Camcorder Casting Call

SAN FRANCISCO (02/22/2000) - We're in the midst of a revolution, and this one will definitely be televised. Long established at the high end, consumer-level desktop video has been a long time coming-but it's finally here. And just as scanners and laser printers propelled desktop publishing, digital video (DV) cameras make videotaping easier and editing your footage more affordable.

Whether your goal is to immortalize your kid's school play or to shoot a feature-length movie a la The Blair Witch Project, a DV camera will yield far better footage than you could ever get with a consumer-grade analog camcorder.

With 500 lines of horizontal resolution, DV formats have twice the resolution of VHS and 8mm film's 250 lines, and 25 percent more than Hi-8's 400 lines. In addition, DV provides much better color fidelity with far less color bleeding and noise than traditional analog consumer formats. Best of all, some of these new camcorders now cost less than $2,000 and sport interfaces that make it easy to get your footage onto your Mac, where you can edit and enhance it.

We looked at five digital video cameras: the Sony Corp. DCR-TRV103, DCR-PC1, and DCR-TRV10; the Canon Inc. Elura; and the Panasonic Corp. PV-DV910. They range in price from $999 to $1,799. To determine image quality, we performed a number of tests under controlled studio lighting and outdoor lighting. In addition, we shot still images with each camera and compared these to the same images from a low-cost digital still camera. A panel of experts examined all the footage and images to decide on quality. We also compared the cameras' ergonomics and evaluated the features a typical Mac user would need to shoot the best-quality video.

How It Works

The problem with video is it takes up a lot of room-a single minute of video contains about 210MB of data. And anyone who's ever duplicated a file on a Mac knows that the average computer can't move huge amounts of data around quickly.

DV Lowdown

In the past, if you wanted to work with video on your Macintosh, you had to get specialized-and expensive-hardware that not only took care of digitizing a video signal but could also compress it for storage on a very fast hard drive array.

Not so with a DV camera: unlike a traditional analog camera, it doesn't store an analog signal on tape. Rather, a DV camera digitizes and compresses a video signal and stores a digital stream on tape, in a process similar to writing a computer file to a tape drive. With all of the compression hardware in the camera rather than on a special video card, you need only a speedy processor, a good-size hard drive, and a FireWire interface. The speedy interface known to Mac users as FireWire (technically IEEE-1394, and I.Link in Sony's nomenclature) is now standard on most desktop Macs. This previously missing link makes it possible to move video into and out of your Mac without expensive digitizing hardware.

Types of Tapes

The most popular DV format for less expensive cameras is MiniDV. Although the MiniDV, DV, DVCam, and DVCPro formats all provide the same image quality, MiniDV tapes and hardware are usually much cheaper. We looked at four MiniDV cameras, all equipped with FireWire interfaces. For users who already have an investment in 8mm or Hi8 equipment, Sony produces a proprietary Digital8 format that, in addition to recording in a new digital format, can play back regular 8mm and Hi8 tapes. Though this is a great way to edit older tapes using your Mac, the Digital8 tapes have slightly lower-resolution video than DV. Our tests included one Digital8 camera, the $999 Sony DCR-TRV103.

The Eyes Have It

As in a digital still camera, the lens in a DV camera focuses light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD), a grid of light-sensing electrodes that acts as the camera's eye. The size of the CCD has a lot to do with the resolution and sharpness of your final image. This feature didn't differentiate the cameras we tested, however. They all have 1/4-inch CCDs, and even though the pixel count ranges from Canon's 380,000 to 680,000 on the Sony DCR-PC1 and DCR-TRV10, image resolution doesn't vary because of the way these cameras sample and process image data.

Quality Counts

No matter what you choose to buy, the high resolution of the DV specification ensures image quality that would have been unaffordable just a few years ago.

As with any type of camera, final image quality depends largely on the quality of the optics. In other words, a DV camera with a better lens will do a better job of focusing an image onto the camera's sensor.

Through the Looking Glass

Sony and Canon both equip their cameras with high-quality lenses, which produce excellent detail and sharpness. Our jury found that the $1,799 Canon Elura and the more expensive Sony models, such as the $1,699 DCR-PC1 and the $1,799 DCR-TRV10, produced images with much better detail than the $1,100 Panasonic PV-DV910 or Sony's cheaper DCR-TRV103 Digital8 camera. This is no surprise, given that both Sony and Canon put better-quality lenses on their higher-priced cameras.

All digital cameras apply sharpening to their images, just as you might apply sharpening to a picture in an image-editing program. Although sharpening can greatly improve image detail, it can also have some unfortunate side effects.

The Sony DCR-TRV10, for example, has a bad tendency to oversharpen its images, resulting in lines with severely jagged edges or, in some cases, lines that appear to flicker and blink. Our jury found that the Panasonic PV-DV910 produced fewer sharpening artifacts than any other camera we tested. However, if detail is important to you, be aware that the PV-DV910 produces slightly soft images. The Sony DCR-TRV103 and DCR-PC1 and the Canon Elura all struck a good balance, sharpening details without creating jagged edges and annoying artifacts.

Color reproduction varied significantly from camera to camera, although the Sony models consistently produced less saturated colors with a somewhat bluish, cold tone. Our jury found that Sony's cameras also tended to produce bands of slight hue change when shooting a complicated image with lots of fine detail.

Although not too distracting, the banding was very noticeable.

Canon aims for a more saturated look, and the Elura tends to produce images with a warmer, reddish tint. If you like this warmth, the Elura will please you, though its colors are less accurate than those of the other cameras. The Panasonic PV-DV910 fared the worst in our color tests-its huge color shifts resulted in a green or blue cast that appeared and disappeared as the camera moved.

Although all of the cameras had some color quirks, in general they produced very good images. If you're used to shooting with an analog video format, the DV format's ability to show bright colors without bleeding or blurring will surprise you. And with the format's higher resolution, a DV camera produces much better detail than its analog predecessors-although annoying artifacts from sharpening occasionally crop up.

Come In Closer

If you enjoy nature or sports photography, you know getting closer to what's going on isn't always easy-that's where the zoom lens comes in handy.

The Better to See You With

As with the analog video cameras of old, all of the DV cameras we looked at have built-in zoom lenses that let you zoom between wide-angle and telephoto views of your action. The zoom features on our test cameras ranged from 10x on the Sony DCR-PC1 and DCR-TRV10 to 20x on the DCR-TRV103. Unless this feature is critical to your work, don't hold out for a more power-ful zoom-it's more important to choose a camera with good image quality.

Zoomin' In

All of these cameras offer a digital zoom feature in addition to their optical zoom. With this option activated, the camera digitally enlarges your image once you've passed the optical zoom limit of your lens. Just as zooming in on a picture in an image-editing program shows you a blocky, pixelated mosaic, digital zoom increases jagged lines and distortion and can turn your image into a grid of large, distorted color blocks.

The Panasonic PV-DV910, for instance, has a ridiculous 300x digital zoom that turns the family cat into an unrecognizable grid of pixels. Unless you're deliberately trying to achieve a grungy, stylized look, avoid using digital zoom and don't let a salesperson sell you a camera based on this feature.

The Bottom Line

None of the cameras we tested provides flawless images. Overall, they do produce very good images-meaning that once you've decided which quality trade-offs you can live with, you can base the rest of your buying decision on the camera's features.

Fantastic Features

From wacky special effects to image stabilization, today's DV cameras are feature packed. Although you may find the nifty "old-movie effect" on one camera tempting, you need to concentrate on the most essential features.

In the Palm of Your Hand

DV cameras come in a number of sizes and form factors, and one of your first feature considerations should be the camera's ergonomics. If small size and maximum portability are important to you, take a close look at the Sony DCR-PC1, the smallest camera we tested.

Similar to the DCR-PC1, but a tad bigger, the Canon Elura has a palm-size design with about a Walkman's dimensions. You hold both devices upright, and they have a lens on the front and a flip-out LCD viewfinder on the side.

They're ideal if small size is your main concern, but if you are used to a more traditional design, you may prefer one of the other cameras. All of them were comfortable to use, with well-placed, easy controls.

Steady Going

Though small size is generally convenient, it can have a negative impact on shooting stable footage. The light weight of these camcorders can make smooth pans and steady shots hard to achieve. Although all include some sort of image stabilization feature, there's no substitute for a good tripod-and some cameras are better suited to tripod use than others.

While the Canon Elura lets you change tapes while it's mounted on a tripod, the Sony DCR-TRV10 doesn't. Similarly, you can't change the batteries on the Sony DCR-PC1 without first removing it from a tripod. Although this may sound trivial, while you're fussing with your camera, you might miss that great shot of your kid's first steps.

Dropping Anchor

To offset the difficulties of holding a 1-pound camcorder steady, most vendors include either an electronic or an optical-image stabilization feature.

Electronic stabilization works by moving your image around digitally to compensate for shaking. If you shake the camera to the left, the camera moves the image in the other direction to keep the picture steady. Optical image stabilization uses special prisms, reshaped on-the-fly to redirect the light striking the CCD-this allows the camera to compensate for slight shaking (as opposed to intentional large movements).

