Next-generation imaging: my new DV camcorder

still camera notes

After two failures on consecutive backpacking trips, my SLR was vulnerable to attack in late 1997. A failing battery did not give me sufficient warning in '96, rendering much of my Sierra trip deeply underexposed at random but important intervals. The camera's roll into Fish Creek in '97 was exclusively my fault; nevertheless, several factors were in play that made SLR backpacking uncomfortable...

Enter mini-DV!

When I first heard about the potential of digital camcorders I thought someone had read my mind! Here was an imaging system that was extremely compact and lightweight, yet powerful and versatile beyond my hopes. On a one-hour tape the size of a Hot Wheels car, I could record an hour of video, 450-plus still frames, or any combination of the two! Ten still shots, two minutes of video, five more stills, another video - what more could I ask? Once again I found no internal wide-angle lens, but with an extreme wide-angle adaptor I have the equivalent of a 21-210mm zoom, far more coverage than I had with my SLR. [If I really needed it, the digital zoom could carry me to 2100mm, and the image-stabilizing feature might allow me to actually recognize the object I was trying to magnify - but I doubt it]. The close-focusing lens allows me to shoot flowers from one inch away, and the autofocus feature is quick and effective. The camera uses a lithium-ion battery and has a FireWire port to easily connect to a similarly-equipped PC (still few and far between). When I get home, I drop the camera onto its platform and show high-resolution images on the television with CD-quality sound and the capability of a second audio track for my most relaxing Tangerine Dream compositions. No small prints, no aging projectors and screens, just beautiful pictures... can it really be this simple?

First results!

I now own a Panasonic PV-DV700 camera that had been returned to a local store for the exact reason I purchased it: no swing-out 3-inch LCD screen. These convenient screens add weight and reduce battery power, exactly what a hiking camera does not need! I added a 0.42x wide-angle converter with 30.5-37mm thread adaptor for those places in the mountains where stepping back for a shot would be, at the very least, impractical. While I am still not familiar with all the camera's features, I was impressed with it quickly, when the tape showed great resolution (through the S-Video output) and small songbirds could be clearly heard. I took it for a hike in the Columbia River gorge, zooming in on tiny flowers, roaring Ruckel Creek and a sternwheel ship on the distant Columbia. The battery held up nicely on this tour, but I expect that a second battery will be vital for backpacking (and a warm place to keep it!). The camera is light enough to keep clipped to my hand on a regular trail, yet thin enough to slip into a big pocket for protection; I purchased a small pouch at a local camera shop that holds it snugly and has a pocket for the converter lens and another tiny tape.
While this camera is incredibly useful, it cannot do everything. It certainly can autofocus on a close branch in front of a more distant waterfall, and its exposure range isn't a match for my SLR. The images will not hold up as well as my slides to magnification, and even the latest PC printers resolve less than 1500dpi. If I want a poster image to hang on the wall, my SLR will have to tag along on the special trips. On the other hand, I can choose to be free of the silver market (I worked in a camera shop in the late '70s and saw what a little speculation did to film prices!), and my images are available as soon as I reach home. Digital images are nearly immune to degradation from making copies of copies, and I can carve a CD-ROM version that has a decent shelf-life and takes up a lot less space than my slide cubes.

Is this the perfect camera? Pretty close, but no one recording device will ever take that title. Just check the astronomy sites for heated discussions on what CCD images can and cannot do relative to film. I think this camera will do most things that I use cameras for, and I hope to keep it with me for many years. I do hope that either FireWire products or (better yet) mini-DV tape drives become available soon, so I can share these images more conveniently. I already have four devices attached to my parallel port, so a frame-grabber has no place in my home. Perhaps Windows 98 will flush out more IEEE1394 / FireWire products; time will tell..

Torture test: the 1998 Wind River Expedition

The only way to know how the camera would work on the trail was to take it out. I purchased a second battery for insurance and went out for six days. Its performance was nearly flawless, and the major problem is easily fixed. The one battery lasted me into day five even with image-stabilizing (very valuable!) turned on after the first day, and a two-hour stretch of leaving the camera on active standby. I used over fifty minutes of tape on stills and videos and exercised the focus from 3 inches to the last-quarter Moon. My only complaint was with the view through the wide-angle attachment, which showed serious color fringing especially on still images as well as excessive fisheye effects when panning. That problem can be easily minimized by spending money for a different lens, which will not be .42x but will be of higher quality. I only hope that some day a FireWire card will find its way to me; I will gladly post scanned 35mm prints and digital images side-by-side for comparison.

FireWire goes mainstream?

In early February '99 I finally found Radius' entry into the PCI FireWire contest. Since this company is best known for its Apple computer products, and Apple pioneered the IEEE 1394 interface, this is minimally surprising. It plugged into my system and away I go! I will post some side-by-side images later to demonstrate similar shots with We shall see!

and now.. a Digital Stil Camera!

As of late 1999 I own a bargain closeout Kodak still camera. With 1.6 Mpixels or so and a good-sized flash memory card, it can hold a great number of images. It has decent wide-angle capabilities and runs on 4 AA batteries, much easier to carry than six rolls of film! The quality of its images are excellent, and it will get some use in the year 2000 and beyond.

Later notes..

For the y2k trip, I purchased a higher-quality 0.6x adaptor for the camcorder. This has cut down on the color shifts and fisheye effects, but of course cannot cover the area like the 0.42x model. While still extremely satisfied with the video, the still shots clearly can't compete with film or standalone digital camera; new camcorders have a still-imaging system included to deal with that issue (for a price).
The image-stabilizing system make a very slight humming sound as it works. I can't hear it myself, but the CD-quality sound pickup allows me to hear it on playback. Of course, no one was supposed to record dead-silent images in a wilderness with these things - I'm sure very few people in the 'real' world ever hear this. I've also subjected to howling winds on ridgetops, and must admit that the 'wind cut' microphone option is also not up to this task.
On an October 2000 trip to the North Cascades I took photos with my SLR and digital still camera, and must admit that the digital shots simply look better. In part I blame the processing lab, which produced high-contrast pictures that are more harsh than the digital counterparts. I do retouch the digital shots slightly to make them less blue, but I'm not into major manipulation.
Not surprisingly, Firewire ports are far cheaper and more numerous nowadays. I spent several hundred on the card plus $100 for Video Studio software; now I could pay $90 for a card, and the software is included! And Windows ME has video-recording software as well. Oh well, someone had to finance the R&D for you...