Shoot Video with Digital Still Cameras: The Move to Tapeless Camcorders

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2005

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

The video recording function on most digital still cameras, until recently, was merely an added feature. Video clips were relegated to small screen sizes and choppy 15 frames per second. Video takes up a lot of memory, and the memory cards had been limited in size. Now, with 512MB and 1GB cards available at reasonable prices, manufacturers of digicams are offering features that exploit the larger storage capacities of those cards. You can now shoot full-resolution video, and you can even edit video clips on a many of today’s digital still cameras.

If you’re a camcorder enthusiast thinking of getting a digital still camera, look closely at the various models’ movie recording features. Since you have been spoiled with wide zoom ratios, you may want to consider a digicam with an 8X or bigger zoom. Add into your budget an additional memory card–at least 512MB. Each second of video is equivalent to 30 still pictures; video takes up a lot of memory. You might also want to make sure your future digicam lets you take a still picture while it is recording in the movie mode.

If you want to save still pictures on the memory card and also shoot plenty of video, it’s probably a good idea to get into the practice of saving the video clips from the digicam to your computer or onto DVD and then erasing them from the camera card’s memory. You could also opt to get separate memory cards—one for video and one for photos.

You can edit the audio and video shot with a still camera, sometimes right in the camera. Many cameras come with software that lets you edit the video clips on your computer. You can also email video clips from many digicams. You can use the software that comes with the camera, or you can save the movie file onto your hard drive and attach it to emails. Some digicams have a special low-resolution mode that minimizes file sizes to better facilitate emailed movies.

Video Resolution and Frame Rates

Features such as VGA resolution (640 x 480 lines) and 30 frames per second (fps) frame rate put still cameras on par with camcorders. Some digicams even have dual mikes for stereo audio, and let you operate the zoom during filming. Some older digicams (like one year old!) relegate video to low-resolution QVGA (320 x 240 lines) and choppy 15 fps frame rate. This saves space on the memory card but yields poor quality video.

The Canon S2 IS (MSRP $549) provides four options for resolution and frame rate combinations. These range from 640 x 480 (VGA) at 30 fps, down to 320 x 240 (QVGA) at 15 fps. With a 512MB card the audio-video run times range from four to 18 minutes. The S2 records .avi files using motion JPEG compression. These are similar to the file formats that professional video editing systems use.

The Kodak V550 (MSRP $349) camera records video only at 30 fps and offers two settings for video resolution: 640 x 480 (VGA) or 320 x 480 (QVGA). With its MPEG 4 compression you can record 14 minutes of VGA video at 30 fps on a 512MB card. At the lower-quality QVGA resolution, but still at 30 fps, the digicam gives you 36 minutes of record time. This cam doesn’t even need a memory card; it has its own built-in 32MB of memory. Without a card you can record 48 seconds in VGA or two minutes in QVGA. Of course, if you have some still photos in the memory, the video run times will be shortened.

The Sony DSC H1 (MSRP $499) has VGA, which the company calls Fine Mode, that yields 3 minutes of full-frame, 30 fps video on a 512MB card. Sony’ Standard Mode, which is VGA resolution at 16.6 fps, will give you 22 minutes of time. The Video Mail Mode with 160 x 112 line resolution at 8.3 fps that will provide over five hours of video on a 512MB card. In this mode the video clips play in a small window on the monitor and utilize file sizes that are more practical for email.

The Kyocera Finecam S5R (MSRP $549) has a convenient Resize mode where you can take a movie file recorded at high-resolution VGA and make it smaller. It has three Resize modes: whole, quarter and 1/16 file size. The small file sizes make it easy to email video clips. You can shoot all your video clips at high-resolution, and decide later which ones to resize for email.
Camcorder-like Features on Digicams

Long zooms and LCD screens give digital still cams the look and feel of video camcorders. If you have gotten used to flip-open LCD screens on camcorders, then you might wish to look for that feature on a digital still cam. The Canon S2 IS has a flip and twist LCD, but the downside of this feature is the small screen—only 1.8 inches diagonal.

Most digital still cameras have a movie-mode button located on the camera body; you don’t have to search for it in a menu. In most cases, a simple press of the movie button gets you shooting a video. The default is usually the highest resolution, but you can select the resolution and frame rate prior to shooting.

Many digital still cameras have more programmed scene modes than camcorders. This is where you can override the automatic settings and select such modes as shutter priority, aperture priority and manual white balance. The Canon S2 has 12 scene modes including Foliage, Night Snapshot and Fireworks. The Nikon Coolpix 4800 (MSRP $349) has 15 scene modes adding such settings as Party, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape and Museum. The Canon’s Photo Effects mode has seven settings to increase or reduce contrast and color saturation, soften images, sepia tone, B&W and a Custom setting for manual adjustments.

