The face of digital photo and video is changing as we speak. Well, not really the face, so much as the skin and innards. Until very recently video = tape and photo = memory card. Now, tape is on its way out, and digital still cameras are getting much better at doing video, too.
One of the most unusual aspects of this process is that it’s happening at the low end, not the cutting edge. While it’s true that many HD video shooters are now using some kind of (expensive) memory card, for the most part tape or some kind of disc still rule professional production. But at the consumer level, especially at the $100 – $200 solid state memory is winning.
This development has been on the horizon for quite some time, but it’s really only in the last year that inexpensive flash memory camcorders and point-and-shoot digicams have provided a decent enough quality and user experience to surpass the traditional tape-based camcorder.
The reasons are pretty obvious. While a miniDV camcorder was absolutely miniscule compared to the behemoths of the analog age, new memory cams are the size of just one or two videotapes. There’s an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. This extends to video, too, if the type of video you’re shooting is a lot like snapshots–recording interesting or important moments for posterity or fun.
The second reason is price. With no moving parts and Moore’s Law chugging away in the background, the silicon pieces that make up a flash memory camcorder get cheaper every day.
I have to admit that I’ve resisted this trend for a while, due to both good reasons and snobbery. On the side of good reasons, flash memory is actually more volatile than videotape, and until recently the cost-per-minute of memory cards was extremely greater than miniDV tapes. With a memory card you have to make sure to upload the files, and keep backing them up if you want to preserve your footage. With tape you can capture what you need, or not even bother to transfer your video to a computer for months or years. Just keep the tape in a safe place and it will be ready when you are. Doing that with a memory card just isn’t practical.
My final good reason is that the video files that come off these little flash memory cams is highly compressed and not designed for editing. I’ve blogged about the problems this presents with the more expensive HD camcorders, and these problems remain. But at the $100-$200 end of things that concern is pretty much moot. If you have a recent vintage PC or Mac pretty much any recent editing program, from iMovie to Premiere, will handle their standard-definition footage.
So what are my snob reasons? Well, the video quality of a $150 Flip camcorder isn’t great. Most miniDV cams are better. That said, the Flip really is awesome for a $150 camcorder that fits in your pants pocket and is still better than most old school analog cams. Another snob reason is that there’s no audio input or headphone jack. In fact, most of these flash memory cams don’t have much in the way of controls or jacks at all, besides record, stop and USB. But, then, that’s what’s making them so appealing.
My snob reasons are in same category of arguments that pixel-peeping dSLR freaks espouse on internet message boards all over the place, arguing why their $2000 Nikon or Canon makes their pictures so superior to your $200 Kodak. Of course, the thing they’re missing is that the SLR with the 200mm zoom lens doesn’t fit in your pants pocket, and sometimes won’t even fit in a daypack.
A reasonable person will see that the question isn’t what’s better, but what’s the best tool for the job. Reading more about very positive real-world experiences with camcorders like the Flip is making me more interested in trying them out myself.
Funnily enough, I own a small pile of point-and-shoot digital cameras, all of which have some sort of video function, and I’ve never really tried out their video function. That’s probably a pretty good place to start, given I don’t have to buy anything new for that trial.
If you’re interested in trying out one of the new $150ish pocket camcorders, Gizmodo has a nice comparison of six recent models. Spoiler: the ever-popular Flip Ultra wins.
I have more thoughts on the convergence of digital imaging and video that I’ll be sharing in the coming weeks.