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.

Public Security Cameras

There is ongoing debate about the issue of security cameras, how many should there be, where should they be located, and who should be able to access the data.

I spent about a year living in London which probably has more security cameras and a greater ratio of cameras to people than any other city. I was never bothered by this. I believe that if implemented correctly security cameras increase public safety and will not have any serious problems.

A while ago I witnessed a violent assault (which could potentially have ended up as a manslaughter case – it was merely luck that ~200 people got off a train at the right time to scare the attackers off). AFAIK I was the only person who identified themself to the police and was prepared to stand as a witness, without security camera footage the case would not have gone anywhere (I only saw the attackers from behind as they ran off). Security camera footage allowed the police to identify the attackers, my testimony was not required and I was never informed as to how the case proceeded – but I know for a fact that the police investigation depended on security camera footage and that they did make progress in the case based on such footage.

There are current plans to increase the scope of security cameras in many cities under the guise of the “war on terror”. The problem is that once a terrorist is involved in an attack it’s too late for security cameras. Security cameras are really only good for catching criminals after an attack, in most cases they will be entirely ineffective against suicide bombers as the issue of catching them is moot. There have been cases where security cameras have enabled the authorities to identify people with terrorist ideas who were investigating military bases (but I wouldn’t call such lamers “terrorists” as all the available evidence suggests that they would be incapable of succeeding in an attack). However no-one is disputing the fact that military installations need to have good security.

Given that security cameras do provide significant benefits to public safety I don’t think it’s reasonable to oppose them as long as they are implemented in a sensible and responsible manner. Most of the current plans to install security cameras don’t seem to be sensible and have few controls on who can access the data. This makes them good targets for oppressive government actions, organised crime, and even terrorists. The countries that have serious terrorist problems always have problems of terrorists infiltrating government departments and bribing government officials. A centralised system that allows the police to watch anyone at any time would probably do more good for al Quaeda and the Mafia than it would for regular police action.

For the fastest possible response a security camera system needs to have humans able to monitor it’s output in real-time. Having a control-room where police officers can randomly switch between public cameras to see if a crime appears to be in progress is a good thing (and works well in the UK). Of course the actions of such police need to be monitored to make sure that they are actually doing their job (not checking out hotties on the camera – an ongoing problem with security cameras).

Finally there’s the issue of what level of surveillance can be expected in a public place. I think that most people agree that when you enter a government building it’s reasonable to expect that you will be on camera, and many private buildings have security cameras with a condition of entry being that you permit yourself to be watched and no-one seems to be boycotting shopping centres because of this. Significant public spaces such as main roads and public transport also seem like reasonable locations for security cameras.

One location that is widely disputed is that of streets in residential areas. Most people who are happy to be photographed when entering and leaving public buildings such as train stations and shopping centres are not happy to be photographed when entering and leaving their own home.

I think that a reasonable solution to these problems requires the following:

  1. Restrictions on the duration and scope of surveillance in residential areas (EG require police to get court orders for such surveillance that must be periodically renewed).
  2. Restricting the duration for which records may be kept by the police. Keeping any records for longer than the period in question (which would be a few weeks at most) would require a court order.
  3. Prohibiting private organisations from handling surveillance data from government property (including public roads, train stations, etc). There are problems with having a private company aggregate surveillance data from multiple private properties but I don’t think we can address this at the moment.

Photography and Censorship at APEC

World News Australia reports that Police forced three tourists to delete photos of a fence. Apparently the officers in question believed that such photos would be a threat to security.

It’s interesting to note that the first sentence of the World News Australia report is “Officials say police who forced three tourists to delete photos of a huge security fence erected in Sydney for the APEC summit were not over-reacting” while later in the article it says “The police action against the tourists may have been “over the top” but was necessary, said New South Wales state Transport Minister John Watkins“. So which was it? Was it “over the top” or was it “not over-reacting“.

Strangely the World News Australia web site shows a picture of the fence. If this fence is so secret then why are the pictures being published so that millions of people will see it?

For that matter why even try censoring the pictures. Censoring the pictures effectively issues a challenge to everyone who has a digital camera and plenty of spare time (which means most university students among others) to get the best photos of the fence (feel free to leave comments with the URLs for your best pics).

While this is happening protesters from Real Action On Climate Change have been protesting at the Loy Yang power station, according to their blog posts it seems that they were partially inspired by the APEC meeting.

It seems that APEC leaders are keen on nuclear power. If they really believe that nuclear power is safe then maybe they should have their meeting at Maralinga. There would be little effort or expense required to secure Maralinga and it wouldn’t disrupt a major city. :-# But seriously if they wanted a secure location for a meeting with no protesters then an aircraft carrier would make an ideal location. The people who need to attend the meeting could get flown to a carrier that’s off-shore in the territorial waters of one of the countries concerned with a full battle group to deter any other ships from entering the area.

It is reported that Sydney whores are expecting to do a lot of business during the APEC meeting. Maybe this is the reason why they wanted to have their meetings Sydney (which is rumoured to have the best brothels in Australia). I wonder if they are planning for a future APEC meeting in Bangkok…