The solution to my camcorder dilemma

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
I have recently discovered what is a near-perfect solution for my reluctance to use a camcorder — even though I have a desire to take "home movies." And, no, the solution is not the Flip Video.

Sunday's New York Times had yet another article lauding the Flip Video camcorder (David Pogue covered it back in March). All articles I have read about this device make pretty much the same basic point. The camera's video quality is not as good as a high-def camera, not by a long shot. It's not even as good as an upper-end standard-def camera. It certainly doesn't have the full set of features that these cameras sport.

But, for many people, the Flip is good enough. They happily sacrifice a degree of quality in exchange for a much less expensive device that is also far simpler to use. There's no multitude of buttons or a dizzying array of menu options that are often more confusing than helpful.

I have never used a Flip. But I can relate to the basic arguments in its favor. I am now on my third camcorder (it's a digital tape machine from Sony). The problem is that I have never used any of these camcorders to the extent that I anticipated and hoped I would. Actually, I probably use my current camcorder the least often of any of them.

I have tried to figure out why this is.

Especially with my most recent camera, I believe it is partly due to the shift to using the camcorder primarily with a computer rather than a TV. In the old days, I would just connect the camera to my TV and press Play. Now, I instead feel compelled to import my video into iMovie, edit it and perhaps create a DVD — before possibly shifting to a television to watch it. This is much more time consuming. The result is that I too often avoid the task altogether.

I also put part of the blame on having to work with tape instead of a "true" digital media — such as a hard drive or media cards. With tape, I must use an application such as iMovie just to get the video on to my computer. This can be a lengthy import process all by itself. Plus, prior to importing, if a tape has numerous recordings on it, I have no easy way to check on the exact content without rewinding and searching, yet another tedious task.

This is why I have given thought to getting yet a fourth video camera, one that works with media cards. Still, while media cards avoid most of the problems with tape, I am not convinced that even this is the solution. Among other things, any camcorder is still another device to carry around — in addition to my iPhone and still camera. Too often, I just don't want to bother.

Happily, before I spent $1000 on a new high-def camcorder, I came upon a better solution: I use the movie capability built-into my 8-megapixel Canon SD870 IS point-and-shoot camera.

First, let me acknowledge the obvious: The 870's video quality is not a good as a top quality camcorder. And it is limited to a resolution of 640x480. But, as with the Flip Video, this turns out to be good enough for me. Especially so when you consider that I now do most of my video watching on my computer, rather than on a television.

With the image viewed on my computer display, the quality is actually quite impressive. If I didn't know the movie came from my Canon camera, I could easily be convinced it was taken with a true camcorder.

To get this level of quality, you probably need a relatively recent model camera and one of the newer high-speed high-capacity media cards. With such a pair, you can expect the same pleasant surprise that I have found. Using my 4GB card, I have had no trouble taking good quality videos of several minutes in length.

But the good news gets even better.

The camera saves each video as separate .avi file. After downloading the files to your Mac, you can immediately view each movie in QuickTime Player. There's no need to first import the video into iMovie and then export it to another format. Short videos are often small enough that you can directly email them or post them to the Web, without any hassle. Or you can use QuickTime Player (Pro) to convert the files to other formats. Of course, if you want to do fancier editing in iMovie, you can easily import the files there.

Another plus with the Canon is that my still camera and video camera are now the same super-compact device — eliminating the need to decide each time if I want to take my video camera along for the ride. A minor related bonus is that people often don't know whether I am taking a still shot or video; this avoids the phony "hamming for the camera" that some people do when they see you are taking video.

Finally, if you already own a still camera that takes good video, my solution is cost-free.

This solution is not the ideal one for everybody. I understand that. But it has solved my biggest video camera dilemma. My movies may not be the best quality. I don't always edit them or add transitions. But I am now taking more video, watching more video, sharing more video and enjoying the whole process more than I have ever done before. To me, that's the bottom line.

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The biggest drawback to this approach, at least today, is the sound quality is poor.


While the solution is definitely not for me, I can see how it just might be the right one for many ordinary consumers. Modern (picture) cameras have come a long way. Most non-family videographers shoot video of their vacations. These memories are not as precious as baby’s first birthday, first steps, first piano recital, etc. Consolidation into one single device is definitely an excellent idea.

For me, though, this isn’t the best solution. My first (film) camera was double-eight, in the late 60s - early 70s. I was a kid when my dad taught me how to operate it and I have been shooting moving images since then. going through four camcorders since the 90s (Sony 8, then Hi-8, then MiniDV, then 16x9 MiniDV), I’m ready to move to HD. My children are small enough that I feel a move to HD would better preserve the most precious moments from their childhood.

The thing that is important there, though, is the fact that new HD camcorders are just as much still picture cameras, as the new still cameras are camcorders. There are enough megapixels in those HD CMOS chips to capture a decent still picture when I need one. The ability to capture high quality HD video is, for me, more important. 8GB SDHC cards can capture around 1 hour of AVCHD video, which is more than enough for a single session. Wherever I go, I have a Mac around (laptop or a home iMac) to offload the dailies.

