Your camcorder questions answered

Richard Baguley tackles reader questions on optical zoom, digital cameras, and camcorder output

It's been a few months since I answered some reader questions, so I've opened up the mailbag once again. Here are the answers to a few questions I often get asked about camcorders and digital video.

What's the difference between digital and optical zoom, and which is better?

Optical zoom is the more important of the two: The optical-zoom number refers to the ratio of the zoom lens built into the camcorder. Digital zoom refers to a technique where the camcorder enlarges the center of the image, effectively boosting the zoom ratio of the camcorder hugely (some manufacturers quote figures of up to 700x, while most optical zooms don't go beyond 32x). The problem with digital zoom is that the image quality suffers significantly: You get grainy, jerky video. So, optical zoom is the more valuable feature.

Most new digital cameras can shoot video. Why should I bother getting a separate camcorder?

It's true that most modern cameras shoot video as well as stills, and some do a pretty reasonable job of it. But there are at least two reasons why you should consider a camcorder as well: image quality and sound. Camcorders do a better job of capturing moving images, specifically because they compress the images less and their lenses are designed to capture moving images. And every digital still camera I've tried (and that's a lot) records poor audio; the sound is usually in mono, and the microphone only picks up sounds a couple of feet away from the camera. Some even pick up the noise the camera makes (such as the buzzing of the zoom) and the noise you make when handling the unit. Sure, you can use the digital still camera if you just want very short clips of video and don't want to carry around another device, but a dedicated camcorder will give you more flexibility, better video image quality, and far better sound.

I'm thinking of buying an AVCHD camcorder, but I've heard that you can't edit the video it shoots. Is this true?

It is -- for now, anyway. Though AVCHD camcorders have been available for a few months (Sony just announced its second-generation AVCHD camcorders at CES), there still is no software for directly editing the footage they produce (apart from the very basic software that Sony ships with its AVCHD camcorders).

So far, none of the major video editing software companies have announced any firm plans to support AVCHD editing in their products. Eventually they will (Adobe, Cyberlink, and Ulead are members of the group that defined the new standard ), but it isn't clear when. In the meantime, Jake Ludington has described a technique for converting AVCHD footage into a more usable format , and Canopus in Japan has produced a program that can convert AVCHD footage into a format that its Edius editing programs can work with (English translation ). But no simple way currently exists to edit the footage that these interesting new camcorders shoot.

If I buy a high-definition camcorder, can I still output my home movies to standard-definition DVDs?

Yes, if you use the capability of many high-def camcorders to convert the video down to standard def. Using a feature called downconversion, HDV-format camcorders can internally convert the video from high def to standard def; you can then import the standard-def video into any video editing application.

The HDV camcorder looks like a standard-def camcorder to the video editing app, so you can import the video, edit it, and output it to standard DVDs while still preserving your high-definition original on videotape. AVCHD camcorders can't perform this trick, but some of the software that comes with them (such as Sony's Picture Motion Browser) can convert the video to a standard-def version.

You can also downconvert in many video editing applications; in this scenario, you edit the video in high definition, and then convert it to standard definition for writing to DVD. But it's much quicker to do the conversion in the camera; converting video files on the PC can take a lot of time. If your video editing program can't handle this, MPEG Streamclip is a fast, free video-conversion program that quickly converts high-def video files to standard def.

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Richard Baguley

PC World

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