Squeezing More Video Out of Still Cameras

Times Staff Writer

Bad news if you dread home movies: Digital still cameras are becoming far more adept at capturing video and sound.

Advances in image compression and a sharp drop in memory prices have made mid-priced digital cameras of recent vintage not only decent but also practical little moviemakers.

They're still a far cry from camcorders, which offer superior image quality and many more features for shooting video. But the still-camera movie mode -- long dismissed as a novelty -- can now be used to capture a moment as precious as baby's first steps or as seemingly endless as scenes from a neighbor's trip to Nova Scotia.

In fact, digital camera video has probably fueled a recent surge in clips on dating sites, personal Web pages and blogs. They've also contributed to the rise of one of the newest Web phenomena: video-sharing sites, on which clips can be uploaded for viewing by family members, friends and the global public.

"People still don't buy a digital camera for taking movies," said Gary Pageau, publications director for Photo Marketing Assn. International, the largest photo imaging trade association. "But after they try it out, they start thinking about the possibilities."

Video is hardly new to digital still cameras. The Ricoh RDC-1 camera that came out in 1995, only a year after the first consumer digital camera hit the market, had a movie mode. But the longest video the RDC-1 could shoot was five seconds.

Until recently, many digital cameras cut off a video shot after 30 seconds. This was a blessing in a way because video gobbled up expensive memory. A high-capacity storage card that would be needed to hold more than a few minutes of video could cost half as much as a camera.

But last year came the introduction of digital cameras that used compression formats to squeeze far more video onto the same amount of memory while retaining good quality.

And the price of that memory is falling. The cost of a 1-gigabyte card, which can store more than an hour of video on some of the newer cameras, used to be in excess of $200. Now, it's about $50.

I tested three digital cameras, each of which uses a different compression format for video. Each is in the $300-to-$350 price range.

All were set to take video at a rate of 30 frames per second, which has come to be the standard for digital camera video. And all were set to record images in the 640-by-480-pixel size, which looks passably good when shown full screen on a computer monitor.

All the cameras featured automatic exposure control while in movie mode. But none had automatic focus for video, and using the zoom function only made matters worse. (Best results were achieved by zooming out as far as possible and keeping it at that setting.)

The Canon PowerShot SD450 -- which won a recent shootout we did of 5-megapixel cameras -- uses a relatively old video format, Motion JPEG, that is memory intensive. I was able to get only nine minutes and six seconds of video onto a 1GB card.

This is not so terrible as most home videos are fairly short. But if you are taking a lot of video, you'll have to frequently erase shots or transfer them to a computer to free up memory space.

In the SD450's favor is its ergonomically friendly form -- it looks like a 35-millimeter film camera in miniature -- which allows it to be held fairly steadily while shooting video. And its controls are nicely situated -- it would be difficult to stick a finger in front of the lens in the middle of a shot.

The Sony DSC-T5 camera, which sports a Carl Zeiss lens, saves video in the MPEG-1 format. I was able to get 12 minutes and 43 seconds of video onto 1 gigabyte of memory.

The camera is slim. That makes it great to carry around, but my finger did drift in front of the lens a few times when I was concentrating on my shot. And the microphone is in exactly the wrong spot on top of the camera -- I was constantly pressing on it and thus muffling the sound.

One nice feature is that the zoom automatically locks itself in the widest position during video shooting for the best possible focus.

The cost of memory for this camera is a bit higher because it uses Sony's proprietary storage system. The price of a 1GB card is about $70.

The real breakthrough in compression formats was represented by the Casio Exilim EX-S600, which uses MPEG-4. It was able to store one hour, four minutes and 17 seconds of video onto a 1GB card.

And for all that compression, video quality seemed on a par or even a tad better when compared with footage from the other two cameras.

It's likely that your fingers will get tired before the memory card fills up -- this camera is even slimmer than the Sony and therefore not easy to hold steady for long periods.

But all that extra shooting time buys you the opportunity to make more mistakes. If you blow a shot, you can just keep on shooting.

None of these cameras is a suitable replacement for a camcorder. They are basically still cameras with the capacity to shoot an occasional short video.

Indeed, Pageau thinks that they might spark more interest in camcorders.

"People try some video," he said, "and then will want a better zoom, more shooting time. They will want to step up."

I'm not ready to go the camcorder route yet, but I'll take some digital camera video when I go on vacation and put together a little movie.

Doesn't matter if it's short -- I'll show it to my friends over and over again.

David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.

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Movie mode

Digital still cameras have had the ability to shoot video for more than a decade, but only recently has the feature evolved into something more than a novelty. Each of these three cameras -- all of which are terrific for taking stills -- uses a different compression standard to squeeze memory-intensive video onto storage cards.

Canon PowerShot SD450

* Price: About $300

* Compression: Motion JPEG

* Maximum on 1GB card: Nine minutes, six seconds

* Pros: Good ergonomics for shooting video, easy to use

* Cons: Motion JPEG is the least efficient of video-compression standards tested.

Casio Exilim EX-S600

* Price: About $350

* Compression: MPEG-4

* Maximum on 1GB card: One hour, four minutes, 17 seconds

* Pros: MPEG-4 stores the most video while retaining good quality.

* Cons: Slim profile makes it somewhat awkward to hold while shooting.

Sony DSC-T5

* Price: About $325

* Compression: MPEG-1

* Maximum on 1GB card: 12 minutes, 43 seconds

* Pros: Zoom lens locks while shooting to hold focus.

* Cons: Ergonomics not great for video; Sony memory cards are more expensive.

Source: Times research

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