Panasonic’s AG-AF100There are two trends in video capture devices (camcorders and traditional video cameras now composing a minority of deployed video capable devices) that seem to be contradictory responses to a schizophrenic consumer community.
A demand for larger sensors from the “professional” markets arose from jealousy over the higher-resolution chips in even the least expensive digital still cameras. As soon as manufacturers added video capability to these cameras, many filmmakers started using digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras for field production.
There were—and still are—serious limitations for video shooters using equipment primarily designed for still photography. Most notable are the lack or poor quality of audio recording and the limited continuous recording times due to sensor overheating.
However, that did not stop the increased use of ever-smaller devices, DSLRs, digital “snap-shot” cameras and cell phones from being used for professional productions (in fact the 2012 Sundance Film Festival gave one of its top documentary awards to the film “The Search for Sugar Man,” which was shot mostly with an iPhone).
Panasonic and Sony responded by incorporating larger DSLR complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensors into camcorders like the AG-AF100 (4/3 sensor) and Sony’s NEX-VG series units (APS-C sensor).
In addition, Canon responded initially by increasing continuous video recording times and adding external audio inputs to some of its EOS DSLRs. In 2012, Canon joined Sony in releasing camcorders with super-35 millimeter sensors (Canon’s EOS-C series, Sony’s NEX-FS, PMW-F series and SRW- 9000).
In contrast to the hunt for sensors that could record native HD, 2K and even 4K, the professional video community was clamoring for “smaller, lighter” recording systems to accommodate downsized location news crews and studio facilities.
JVC’s GY-HM7xx series camcorders took the unique approach of creating a smaller unit in a shoulder-mount design with interchangeable lens capability. In weight and size, those units rivaled handheld camcorders from other manufacturers with equivalent recording formats and fixed lenses. Additionally, the JVC units had compatible accessories that allowed them to be outfit for full studio use.
While JVC has yet to jump into the large sensor foray, it has increased densities with a 1 2/3-inch CMOS chip to support 4K in a “professional” unit (GY-HMQ10) that bears much more resemblance in form factor, features and price to an upper echelon consumer product.
PICTURE QUALITY, ‘MARKET-SPEAK’
Sony’s NEX-VG10The picture quality crowd’s focus on chip size lead to lots of market-speak that manufacturers could correctly claim as fact while cynics said it was misleading. For example, while the JVC GY-HMQ10 chip specs out at 3840 x 2160 pixels (4K UHDTV) resolution, detractors cried foul because the 4K imagery is compressed using four AVCHD 36 Mbps streams, one for each quadrant of the 4K picture. The question begged by that approach: Is 4K imagery compressed with lossy AVCHD, still 4K?
In addition, there are more picky purists who argue that “visually lossless” is not really lossless, so without a way to record raw or pixel-for-pixel lossless output from the chip, it is not really a 4K camcorder. The problem, critics say, is when lossyacquired footage is edited digitally, and once again compressed in a lossy format for distribution, the user may as well have started with lossless HD and bumped up to 4K for mastering.
JVC’s GY-HM 7xxTo answer the critics, camcorder manufactures have provided “uncompressed” video output spigots to which users can attach high bit-rate lossless compression or RAW format external recording units.
In a recent move that may be replicated by other manufacturers, Canon worked hand-in-glove with a third-party video recording company, AJA, during the design process for the 4K EOS C500 camcorder. Using internal CF/SDHC card storage, the C500 is only HD-capable. For 2K and 4K, users will need a recorder, like the AJA Ki Pro Quad, capable of recording 2K/4K from the unit’s multi-link 3G HD/ SD-SDI connectors. Other “aftermarket” 2K and 4K recording units from Convergent Designs, Cinedeck and Sound Devices are also available or in work.
Since an iPhone with a $1 Super 8 mm video recording app can produce an award-winning documentary, arguments over sensor size and recording formats boil down to “eye of the beholder” and “hands of the user” in practice. With the increasing appearance on television of “citizen journalist” video and “caught on tape” reality shows, the viewing public has ruled that certain production values (or lack thereof) can be forgiven based on content context.
Canon’s 4K EOS C500The flip side is that users like Spike Lee have demonstrated that, from the dawn of DV as a format, even consumer equipment in the hands of a professional can produce theatrical cinema release quality.
Nonetheless, users who understand the limitations of their chosen device (i.e., smaller chips mean lower sensitivity which requires more light for best performance) can get “professional-quality” video out of almost any video recording device on the market today. While “good practices” of cinematography and videography still apply, use of purpose-built film or video recorders for professional production is no longer a requirement.
AJA’s Ki Pro QuadDoes the camcorder have a future? Even in slow-tochange industries like government media services, camcorders have a diminishing share of the video recording duties. For example, several forensics teams now use Panasonic Toughpads to video crime scenes and can, with appropriate app support, upload those videos in real-time to a precinct server. The same device can be used with a stylus to write notes, draw diagrams or annotate pictures. Weatherized and ruggedized to MIL-STD- 810G standards, Toughpads can withstand conditions and abuse that would destroy many camcorders.
My guess is that the camcorder may survive for years, but as a niche product for a decreasing band of storytellers who need considerable post-production before distribution. But for other general-purpose video recording jobs, most of which need near immediate distribution on some level, the camcorder’s days may be numbered due to the rise of general purpose mobile media platforms like smartphones and tablet computers.