In the past, electronic-stabilization features could adversely affect image quality. The camera's digital futzing with your image data sometimes created artifacts and weird motions. Now, electronic stabilization provides a more stable picture than before-without harming image quality. Optical stabilization, on the other hand, works by adjusting optics rather than by manipulating image data, so there's no concern that it will add strange artifacts to your footage.

The Canon Elura is the only camera we tested that uses optical stabilization, and it works flawlessly. The Sony cameras use an electronic image stabilization that functions equally well. In general, either option works fine.

Juice It Up

Vendors make a lot of claims about battery life, and frequently they're true.

No matter what they say, though, you're going to want extra batteries.

Plan on buying at least one extra battery, preferably a longer-life one than your camera includes. All of these cameras have AC adapters with built-in battery chargers. Unfortunately, the Elura does not let you charge batteries while providing power to the camera.

Cause and Effect

Each camera offers a good assortment of special-effects features, such as sepia tones and mosaics, but the ergonomics, battery life, and viewfinder should weigh much more in your buying decision than esoteric features.

User Friendly

Though DV video cameras are very technologically sophisticated, you'll find using one no different from using an older analog camcorder.

A View to a Kill

One important part of a DV camera is the color display. These models all have both a large, flip-out LCD viewfinder and a smaller eyepiece viewfinder. You're going to spend a lot of time looking at those tiny screens, so make sure your camera provides a sharp image that doesn't tire your eyes.

The large viewfinders are nice, but bright sunlight often washes them out, rendering them unusable. Of the cameras we tested, the viewfinders on the Sony DCR-PC1 and DCR-TRV10 worked best in bright sunlight. Although not as strong in direct sun, the Canon Elura had the most pleasing LCD viewfinder, with smooth details and good contrast. The Sony DCR-TRV103 had the worst LCD, and-unlike all the other cameras we examined-its eyepiece viewfinder is black-and-white.

Manual Adjustment

The mod- ern camcorder is a wonder of automated cinematography. With autofocus, auto-iris, and autoÐwhite balance, you can just switch it on and start shooting. However, even the best algorithms can't handle every situation, and manual control can be a lifesaver in a difficult situation such as shooting against a bright window or trying to capture fast action at a sporting event.

To make matters easier, your camera should provide manual control for focus, white balance, and exposure. Autofocus mechanisms base their settings on what's in the center of the frame. This is fine if you always center your subject, but if you want to be more creative, you're out of luck. Say, for example, you want to shoot a friend standing at the left of a frame, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Because your friend isn't in the middle of the frame, the camera's autofocus mechanism will most likely focus on the distant tower, rendering your friend as a blur. With manual focus, you can be sure you've framed and focused the picture just as you wish. All the cameras we tested had manual focus.

The Blink of an Iris

Nothing is more typical of bad video footage than that overexposed, washed-out look. Unfortunately, most auto-iris mechanisms tend to expose things a little on the hot side-bright areas flare and bloom, and in those spots color may actually bleed and blur. Outdoor conditions can exacerbate this problem, and none of the cameras we tested had auto-iris features that could handle a difficult backlit situation. Although Sony and Canon provide exposure presets, a manual exposure control is best for difficult situations.

Bright Lights

How a camera reproduces white varies greatly depending on the light conditions in which you are shooting. If the white balance of the camera is not set properly, all of the other colors will be off-usually they shift to red, blue, or green, making Mom's chiffon pie look more like, say, key lime. Although most cameras provide good auto white balance controls, they're not always accurate in mixed lighting situations-for example, a fluorescent-lit room with daylight streaming through a window. All of these cameras provide manual white balance.

Fast Action

Manual shutter-speed control is a great tool for shooting fast action such as Little League games. At higher shutter speeds, the camera can stop fast-moving action, resulting in sharper detail in each video frame. On the downside, because high shutter speeds remove a lot of motion blur, your video can have a too-sharp, stroboscopic look.

Of the cameras we tested, only the Canon Elura and Panasonic PV-DV910 provided manual shutter speed. Both cameras let you select shutter speeds ranging from 1/60 to 1/4,000 of a second. If you want total control, the Canon and the Panasonic provide better manual features than any of the Sony cameras we reviewed.

Be Still, My Heart

In addition to the usual video features, all of these cameras can shoot still images. Simply frame the shot and capture your image, and the camera writes 7 seconds of that single frame onto tape. The cameras can also record audio while saving a still, letting you provide simple commentary or narration.

Two of the cameras we tested include extra still-image features. The Canon Elura shoots its stills using a progressive scan mode (scanning the image in a single pass instead of two), which produces stills free of the banding artifacts that sometimes afflicted the other cameras. The Sony DCR-TRV10 stores all of its stills on a Memory Stick-Sony's proprietary flash memory technology.

This saves tape, plus you can easily sort and delete images on the Memory Stick or download them to your computer using a special reader.

If you really want to shoot still images, buy a still camera. None of the cameras we tested produce images as good as those of a low-end, $300 digital still camera. Certainly, none of the images provide enough resolution for printing, and all suffered from compression artifacts.

Macworld's Buying Advice

All of the cameras we tested are good units that provide fine results. If cost is your primary concern, the Panasonic PV-DV910 offers a good price/performance balance. If your main interest is maximum portability, either the Sony DCR-PC1 or the Canon Elura is the way to go. Though the DCR-PC1 earns extra marks for its built-in mike and headphone jack, the Elura has better manual controls and an S-Video input for dubbing from other tape formats. Finally, if you've got a lot of 8mm or Hi8 footage you'd like to edit or view, the Sony DCR-TRV103 is your best choice, though you'll sacrifice a bit of quality, compared with a MiniDV camera's results. In the end, the Sony DCR-TRV10 provides the best all-around DV solution. Though some frustrating oversharpening artifacts plague this device, it has the best balance of picture, feature set, size, and ergonomics.

The good news is that all these cameras offer quality far better than the typical analog camcorder's, so what you see will pleasantly surprise you.


RATING: Sony DCR-TRV10: For less than $2,000, this DV camera offers an excellent balance of features. Company: Sony Electronics (800/222-7669, List price: $1,799.

BEN LONG is a coauthor of the forthcoming Digital Filmmaking Handbook (Charles River Media). Macworld Lab testing was supervised by Jeffy K. Milstead.

Sidebar: Sound Advice

All digital video formats have the ability to make CD-quality or DAT (digital audio tape)-quality audio recordings, but every camera we tested had average or sub-par built-in microphones. Though passable, these microphones frequently pick up hand and motor noise from the cameras themselves.

For good-quality sound, you're going to want an external microphone.

Fortunately, all of the cameras we looked at except for the Canon Elura included a microphone jack. You can add a mike to the Elura, however, through a small, $50 docking station. If you're concerned about recording good audio, the lack of built-in microphone jacks on the Elura is a serious omission on Canon's part, and one you should consider carefully.

There are a number of different types of microphones, and which one is right for you depends largely on the type of shooting you'll be doing. In most cases, a good, directional shotgun mike will provide far better quality than the microphone included with your camera. At around $250, the Sennheiser MKE-300 ( is an excellent choice for a good quality, multi-purpose shotgun mike.

For interview situations -- preserving a family story, for example -- clip-on "lavalier" mikes are inexpensive (about $75 to $100) and yield good results.

The best way to shop for a mike is to take your camera and a set of headphones to your local audio store and start trying out mikes.

Also, since you never know for sure what exactly is being recorded on your tape, it's important to get in the habit of occasionally listening to your audio through an earphone. As with microphones, all of the cameras save the Elura included a headphone jack.

In our tests, the Sony DCR-PC1 had a very frustrating audio problem. When using an AC power adapter (instead of a battery) external microphones connected to the PC1 had a very loud hum. The hum was worse around large electrical devices, leading us to conclude that the PC1 has some shielding problems. If you're planning on using this camera with an external mike, plan on buying a lot of batteries.

If you're certain that you want good audio control, or the ability to dub from other formats, you'll need to take a close look at the camera's inputs and outputs.

Sidebar: Getting Connected

When the time comes to move that precious footage onto your Mac for editing, DV cameras offer a great advantage-the IEEE-1394 standard, known to Mac users as FireWire. This standard offers potential transfer speeds of 400 Mbps, and therefore perfectly suits DV's lofty bandwidth requirements.

All of the cameras we tested include a FireWire port that provides video and audio input and output. Each camera is fitted with the smaller four-pin FireWire jack (as opposed to the six-pin one on your Mac), so you'll need a six-to-four-pin cable.

Unfortunately, not all vendors implement their FireWire interface the same way, so you may run into some compatibility problems when you use features of higher-end editing applications such as Apple's Final Cut Pro or Adobe After Effects. Most software vendors publish lists of FireWire compatibility problems, including detailed descriptions of which features won't work properly with certain cameras. If you're determined to use a particular editing package, check with the maker of your software for compatibility issues before you buy a camera.

Apple now has a list on its Web site of the DV cameras compatible with iMovie(, the consumer-level desktop video-editing software bundled with the iMac DV and iMac DV Special Edition. (Apple hasn't announced any plans to make the software available for separate purchase.) All of the cameras here work with iMovie.

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