Mini-DV Cameras and HD Video

Keith M. Murphy
2010/10/29 at 11:46 pm

I just want to add a caveat about investing in mini-DV equipment over tapeless alternatives. The points Mark makes about compression are correct and are definitely something to consider, however there’s also some danger in diving headlong into receding technology that may not be around for much longer.

The industry is rapidly moving to solid-state video recorders, and while mini-DV won’t suffer the same fate as interim formats like VHS-C and Hi-8 (R.I.P.), over the next couple of years it’ll get harder and harder to find actual tapes (so stock up now) and even the hardware needed to play them. Dedicated mini-DV decks are no longer widely available, so playing back tapes (for capturing or other reasons) has to be done through the camera. If your camera breaks a couple years down the line and you still need something to play back all your archived tapes, you most likely won’t be *entirely* out of luck trying to replace it, but as the technology becomes rarer, it’ll also become dearer. Additionally, I think most mini-DV cameras still use Firewire connections, which are great and super fast and generally preferable to USB 2.0, but also at least one generation behind with the imminent arrival of USB 3.0. Many computers, even Macs, may not include Firewire ports for much longer.

We’re also moving toward a world where HD video is standard. This is both a technical point (not all mini-DV cameras are capable of recording HD; HD captures more detail) and a half-minor/half-not-minor aesthetic point: HD video is leaps and bounds better looking than non-HD footage — do you want to be the person who shows up to the meetings with the grainy standard def video when everyone else has nice crisp HD clips? Yes, it’s not the most important point, but it’s definitely something to consider.

So it’s a trade-off, and a trade-off based on a couple of factors. The first is your own research needs. Someone focusing on gestures may not need the same equipment as someone who requires their audio fidelity to be accurate down to the phoneme, making the audio compression issues of solid-state drive (SSD) cameras less significant. Or maybe traveling to a remote location with lighter hardware (hardware with fewer moving parts that can jam up or break) and no tapes is well worth the archiving problems that an all-digital workflow creates. The second factor is related to budget and planning. If you plan on keeping this equipment for more than a coupe of years, it’s probably better to jump on a forward-moving technology, even if right now it costs a little more, since there may be many monetary and non-monetary costs that arise down the road when using older tech.

For my lab at UCI I recently bought the Canon HF S20, which sells on Amazon for about $850 right now. It’s got an on-board flash drive and slots for removable SD cards, which are almost cheap enough to buy in large quantities and use like reusable tapes. The camera has definitely got some downsides, but overall the video quality and ease of use made it well worth dealing with its flaws.

I’d also like to add that FinalCut Pro is worth the investment if you’re building a lab, and FinalCut Express is kind of junky–if your needs aren’t very high-end, stick with iMovie. And I’ve been using InqScribe for transcribing video and subtitling for years, and it’s cheap, easy, and it works well. It’s not perfect, but I haven’t yet encountered a piece of transcribing software that is.

And no matter what kind of camera you end up getting, make sure to invest in a good microphone. It really is key, and I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

Keith M. Murphy
UC Irvine Anthropology

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