If you do not have an HD-capable consumer video camera and are interested in getting one, OneCall.com (based in Spokane) has quite a deal going at the moment.
The older Canon HG10 40 GB hard disk based high end consumer HD video camera is on sale as a Canon factory reconditioned unit, with limited warranty, for $419. Over the weekend it was $399 and I bought one then.
The HG10 records up to just under 6 hours in its highest quality HD mode. It has manual overrides for most everything, which puts in the higher end consumer video category. It has an external mic input too. Its a Canon so uses all the same Canon icons on its menus – same as the still cameras.
This is a complete and fully usable camera out the door whereas the nearly equivalent Flash cameras sell for $600 to $1200 dollars – and then you need to buy 32 GB Flash cards at $128 a piece. And probably at least a couple. Plus extra batteries (regarding the HG10, it uses the same batteries as the HV20/30/40 and I already had some of those).
The feature set and image quality are comparable to the widely successful Canon HV20 (since replaced by the HV30 which added true 30p capability and then replaced by the HV40 that updated the 24p mode to true 24p mode). With one exception: some scenarios can produce visible compression artifacts in AVCHD that are not apparent in HDV. Why? The problem is that Canon implemented an efficiency measure in the HG10’s version of AVCHD compression that, where it sees fairly broad expanses lacking in detail, it reduces the compression effort by processing 8×8 pixel matrices rather than the usual 4×4 pixel matrices. Much of the time, this means that it can assign more bits to the detailed parts of the image – but it has the odd effect, especially on a graduated color such as the blue sky from the horizon upwards, where it can produce compression artifacts on the sky while getting on the really detailed stuff nailed. Weird! For my uses, this is not a great problem. But it is something that anyone using AVCHD systems probably needs to be aware of.
The imager is a progressive 1920×1080 (4:2:2 color space), downconverted to 1440×1080 4:2:0 color space AVCHD at 15 mbps. The camera records in 1080/60i and 1080/24pf mode. The “pf”reference to “progressive frames” and is identical to 24p. You can record in a fake 30p mode by using a 1/30th of a second shutter speed. This works because the progressive imager puts the correct fields into the /60i video stream such that each field is lined up correctly as if it were true 30p.
Quick run down on HD:
- Most HD cameras for the consumer space are either tape-based (e.g. Canon HV40) and record in 1440×1080 HDV (MPEG2) or Flash memory based.
- TAPE BASED: This is the easiest format to edit on the computer, but if you record one hour of video, it takes one hour to ingest into the computer before editing. Consumer quality tapes result in tape dropouts – which are a killer in the HDV format as one drop out can take out 1/2 second of video. I only buy professional quality tapes and they are not cheap ($5 to $8 each depending on quantity) but they can be reused.
- FLASH BASED: Usually records in 1440×1080 or 1920×1080 AVCHD (H.264/MPEG4). In spite of more pixels, AVCHD is up to twice as efficient as HDV. Thus, in theory, a 15 mbps AVCHD stream would be better than HDV’s 25 Mbps data stream. In theory.
- The Canon HG10 is a generation behind and it records 1440×1080 anamorphic HD in AVCHD – which is exactly the same as the tape based HDV format.
- Does 1920×1080 actually matter? After reading numerous online discussion groups, virtually everyone who raves about their super sharp 1920×1080 images ends up editing and encoding for online distribution as 1280×720 or for playing through their Apple TV/Sony PS3/Xbox 360 to their HDTV!!! Or re-encodes to standard DVD format at 720×480. In such circumstances, no one will notice the difference between 1920×1080 and 1440×1080 in the final result.
- Yes, its true – the BBC and Discovery Channel now require most of their shows to be shot at 1920×1080 and do not usually use 1440×1080 video. So for all those people who plan on shooting BBC documentaries with their $700 flash camera – well, you can worry about that 🙂
- The newest Flash cameras such as the Canon HF200 uses a tiny 1/4 sq inch sensor with something like six mega pixels on it. Versus a 1/2.7 sq inch imager with 3 megapixels for the HG10. What do you think happens to low light performance of a 1/4 sq inch 6 megapixel sensor versus a larger image sensor? Well, its terrible and becomes very noisy as the video gain (amplification) is turned up to high.
- But isn’t tape good for archiving? All of us used to think we wanted to have our video archive on tape. But by late last year, it has become cheaper to store an equivalent amount of video on hard disk rather than tape!
- Editing – on Windows, the only package really good for editing AVCHD is Sony’s Vegas, in either the consumer or professional editions. It will edit AVCHD directly. CAUTION: No matter what editing software use and what type of computer you use, you realistically need at least a dual processor. HD has a lot of bits to process! (Update: Adobe Premier Pro CS4 and Adobe Premier Pro Elements 7 will also edit AVCHD directly.)
- Mac OS X – iMovie 08 and 09 work fine (09 recommended). iMovie reads the AVCHD and converts it to an intermediate form called Apple Intermediate Codec or AIC which you can then edit at normal speeds. The intermediate file size is usually about 3x larger than the original AVCHD. But you can archive the original AVCHD and then delete the AIC files after you are done editing, if you want.
- Another alternative on either OS is to use the TOAST 9 or 10 (Update: Toast 10 is defective and does not work) software which can be used to read the AVCHD files on the camera and re-encode in to your preferred editing format, including HDV for compatability with HDV editors or mixing with other HDV footage. (Yes, you lose a tiny bit of quality in the re-encoding as HDV is a lossy encoder but most people won’t notice unless you are shooting for the BBC…)
- All editing tools let you view thumbnails of the videos on the camera, and then import only the ones you want. You may optionally import and archive the compressed AVCHD to a hard disk for longer term storage.
For me, the one major limitation of the HG10 is that there is no way to view or set the microphone audio level. I am used to manually setting the audio level – and I prefer to do this to keep the sound level at constant setting to property record the dynamic range of the subject. Unlike the HV20/30/40, which are so similar to the HG10, there is no way to adjust the mic input level – instead, it uses automatic gain adjustment. It is possible to slightly accommodate this by using an external BeachTek audio mixer (or similar) – but the in camera ALC may still interfere with your desired audio level setting. You can use an external mic, such as the R0DE short shotgun with mini plug – but you’ll probably have to rely on the automatic limit control buil in to the camera.
For some, and probably for the wrong reasons, the 1440×1080 format is less resolution than 1920×1080 and this may be an issue. But most people can’t tell the difference and especially once it has been edited and encoded for distribution at 1280×720. Or heavily transcoded for 1280×720 online!
The camera’s 24pf mode requires removal of the 2:3 pulldown sequence. On the Mac, this is done using the free JES Deinterlacer. I believe it can also be done on both Windows and the Mac using the free MPEG Streamclip program.
The camera lacks a 30p mode but this can be simulated in many situations by shooting at 1/30th of a second – provided that the subjects are slow moving – definitely not for sports unless you want a lot of blur! This trick does work and works very well – again provided your are not shooting sports or other fast action!
I am told that the hard disk is limited to a total of 1,000 separate clips maximum, regardless of disk space available. Because of how I use the camera, I do not see how I would ever encounter that. But your mileage may vary on that point.
If you really want to shoot for the BBC, then go buy yourself a Sony EX1, 2 or 3! Actually, there are some other solutions including a JVC camera that records 1920×1080 into Quicktime files using the XDCAM 35 mbps format. Or the Panasonic HMC-150. But for the money and for most of us back in the real world, the generation behind HG10 is quite a deal.
The same factory reconditioned unit sells in the Canon online store for $549.