Reports | Technology

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Digital Cameras

1 Sep , 1999  

Written by Peter Bohush | Posted by:

Thinking about going digital? First, get the lowdown here on the XL-1, VX 1000, Optura, Vistura, and all the other wonderfully named digital cameras.Also see Part 2: Editing Software for the Digital Moviemaker

The word has been buzzing around now longer than the hype for "The Blair Witch Project." It has spawned a whole new industry and is launching the careers of countless future Orson Welles, or at least Orson Beans.

The word is "digital." Movies may soon and forever more be a collection of ones and zeroes arrayed on an optical or magnetic media, as the age of the chemical process to capture light and shadow fades into a Technicolor sunset.

This isn’t good triumphing over evil–just one thing over another. It’s called progress. Digital moviemaking is the ultimate convergence of film and television–the film experience with video technology. And it’s pretty cool stuff.

Literally thousands of moviemakers across the US have embraced digital filmmaking for both its high quality and low cost. Digital opens up the doors to filmmakers who previously did not have access to the expensive film and video equipment and processes. And the Internet is predicted to open up new methods of distribution that may significantly impact the traditional world of sprocket-based entertainment.

Digital moviemaking systems cover two broad areas: production and post-production. Production includes the camera and everything needed to get the image into the camera. Post-production includes editing picture and sound, and creating one or more final products, and will be covered in Part 2 of this article (sort of like a sequel!).

Digital Video
There are three formats of digital video, the most prevalent being the so-called prosumer (part "professional" and part "consumer") format of miniDV. It uses a videotape about the size of a pager that records 60 minutes of digital video and CD-quality sound. The video resolution for these cameras ranges from 400 to 525 horizontal lines.

Traditional (analog) broadcast video cameras can record 750 or more horizontal lines of resolution. Better, right? Well, yes and no. In the camera, the 750 lines are better. But copy the image during editing, and the output can fall below 450 lines, less than the 525 line standard for US televisions.

In digital video, exact duplicates of the master image and sound are created throughout the post-production and duplication process. So 525 lines go into the camera, 525 lines go out to the computer for editing, 525 lines go back out as finished tape–zero generation loss, which is amazing to anyone who has ever tried to make a copy of a VHS tape to send to relatives. ("Now, is that ghosty thing supposed to be little Jimmy taking his first steps? And, gee, we didn’t know everything in your house was orange and fuzzy!")

MiniDV and the other digital video formats use basically the same image and sound capture systems, so they all grab about 525 lines of resolution. The more "professional" DVCAM camcorders may be more rugged and offer more bells and whistles (particularly related to microphone inputs), but the images will be roughly the same, all other things being equal. And 525 lines of resolution is more than you get with your typical network broadcast, so the picture in miniDV is considered "broadcast quality."

(Side note: actually, "broadcast quality" as defined by the FCC only deals with the sync signal of video, not its quality or resolution. And, as anyone who has ever seen "The Nanny" knows, "broadcast quality" could be considered an oxymoron.)

And if you think digital video is only for distribution on television, check out the newest breakthroughs in projecting digital video onto big screens. It works, and it looks great. Given that George Lucas has vowed to shoot the next two "Star Wars" movies on digital video, it may be a wake-up call to theaters to begin installing digital video projectors or risk losing the rights to show the next prequel sequel in their multiplex. (Technicolor,, by the way, has just invested close to $100 million in an "e-cinema developer" called Real Image Digital. Technicolor intends to utilize Real Image’s compression, encryption, and digital storage processes to present theatrical films via digital projection. Told you so here first.)

About a dozen digital camcorders are on the market today, mostly miniDV, from four or five manufacturers. (Sony is also marketing a format called Digital8, which records digital video on standard Hi8 videotapes.)

Leading the pack are the Canon XL-1 and the Sony VX-1000. People post to numerous web sites and newsgroups, hailing one over the other. (These are the same people who argue about whether the Atlantic is a better ocean than the Pacific.) Both cameras will do the job–and have–depending on your needs. Bennet Miller’s "The Cruise" was shot with a VX-1000 (nicknamed the "vixen.") So was "Sacrifices," a low-budget indie whose makers have an informative digital video web site at

Kent Williamson directed his feature "When Love Walks In" using a Cannon XL-1 (nicknamed the "XL-1"). His equally informative article on the benefits and drawbacks of that camera in action can be found as his Paladin Pictures web site (

The XL-1 will set you back about $3,500, while the VX-1000 can be had for a few bucks less. A selling point of the XL-1 is that it is the only camcorder with the capability of changing lenses, as can be done with film cameras.

New to the market is Canon’s GL-1, priced at about $2,500, smack dab in the middle of the camcorder price range. The GL-1 looks like a cross between Sony’s VX-1000 and TRV900 models, and features Canon’s "Flourite" lenses. (Now, I recall as a youth hearing horror stories about a Communist plot to add Flourite to our drinking water. But I suppose putting it into my camcorder lenses won’t hurt, especially since the USSR is all broke up.)

Directly competing with the GL-1 is the Sony TRV900, a three-chip beauty with a big LCD and packed with features, such as a floppy disk drive to automatically dump JPEG images from the camera onto a floppy. Priced at about $2,100 (from numerous mail order houses, such as B&H Photo,, this is the camcorder I purchased to shoot "Geezers," as it had some solid features and performance. Like most of these camcorders, the TRV-900 boasts auto and manual focus, with a nice macro focus that can get right up to about 1/4 inch from something and keep it in clear focus.

Sound and Features
Also in many of the miniDVs are features such as auto/manual white balance, special effects such as sepia, ghosting, high-speed shutter, and stereo sound. Even with the minijack unbalanced mic inputs, the sound recording capabilities are phenomenal, rivaling or exceeding recording on DAT.

Since my budget for "Geezers" didn’t allow for purchase of a really good, balanced microphone ($400 to $1,000 and up), I found a cheap solution that, unbelievably, worked as well. For action shots where a boom operator couldn’t be used, I purchased the Sony ECM-HS1 hot shoe mounted shotgun mic (about $60). Its three-pattern settings brought in nice, controllable sound. Sennheiser makes an equivalent model that works with all camcorders.

Making sure no one saw me go into the store, I also purchased an Optimus shotgun mic from Radio Shack (also about $60). Now, cheap mics can sound like, well, cheap mics. And most professional sound persons would chortle me right off the lot if I said that a Radio Shack mic was as good as a Sennheiser, Neumann, or Beyerdynamic. But by jingies, when I hooked up my little Shacker to my used boom pole ($80 from Location Sound in Los Angeles,, the sound was darn good.

We shot a scene in a parking lot in Northboro. Fairly heavy traffic whizzed by behind the actors, and about 150 feet to one side, a giant skip loader was moving a three-story pile of manure around. (Hey, I pick only the best locations.) Remarkably, very little of this background noise picked up onto the soundtrack.

The only sound snafu we encountered was on our night shoot. After a two-hour lighting and background set-up, we began rolling tape and were ready to slate a scene. All of a sudden, the sound system started picking up what sounded like a Japanese children’s musical playing on someone’s television. Only the boom operator and I could hear this in our headphones, of course, but it would pick up on tape. We did what we could, picking up the cables off the ground and keeping the mic away from power lines, but the little darlings kept on singing off and on for a few minutes before disappearing. (I had a similar experience shooting at a famous hilltop restaurant in Los Angeles, which made a few extra bucks by allowing antennas to be mounted on their roof. Every so often, a take would be ruined by a stray LAPD radio broadcast for a 211 in progress. So I don’t think our equipment was at fault on "Geezers"; it’s just that sound sometimes travels through strange channels.)

One of the drawbacks of the minijack mic inputs on these camcorders is that any weight put upon the jack–such as the weight of the cable–will quickly damage the input. I cobbled together a handful of adapters from Radio Shack and held the connection on to the camcorder with rubber bands. It was a workable short-term solution that I don’t recommend to others.

To use balanced XLR-type microphones, such as the Sennheiser ME66 or the Shure SM89 shotguns, an adapter is needed. Beachtek ( makes a little box that connects to the bottom of the camcorder and takes the inputs from two XLR cables and routes it to the camcorder’s minijack input. It’s a very nice system. If you want to use balanced pro mics, get a Beachtek adapter (about $200). If you want to use unbalanced mics, build your own adapter to keep the pressure off the mic input.

Tiny Camcorders
Canon has a couple of other viable digital camcorders, all with names ending in "ura": Optura, Vistura, Turalura (just kidding). They also have the ZR, which is so small that a name with "ura" in it wouldn’t fit on the case. It retails for about $700, but don’t let the price fool you. (Okay, go ahead and let the price fool you just this time. Were you fooled? How did it feel?) The ZR records a nice picture with one CCD (chip) and CD-quality sound, just like its bigger brothers (sisters?).

Competing with the ZR is Sony’s PC1. You could fit them both into one of those Chinese food takeout boxes, and still have room for plenty of lo mein.

About the only drawback to the ZR and PC1 is their size. Being about the size of two cassette tape boxes taped together, it may become a little bouncy if not stabilized. And you won’t command much respect on the movie set if you keep putting the camera back into your shirt pocket between takes. You’d look pretty silly being pushed around on a dolly or up on a crane. Passersby would stop and ask your Teamster driver, "Why is that guy up there on that crane with an Instamatic camera?" To which he would reply, "How should I know? They just pack the camera package into the moped’s saddle bag and I drive it where they tell me to."

That tiny size, however, can have its advantages. Paul Wagner shot "Windhorse" on location in Tibet with a palm-size camcorder. The Chinese government would surely have taken away his camera and possibly his freedom if they knew he was shooting without a location permit. (You think the unions are tough here. Imagine a country with a billion people in the local! BTW, rumors that Wagner smuggled out his footage in take-out boxes stuffed with lo mein are not true.)

