Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Brief History of Video - Part 1

As detailed in several of my blogs, I have been on the hunt for various pieces for my ultra-light backpacking trip (which is to happen this July). In the past, video gear has been problematic. A dozen years ago I hauled my heavy Canon XL1s through the front ranges of Banff National Park. With the lens, extender, batteries etc. I was forced to carry at least another ten pounds in addition to my already too heavy backpack. Luckily for me, "the times, they are a changin". To an outsider my choices might look somewhat like a devolution, but the output tells another story. I will give you a brief history of my video cameras.
Standard definition beginnings

In 2002, I purchased my first camcorder (the Canon XL1s). It was expensive, but quite a good camcorder for its day. It's highlights included interchangeable lenses, magnesium alloy body, balanced microphone inputs, Firewire capture and digital video format(which was quite new at the time). I fell in love with the XL1 when I saw it staring back at me from the cover of Videomaker Magazine in the late 90's.

The weak points of the camcorder were its viewfinder (definition too low and hard to tell if you were in focus) and the medium ( the mini DV tape and transport were high maintenance and unreliable). It recorded decent 4:3 (720 x 480) standard definition NTSC interlaced video. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just think of the old television you had in your living room (your old CRT) and that will give you an idea of what the output was like. It produces DVD quality video. The Canon was a good camcorder for its time, which was all too brief or perhaps not brief enough - depending on whether you are looking at money to replace it or the quality of video. It has now become an expensive paper weight, but it still looks very cool!

 High definition age
With the happy advent of high definition video, I eventually was able to purchase my very capable Sony PMW-EX1r camera. It has an excellent quality flip-out monitor (as well as decent EVF) and the days of tapes were gone. It shoots to interchangeable SxS memory cards. The HD format was like a dream for me! It was much more filmic in its look and feel. The 16:9 (1920 x 1080) high definition progressive video (think of your newish flat screen TV) was like a dream, after the limitations of shooting in standard definition. It outputs Blu-ray quality video. It also is a much more complicated camcorder and it took a great deal of time to master all of its settings, features and possible color profiles. I can't recommend Doug Jensen's (Vortex Media) guides and video enough for anybody who wants to delve into these sometimes muddy waters.

There are so many excellent features with the Sony that it is hard to know where to begin; time lapse, cache recording, focus peaking, zoom focus, shot transition, zebra pattern, color profiles to name a few... I managed to integrate most of its features into my shooting style over time. Its weak point is the slower bit rate of its 4:2:0 35 Mbps data rate and its MP4 encoding, which isn't quite up to broadcast standards. However I have realized that for a relatively small investment, I could purchase an Atomos Ninja and take advantage of the EX1r's 50 Mbps 4:2:2 10-bit output and record to industry standard Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD HQ codecs. That would substantially increase the lifespan of this excellent product. Unfortunately weighing in at almost 7 pounds, my Sony isn't conducive to a good ultra-light weight backpacking experience! So I had to look further afield for a solution.

 next time Part 2 The Panansonic Lumix GH4 UHD camera