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Christopher Spry
5 October 2009

Digital video: Background and purchasing decisions

This page was written by Christopher Spry and last updated on 2 December 2009.  It discusses the options I considered in 2001 before selecting the digital video camera, computer hardware and software that I now use to make digital video films. I have updated sections on background information.  Please let me know about errors or omissions.

I am an amateur photographer and videographer. I began to take silver halide photographs in 1957 and analogue video in 1995. In 1999, I became interested in making digital video movies and still pictures. I wanted to be able to edit digital video on a personal computer, then store and output digital video film to either television, printed medium, CD-ROM or web servers.  While searching for suitable information, I came across many useful web pages of information and advice on these complex and rapidly-moving topics. If you have similar interests, you may find some of the information and links useful. Note that my brief survey has not included non-PC computing hardware platforms, such as Apple and SGI computers, which are covered extensively on other sites. The camera equipment, PC computer hardware and editing software that I finally put together in January 2001 and updated later, are listed below. See also my second video page on 'Digital video: Editing'


1. Background information:

A few years ago, video camera only recorded in analogue video formats. Now, analogue formats are being replaced by digital video formats. Digital video is usually recorded into 'avi', MJPEG', QuickTime and other types of digital video format, so that it can be stored on computers, sent over the Internet or viewed directly on computer monitors or TV sets. Another major benefit of digital video is that it can be edited on computers and copied repeatedly without loss of picture or sound quality. However, until digital television and digital computer monitors become more generally available, analogue devices (usually a standard TV with or without a VCR) will generally still be used to view digital video. But this creates problems, as there are several different analogue TV video formats, including NTSC and PAL, to be considered. In addition, TVs and computer monitors differ in the way that they present video (gamma values), so digital video that looks right on one type of display, may appear wrong on another.

Note added 02/12/2009: Since this review was written eight years ago, there have been great steps forward in video hardware and software. Digital Photography Review has an excellent 'Beginner's guide to HD video', which was published today, that reviews many of the topics discussed below. It also discusses the new role that 'still' cameras are having in taking video, outlining the benefits and disadvantages of having a single camera to take both still and moving pictures.

Hopefully, the day will come when all images are recorded, edited, stored and played back in standard digital formats and when all display devices use a common digital display standard. Until then, there are selections and compromises to be made because of differences in current video and graphic 'formats'.

Currently, camera equipment,  computer capture devices and software are available to
(a) make digital video (DV) movies or clips, using near-broadcast quality DV or HDV camcorders ('camcorder' is another name for 'video camera' and 'palmcorder' refers to the most compact cameras).
(b) transfer the videos to PCs using DV capture cards and
(c) edit video with non-linear editing software (NLE) so that the video can be (1) output to disk, tape or CD-ROM with no loss of sound or video quality from the original recording (2) copied to VHS video tapes for viewing with VCRs and standard TV sets.

There are two principal analogue transmission video formats in use around the world today:

'DV' can be shown directly on digital television or digital video screens. 'DV' has to be converted into analogue streams for showing on analogue televisions, when it may be in either (a) the 'NTSC' standard, when it is given a timebase' of 29.97 frames per second, 'resolution' of 720 x 480 and 'sampling' of 4:1:1 or (b) the 'PAL' standard, when it is given a 'timebase' of 25 frames per second, 'resolution' of 720 x 576 and 'sampling' of 4:2:0. Fortunately, consumers need not be concerned about these technical details, unless they stray into the world of professional digital videography. 

In addition to differences in the format of the video that they receive, TV screens and computer displays also have different gamma values. This is the relationship between numerical pixel value and the amount of light displayed. Video cameras usually have no way to compensate for this difference, to allow the user to select for one or the other. The only way to do this is to set a 'gamma correction' or to alter the 'brighten/contrast' in the computer's video editing software. Of course, if you do this and then send the image back to your camera as a title screen etc., it will now look too bright on a TV screen and vice versa.  You can try to adjust the computer monitor to match the TV appearance, which helps somewhat.  This issue is discussed in the Beale FAQ. An ideal option, if the output will go finally to TV, is to use a 'true broadcast specification' monitor, rather than a standard computer display, for viewing and editing the video before it is stored for playback. High quality video is also checked with 'Vector scope' and 'Waveform' monitors. These have a setting with 'colour bars' to define the standard output and enable edited to be saved in an optical form.

Converting PAL and NTSC VCRs are available that produce a 'true' conversion of one format to another and the converted signal can be saved to tape. Some cheaper VCRs can output NTSC tapes to a TV in PAL format, but this can not be captured as PAL video because they only create a 525 line\60Hz picture with a PAL type colour subcarrier. Also, note that if you  convert from PAL to NTSC the video can ' stutter' due to the extra frames per second. Converting video from NTSC to PAL requires either stretching the frames and the reducing picture quality or adding black bars to the top and bottom of the picture. For these reasons, it is desirable to record to the format they will be output.

