Part 1 - Introduction and Camcorders

By: James Reynolds - Revised: 2014-01-27 richard

Download Slides – PDF-File, 1.9 MB


This class will give the student an introduction to the basics of digital video, and an overview of camcorder technologies.

NOTE: A great deal of this content was first derived from the book iMovie 2: The Missing Manual. The rest of it was derived from online websites and coworkers.

What is DV?

Video editing history
In 1990, the technology needed to create a movie cost $200,000. In 1995, the technology needed to create a movie cost $8,000. Now, the technology needed to create a movie costs $1,100. This is for an eMac (educational pricing) and a DV camcorder. It is possible to get these cheaper if one buys used, refurbished, or demo hardware. AND the quality of this setup is better than the $8,000 setup of 1995!!!

What is digital
Digital data consists of nothing but 1's and 0's. This is in contrast to analog data which has a range of numbers such as 0 to 10000. There is a maximum and a minimum, but there is no limit to the number of in-between values.

Analog data storage is susceptible to data degradation and corruption. Over time, the data is changed because the physical world is imperfect. It is similar to a 100 year old book written with pencil that has not been taken care of. It is hard to read, and a reader must guess what the book says. That is analog, and you can tell when it is corrupted when you see static, discolorations, or a blurry picture.

Digital is different because there are only two values: 0 or 1. It is stored on the same physical material as analog data, but the difference between 0 and 1 is so obvious, even when the data is corrupted, it isn't corrupted so bad that it is unreadable.

Digital data is converted back to analog data right before it is shown on the display of the playback device. This is how 0's and 1's represent images.

Video standards
Video standards exist for TV's, TV stations, VCR's, VHS tapes, DVD players, DVD media, camcorders, and computer file format. The standard determines the number of frames per second and the pixel resolution.

A frame is one image. When you take multiple images and display them one after another, you get "moving pictures".

Pixel resolution is how many square or rectangle dots make up an image.

Unless you intend on making VHS tapes to send to other countries, you don't need to worry about other video formats, other than to know that there are others.

If you do need to use these formats, you will need to do a bit of research. Converting between one format and another is not something a beginner can just do. It might be better to hire or seek the advice of a professional.

NTSC - National Television Standards Committee
NTSC is a video standard used in North and South America, Japan, and 30 other countries. TV's, VCR's, camcorders, and TV stations in these countries use this standard.
  • About 30 frames per second (29.97 fps)
  • 720 x 480 rectangular pixel resolution
  • 575 scan lines (the number of fine horizontal lines)
PAL - Phase Alternating Line
PAL is the other main video format. This format is used in Europe, Africa, Middle East, Australia, China, and others.
  • 25 frames per second
  • 720 x 576 rectangular pixel resolution
  • 625 scan lines (the number of fine horizontal lines)
SECAM - SEquential Couleur Avec Memoire
SECAM is another video format used in France, the former Soviet Union countries, and others.
  • 25 frames per second
  • 720 x 576 rectangular pixel resolution
  • 625 scan lines (the number of fine horizontal lines)


Analog camcorders
  • 1.5 foot long
  • Heavy
  • Shoulder rest
  • Use full size VHS tapes
  • 1980's
  • Only a few sold today
S-VHS (Super-VHS)
  • Uses special S-VHS tapes
  • Requires special, expensive equipment and jacks
  • Sharper video quality than VHS
  • Inexpensive ($300-$400)
VHS-C (VHS-compact)
  • Tapes smaller than S-VHS and VHS
  • Requires special adapter
  • Clever but a nuisance
  • Inexpensive ($200-$300)
  • Camcorders little bigger than a 6-in subway sandwich
  • Tapes smaller than VHS-C (8mm tapes)
  • VCR's can't playback the tapes
  • Camcorder connects to the TV or VCR for playback
  • Inexpensive ($200-$300)
  • Popular among people without computers
  • Higher quality recordings than 8mm
  • Tapes same size as 8mm
  • Inexpensive ($200-$400)
Media converters
If you already have an analog camcorder, and would like to do digital editing on a computer, you need a media converter. There are several models and they cost about $300. Avoid the models that cost $1,500. You don't need converters that fancy.

