The Twilight of a Great Technology

Lightweight, compact and handy in its day, the Canon Optura 200 has been superseded by devices far smaller, handier, and higher quality, including my smartphone.
Lightweight, compact and handy in its day, the Canon Optura 200 has been superseded by devices far smaller, handier, and higher quality, including my smartphone.

All technology becomes obsolete, not matter how impressive it was in its day. Example: phonograph records. In their day, they were the high point in the audiophile scene. Today, their scratchy tone and awkward interface has left them to history.

For years the prevailing method for amateurs to make home movies was with 8mm film. In the 1980s, film was gradually replaced by analog videotape. An odd result of this was that camcorders were typically much larger than the tiny film cameras they replaced. The technology, however, was only a minor move toward improvement, since it was one analog recording method replacing another. True, videotape could be played back immediately and didn’t require chemical processing, but the quality, particularly with cheap camcorders, wasn’t much of a step up at all.

A 60-minute Mini-DV cassette and a 16GB SDHC card; the cassette is awkward and fragile, and there are no larger capacity cassette. At about 200MB per minute, the storage capacity of a DV tape is about 12GB. The SD card is much smaller, has no moving parts, and is available in many different and larger capacities.
A 60-minute Mini-DV cassette and a 16GB SDHC card; the cassette is awkward and fragile, and there are no larger capacity cassette. At about 200MB per minute, the storage capacity of a DV tape is about 12GB. The SD card is much smaller, has no moving parts, and is available in many different and larger capacities.

At the end of the 1990s, a technology came along that promised to introduce a real improvement in home video quality, DV. In 2001, I bought a Mini-DV camcorder, a Canon GL-1. Compared to the video from almost every analog camcorder of the day, the image quality from the GL-1 was amazing. The biggest contributors to this were the excellent lens on this camera, and the 3-CCD sensor arrangement inside. The audio supplied by the large handle-mounted shotgun stereo mic was second to none. But like a lot of video cameras, it was large, and in 2003, right before Abby and I took our first vacation together, I found the Canon Optura 200 DV camcorder on sale and bought it. And while it was quite a bit smaller, it wasn’t small. It also sacrificed a lot of quality compared to the GL-1, especially its terrible microphone, which picked up the motor inside the camera almost as loud as the subject in the video. DV was good, but not great.

Downsides of DV:

  • Awkward transfer to computer, requiring a Firewire cable and 1:1 downloading time.
  • Linear recording method means no direct access to files
  • More moving parts, such as in the tape drive mechanism and the cassette itself, which can be fragile.
  • Video can’t be used by a computer until processed by a program first.
  • 640 x 480 resolution, which is the resolution of analog, tube-based televisions.

    This is the Canon Vixia HF R10 high-definition digital camcorder I use for news gathering. It's small and affordable, but the lens is a distinct weakness of this model.
    This is the Canon Vixia HF R10 high-definition digital camcorder I use for news gathering. It’s small and affordable, but the lens is a distinct weakness of this model.

Downsides of camcorders based on high definition digital sensors:

  • Some codec schemes not compatible with some operating systems.
  • Huge resolving power requires a very sharp lens, which most camcorders don’t have.
  • Many, or even most, small digital camcorders don’t have an optical viewfinder, making shooting in bright sunlight very difficult.

Despite the downsides of high-definition camcorders, their video is inherently better because it’s high-definition. When I talk about pixel count in still photography, I honestly believe that in the last six to eight years resolution has become almost entirely irrelevant, but in video, the move from standard to high definition is enormous, particularly when viewed on large media devices like flat-panel desktop computers or the hugely popular big, flat-panel, high-definition televisions.

As is often the case, these advances in technology leave many of us holding once-expensive media devices that aren’t very useful any more. I won’t sell my DV camcorders, and I have made some great video memories with them, but it’s hard to imagine I’ll get all that much use out of them. Maybe I’ll come up with a special project for them, or maybe I’ll just display them at home as a reminder of the fickle nature of technology.

This is my Canon GL-1. In its day, it was one of the top video cameras available. It features an excellent stereo microphone, a stunning ferrite-glass lens, and a sharp, low-noise triple CCD imaging array. In spite of all that, it is completely obsolete.
This is my Canon GL-1. In its day, it was one of the top video cameras available. It features an excellent stereo microphone, a stunning ferrite-glass lens, and a sharp, low-noise triple CCD imaging array. In spite of all that, it is completely obsolete.
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1 Comment

  1. My wife and I bought a mini-DV camcorder in 2005/6 (can’t remember) and used it on several vacations. For us, two of the downsides you listed are prominent: the 1:1 transfer time and the 640×480 resolution. It looked great on our old TV, but the videos now look either (a) tiny or (b) horrible on the computer and new TV.

    We realized recently that we haven’t used it in nearly two years. Our last two Nikon point-and-shoot digital still cameras also recorded HD video, as does our new Canon one. The 60D I’ve had for a year also records HD video and with high-quality DSLR lenses (albeit with manual focus). Their files transfer extremely quickly to the computer and are immediately ready for upload to YouTube, or for editing.

    Lately, I’ve avoided most editing with this trick: keep the video short (90 seconds or less), and delete it if there’s too much not worth watching.

    (And I’m under no illusions: we’re all still “early adopters”; these things have a long way to go.)

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