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Checking Your Toolbox

  • Aug 28, 2006
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Now that you've gotten a feel for other videoblogs, it's time to make sure you have all the essential tools for creating your own videos and uploading them to the Web. Besides a computer and an Internet connection, you'll need a camera to shoot your masterpiece and video-editing software to edit the sure-to-be-fabulous footage. You may also want to consider using audio-editing applications that improve your video's sound. Let's look inside the videoblogger's toolbox we recommend.

Picking a Camera

Cameras come in all shapes and sizes. There are DV cameras, HDV cameras, DVD cameras, and digital still cameras that shoot video. You can edit and prepare clips for the Web using video from almost any camera, but not all cameras make it easy.

If you're still using an old VHS cinder block, for example, it's time to upgrade. That's because VHS is an analog format, and video-editing software uses digital format. You can buy a converter box to get VHS footage onto your computer, but that will cost about as much as a new camera. The same goes for old 8mm and Hi-8 cameras (see "Moving from Analog to Digital").

DVD camcorders that record directly to DVD are growing in popularity. These are great for playing what you shot back on your television. However, they can be a pain for vlogging if you want to edit this footage on your computer. The files created by DVD camcorders are incompatible with many video-editing programs, which means that the DVD video has to be converted into an editing-friendly format. Buying conversion software isn't wildly expensive ($100 or less) but using it may be time consuming. Again, you might want to use a commercial service for this.

If you plan to buy a new camera, keep in mind that the latest and greatest gadgets are not necessarily the best for videoblogging. Here's why: Video images are composed of "picture elements," or pixels. For each video format a specific number of pixels make up each horizontal line of an image, and a specific number of pixel lines run from the top to the bottom of the image. A high-definition camera, for example, can capture an image that is 1920 pixels across and 1080 lines of pixels top to bottom (referred to as 1920 by 1080). That totals a whopping 2,073,600 pixels worth of visual information per frame.

The quality of a video image is influenced by the number of pixels it contains. Usually more pixels mean higher quality because more information is captured about an image's color, luminosity, and movement. Video shot by a high-definition camera will look gorgeous playing on an HD screen, but that's not where your vlog will be playing. When you prepare video for the Web, you'll need to shrink the original video down to a frame size of 320 by 240 pixels, essentially throwing away 96 percent of the total visual information. So for videoblogging, high-definition cameras are overkill.

This leaves two ideal choices for videoblogging: DV cameras and digital still cameras that shoot video. These cameras can be purchased for under $500 and work well with today's video-editing software. Let's take a closer look at these options.

DV Video Cameras

Digital Video, or DV, has been the primary format for consumer video cameras since the late 1990s. The big deal about these cameras is that they record video digitally instead of in an analog format like old VHS and Hi-8 cameras. And DV is easy and inexpensive to transfer to your computer and edit. (In fact, the two editing applications we recommend later in this chapter were specifically designed to capture and edit video from DV cameras.)

In North America, DV cameras shoot an image with a standard frame size of 720 by 480 pixels at a standard frame rate (the number of frames recorded or played back per second) of 30 frames per second, or fps. Most DV cameras record video on MiniDV tapes. These matchbox size tapes hold 60 to 90 minutes of video. And since the tapes are so small, you'll find many DV cameras are small and convenient to carry around ( Figure 3.1 ).

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Figure 3.1 MiniDV tapes are about the size of a matchbox and hold between 60 and 90 minutes of footage.

All DV cameras connect to a computer via a FireWire cable. So if you'll be using a DV camera, it's important to make sure your computer has a FireWire port. Almost every Mac made since 2001 has come with FireWire built in, but not all PCs do. Check by looking for a port that is labelled IEEE 1394, FireWire, iLink, or that has the FireWire symbol on it ( Figure 3.2 ). FireWire comes in three versions, a 6-pin and a 4-pin port for FireWire 400 (standard) and, for the faster FireWire 800, a 9-pin Port ( Figure 3.3 ). Macs and many PCs have 6-pin ports. A few PCs, especially laptops, have 4-pin ports.

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Figure 3.2 DV cameras connect to computers via a FireWire cable. Check for a FireWire port on your computer by looking for this FireWire symbol or ports labeled IEEE 1394 or iLink.

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Figure 3.3 On FireWire cables for desktop computers, a 4-pin connector plugs into the DV camera, while the 6-pin connector on the other end plugs into the computer. Only Macs with FireWire 800 ports need 9-pin connectors but they have standard FireWire ports as well.

If your PC doesn't have a FireWire port, you can probably add one by purchasing and installing an inexpensive FireWire card. If your Mac is so old it doesn't have a FireWire port, adding one will be either expensive or impossible.

Digital Still Cameras

Many videobloggers have begun to use digital still cameras that also shoot video. Lots of digital still cameras can save video clips on their memory cards in the same way they save still images. Some digital photo cameras are even designed to function like a tiny camcorder, with a flip-out LCD view screen and a camcorder-style ergonomic design ( Figure 3.4 ). These make shooting video from different angles and getting yourself into the shot much easier.

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Figure 3.4 Cameras in the Sanyo Xacti series look and act much like traditional video cameras.

The quality of a still image is measured in megapixels. However, when you shoot video on these cameras, megapixels are not a factor. Video quality depends mostly on frame size and frame rate, measured in frames per second, or fps. The highest quality image available on these cameras is a frame size of 640 by 480 pixels at 30 fps. The lower quality is a frame size of 320 by 240 pixels at 15 fps. That's the frame size you'll ultimately be posting on your videoblog.

The video quality from digital still cameras isn't as good as that of a DV camera, but the difference is marginal once video is prepared for the Web, and there are several advantages to using a digital still camera. One big advantage is the small size. DV cameras are small but some of these photo cameras are downright tiny, the size of a cell phone ( Figure 3.5 ). That means they are easy to carry wherever you go.

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Figure 3.5 Many digital still cameras, like this tiny Canon PowerShot SD200, also capture video clips.

Another advantage is that digital still cameras don't use tapes. Instead they use a reusable memory card, which means you won't have any last-minute trips to the store to buy a new tape. Finally, transferring video from a memory card to your PC is generally more convenient than transferring video from tapes—but not always. The ease of importing video depends on the computer, editing software, and digital formats you are working with, issues we cover in Chapter 5.

A Checklist for Digital Still Cameras

When purchasing a digital still camera or assessing the one you already own, you'll want to make sure it has the options you'll need for videoblogging. For example, some older or super cheap still cameras shoot video but not sound. Some others capture video and audio but they don't have a speaker on the camera for playback, so you can't audition the sound until you download your videos to your computer. If you don't know if your camera records sound, shoot a short video clip and import it to your computer to make sure it's capable of capturing sound as well as video. Here are additional issues to consider:

Video File Formats

Digital still cameras record video as a file, similar to other computer documents. Depending on your camera, clips will be saved as .avi, .mov, .mp4, or .mpg (short for MPEG) files. These formats are basically containers that hold video and audio information. Picture a jar filled with layers of colored sand. You could put that sand in any container: a Mason jar, a plastic bottle, or a vase. No matter what container you use, the sand is the same. But some containers, or formats, are more compatible in editing than others.

Some digital still cameras, like the Sony CyberShot, capture audio and video in MPEG1, which is a muxed format. Muxed means the audio and the video tracks are combined into one, and it's big trouble when you want to edit your video clips. Most editing programs cannot work with either muxed clips or .mpg formats, so try to avoid cameras that record in those formats.

Memory Cards

The storage capacity of a memory card is related to its size. So no matter what kind of memory card a camera uses, bigger is better. If you want to shoot video, you'll need at least a 512 MB memory card, and a 1 GB card is even better. Memory cards are getting cheaper and cheaper these days, so you shouldn't have to break the bank to buy a couple of 512 MB cards or a single 1 GB card (see "Smart Shopping").

Recording Capacity

Depending on your camera's settings and the capacity of its card you'll be able to shoot between 20 minutes and 3 hours of video. The total can vary wildly based on several factors. Lower-quality recording, say 320 by 240 pixels at 15 fps, doesn't gobble up as much card space as a higher-quality setting, say 640 by 480 pixels at 30 fps. So the frame size and fps rate greatly affect how much footage you can shoot.

The file format your camera shoots in will also affect how much footage you can shoot. For example, Canon PowerShot cameras shoot in .avi. With a 1 GB card, they can hold only 40 minutes of video when set at 320 by 240 pixels at 15 fps. In contrast, the Sanyo Xacti camera records in .mp4 and can shoot 230 minutes of video at that same setting. You'll have to play with the settings on your particular camera to find the balance between quality and recording capacity that's right for you.

Video Clip Length

Another thing to take into account is the length of each video clip you can record. Some cameras will let you record continuously until their memory card is filled. Others limit each recording to a predetermined length such as 30 seconds or 3 minutes. Don't overlook this if you're buying a new camera.

Retro Style

Some of the older digital still cameras that save images to floppy discs, like the Sony Mavica MVC FD-83, record decent .mov clips with sound.

If you plan to use one of these for vlogging, expect some geek-style street credibility for your cool retro technology.

But remember, having a camera that shoots video is more important than the kind of camera you have. As we've mentioned, some cameras are much easier to use for vlogging than others. But as long as you can transfer the footage from your camera to your computer for editing and uploading to the Web, you can vlog—whether you use a tiny digital still, a brand-new DV camcorder, or an elderly Hi-8.

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