I Can See You Naked
Rounding out the list of most-popular digital camcorders is the Sony TRV-9, the little sister to the TRV-900. While its name has two less zeroes than the 900, the 9 puts those zeroes into its low-light specification. It shoots in zero light. Yes, zero. Total darkness. (Of course, my camera shoots in total darkness, too. And it makes a beautiful picture of total darkness, or black. Hey, it worked for "Blair Witch.")

What the TRV9 uses is an infrared system. You used to have to be a spy or a Green Beret to use an infrared camera, but now you can have your very own for about $1,100 at Best Buy.

Now, why didn’t Sony put this feature on its later, more expensive cameras? Well, because some enterprising customers discovered the naked truth about the infrared feature. Infrared waves are either emitted from or reflected by a heat-producing source. Our eyes don’t see this, because they’re busy seeing reflected or emitted light waves. A camera knows no such limitation. In darkness, infrared cameras will record a person or thing moving around. However, in a lighted environment and with a simple filter, it does things like ignore clothing and record what’s underneath (because your personals are only emitting infrared waves when covered).

So if you want to see just what your dream date is packing, or you think you’d like to sell a really interesting picture of Hillary Clinton to the "National Enquirer," flip on the infrared. (Okay, it doesn’t really work that well all the time, and Sony has modified the cameras now. But you can still pick up an older model at some mail-order houses. For more info and titillating shots of an office chair covered by a flannel shirt, visit or

Other Makers
Other well-known consumer electronics manufacturers have been in and out of the digital camcorder business over the last two years. Panasonic made a pretty good line of now-discontinued camcorders, including the DV-910 and the AG series, including the EZ30, EZ20 and EZ1. These can still be found at places such as B&H, Camera Sound ( and other mail-order firms. Feature for feature, they hold up with the Sony and Canon models, except that the company doesn’t seem committed to the miniDV market.

Electronics giant JVC is the Mario Cuomo of miniDV products. It just can’t make its mind up whether or not to be in the business. First they were in; then they discontinued most of the models (which didn’t have Firewire, by the way–see below for more on Firewire). Now they seem to be back with their new line of Cybercams. The VVM70 is similar in size to the Sony PC1 and Canon ZR. The DVL9500 is a straightforward-looking camcorder. Both have Firewire capabilities. The older DVA1 and DVF10, which sell for under $1,000, do not have Firewire.

As you can see, JVC has not hired a top-notch consultant to help it name its camera models. So it’s little surprise that its proprietary video dubbing technology is called J-LIP, which sounds like something you don’t want to catch or be born with.

Sharp also has a line of digital cameras, called the Viewcams. Actually, it only has one active model, the VL-PD3U (another swell model name), and a couple of discontinued models you can still buy. The VL-PD3U (nicknamed the PU) has the kind of boxy-looking style that fans of the old Brownie Instamatic cameras would love. But it does offer Firewire and the ability to shoot in 16:9 wide-screen mode. (Others do, too, although not the VX-1000.)

The cameras above, along with many others (but not all), have a Firewire port to connect to a digital editing system or to make pristine dupes to another machine. Some of the lower-priced models, especially the older ones, do not have Firewire.

Firewire is a technology developed by Apple Computer to connect computer peripherals. Think of it as similar to serial, SCSI, or the new USB connections. But Firewire is many times faster than USB, SCSI, and Ethernet, with current data-transfer rates of about 400 Megabits per second. A very fast SCSI drive has about 50 Mbps throughput. Up to 63 devices can be connected together using firewire. These devices can be added or disconnected live (true plug and play)–all this through a tiny little six-pin cable. (Don’t lose yours; they cost about $70 to replace.)

If you plan to connect the camera to a digital editing system or to another camera or VCR for dubbing, Firewire is the only way to make perfect digital copies.


  • Of course, cameras don’t shoot movies; people do. Digital technologies don’t mean that everything produced digitally will be good; but then, everything produced now isn’t good, either.
  • If you’re serious about shooting digital video for a living, or at least to make more than one feature, consider the Canon XL-1 or GL1, the Sony VX-1000 or TRV900 or maybe the Panasonic EZ30.
  • If size is important, the Sony PC1 or Canon ZR would be good bets.
  • To save some money, the single-chip camcorders such as the Sony TRV9 or Canon Vistura will work just fine. The discontinued Panasonic DV-910 is a nice little camera, too.
  • If you don’t want to invest in miniDV decks to use for editing, consider the Sony Digital8 models, where you can use existing Hi8 tapes.
  • Pick up and hold as many camcorders as you can before purchasing. As with still cameras, the "feel" of it is important. You’ve got to feel comfortable with it to shoot good pictures. The XL-1, for example, has one of the nicest zoom controllers I’ve ever felt. It’s really a nice rocker that the cameraperson can control with near precision. The TRV900 does not have such a feature, but it’s $1,500 less.

So pay yer money, take yer chances, and good luck!

See listings of companies that sell or rent digital cameras in the Industry Directory.