Shooting HD video with a compact camera

by Reads (6,954)

Most brand name point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market today feature a video mode, maybe even an HD video mode. Though just because your photos might rival shots from Ansel Adams, it does not mean you are ready to click over and become the next Orson Welles.

While shooting both video and stills requires similar knowledge and skills when it comes to framing, exposure and light, among other elements, shutterbugs still have plenty to learn about moving pictures. Start with the following tips and soon “action” will replace “say cheese” in your vernacular:

Understand Video Resolution
Here’s a rundown on common video specs:

  • 720, 1080: Both numbers refer to the number of horizontal scan lines or pixels in a particular piece of video and are commonly used to represent HD. Sometimes HD resolutions are listed as 1920 x 1080 and 1280 x 720, with 1920 and 1280 representing the number of vertical pixels.
  • “P,” as in 720p or 1080p: “P” signifies progressive scan. When a picture is displayed, each horizontal line is scanned consecutively (or progressively), as opposed to the interlaced method – or the “i” in 1080i – where the total number of horizontal lines is divided in two and displayed half at a time. 
  • Frames per Second (fps): Think of fps as the number of stills per second of footage. Currently most cameras offer 30 fps or 24 fps, but some, like the upcoming Samsung TL350, can shoot 720p at 60 fps.

Get the Right Outputs and Connections
HD video looks better over an HDMI connection, so make sure your compact has a mini-HDMI output (I have yet to see a compact camera with a standard HDMI output). HDMI support is increasingly common in point-and-shoots, but double check since it is not guaranteed.

Because manufacturers almost never bundle a cable with the camera, you’ll probably need a mini-HDMI cable, which is just like a standard HDMI cable with one end sporting a smaller connector. Never, I repeat, NEVER pay more than $10 for a mini-HDMI cable. In fact, you can often buy one for less than $5. With cables less than 12 feet long, there is no discernable difference between picture quality from a $5 cable and the picture from a $75 cable. Expensive cables are a waste of money.

Can’t Email HD
Video, especially HD video, requires a lot of disk space. Due to many factors – including resolution, compression type and the amount of action in the footage – there isn’t an easy formula for determining how many gigabytes (GB) of storage a video requires. As an example, however, the Canon PowerShot SX210 IS shoots 720p/30fps; the same 16GB SDHC card that holds 4,334 of the camera’s largest images can only hold about 85 minutes of HD footage.

According to Canon, that is roughly 3MB per second of footage. Keep that in mind when looking to email footage to family and friends. Gmail caps file attachments at 25MB while Yahoo and MSN cap basic accounts at 10MB, making emailing HD footage almost impossible.

Luckily, most compacts offer lesser resolutions that make for smaller files, like VGA (640 x 480 pixels, near DVD quality), QVGA (320 × 240, best for mobile devices) or WVGA (like VGA but wider, usually 800 × 480, found in newer smartphones).

HD footage should be saved for showing off on a big-screen HDTV where sharp details can be appreciated.

Tripods for Tired Arms
If you don’t have a small tripod for your compact yet, consider investing in one. Holding even a light compact camera to record an extended video strains the muscles, making it difficult to keep the camera stable. You don’t want an audience watching a shaky video of your son or daughter playing soccer wondering why the child played during an earthquake.

A good mini tripod won’t cost more than $20 and isn’t larger than a few inches. Most manufacturers sell branded tripods specifically for their compacts, but the screw mount is mostly standardized across devices, meaning a Canon tripod should work with a Nikon Coolpix camera. A few others to consider include:

  • Joby Gorillapod
  • Pedco UltraPod II 
  • AMBICO V-0615 
  • Sunpak 620-786 Mini-Spider 
  • Digipower TP-S010 
  • Maximal Power Tripod MT2103 
  • Vanguard VS-10

Spare the Zoom and Swoosh
Optical zoom isn’t functional in many compacts while shooting video, including the Nikon Coolpix S1000pj and the Canon PowerShot SD1400 IS, and digital zoom is a poor substitute since it degrades video quality. So you may have to curb your inner cinematographer when framing your movies – and that’s usually for the best.