As tech advances, these two categories will continue to converge. As much as they are significantly different in their purpose, and consequently, in their image-processing software, the end results will continue to be ever more similar. Eventually, they might end up becoming a truly single device.

Kevin Gilbert

Very good insight. I think I fit into the same category. I’m going to make my next camera purchase with this in mind. Thanks.


I did make this same point in Pogue’s article on the Flip. Why not just use what you already have, a digicam with VGA. It’s got just one button, like the Flip, and the video is surprisingly good.

And, there are now HD digicams, like Kodak’s V1253, and several Panasonics that all shoot 720p at 30fps. Having video that automatically gets imported into iPhoto, and can be imported into iMovie, can’t get any simpler.


It wasn’t until I got an HD camcorder when I finally found taking home movies to be a rewarding activity.  All the other pre-HD camcorder formats delivered a picture quality that was just painful to watch.  Now I gladly lug the camcorder and a sturdy prosumer tripod that ensures a stable picture and smooth pans.

Once you go HD, you will never want to bother with standard def ever again.

Michael McGuire


My son has made entire movies using the very same idea. We have an old 5MG Pixel Canon PowerShot. Been doing it for some time. And it only gets about 3 minutes of video.

Michael, grin


I bought a Canon A650 with image stabilization a few months ago for the very purpose of using it for both still images and video. It has the flip out/swivel screen so I can shoot at some crazy angles. I had the Canon A80 (which I still love for still images) that I also used for video, but it only shot 320x240 video. The A650 will shoot 640x480 video.

One of the main reasons I use my Canon A650 for video is that it has a very wide lens. Great for shooting my 3 kids (under age 5) around the house. With my camcorder I had to back up into a corner to video tape them and I still could not get the shot I wanted. With the A650 I can sit at the dinner table 2 feet away from them and get the shot I want.

One downfall of using my A650 is any zoom I do is a digital zoom, whether it is zoom in or zoom out. I can zoom in before I start recording and everything is great, but once I press record, the zooming is only digital. But, the IS feature on the A650 is great for when I am zoomed way in to the subject.

Now when we go to the zoo, park, birthday parties, out in the yard, or out on an adventure with our kids I never have to miss video or still images if I carry my Canon A650. I love it!

I also love that I can save the downloaded video files to a library that I organize just like my photo images.

[quote comment=“1255”]One downfall of using my A650 is any zoom I do is a digital zoom, whether it is zoom in or zoom out. I can zoom in before I start recording and everything is great, but once I press record, the zooming is only digital. But, the IS feature on the A650 is great for when I am zoomed way in to the subject.

That’s a problem with most digital cameras used for video—except for a few, inlcuding the Canon S5IS and its predecessors, the S3IS and S2IS. They CAN zoom while taking a movie. This is, in part, because they use Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor for zooming and focusing. Most cameras’ zoom is quite noisy. (Even my S3IS’s zoom is audible if I use the “high-speed” zoom, rather than the normal zoom. Sometimes, one can hear the zoom toggle switch.) See

for examples with the S3 IS. (The baseball game clip on the latter page shows what you can do. Remember that it was taken with a STILL camera, not a camcorder.)

The Canon TX1 “hybrid” camera also zooms while taking movies. It even looks like a small camcorder, with the same truly stupid, ergonomically disastrous “vertical” format of cheap camcorders. (Actually, the TX1 is WORSE than most vertical camcorders.)

FWIW, I also have a Canon A650IS, primarily because it is smaller than the S3 IS (and a LOT smaller than my Canon 30D).


A correction: I have the Canon A560 IS, not A650IS. It’s smaller.

A few more things, especially if you will be traveling:

- Canon’s A & S-series cameras use AA batteries, rather than proprietary Li-ion batteries. While I usually use NiMH rechargeable batteries, I can use alkalines.

- The S5 (and S3) have 12x optical zoom, 36-432mm 35mm equivalent.

- They can use wide-angle and telephoto converters (and filters) with an adapter tube. I have 0.73x and 1.6x Raynox converters for the S3, which allows me to shoot from 26mm to 690mm (35mm equivalent).

- They have many modes and manual controls, almost as much as my Canon 30D.

- They have superb macro modes and can focus right down to the front of the lens.

- They weigh about 1.2 lbs with batteries, so you can use a very lightweight tripod or monopod. With the adapter tube and teleconverter, my S3 weighs less than 2 lb. For traveling, my S3 “system” weighs about 2.7 lbs (camera, 2 converters, adapter tube, several filters, extra batteries and SDHC card). If I were to get an S5, I’d also get an external flash—the S5 has a flash shoe, while the S3 does not.


I can’t believe no one commented on the video type yet. Unfortunately, Apple even in the umpteenth iMovie version failed to integrate the movie format that most still cameras shoot in: MotionJPEG. This is a very bad format that causes huge filesizes but requires little processing in camera (which is why so many of them have it). Since iMovie cannot use it natively, it means all movies must be converted, a painstaking process, and this has kept me from editing any of my video captures from my still image cams. The bottom line - with your next still camera purchase, watch out for MPEG 4 / H.264 video, which can be directly used in iMovie, AND write to Apple and ask ask for MotionJPG to be included in the next iMovie release!

Greetings Klaus

Dudley Strickland

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