Digital Camcorders
  • Smallest camcorders (size of a walkman)
  • Smallest tapes
  • Batteries last longer
  • Quality better than analog
  • Easy to transfer on a computer
  • Recordings last longer
  • Same 8mm tape as Hi8
  • Can play 8mm and Hi8 tapes
  • Data stored digitally
  • Quality better than analog 8mm and Hi8
  • Quality not as good as other digital formats
  • Record onto DVD
  • New, there are not many models (2-4 currently?)
  • Expensive ($900-$1000)
  • Similar to DVD camcorders
  • New, there are not many models (1 currently?)
  • Expensive $1000
  • Smaller discs than DVD
  • Quality not as good as DVD
  • Sony only
  • New
  • MPEG-2 compressed
  • Tiny tapes, 5.3 mm x 3.8 mm
  • Expensive ($1000-$1500)
  • Does not work with Macintosh
  • The standard
  • Start at $300 (no price limit)
  • Tapes smaller than 8mm
  • Best quality
    • Better picture quality than digital satellite broadcasts
    • Better audio quality than CD's
    • No copy degradation
MiniDV Camcorders
The most important thing about a MiniDV camcorder is the eye, the image sensor. It is know as a CCD, or Charged Coupled Device. There are 2 types of eyes: a 3 CCD and a single CCD.

A 3 CCD has 3 "eyes", one that sees red, one that sees green, and one that sees blue. Each eye ignores the other colors, which enables the camcorder to record color accurately and see in low light without night vision features.

The single CCD has one eye that sees everything. Colors are sometimes off, and it does a terrible job of recording in low light unless it has some sort of night vision feature enabled. The reason why single CCD's are popular is because they are cheap!

A CCD is measured in inches. Typical sizes are 1/4, 1/3, or 1/2 inch. The bigger the CCD, the better. Top of the line CCD's have low light requirements and high signal-to-noise ratios. You will pay dearly for a quality CCD, and it does make a difference in the quality of the video recorded.

Another important fact to know about MiniDV camcorders is that there are basically 2 families of MiniDV camcorders: Professional and consumer.

Professional MiniDV camcorders cost a lot, $4,500 and more. They always have 3 CCD's. They include many other features such as exchangeable lenses, expansion slots/ports for lights, microphones, and other external devices, and they are larger in size than consumer models.

Consumer MiniDV camcorders cost from $300 to $800. They almost always have a single CCD. Many of them are have a few expansion slots, but nothing compared to a professional model.

Here are some of the features that a typical consumer camcorder will have. They are listed in order of importance assuming you plan on using it for editing on a computer (the importance of each feature really depends on what you intend on doing).
  • Firewire (DV in/out, DV terminal, IEEE-1394, i-Link; note: some older European camcorders have DV out but not DV in, some companies have trouble with Firewire--see "Companies with a good reputation for DV camcorders" below)
  • Analog inputs
  • LCD, big and flexible
  • Image stabilizer (optical is better than electronic or digital)
  • Optical zoom
  • Variable-speed zooming
  • Manual override (zoom, exposure, etc.,.)
  • Digital time-remaining for battery
  • Built-in light
  • Preprogrammed exposure options
  • Remote control
  • Backlight mode
  • FlexiZone or PushFocus
  • Night-vision mode
  • Progressive-scan CCD (vs. interlaced)
  • Still-camera mode 640 x 480 pixels (0.3 megapixels)
DV camcorder features that will probably never be used
  • Control-L or LANC
DV camcorder features that SHOULD NEVER be used
  • Title generator
  • Fader
  • Audio dubbing
  • Special effects
  • Date/time stamp
  • Built-in editing
Companies with a good reputation for DV camcorders
  • Canon
  • Sony
  • Panasonic
Where to buy

Filming Tips

Camcorder operation
MiniDV camcorders have 2 modes: VTR and camera. VTR is basically the same as VCR. It plays the tape on the display and rewinds and fast-forwards just like a VCR. VTR mode does not use the lens.

Camera mode records over the tape. It does not play the tape like VTR mode. Some camcorders may offer a brief replay in camera mode, but you shouldn't expect it to act like a VCR.

There is no way to cover all camcorder operations here. You must READ YOUR MANUAL. Most of the time they have many languages and so even though the book may be very large, there is actually very little reading. Most of it can be skimmed as well. But, every camcorder is different. YOU MUST READ THE MANUAL.

  • Get an external microphone
  • Use tripod, monopod, or clamp
  • Put left hand UNDER camcorder
  • Use image stabilization
  • Stay zoomed out
  • Only do when needed
  • Linger; pan; linger
  • Start on good scene, end on good image
  • Practice panning
  • Pan right
  • Follow moving objects or visual "lines"
  • Turn image stabilizer off
  • Don't zoom while recording
  • Instead, use dolly shots, with a wheelchair or bike or whatever
  • Or, record and linger; pause recording and zoom; record and linger
  • Exceptions: zoom as slow as possible, zoom when panning (practice this)
  • Make sure there is enough, but not too much
  • Setup extra lights if needed
  • Use backlight mode if needed and if camcorder has the feature
  • Learn the camcorder exposer settings
  • Auto focus ok most of the time
  • When there are no defined edges, or there are objects between the subject, use manual focus
  • Use a variety of them
  • Don't break the 180 degree rule, unless the camera is rolling whole time