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Streaming Media
Building the Perfect Digital Video Studio
Posted Aug 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 5 next »
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When considering cameras, DV cards, editors, and workstations, aspiring videographers face a multitude of choices. We help you sort them out.

August 2002|So, you've decided to make the jump into digital video editing, and you're pondering which equipment to buy. The choices are far from easy, given that you can get started for well under $1,000 if you use your current computer, or spend more than $20,000 for the same basic shoot, capture, edit, and output capabilities with a completely new setup.

The key point to recognize is that less is more in the digital video realm. Spend more than you need to for the best camera, DV card, or video editor, and you'll likely find yourself with a product that's either too confusing to learn or poorly suited for its intended use, or both. The better strategy is to identify your intended use and user, and then purchase the appropriate setup for this profile.

To assist your efforts, we've broken the digital video market into four basic categories: consumer, department, corporate, and professional. Then we detail the factors to consider when purchasing a DV camera, the DV card/video editing solution you'll use to capture, edit, and output your footage, and the computer you'll need to pull it all together. Finally, we discuss DVD authoring tools for those seeking to output to tape, as well as other useful peripherals like an NTSC monitor. Let's start by examining our user taxonomy. (See Table 1 on page 5.) 

Who Are You?
Consumer users want to edit home videos for output to VHS, CD-ROM, or perhaps posting to an Internet site. Use is casual, not professional, and intermittent, not continuous, so the ability to quickly learn the video editor and remember how to use it 30 days later is more important than advanced features.

The next level up is the department user—the marketing, sales, or training professional who wants to start integrating video into presentations, training, or corporate announcements for Web or CD/DVD delivery. Once again, the user is non-technical, so user-friendliness is critically important. In addition, use is consistent, but not continuous, so the fastest available editing solution isn't absolutely required.

At the corporate level, the requirements start to get serious. Though the user may not be a professional videographer, it's likely a semi-dedicated artistic type who wants to push the creative envelope. Video quality starts to creep up into the required feature list, as well as the ability to go beyond the presets offered by most cameras. Since the use is becoming fairly dedicated, editing throughput also is important, making real-time editing capabilities a must.

At the top of our taxonomy sit the event videographers, professionals who make a living with their gear. Video quality, editing flexibility, and real-time editing capabilities are all critical, with price and especially ease of use somewhat secondary. Besides, any program is easy to use when you use it every day.

Certainly, the lines are never drawn quite as clearly as we do here, but if you find yourself between two profiles, study the decision criteria for both categories, and make the best decision for you and your organization. Let's get started.

DV Cameras
The first piece of gear you'll need is a DV camera, which can range in price from under $500 to over $6,000. Obviously, price will be a key consideration for most consumer users. Digital-8 cameras represent the best bang for your buck, especially for consumers with lots of Hi-8 footage. Take note, however, that not all Digital-8 cameras can still read and write in analog format, since Sony has started to eliminate this feature on its least expensive models. (See Table 2 on page 5.)

Video quality for cameras in this class is typically quite good, especially if you're used to VHS or 8mm quality, and most include color viewfinders and LCD panels for preview and playback. However, audio quality can definitely suffer, especially with the new class of wallet-sized cameras.

Another important factor is whether you want the camera to double as your still-image camera so you'll have one less device to worry about on vacations. If so, look for a camera like Sony's DCR-TRV30 that has a 1360x1020 maximum still-image resolution, sufficient for high-quality printed 5"x7" pictures.

Department users should probably spring for a 3CCD (charged coupled device) camera like the Canon GL1 and venerable Sony TRV900. 3CCD cameras capture red, green, and blue signals separately, contributing to a cleaner signal that especially pays dividends when producing for low bit-rate applications like streaming. These cameras typically also provide features like zebra striping, which warns you of under and overexposure, and neutral density (ND) filters that help shooting in low light and other extreme conditions.

Lacking in these department-level cameras, however, are audio/video controls on the camera body where they are truly useful. Briefly, virtually all DV cameras let you manually set exposure, white balance, and other shooting parameters, but only through the camera's menu system; you may have to stop shooting, adjust, and then continue your shot. Cameras like Sony's DCR-VX2000 and Canon's XL1S have these controls on the camera body, where you can adjust them in real time.

These corporate-level cameras also have manual audio gain adjustments on the body, generally with audiometers, both of which are essential for capturing high-quality audio during interviews and presentations. Though neither of these cameras includes inputs for the XLR connector used by most professional microphones, you can generally find adapter kits from third-party manufacturers.

In addition, because these cameras are larger and more expensive, the vendors can use higher-grade electronics, which translates to better-quality video across a range of conditions. For example, in recent tests for PC Magazine, the VX2000 shot clear, high-quality video in a poorly-illuminated room, while video from consumer- and department-class cameras was absolutely dark. Overall, this provides the corporate user with the best of both worlds; high-quality video in automatic mode with the ability to tinker for incremental improvements.

For absolute top quality, however, you'll need a camera like Sony's DSR-250PAC or JVC's GY-DV500U. The DSR250PAC is a second-generation camera that includes the convenient LCD panel not available on the original DSR-200. Both cameras make all relevant camera controls accessible on the body, and include XLR connectors for external microphones. The only real downside is form factor, as these shoulder-mount cameras are difficult to lug around and are very obtrusive, sometimes a drawback at social meetings or other casual occasions.

DV Card/Video Editor
After selecting a camera, it's time to select a capture card and video editor—an absolutely critical choice, considering how much time you'll be spending with this hardware/software combination. Before we begin to distinguish between the products in the various classes, let's discuss the features available at virtually all levels.

From a hardware perspective, all DV capture cards link to your camera or DV deck via an IEEE 1394 connector invented by Apple as FireWire and also called i.Link by Sony. They transfer the identical video file from camera to computer at the same speed. This means that there are no quality or capture speed differences between the various cards—buy a $39 generic FireWire card or the $2,000 Pinnacle DV-2000 and you get the same quality video in the same capture time.

Rather, as we'll see in a moment, DV cards differ in two critical respects. First are the video formats accessible by the card, important if you own extensive archives in formats like VHS, Hi-8, or BetaSP. Where some cards can only handle DV format, others can also accept incoming analog signals, which they convert to DV-formatted video that can be freely intermingled with video from a DV camera.

The second major difference relates to the nature and extent of real-time performance provided by the cards. Lower-end cards provide no real-time effects, so transitions and effects must be rendered before viewing. More expensive cards provide real-time previews and sometimes real-time DV output, which we'll detail on a category-by-category basis. (See Table 3 on page 5.)

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