Sunday, January 20, 2008

which camcorder?

Di Dawson and I had a discussion about providing people with advice on which bits of kit could be used to record videos for what mobile devices.I'm sure she'll be posting her findings soon, and I've done some research and have the following views to offer. For readers' info, I have a degree in audio-visual production and I've worked as a multimedia producer. I have worked with lots of kit from analogue to digital. I can happily produce professional quality video if working with the right kit. What we're doing here, though, is working out what is quick and easy to do in an education setting.
For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that we want to film indoors in a typical classroom, with the camera aimed at the tutor to record what they are doing and what they are saying. So what we need is

  • A camera
  • Extra batteries or the camera charger (you'd be surprised how many people forget to plug in the camera until it runs out of battery)
  • A wide angle lens (if trying to capture more of the class. Make sure you buy a camcorder that allows attachments that you want!)
  • Zoom microphone (if camera allows such attachment or better still, wireless lavalier mic)
  • Extra media (dv tapes, dvds etc if using such cameras)
  • An extension lead
  • A tripod
  • An mp3 recorder (always useful to have backup for podcast and also, an mp3 recorder can be placed on the person talking for clarity)

If we were going to do an interview, I would throw in

  • Lights
  • Reflectors

If viewing on Windows-based pda-type devices is important:
It would be best to start with something that captures avi that you can simply import into Windows Movie Maker. So you could use a good quality stills camera like a Canon, use the movie function to record (at 640 x 480 max) the video, maybe use an mp3 recorder as well, placed near the person who is talking.
Where possible, use clip-on microphones so check that the mp3 recorder has an audio input jack.Extra lighting is recommended if filming indoors. Because a lot of stills cameras will record video in .avi format, you can simply transfer the video files to the pc (by connecting the camera to the pc with a lead. The pc should see the camera as an extra drive), then simply import into
Windows Movie Maker to add titles, add the mp3 if required (mute the original clip if the audio is terrible), then Save to my computer, choosing the Video for Pocket PC setting for the right size and resolution.

If inserting into PowerPoint is important:
Follow the same advice above, but you can save the video with high quality (unless it makes the PowerPoint file way too big for students to download!). You can choose from Movie Maker's long list of settings.

If viewing on ipods is important:
Start with an mpeg4 camcorder like the Sanyo Xacti or Aiptek camcorders. Cheap and cheerful but that's what mpeg4 is anyway! You could push the handle out and buy the HD versions. Some of these cameras actually have an audio input jack, but not all are reliable so make sure you visit some AV forums for comments about your camera audio before purchase.The Sanyo Xacti cameras also have the option of adding wide angle lenses and a battery charger, which I think will be useful as these cameras do not have a long battery life. Large SD cards will come in useful, but check that the model of the camera will work with a large SD card before buying the SD card! Not all cameras will work with an 8Gb SD card, for instance. Some can only take 1Gb SD cards and that's it.
It's also possible to use Kodak cameras that capture video as well (like the Kodak C603). These record video as .mov files that can be imported easily into a Mac.All these cameras may work better with extra lighting if filming indoors.
Same advice as above on recording backup audio using an mp3 recorder with a clip-on mic.
iMovie on the Macs will import the video clips easily enough and you can use the native functions to export to ipod or psp.

Another quirky bit of kit that would allow you to use any camera with AV output (so all the kit you may already have for video recording in college) is the Pinnacle Video Transfer USB 2.0 device (PVT) ( You don't need a PC to copy video to your ipod, PSP or USB device. Attach the camcorder to the PVT and your ipod or psp and voila! Only £99.99, but bear in mind that this is assuming you don't need to edit your videos.

If high quality is important:
If you need to film and edit high quality video in order to project it on a screen, or to add to that marketing video, then there's no getting away from a proper camcorder. You might think that HDD (hard disk drive) is the way to go (partly because they don't make new dv cameras anymore) but unless you have a lot of stuff to go with it, editing is going to be a nightmare. Let me explain...HDD camcorders record video in mpeg2 format. Neither Windows Movie Maker nor iMovie will be able to import this without a bit of converting. By converting the mpeg2 footage, you are losing quality. And this is before you even edit the video. The conversion process also adds time to the whole process. You could, of course, use any provided software to try to edit the footage, but they may be limited in functionality and still not provide output in the format that you require (eg wmv or avi to work with PowerPoint or mp4 to work with ipods). Check this carefully before investing in a HDD camera. Of course new software is coming out all the time and the Macs may actually decide to give better support to HDD cameras in future ( but right now, it's fiddly.
Another disadvantage is that mpeg2 files require a lot of computing power if you are going to edit them, so your regular desktop may not be up to the task.
HDD cameras are useful for recording video that doesn't need much editing, with a dvd as the final output in mind. Read this friendly article for more a nice comparison chart between video formats.(

So currently, the best route for good quality video is dv tape!! The average PC or laptop would require a video input card or external device to import dv ( but Macs can easily do this with the Firewire cable. You leave it to import the footage, then edit to your heart's content. Of course, if you require windows-friendly footage, you would have to turn to a software converter (again). This is not an easy question to answer!

And mpeg4 camcorders seem to be getting better at producing quality video ( so maybe this is the way to go?

This is a bit like the war between Betamax and VHS: Windows or Mac?
If your project is based on the premise of using ipods, then go the Mac route.
If your project is based on pdas, then go the Windows route.
And be prepared to purchase a souped-up pc with high-end graphics card to handle conversions between formats as required!

A budget guide to lighting with some nice background info thrown in:
If you have an AV department, they may have lights you can borrow. On-board camera lights may not 'reach' far enough in a classroom situation, although they would be sufficient for an interview situation. If planning to use these, make sure you've purchased a camera with an Active Hot Shoe. This allows you to attach the light to the top of the camera, and will 'talk' to the camera, allow control of the light from the camera. It will also get its power from the camera.
Cold shoes allow you to attach stuff on top, but these attachments will have to be powered by batteries, making the camera that much heavier or bulkier to handle if not on a tripod. You will also need to have a lot of spare batteries!

If you buy a wireless lavalier mic, you can easily record someone talking on your laptop (with audio in) or pc in the classroom, especially if you have software like Audacity already installed. You clip the tie mic on to their clothes and they hook the sender on to their belt clip. Then you attach the receiver to your pc audio in jack, do a test on your mp3 recording software and away you go. (If a student asks a question in class, always ask the tutor to repeat the question so it's heard on the recording!)I recently bought one off ebay for £7 so watch this space for quality tests. ;-) If you want to record straight to a portable device, how about the lavalier mic, an ipod and an ipod mic adapter ( The ipod recorder attachment is ok if you are holding the mp3 recorder to your face, but if you want to slip it in your pocket and have a discreet mic clipped on to your top, then this is probably a good setup.

This is a mega-long post. Sorry! If I've got any of it wrong, I'm sure I'll find out in the
next few days!

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