The My Colors Function lets you add tan to your subjects’ skin tones, or lighten them. The Color Swap feature lets you change the color of a single object, such as a car, while leaving the rest of the scene alone. The Vivid options let you separately increase the saturation of reds, blues or greens. The Color Accent puts the background in black & white while the single color you choose is displayed in color. You can save both the original image and the enhanced versions as separate files on the SD memory card.

Lens, Shutter and Exposure Options When Shooting Video with Still Cameras

One of the most exciting developments in the past few years is manufacturers equipping their digicams with long zoom lenses. The Canon S2 IS, the Sony DSC H1, the Konica-Minolta Z-5 (MSRP $479) and the Panasonic Lumix FZ20 (MSRP $599) all have 12X optical zoom lenses. This is the widest optical zoom range of any digital still camera, bringing it into the range of camcorders.

The lenses on these digicams have optical image stabilization, auto-focus, a host of programmed lens settings and full manual control. Some digicams, such as the Nikon 4800, do not let you use the 8X optical zoom during filming, however the 2X digital zoom is available.

In the Canon S2 macro mode, the close-focusing distance specification is 0 cm; you can shoot images that are right up to the glass of the lens. Nikon’s Coolpix 4800 lets you get as close as 1 cm (less than ½-inch). The zoom control on the Canon is quiet during filming. We did not get a chance to try the zooms on the Sony, Panasonic or the Konica, but Konica states that the Z-5 features their “Silent Cam” zoom mechanism.

If you like the existence of the multiple program AE modes on camcorders, you’ll be pleased to know even more of these features are on digital still cameras. Nearly all the digicams have manual as well as auto-focus and a host of pre-programmed exposure settings. The Canon has a variety of Photo Effects and My Colors that work during shooting in the Movie Mode. The Panasonic lets you adjust contrast and saturation, and it has a video noise reduction control designed to remove graininess when you shoot in low light.

The Kodak V550 has a Schneider-Kreuzhach 3X optical zoom lens and a unique optical viewfinder, in addition to the generous 2.5-inch LCD. Rather than using a small LCD display in the viewfinder, as is the case with camcorders and most digital still cameras, the clear viewfinder in this Kodak model zooms through the 3X optical zoom range. If you have tried using an LCD screen or even a standard viewfinder in bright sunlight, you will appreciate this optical viewfinder feature. You can zoom during video (not all digicams let you do this), and there is an image stabilizer to minimize shake.

The Konica Z5 has “Night Movie,” a feature that lets you shoot color video in a dark room or outside at night. It has a variety of built in editing functions and a Fine mode in addition to standard mode for VGA (640 x 480) resolution.

Audio Recording on Digicams

Most digital still cameras record in mono only. Many even have a voice recorder function, too. The Canon S2 IS has stereo audio with video function. In the front of the camera, are two microphones, placed at the 11:00 and 1:00 o’clock positions above the lens. This camera even has adjustable audio levels. It records 16-bit audio at various sampling rates up to 44 kHz, and it has a wind filter setting.

You can narrate your still photos using the audio recording feature available on the Canon as well as on other cams. The digicams that record audio also have a small loudspeaker mounted on the camera body. Some have adjustable playback volume control. The cameras we looked at did not have an earphone jack nor did they have a connector to plug in an external microphone.

Some digicams have an audio playback interface screen. Here are displayed VCR-type playback controls, audio clip file numbers and the running times of the clips. Some cameras even have a folder structure where you can categorize your audio clips.

Storing and Playing Back Video on a Digicam

Most digicams have the standard VCR playback functions: play, pause, fast-forward and rewind. Some let you move the video clips back or forward one frame at a time. Some cams let you adjust the video playback volume into the loudspeaker. Several digicams come with an AV output cable that can plug into a standard TV monitor for playback of video or monitoring as you shoot.

The Canon S2 features a five-mode slow-motion replay function, as well as an in-camera editing that lets users remove unwanted footage from the beginning or the end of a movie clip. The Panasonic FZ20 displays exposure and other information during playback. It also has a Flip Animation feature that lets you create small, in-camera animations.

The Samsung V5 (MSRP $399) has a Quick Play function where you can play movie clips without first turning on the power to the camera. It uses a Schneider lens and features nine power options: Ni-Cad, Lithium, Alkaline, NiMH, AC adapter and options for several developing battery formulas. It comes with QuickTime player for editing.

The Sony DSC H1 and the Kodak V550 don’t even need a memory card; they have their own built-in 32MB memories. Both do accept memory cards for added movie lengths and quality. Without a card the Kodak records about 48 seconds in VGA or two minutes in QVGA. The Sony has a Video Mail mode (160 x 112 lines at 8.3 fps) that will record as much as 18 minutes of video without a card. The Nikon Coolpix 4800 has three video compression modes: VGA, QVGA and “Small Size” of 160 x 120 lines, designed for emailing video clips. Of course, if you have some still photos in the memory, the video run times will be shortened.

