Digital still cameras get better for video


Bad news if you dread home movies: Digital still cameras are becoming far more adept at capturing video and sound.

Advances in image compression and a sharp drop in memory prices have made mid-priced digital cameras of recent vintage not only decent but also practical little moviemakers.

They are still a far cry from camcorders, which offer superior image quality and many more features for shooting video. But the still-camera movie mode - long dismissed as a novelty - can now be used to capture a moment as precious as baby's first steps or as seemingly endless as scenes from a neighbor's trip to Nova Scotia.

In fact, digital camera video has contributed to the rise of video-sharing Web sites, on which clips can be uploaded for viewing by family members, friends and the global public.

"People still don't buy a digital camera for taking movies," said Gary Pageau, publications director for Photo Marketing Association International, the largest photo imaging trade association. "But after they try it out, they start thinking about the possibilities."

Video is hardly new to digital still cameras. The Ricoh RDC-1 camera that came out in 1995had a movie mode. But its longest video lasted five seconds.

Until recently, many digital cameras cut off a video shot after 30 seconds. This was a blessing because video gobbled up expensive memory. A high-capacity storage card that would hold more than a few minutes of video could cost half as much as a camera.

But last year introduced cameras with compression formats that squeeze more video onto the same amount of memory while retaining good quality.

And the price of that memory is falling. The cost of a 1-gigabyte card, which can store more than an hour of video on some of the newer cameras, used to be in excess of $200. Now, it's about $50.

I tested three digital cameras. Each uses a different compression format for video and is in the $300-to-$350 price range.

All were set to take video at a rate of 30 frames per second, the standard for digital camera video. And all were set to record images in the 640-by-480-pixel size, which looks OK when shown full screen on a computer monitor.

All the cameras featured automatic exposure control while in movie mode. But none had automatic focus for video, and using the zoom function made matters worse. (Best results were achieved by zooming out as far as possible.)

The Canon PowerShot SD450 - which won a recent shootout we did of 5-megapixel cameras - uses a relatively old video format, Motion JPEG, that is memory intensive. I was able to get only nine minutes and six seconds of video onto a 1 GB card.

This is not so terrible. But if you are taking a lot of video, you will have to frequently erase shots or transfer them to a computer to free up memory space.

In the SD450's favor is its ergonomically friendly form - it looks like a mini 35-millimeter film camera - which enables it to be held fairly steady while shooting video. And its controls are nicely situated - it would be difficult to stick a finger in front of the lens in the middle of a shot.

The Sony DSC-T5 camera, which sports a Carl Zeiss lens, saves video in the MPEG-1 format. I was able to get 12 minutes and 43 seconds of video onto a 1 GB card.

The camera is slim. That makes it great to carry around, but my finger did drift in front of the lens a few times. And the microphone is in exactly the wrong spot on top of the camera - I was constantly pressing on it and muffling the sound.

One nice feature is that the zoom automatically locks itself in the widest position during video shooting.

Because this camera's memory uses Sony's proprietary storage system, the price of a 1 GB card is about $70.

The real breakthrough in compression formats was represented by the Casio Exilim EX-S600, which uses MPEG-4. It stored one hour, four minutes and 17 seconds of video onto a 1GB card.

And for all that compression, video quality seemed a tad better than the other two.

It's likely that your fingers will get tired before the memory card fills up - this camera is even slimmer than the Sony.

But all that extra shooting time buys you the opportunity to make more mistakes.

I'm not ready to get a camcorder, but I'll take some digital camera video when I go on vacation.

Doesn't matter if it's short - I'll show it to my friends over and over again.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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