For starters, some compacts that can zoom in video mode, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3, lose focus during the transition. Also, while it’s fun to experiment with zooming, swooshing and other camera movements, it creates headache-inducing video. It may also result in dropped frames during playback, and the “Jell-O effect.”

The Jell-O effect, also known as rolling shutter, refers to warped or skewed images in the video that occur because the CMOS sensors found on new compacts do not record each frame as a single snapshot, but rather a vertical or horizontal scan. The scans take time, and camera movement during the scan can distort the resulting frame.
Watch the video below for a textbook example of the Jell-O effect. And pay close attention to the parked cars as the camera zips across. Do you see how they appear skewed or warped?

Most compacts still sport a charge-coupled device (CCD) instead of a CMOS sensor, which is a “global shutter” capable of taking one snapshot per frame.

Can You Hear Me Now?
Don’t forget the sound! Unless you are producing a silent movie, good audio is imperative to overall video quality. Unfortunately, most compact camera manufacturers haven’t gotten the message since many point-and-shoots only have one paltry mono microphone, and those that do support stereo sound lack a dedicated external microphone jack and even basic audio controls, which are both necessary for quality audio.

However, there are tips you can follow to lessen the effect of lousy audio. When interviewing a subject, make sure the person directs his or her voice at the microphone and speaks slowly and clearly. Try to shoot in a location with minimal ambient noise, as it can drown all voices out. Some compacts have a wind-noise cancellation feature, but that won’t do much to eliminate idle chatter at a bar or crowded party. Finally, use a tripod if you have it. The camera’s onboard mic is likely to pick up noise made from handling the device, and it will likely be extremely loud during playback since jostling occurs close to the audio input on the camera.

The bottom line is that the current crop of point-and-shoots is better for silent movies, but not so great for “talkies.”

Save on Software
You don’t need an expensive video editing suite to organize footage shot on a compact camera. Free programs are available that let you splice footage, add titles and music, and apply simple effects and transitions easily. You might even already have one installed on your computer.

Mac users are in luck because Apple’s iMovie, which is packaged in the iLife suite that comes with new Macs, is an intuitive and feature-rich application offering everything you’ll need. In fact, some professionals use it to edit web videos. Windows users can take solace in knowing that Windows Movie Maker is also a capable and easy-to-use program. It’s found in all versions of Windows XP and Vista. Windows 7 users can download Windows Live Movie Maker, a scaled back version that still offers enough to cover basic needs.

Ignore software that comes bundled with the camera unless you need it to extract footage. The programs are typically awkward and underpowered.

Keep your Camcorder
Would you suggest a friend ditch her digital camera because her camcorder takes stills? Of course not. Dedicated cameras offer a host of still controls and features that camcorders lack. The reverse is also true. Camcorders are built for video in a way compacts are not. They rarely limit clip length and have more video modes, audio controls, advanced compression standards, deeper optical zoom length (up to 78x), autofocus and zoom built for video, plenty of storage, and a comfortable form factor for extended use.

That said, interchangeable lens cameras, including DSLRs and Micro Four Thirds units, have some unique advantages over camcorders outside the obvious lens variety. The cameras have larger image sensors than on typical camcorders, which create richer images with greater depth and generally better performance in low light, rivaling high-end professional camcorders. Some, like the Panasonic G2 Micro Four Thirds camera, also sport an audio jack, making them serious movie making machines.

In fact, Micro Four Thirds cameras are already crowding the camcorder space, and it’s only a matter of time before advanced video features are included with compacts. Familiarizing yourself with video now will help you get more out of future devices. After all, you don’t want to pay top dollar for a camera five years from now and only be able to use half its functions.

Now go out there and shout “action.” Please share with and post links to your videos in the comments section.

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