Software and hardware can be purchased to convert between PAL and NTSC. Canopus sell hardware to do this. Keene in the UK, sell hardware to convert between the two standards. Often is it best to have the conversion done professionally for small numbers of tapes.

Here are some links with background information on digital video:

2. DV camcorders


DV cameras can be grouped into three categories:

Traditional analogue camcorders cost between £300 and £1,000.


There are reviews of current models at ZDNET, 'SimplyDV.com', 'dvspot', 'DCResource' and 'Camcorderinfo'. I am sure there are many others - search for these in Google.

Older models: David Ruether has reviewed (updated 2003) Sony mini-DV cameras, including the Sony PD-150, PC-1, TRV-9, TRV-900, VX-1000 and VX-2000; Panasonic AG-EZ30U; and Canon GL-1 and XL-1 - with a Sony UVW-100 Beta SP with Canon YH1 8x6.7 lens used as a reference. Comments about the Sony PC-7 and the Panasonic AG-EZ1U are also included there.

Selected cameras

Necessary features are IEEE-1394 for DV input and output and desirable features are three 'charge-coupled device' (CCD) chips and optical stabilization.

Note: I have not updated this section since 2002. I plan to do so when I buy my next video camera, perhaps in 2006. However, one camera that I will consider is the Sony HDR-HC1E high-definition camera costing under £1,500. Its 'big brother', the Sony HDR-FX1 costs £3,000, so is too expensive for most amateurs.

Enabling DV camcorders in Europe with 'DV-in' disabled

The EU requires DV camcorders to be sold with 'DV in' disabled unless they are also classed and pay additional tax as 'videoplayers'.  Several web sites have methods to activate 'DV in', when it has been disabled on models sold in Europe, see DV 2000 and search Google.

Cleaning video camera heads and moving parts

Do not clean the camera's head, unless you regularly see video 'drop outs' in video made with the camera. First, try using a (dry) head cleaning tape sold by the camera manufacturer for this purpose. If this does not solve the problem, do not attempt to clean it manually yourself. Never touch the recording head with any cleaning device, unless you have been trained how to use it. Instead, take the camera for cleaning by a skilled professional video technician, who will not use 'cleaning buds', 'q-tips' or any material other than chamois leather or lintless swabs, which are sold specifically for 'head' cleaning, and highly purified specialist cleaning fluids. Most samples of cleaning fluid sold to the general public will damage a video camera by leaving a film that will fuse to the recording surface. Stroking the head across its surface can ruin it. Movement must be along the direction of the tape. You have been warned!

3. Video tapes

4. Surveillance video cameras

See Supercircuits (Austin, USA) and Central Alarm Security Systems, (NY, USA) and 123CCTV (Buffalo NY, USA) amongst others.

5. DV camcorders and still pictures

Most video cameras can not yet match the picture quality of dedicated still cameras. Still images made with video cameras seldom contains more than about 0.4 million pixels. whereas mainstream consumer still cameras contain 4-5 million pixels. For example, the Sony DCR-TRV900 gives good quality still pictures up to the resolution of the camera, which is 720 x 480 (345,600 pixels) for NTSC and 720 x 576 (414,720 pixels) for PAL, but these are of limited use. You can record stills directly to a compact flash (CF) card, floppy disk or a Sony memory stick. Stills of this (low) quality can also be taken from video using many non-linear editing programs, such as DVStorm. I have a separate digital still camera and use these good-quality photos when I edit my edited videos.

6. Microphones and sound recording equipment

Many people who make good-quality videos believe that 'sound' is as important (or possible more so) than 'vision'. For this reason, microphones should be chosen with care. Fortunately, many of the better video cameras have excellent microphones built-in.

simplyDV have an overview of sound in videos. There is a review of microphones at Audio-technica. For amateurs, the Sennheiser MKE-300short-shotgun microphone is an effective and inexpensive microphone to use in the hot-shoe. It can be bought from Keene with a matching 'Rycote windgag' for £169. When wrapped closely in air conditioner filter foam, this microphone can also be made resistant to wind-noise. 

For 'serious' audio, put the microphone close to the sound source. This requires a wired microphone and cable, or a wireless microphone. Most videographers have several microphones for different situations and an even larger assortment of cables and adapters. Jay Rose has adviceabout professional audio for broadcast and multimedia. 

Audio is often monitored, as it is recorded, using headphones attached to the camera, most of which have headphone connection sockets.

7. Filters & lenses

Use a neutral filter in front of a lens, to protect it. Outdoors, use a polarizing filter to lower the sky values and 'sharpen' them. The filter has to be rotated to find the best setting.  35-mm still photography filters also fit onto many video cameras, but may not be designed to work correctly with digital camcorders. Tiffen filters are often recommended and their 'Soft/FX' and 'Warm Soft/FX' filters are particularly good for portrait work.