Editing Video from Still Cams

Digital still cameras use either MPEG-4 compression to cram in maximum information, or Motion JPEG to create .avi files for editing on computers. Nearly all digicams will create thumbnails of the first frames of different video clips.

The Fujifilm S7000 camera ($799) uses Motion JPEG video compression and comes with Imagemaker VCD for Finepix, software that enables you to burn a CD-ROM of your audio and video clips.

All digicams will let you delete an entire clip, and some will let you trim the start and stop times of your clips. The Nikon 4800 includes Video Impressions software that lets you edit the QuickTime movies that the Nikon records.

To edit movies in the Canon camera, you select Movie in the playback mode; this reveals a VCR-like playback interface. Here you can play the clip in forward or reverse, and when you get close to where you want to trim your clip, you can slow down the playback, or even move at one frame per second. In addition to the VCR controls on the interface, is an Edit button (it uses a scissors icon) that you use to make the cut. You can then save the movie file with its existing file number or with a new one. The lengths and quantity of movie files you can save is limited only by the capacity of the memory card.

Computer Editing with the Canon Digital Camera Solution Disk, Version 24

While in-camera editing allows you to trim and save your movie clips, you’ll need a computer to re-arrange the clips and add music, titles and transitions.

The CD that came with the Canon S2 IS includes software for both Mac and Windows. It includes Apple’s QuickTime 6.5, Canon’s ZoomBrowser EX 5.2, Canon’s PhotoStitch 3.1 and other photo utilities. Unless you already have QuickTime on your computer, you will need to install it from the CD to perform the video editing operations.

When you run Canon’s ZoomBrowser you will find clips sorted by .jpg and .avi, the latter being your movie files. In the program’s Task window, select Edit Movie and then Add Images. Since the software lets you rearrange the clips, the first clip you select need not be the opening scene in your movie. A storyboard of the clips you added is displayed at the bottom of the screen. The program lets you move each image to the left or right in the storyboard.

Click the Play Time button, and you can trim the start and stop times of your clip. You can add more clips and trim them, in any order you wish. If you want to rearrange their order in the storyboard, click the Arrange button, choose the clip and select either the Move Left or Move Right button to place it where you want it.

Next, click the Apply Effect button, choose a clip and you can add titles, magnify a section of the image and add filters. For titles you simply type text on your keyboard and choose from a variety of fonts, colors and outlines. Filters include color adjustments, sepia tone, black & white, emboss and film noise that adds scratches to give your video the old movie look. Transition effects include wipes, dissolves (called cross fades here), squeezes, zooms and page turn.

Then you can click the Set Audio button to browse for music or narration you pre-recorded on your hard drive. The Advanced Settings option lets you adjust the volume of the clip and fade the audio in or out.

Lastly, you can save your completed movie in the folder of your choice. The Advanced Settings option here lets you change the resolution or frame rate to a file size small enough to email. This option also lets you reduce the file size of the audio track by setting it to Mono, and it has the option of reducing the bit rate from 16 bit to 8 bit audio.

When you want to play your movie, run QuickTime, select the movie from the folder that you saved it in, and press Play. Your edited motion picture, shot with a “still” camera, is ready for your audience.

Within the past few years, digital still cameras have made bold advances in storage capacity, lens zoom ratios and shooting modes. With memory cards getting larger and cheaper, so has the capacity for longer length video clips. These larger cards also enable digicams to offer video recording at the same resolution and frame rate that camcorders do. With added features such as stereo audio, adjustable sound levels and in-camera editing, a digital still camera can function as a video camcorder.

Memory cards in 2GB, 4GB and even 8GB are in the works. These large cards enable videographers to record longer length videos, and at some day may surpass the 60 minute maximum of Mini-DV videotape.

Manufacturers mentioned in this report:

Panasonic Lumix:

2 thoughts on “Shoot Video with Digital Still Cameras: The Move to Tapeless Camcorders

  1. Interesting how that works out with 35 and 6x7cm to some degree. But, with 4×5 and the Rodenstock APO lenses I have, two stops in from max might be f8 &1/2 which no one would use if you could get away with shooting at f16 outside in no breeze conditions. If you could get away with f22 and no softness from camera shake, you were in “fat city.” Ansel even belonged to a group calling itself the f64 Club as I recall but then, they were likely using 8×10’s.

    1. I saw a photographer’s studio-store in Carmel, CA, who was in the f64 club. His photos were color and I thought he Photoshopped them. The curator there said he had not. Amazing sense of depth and rich color. I don’t know if he was using large format camera or not, and I forget his name now. Anyone else know about the f64 Club?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *