Thoughts on Using the Video Mode on Digital Cameras

Being a new parent, I've found that I'm starting to take a lot more video. I consider myself a still photographer first, but I'm really starting to get into videography. Especially since I can take video on my Canon EOS Rebel T1i, I'm enjoying the ability to get shallow depth-of-field in both my stills and my videos. Smaller point-and-shoot cameras can even take HD video now. I was using my Canon Powershot SX110IS for video, but it was only capable of taking a maximum video resolution of 640x480. So I've upgraded to a SX200IS, which is capable of 720p, 30 fps video. This way video from both the SX200IS and T1i will be in HD.

Getting a camcorder would be nice, but at this point I can't afford one and I don't feel a need to get one. However, camcorders are specially built for video, so they have features that are absent from most still cameras. This makes taking video using a still camera somewhat of a challenge in some situations. On the other hand, I've found the video my cameras take have certain advantages over camcorder video. Here are my thoughts and experiences using my still cameras for video:

1. Camcorders have autofocus, while most still cameras don't autofocus in video mode. Like taking a still photo, you focus first, then start recording. If the camera or subject moves, focus will be off. This means you have to pay much more attention to focus when shooting video with a still camera.

2. Related to #1, camcorders have a deeper depth-of-field than still cameras taking video. With a still camera, you can get a fairly shallow depth-of-field for that "background and/or foreground out of focus" look. The reason for this is that still cameras have a bigger image sensor than consumer camcorders. Unless you have a professional grade camcorder, it's very hard to get a shallow depth-of-field with a consumer camcorder. I ran some tests with my sister's camcorder to verify this.

3. Digital cameras have better lenses than camcorders. The lenses on digital cameras have to be better because they capture a much bigger picture than video camcorders. At most, video is up to 1,920x1,080 pixels (1080p HD video), while even a 3 megapixel camera captures an image that's 2048x1536 pixels. My T1i's images are a whopping 4752x3186 pixels. The bigger the image, the more resolving power is required from a lens, and a digital camera's lens is already resolving a picture at least 4 times bigger than what's required for video.

4. Holding a camcorder is much easier than holding a digital camera during video recording. Ergonomically, digital cameras are designed to be held for a couple seconds to take a picture. Camcorders are designed to be held up much longer for long video clip recording times. And digital cameras usually don't have a moveable screen, while most camcorders have a screen that can be rotated and tilted for easier viewing in whatever position the camcorder is held. One way around this issue is to use a monopod or tripod with a digital camera, or even with a camcorder for that matter.

5. Relating to #4, camcorders are designed for longer video recording. Digital cameras aren't designed to record a 2 hour band concert nonstop. Unless I have a tripod, I usually keep video clips fairly short, anywhere from a couple seconds to a couple minutes depending on what I'm recording. With a camcorder, you could just hit the record button and let it go for as long as you have space on the recording media. Again, one way around this is to use a monopod or tripod. I was able to record my brother-in-law's wedding this way, putting my digital camera on a tripod and making sure I had enough memory cards.

6. Speaking as a photographer, it's nice to be able to take both still photos and video with the same camera. It makes more sense to me (and to the camera companies it seems) to have digital cameras able to do both stills and video. Camcorders, on the other hand, don't take very good still images. Their strength is in their video recording and I think that's how it should be and will be in the future. Still cameras are more common nowadays and I think eventually the camcorder will become more of a specialty product. On the other hand, still cameras will continue to improve in their video capabilities. We're quickly approaching that "fusion" camera that can do both photos and video equally well. There are movies already being shot with DSLR's. So the next time you shop for a camcorder, try checking out the video freatures of digital cameras. Their video capabilities may be all you need.

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