they want and then Flash (FLV) will be provided for download in addition to the original file(s). So for example I could upload MPEG4 and Quicktime movie files for the same content which would result in three download options (MPG, MOV, and FLV). It would be nice if they could support more formats as the default (maybe support transcoding to OGG), but it’s certainly a lot better than Youtube.

So the question then is how to create content. One option that I plan to use is Istanbul – the GNOME desktop session recorder [1]. It will record everything that happens on the desktop (or a section of the desktop) to an OGG file while also optionally recording audio input. This allows the creation of tutorials for performing various tasks on the computer.

Another option is to do animation, either completely computer generated or by combining a set of JPEG files into an animation file. This doesn’t interest me to the degree necessary to make me invest the necessary time.

But the most common way of producing video content is via a camera. So the question becomes what camera to get.

My current camera is a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T5 [2]. It is a 5.1 mega-pixel camera with 3* optical zoom and supports 640*480 resolution movies at up to 30 fps. The quality of photos and video that it produces seems to be quite good, I don’t have any particular problem with the camera that I want to address by purchasing a new one, so a major aim of buying a new camera was the fact that it’s a few years old and something better must be available at a low price!

I asked for advice about this on my local LUG mailing list. One piece of advice that was offered by several people was to use a Digital Video camera with Firewire output to record quality video. They spoke about common digital cameras as “point and shoot” with the acronym “P&S” – which seems to be used as a term of abuse by people who are really into cameras. If using a DV camera with Firewire support (which is apparently a really important feature) then apparently Kino [4] is the program to use to capture the raw video data.

While the advice in regard to a digital video camera sounds good I’m not going to take it. Such DV cameras start at about $300 and appear to be physically larger. While a larger camera (with a larger lens) will give better quality pictures and higher frame rates with lower levels of ambient light I am planning to do my serious video recording in a controlled environment with reasonable lighting. Really I’m not THAT serious about video recording, so I don’t plan to spend $300 or more – I’ll accept the lower quality as a trade-off for lower price and greater convenience.

I have seen an advert for a camera described as a DC-777 at a good price from DirectBuy.com.au [3]. The camera in question is one that has no reviews anywhere on the net and seems to be a re-badged version of someone else’s camera. It initially sounded quite good with 11mega-pixel resolution, but the fine print shows that it has a 7MP CCD and uses interpolation to get a higher resolution. Also the movie capability is 640*480 at 30fps (the same as my Sony). So the benefit of using the DC-777 would be the rotating display which can face the same direction as the lens thus allowing someone who is making a video of themself to see what they are creating. This doesn’t seem to be $200 worth of benefit, but the camera might be a reasonable deal for someone who doesn’t already have a decent “P&S” digital camera.

Another interesting piece of advice I received from my local LUG was that the amount of time taken to get a good image (which determines the shutter speed on a good camera or the maximum frame rate for video) is determined in part by the size of the elements in the CCD. So with all other things being equal a camera that supports higher resolution will require longer exposure. For my use the benefit of higher resolution photos is often for the purpose of cropping pictures of objects that were too far away to allow completely zooming in. 3* optical zoom (as implemented in my current camera) is a limit when photographing objects that are far away in good light conditions (in poor light it’s often a factor of the lens size).

In the past when looking at digital cameras I would make the resolution of the picture the prime criteria – with the idea that bigger is better. But now it seems that the smart thing to do is to make optical zoom the prime criteria for general purpose camera use. Also having a larger lens is a significant benefit, but as the overall volume of the camera is going to be roughly proportional to the radius of the lens cubed it can’t get that big without some serious compromises on portability.

Obviously an SLR [5] offers significant quality benefits. But if you are unwilling to spend so much money a good result can be obtained by what are sometimes called “Big Zoom Digital” cameras. These are cameras with a body shape that resembles a SLR, they vary in size between the P&S cameras and SLRs, and have fixed lenses that are significantly larger than those of P&S cameras. I gave such a camera to a relative for Christmas and I was very impressed by the quality of pictures and movies that it produced. I chose a Kodak camera with 12* optical zoom which was quite impressive (unfortunately the 15* model had sold out). One of the benefits of a Big Zoom Digital camera over a DSLR is that as there is no option to replace the lens there is also no possibility to get dust inside the camera (which is apparently a problem with SLR cameras).

For my own use I plan to stick with my Sony Cybershot. I can’t get anything significantly better for an amount of money that I am prepared to spend, and I also don’t really want a larger camera. So I think I’ll buy a tripod (or maybe two tripods of different sizes), that should deliver a real benefit for my photography without costing much.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention is the film speed rating (AKA the “ISO” number) [6]. A higher ISO number means that the camera can take faster pictures in less light. The Wikipedia page reports that camera manufacturers are permitted to interpret the ISO scheme in several different ways, so they can essentially just make stuff up. Probably the best that can be said for the ISO number is that any camera which advertises it is aimed at more serious users and is therefore likely to be of higher quality. I’m sure that if I was to spend $700 or more then I would get a camera with an advertised ISO number that actually means something, but I don’t have any plans to ever do that.

Matt made a good comment that the quality of the glass matters. For an SLR you can consider the lens quality independently of the quality of the rest of the camera. But for cheap cameras it’s just a matter of the entire package.

4 comments to Video Camera for Shared Movies

  • Anonymous

    Actually, YouTube does support MP4 now too. However, they do push flash heavily, given that they don’t offer a supported download option. (I always watch via youtube-dl, as I don’t have flash.)

    Vimeo seems quite nice: they offer the original version for download, and they support high-resolution video (720p and 1080p).

    I just wish one of the major video sites would start using the HTML5 video tag (and putting the flash-based player inside that as a fallback).

  • Matt

    One of the main advantages of physically larger cameras is you can get much better optics in them. Quality of the glass is something which non-SLR users rarely think about, but it’s basically true that you can’t spend too much on good glass; better lenses almost always improves your shots, to the extent that I would much rather have a much lower resolution, but with better lenses, than high res with cheap lenses.

    Having said that, I mostly agree with your conclusion. You’ll have to spend significantly more than you want to if you want to do better than your current sony.

  • nona

    I know this is probably not exactly what you’re looking for, but if you’re doing screen capture, take a look at vnc2swf. The resulting files are very small, since they are more “animations of bitmaps” than actual videos. As for the relative “openness” of swf files:
    – the generator vnc2swf is GPL
    – the player swfdec can play these files and is LGPL
    – the swf format has been pretty much open since Adobe dropped all licensing restrictions in 2008.

  • etbe

    http://laptop006.livejournal.com/50358.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogg

    Julien Goodwin points out that Ogg is a container format that that Vorbis is the audio format most commonly used with it. So it wouldn’t be an issue of transcoding to Ogg, but transcoding to Vorbis or Speex audio that Theora video.