8. Lights and lighting

The Hahnel 'Zoom Opto 35' 6 volt on-camera lighting system is recommended and costs about £100. For independent digital cinema, industrial work, or training videos, more lights will generally be required. Lighting at Lowel is reasonably priced. Professional lighting equipment is available from Dedolight, Mole-Richardson, and Arrilights.

9. Tripods, trolleys, booms etc.

10. DV capture cards and devices with editing (NLE) software

Some computers have IEEE-1394 connections built in and a range of video (NLE) editing software can be bought separately to work with them. The IEEE-1394 specification is called 'Firewire' by Apple and 'i-Lnk' by Sony, which can be confusing, as they are identical. Computers that do not have Firewire connection sockets built-in, will require a video capture card (also called an 'IEEE-1394 input and output (I.O.) card'), to provide a way to send the video from a camcorder through a connecting cable to the computer. Digital video capture cards should have one or more IEEE-1394 connections, so that video and sound on the camera can be sent to the computer (and usually back again) without loss. DV capture cards can also have analogue connections for s-Video and sound, but these are only needed for analogue video cameras. Some video capture cards have a 'breakout box' (set of connectors) which can simplify cable connections. Some of the more recent cards have their connectors routed from the back of the capture card, through the computer to a panel set into the front of the computer. This makes it easier to attach the camera and reduces 'cable-clutter'.

Many DV capture cards are bundled with editing software that has been configured to work with them. Purchasing decisions should be based on both the quality and cost of the card, and their bundled NLE editing software. The cards listed below all have software included for capturing video from a camera, editing it and sending the resulting video to a VCR or camera.

There are reviews of IEEE-1394 input and output (I.O.) cards by Videoguys with a comparison matrix.. There are also some IEEE-1394 PCMCIA cards for notebook computers. Manufacturers of the most popular retail DV capture cards are ADSAvidCanopusDataVideoMatrox andPinnacle. The best known manufacturers of graphics cards, NVIDIA and ATI, do not sell graphics cards with Firewire connection sockets.

Currently (December 2005) I use:

11. IEEE-1394 PC connection cards without editing (NLE) software

These cards are useful if you want to buy a card and software separately. The IEEE-1394 ('i-Link' or  'Firewire') connections are used to transfer video and audio streams between a video camera and a computer. They also enable camcorder control signals. Normally, they are not bundled with DV editing software. There are many of these, see for example:

12. Analogue/digital conversion

Many people who have analogue tapes and want to convert them to digital formats. There are several ways to do this. Most modern DV camcorders can convert to and from analogue formats and there are many modern VCRs that do the same, but are probably not worth buying to do just conversion work. Hardware designed to do this includes Canopus 'ADVC hardware' and bidirectional 'Digital to Analogue Converters' (DACs) from KeeneSwiftDVD.com in Atlanta, Georgia, USA provide a service to convert home videos and VHS/VHS-C including Mini DV, Digital8, 8mm Hi8 (Super8),and VHS/VHS-C (including VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C and DVHS) to DVD.

13. Video compression

Uncompressed source digital video takes up large amounts of storage space. There are many ways to 'compress' video, to take up less space but still provide adequate quality for playback. The word 'codec' (short for 'compress-decompress') is used for hardware or software that compresses or uncompresses graphic files. There is an overview of 'codecs' at http://www.dpreview.com/learn/?/Guides/Understanding_Video_Compression_01.htm

14. Video disk array hardware

Digital video (DV) runs at 3.6-MB/s.  This means that (a) you need a hard disk that can support this rate of disk writing and (b) one minute of DV occupies 216-MB (3.6 * 60). Nine minutes of DV occupies about 2-GB and one hour about 13-GB. Programs to edit DV often require over twice this space for temporary and other files, so a rule-of-thumb is to provide 1-GB of disk space for each minute of DV that you propose to work with on your computer. If you have very large projects, a video disk array will be needed.

15. Non-linear editing (NLE) software

Many digital video capture cards are also sold with NLE software. Some come with additional hardware, such as a breakout box to make cable connections easier and so on. This makes it difficult to compare one product with another. There is a list of NLE software at GlobalProducer.com.

For home and  semi-professional use
For professional use

16. Computer video graphics cards that support two monitors

'Premiere' is easiest to use as video editing software, in a computer that has a video card which supports two monitors. There are several cards that support two monitors and work well with DVStorm. They are made by ATINVIDIA and Matrox. Matrox has released a DualHead2Go box for enabling notebook computers to use two monitors.

17. Preview monitors, 'vector scope' and 'waveform' analysis

Videographers should check the quality of their video before they save it to the final format:

18. Digital video recorders (VCRs)

19. Retailers of video equipment and software


Check current US prices at CNET Shopper and Pricewatch.

20. Books, magazines and journals

21. Digital video production companies

22. The camera, hardware and editing resources I have bought:

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Go to the next page: 'Digital video: Editing'

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