Easy digital videos propel YouTube

Plugged In

Latest still cameras enable flood of amateur clips

October 12, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Spend an hour browsing the videos posted on YouTube.com. Then ask why anybody would pay $1.6 billion for this collection of stupid pet tricks, fraternity pranks, garage bands, car crashes, natural disasters, amateur acrobats, soccer game snippets and hokey comedians demonstrating why their careers are on the express train to Palookaville.

That astronomical sum, by the way, is what the folks who run the Google search engine agreed to pay for the Web's favorite video site.

When I heard the news this week, my first thought was of H.L. Mencken's famous observation that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

My second thought: Where did all this stuff come from?

Actually, most of it comes from you and me, or at least from our kids. And therein lies an one of the secrets to YouTube's success: A large proportion of the amateur clips on the world's largest video site were made by people who don't have a video camera.

So what are they using? Cameras designed primarily to take still photos.

Although many photographers rarely take advantage of the feature, a good digital still camera can also capture video and store it on a standard memory card, right next the snapshots of Aunt Rhoda.

Most traditional camcorders, analog or digital, use magnetic tape to record and store video. To turn those scenes into video files on a PC, you have to go through considerable futzing with capture and editing software - more than many casual users are willing to put up with (even on a Mac).

A digital still camera makes it easier. For example, to shoot video with my little Canon Digital Elph SD700, all I have to do is turn the function dial to the little picture of a movie camera and press the shutter button to start recording.

The camera stores each video scene as a separate Windows media file with an .AVI extension. All I have to do is copy it from the flash media card to my hard drive and double-click on it. The clip immediately starts up in Windows Media Player.

Of course, I can use video editing software to combine these scenes, edit them, add titles and turn them into a more sophisticated movie.

But I don't have to. As long as my home video clip doesn't exceed 10 minutes, I can upload it right to YouTube.com, where it can bore an audience of millions instead of a handful of family and friends.

For experienced shooters, video capture is old news. But until recently, most users had good reasons to ignore it. First, it takes a while for people to get comfortable with new gadgets - such as digital cameras. And, if you're primarily a still photographer (meaning you're not enrolled in film school and don't have young children), there isn't much reason to fool around with video.

Another problem

Another problem - until recently, video files were too "bulky" for most users to manipulate. My little Elph uses almost 1.8 megabytes of space to store each second of video at its high-quality setting. That's roughly a gigabyte of storage per minute. Only in the last few years has the cost of flash memory for cameras and hard drive space on PCs dropped to the point where video is feasible for the average user.

Finally, camera makers have made real efforts to improve video performance. Consider my previous digital camera - a superb, three-year-old Canon S500 - which shoots video, but not very well.

It is limited to 15 frames per second, which makes the clips a bit jerky. Worse yet, it doesn't adjust exposure automatically or zoom while it's recording. Since these are the most important basic features of a video camcorder, I mostly stuck with still pictures.

The engineers addressed those issues in my new camera, which happily records 30 frames of 640-by-480-pixel video per second. Played directly on a TV, the quality is remarkably good.

The new camera not only zooms and adjusts exposure while it's filming, but also allows me to keep shooting video until the memory card is full. Earlier cameras often limited the length of video clips - some to bursts as short as 30 seconds.

The bottom line: Millions of digital camera users have discovered a perfectly good little video camera in their pockets. With flash memory cheap and plentiful, they can also shoot clips that last longer than 15 seconds. And they're uploading it to YouTube- .com and other sites like crazy.

If you're shopping for a digital camera and think you might like to shoot video with it, look for the features I mentioned - 640-by-480 resolution for display on a TV and the ability to zoom and adjust exposure while the camera is recording.

Some problems

But don't get the idea that still cameras will replace video camcorders anytime soon. First, their lenses aren't optimized for video - and unless you have a super-zoom model, you won't get the range of focal lengths that even an inexpensive camcorder provides.

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