1. Would you sacrifice some image quality in exchange for something else?
2. Would you sacrifice something else for an increase in image quality?
These questions are things we never really think about. They're somewhere in our subconscious, governing all sorts of photographic decisions, but we never get around to expressing them out loud and engaging in a realistic debate about them. But they're the key to understanding what follows in this article.
Let's talk about video in the Panasonic DMC-FZ35. It's got some new video-oriented features that raise some interesting issues. It has a new video format - AVCHD Lite - and a new, dedicated, press-me-anytime-to-shoot-a-movie button. it's also got some new video effects and scene modes as well.
Almost every person on the planet now has a way to make videos, whether they're using a cameraphone, a camera like the FZ35, or a dedicated camcorder. We are awash in videos, being YouTubed to death with zillions of videos of tap-dancing babies and cute cats. I am not a video expert, so I can probably give the viewpoint of the average user. I read the manual, consulted the Internet for info on the new format, and shot a few videos to see what all the excitement was about.
The FZ35 actually has two video formats -- the traditional MPEG format (think of it as "Motion JPEG"), used by most cameras of this type, and the new AVCHD Lite format. So you have to make a choice of which to use, and it means considering the two questions at the beginning of this article.
What is this AVCHD Lite thing? According to Wikipedia, AVCHD is a new format for shooting high-definition video. (Anybody who is interested in this new format should definitely look up "AVCHD" on Wikipedia to get the full story.) The FZ35 shoots AVCHD Lite, which is a subset of the regular AVCHD format used by dedicated camcorders. It has lower definition than the professional models but, for some, it still might be useful.
Let's look at the similarities between the two formats. At the highest quality settings, they will both produce similar, high-quality results. There may be a theoretical advantage for AVCHD Lite over MPEG, but you'll only see it in carefully controlled conditions, not in the usual handheld environment where these cameras are used.
The biggest difference between the two formats is that MPEG uses a lot more storage, both on the camera's memory card and on your computer's hard drive. Using a new compression scheme, AVCHD takes only half the space of MPEG, so you get twice the recording time in the same storage space.
Another big difference between the two video formats is what they do when you lower the "Quality" setting. With AVCHD Lite, setting to a lower quality just changes the compression, but not the width and height of the image. This is sort of like changing the "Quality" setting when shooting JPEGs. With MPEG, changing the quality setting, actually changes the size of the image, which allows you to match it to a specific requirement, such as display on the computer or on the web, where lower resolution is necessary. This is equivalent to changing the number of megapixels when shooting JPEGs.
Another difference is the maximum length for a single take or scene. It's the longest scene you can record, regardless of the camera's storage card size. With AVCHD, the only limit to a single scene is the size of the card. You can get a continuous recording of about an hour at the highest quality on an 8 gigabyte card. With MPEG, the camera will stop recording when the file size reaches 2 gigabytes. That's somewhere between eight and ten minutes of continuous recording at the highest quality setting. Will this this be a problem? For most people, the answer is no. After all, the opening scene of The Godfather was only about three minutes, and that's one of the longest ever.
With an 8 gigabyte card, you can shoot a total of about 35 minutes of video in MPEG or about one hour in AVCHD. Note: make sure you get a Class 6 SDHC card if you're going to shoot video. I recently purchased an 8 Gigabyte Class 6 card for under $20 at an online site.
Given the advantages of AVCHD Lite over MPEG, the choice of which format to use seems like a no-brainer. But is it? Let's look at the choice in terms of questions #1 and #2 above.
The MPEG format has been around for years. (You can look up "MPEG" on Wikipedia for more details.) There are lots of players for your videos, and lots of programs to catalog and edit your videos. Most of these will also convert your videos to other formats for viewing in places like YouTube and on the iPhone or other cellphones.
The FZ35 numbers your MPEG videos the same way it numbers your still photos, and it puts them in the same directory. It even makes a JPEG file with the same file number as the video, which helps to catalog your files. In other words, the MPEG files produced by the FZ35 are the video equivalent of the JPEG files -- convenient, well-understood, and easy to edit, catalog, and display. The main disadvantage with MPEG is that it uses more storage, but storage is cheap, and it gets cheaper every day.
The AVCHD Lite format, on the other hand, is brand new. It will be years before anyone describes it as "convenient."
The AVCHD files from the FZ35 are hidden in their own directory on the storage card, deep within their own file system, full of directories, subdirectories, and supporting files. (Again, look up "AVCHD" on Wikipedia for an explanation of this new file system and the new files.) Eventually, by trawling through this file structure, we find the actual video file. It has an ".MTS" file extension. Your first AVCHD file will be "00000.MTS." Other AVCHD files on the same card will be numbered sequentially. But there's a problem. If you move the AVCHD files from the storage card to reclaim the space, the next video you shoot will start with 00000.MTS all over again.
Now let's take a look at cataloging, viewing, and editing your AVCHD files. Since this is a brand new format, there are very few programs that will let you view your AVCHD files on the computer, and there have been complaints that even these have problems displaying the new format properly. (According to Panasonic, "AVCHD Lite has a drawback that it consumes a huge amount of CPU powers in processing it in PC.")
Since AVCHD is considered a "professional" format, you may have shell out some big bucks for the software to work with these files. Don't be surprised if the software you have to purchase to do a reasonable job of viewing, cataloging, and editing ends up costing more than you expected.
The problems of working with AVCHD Lite will make for long and interesting discussions in the online forums. Unfortunately, none of the solutions will match the simplicity and convenience of working with MPEGs.
So what's the bottom line, in terms of the two questions I asked above? AVCHD offers some theoretical advantages, but at great cost. MPEG offers simplicity, convenience, and ease of use, all with minimal sacrifice.
My recommendation is to set your DMC-FZ35 for "MOTION JPEG" rather than ACVHD Lite. Get some freeware or shareware or inexpensive third-party software to view, catalog, and edit your video files. And go have fun.
One other point worth mentioning in regard to the FZ35's video is what happens when you press the button to begin a video. Previous models, the FZ18 and the FZ28, just began recording soon after the shutter release was pressed. But the FZ35 is different. When you begin recording a video, the screen (or viewfinder) actually blanks out for a second or so, and you see an image of a piece of movie film. Then the image returns and the recording begins. This is very disorienting, especially if you're trying to film a subject that's moving. And the delay also means that you have to press the button a little bit early or you may miss something at the start.
And as long as we're talking about video there's another thing. The FZ35 has a spiffy new button that starts recording video, regardless of what the camera is set for. Nifty Idea, you won't be caught unawares. In the older models, you had to first turn the Mode dial to the movie position, then press the shutter release.
But there are several problems with this new feature. Firstly, it replaces the button which, on earlier models, had switched back and forth between the viewfinder and the LCD. That button has been moved to a place where you can no longer locate it by feel. And the new "Motion Picture Button" is in an awkward location where it's difficult to press without shaking the camera. It's like moving the shutter release to the back of the camera.
You can still shoot movies on the FZ35 the old-fashioned way -- by first setting the mode dial to the Movie position and then using the regular shutter release to start and stop filming. This has a much more natural feel to it. I wonder who thought up the idea of a dedicated movie button in an awkward location. It violates an important rule of interface design -- never give the user two different ways of doing the same thing. It tends to cause confusion.
Getting back to the two questions at the beginning of the article, I'm going to be revisiting them in future articles and look at how these questions govern some of the choices we have to make, and how to apply them in photography.