Search for the Best Video Camera: It Isn’t a “Video” Camera at All!

So some of you (huge assumption that more than one person actually reads what I write here) may know that I’ve enjoyed dabbling in film-making for years now. My first (and pretty much only) real film was The Terra-Cotta Soldier, which paid homage to some of my favorite films as a child: Indiana Jones & Star Wars. It really was all about imagination, and the increasingly lost-art of truly imaginative child’s play. Regardless of all that, I occasionally take some time to reconnect with the world of amateur film-making, and see what’s required to get back in the game.

Of course those research sessions inevitably start by looking to see what the latest, and best, “pro-sumer” camera is within a reasonable price-range. Until the last few days, my most recent forray into that world was in May 2009. After some searching I was frustrated and surprised to find that there was no great replacement for Panasonic’s AG-HVX200A which had previously been the go-to camera for amateurs wanting HD, quality, and flexibility, but without having to sell a car (or house) to get one. Not only was there no great replacement, but the HVX200 and 200A hadn’t really come down in price any, nor had their expensive P2 cards in any reasonable way. The P2 cards were a good idea at the time, but now SD cards hold as much and tend to be a lot cheaper because they’re widely used. Panasonic really should have dropped the Mini-DV tape deck and switched to SD cards for the 200A. But they didn’t.

I posted at some amateur visual effects forums that I used to visit for advice, tips, and learning; venting my frustrations that there was no great alternative, nor had the normal trend for better, cheaper technology seemed to follow this pro-sumer class of digital video cameras. I was quickly chastened by several people. One said the Canon XH-A1S was the replacement for the HVX200, but I found that a little ridiculous as it didn’t even record in full 1080p HD. Instead it recorded in HDV resolutions which means the image must be stretched to fit the full width & aspect ratio of 1080p HD. That’s only one of several areas where I still felt that the Panasonic HVX200 was still the better camera, by more than a little.

Another fellow forumer pointed out Panasonic’s own Pro AG-HMC150 ($3k). Now we were talking! This camera was much more in-line with what I was thinking: most of the features of the HVX200, but records it’s full-HD video to SD cards and is significantly cheaper! Though it had a few problems, that settled the matter for me at the time, and I’d not done anything to further scratch “the film-maker’s itch” since then.

…Until the last few days. I can’t remember what link or blog post, or whatever (seems like it was something on lifehacker.com) got me looking at DSLR’s. I’ve long wanted a good one. I’m no great photographer, but take a whole lot better pictures when I’ve been privileged to borrow a family member’s DSLR. I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to have one so I could take some quick picture’s of client’s businesses when I got to visit them, then use them on their websites.

The Canon EOS 7D had previously caught my eye, and apparently shoots pretty great video, too! Though it’s not cheap (just under $2k w/a basic zoom lens) it would take my website business to a new level, and got me dreaming of being able to shoot video and pictures of client’s businesses/presentations/etc (I’ve been doing more and more video work lately), as well as take it on trips to shoot pictures and video of places we see. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at shooting stock video and selling it online. Plus its really quite good video features (mostly on-par, and sometimes exceeding the HMC150) would allow me to do some film-making, should I ever decided to venture into that arena again.

So the 7D sounded perfect… almost. In the photography arena, it’s nearly perfect, but it has 2 weaknesses for a video-guy like me: 1) it has CMOS sensors with a rolling shutter, which means it records video frames line-by-line. This means that if something is moving quickly in your shot, or if you move the camera to pan left or right, objects in the video frame are not in the same place when it records the first lines of the frame, as they are when it records the last ones. Though this is all happening very quickly (usually around 30 times per second), when you play it back it causes things that move quickly from side to side, to have a weird “wobble” effect. Amateur film-types have dubbed this the “jello” effect as stuff in the shot appears to bend and distort in a wobbly way, that reminds you of cube of jello on a moving plate. And 2) it’s audio uses Automatic Gain Control (AGC), even if you plugin an external mic. This is an issue because every time the person you’re recording stops speaking, or whatever primary action noise you’re shooting dies out, the AGC will adjust making very soft sounds like background and whitenoise, super loud. This makes for difficult audio editing at best.

So when I started my searches a few days ago, I found out a few very interesting things, though not in the following order: For starters, Canon’s newer EOS 60D offers basically all the same features and specs as the 7D, but at a cheaper price ($1k for the body-only, or $1.3k with a basic zoom lens). But it also has the same downfalls as well.

The next great news is that Canon seems to have accidentally made the greatest camera for amateur film-maker types ever! How did they do this? Well the made this incredible DSLR called the EOS 5D Mark II and included some awesome video features ($2.7k for the body alone, but remember you’re getting a DSLR and an amazing HD video camera). First, it has this huge sensor to capture 21.1MP (does anyone really we need that much?–though it does allow you to crop quite a bit, and still print very large) still images, which also happens to work really great for full-frame 1080p video, because it’s (the sensor) the same size as a true 35mm analog camera, which has been the standard in Hollywood for decades. Second, the sensor captures video full-frame, meaning no “jello” effect. And 3rd, some people have hacked the firmware (software on chips inside the camera) to allow you to disable AGC, set the manual gain level, and do other cool things you can’t normally do with the camera! This software is called Magic Lantern and is available for free at the Magic Lantern wiki. Another great thing about it is that its coming soon to the EOS 60D, but it’s pretty “iffy” whether or not it will ever make it to the 7D. So all-in-all it’s a generally better video camera than the Panasonic AG-HMC150 I thought was great, plus a 2nd-to-none DSLR, and it’s about the same price as the Panasonic, if you get a lens with it!

QUICK UPDATE: I meant to mention that the 5D Mark II is nearly the perfect video camera with Magic Lantern installed. It has a few things that certain types might find very difficult to deal with. First it’s limited to 4GB video files on it’s SD card because of the FAT32 file system it uses. This means that you can only record continuously in full 1080p HD for about 12 minutes, before you’re forced to stop and start again. So it’s not for people wanting to record entire live events. It also does not do continuous auto-focus. This means it will auto-focus when you start recording, but if you point it at something different, or somebody moves closer to the camera, it will not automatically refocus for you. You can, of course, manually focus it during recording. If you need to record entire live events, or are recording frequently in other uncontrolled environments where you don’t want to manually focus, definitely go with the AG-HMC150, which does not have either of these issues, as it was built specifically for video. However, you will loose out on incredible still-image capabilities.

So, no this is no announcement that I’ll be making any more films anytime soon. I’m not even ready (financially) to buy a camera. And when I do, it may well be the 60D, rather than the 5D Mark II, just because of the expense factor. By the time you get a few good lenses, and perhaps some kind of glidecam, you could spend the same for all that and the 60D, as just the body of the 5D Mark II. I’ll have to wait an see, but right now I’m thinking I’ll have to live with the “jello” effect, or get some kind of software like this, to automatically detect and correct it. One factor is rumors of a 5D Mark III and a 7D Mark II, which could sigificantly decrease the prices of the current models, putting a Mark II in my price range. 🙂

UPDATE: Just in case you don’t believe me that this DSLR shoots incredible video, check out this video that was shot entirely on a Canon 5D Mark II: