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Monday, January 24 2011

Canon Vixia HF S20

I got a Sony video camera to take video of Julia, but an 8+ year old video camera is useless -- both the iPhone and the Canon Rebel T1i take better (and higher resolution) video, but the iPhone has no zoom and neither has high-quality audio. I have been filming and photographing friends' bands for a while now, and am getting a bit more serious about it. Unfortunately, musicians are allergic to light, so it's always an adverse environment for any kind of camera. It was time to find a video camera that can handle low light, with good/flexible audio.

I looked into Panasonic cameras briefly, but they're in the middle of updating their whole lineup, so their new models aren't available yet, and they don't have information on the old (discontinued) models online. After a great deal of searching, reading, comparing, and pondering, I decided on the Canon Vixia HF S20.

Features

  • According to most reports it works relatively well in low light.
  • It has a 3.5mm stereo mic jack.
  • It has Canon's Mini Advanced Shoe
  • 1080i (1920*1080) resolution, at 60 fields per second.
  • In "PF30" mode the camera produces 30p video, which is what I want for iMovie. Many other cameras cannot handle this, although iMovie 11 is less picky about what footage it can handle. PF24 (recorded at 24p) appears fine as well.
  • Still photography up to 3264*2456 (16:9, in video mode) or 3264*1840 (4:3, in still mode).
  • 32gb flash onboard.
  • 2 SDHC slots. I have a firmware file that should upgrade to SDXC (different filesystem with the same physical characteristics, for cards of 64gb and larger), but haven't tried it -- I don't have any SDXC media to test against. The camera does have a "Relay Recording" mode so video can overflow from onboard to slot A and then slot B, although I may never need this. I might not even use the onboard flash memory if my iMac's SD(HC) slot is much faster than the camera's USB port.
    • To import directly from SD cards (should be faster, and enables the camera to charge simultaneously), connect it to a flash reader, launch iMovie, choose Import from Camera..., and select the SD reader (my iMac's is called "Apple Internal Memory Card Reader" from the Camera: popup
  • 10x zoom -- less than some other cameras but still quite useful.
  • Popup flash/video light. Handy, although I'm not sure if this will ever be useful.

I used the S20 at a very dark show with the DM-100, and got usable (though decidedly grainy) video with clear sound.

Numbers

  • The included Canon BP-808 battery is rated at 55 minutes.
  • I bought a BP-819 with twice the capacity, rated at 105 minutes.
  • The S20 includes 32gb RAM, sufficient for 175 minutes of MXP (24mbps, 1920*1080) video.

Problems

  • The battery is frankly puny -- at highest quality, the built-in flash lasts more than 3 times as long as the puny battery. With the BP-819 as well, though, I should be able to record for 3 hours -- enough for any normal concert. For long events, I might need to bring the AC adaptor and plug the camera in. Unfortunately the camera can either run off AC current or charge the battery, but not both.
  • The S20 is overly complicated. It has 5 main modes:
    1. Dual Shot -- automatic mode, with both video and stills available, but no menu access at all.
    2. Video recording
    3. Photography
    4. Video playback
    5. Photo playback
  • Unfortunately Dual Shot mode does not allow overriding most of the defaults. This includes 60i frame rate (rather than the 30p or 24p I'd prefer), and won't even let me hide most of the onscreen status indicators.
  • Each menu command is linked to one or more non-auto modes. So to review all the settings, you must work through 3 menus in each of 4 modes.
  • The playback modes require choosing either photos or videos from one of the 3 possible sources (onboard flash, flash A, or flash B).
  • The menus are needlessly complicated. For example, when I'm shooting in "Dual Shot" mode, the steps to delete all photos from flash B are (this is different than the procedure to completely initialize flash B):
    1. Push the Camera/Review button.
    2. Push the Swap Playback(??) button (play arrow on 2 rectangles, surrounded by 2 curving arrows).
    3. Push B.
    4. Push Photos.
    5. Push Checkmark.
    6. Push Select All.
    7. Push Edit.
    8. Push Delete.
    9. Push Yes.
    10. (Wait for deletion.)
    11. Push OK.
    12. To shoot again, push Camera/Review again.
  • The touchscreen is not very sensitive. This was very annoying before I got used to it, but even now not all my presses register, and I worry about joggling the camera if I use the onscreen controls while filming.
  • No lens cap! Stupid! I cannot just throw a glass lens (or even a glass filter) in a bag and let it get scratched with every jostle. Fortunately it's 58mm, so finding caps isn't difficult, but I'm not about to pay $9 to Canon for a piece of plastic that should have been in the box anyway.
  • The dedicated low light mode is odd. It makes everything very blurry, as if it's using double-length exposures for pairs of frames. Not usable with any kind of motion. If I wanted to capture a still as video, it might serve, but the still camera would make more sense there.
  • The camera doesn't appear to work for streaming to a computer -- it only recognizes USB in 'playback' modes, not 'shooting' (recording) modes. This is a pity, as it means it can't work with iChat. I have a built-in iSight, but if I ever wanted to potcast, a better camera that isn't fixed into the monitor might be useful.
  • No viewfinder. This is a negative, but one I'm comfortable with. Canon's S21 adds a viewfinder and bumps the onboard RAM from 32gb to 64gb, but these are not worth an additional $235.

Conclusion

All things considered, I am happy with the camera. The touchscreen isn't very good and the menus are downright lousy, but I am able to mostly ignore them now that it's set up. I would have liked something simpler, but to get the odd combination of features I wanted, I needed a higher end and more complicated camera. Fortunately I can simply ignore most of the irrelevant capabilities (Direct burning of DVDs, onboard editing & effects, playlists, onboard creation of SD video from HD footage, etc.).

Sunday, June 27 2010

The iPhone 4 Camera

Some time ago -- probably back when my iPhone 3G was the hot 'new' phone -- I was annoyed that my trusty Canon SD800IS didn't have GPS for photo tagging. Accurate dates on photos are very useful, as I am painfully reminded every time I combine photos from multiple cameras of the same event (DST often varies, but camera clocks just aren't very accurate). GPS coordinates are less important but also quite handy.

I realized, however, that rather than my next dedicated pocket camera having GPS, more likely the iPhone would eventually have a competitive camera, and the iPhone of course already has decent GPS and accurate time (generally from the cellular network).

The iPhone 3GS camera was much improved, but still completely inadequate for me. Lots of people, including Amy use cellphone cameras exclusively (she's about to move up from my old 3G to my now-old 3GS), but they tend to look at the photos on other phones, and/or post them at sites like Facebook that never show high-res photos anyway.

For me, the only real problems with the 3GS were its camera and its battery life. The battery was normally okay, but recently I'd get to work in the morning, after watching videos for about an hour, and find the battery down to 60% charge. I expect to get it replaced under AppleCare this week, and think Amy will be happy with it. But the camera was useless except for Twitter, and the very rare occasions when I needed a camera but didn't have my SD800IS.

So I was very happy to see Derek Powazek say Apple had done a good job with the iPhone 4 camera.

I took some comparison shots Saturday night in low light, and I'm happy with the iPhone's pictures. I'll probably keep carrying the S800IS on weekends, since I already have it and the habit -- and it does take somewhat better photos, with more room for cropping. But now pictures I post to Twitter will be decent, and I'll be more inclined to take pictures during the week without my Canon. In the future, when the SD800IS dies, I won't need to replace it.

The Canon still has advantages over my T1i for video, though -- it's much more forgiving for focus, and AF on the T1i is loud, not a factor on the SD800IS.

Tuesday, January 19 2010

Flash Memory Performance

Update 2010/01/21: Thanks to @ceolaf for pointing out that Amazon has updated their page. They accepted my correction: "Fast read speeds of up to 15MB/second; write speed lower".

I have been using a Transcend 16gb Class 6 SDHC card Transcend 16gb Class 6 SDHC card in my Canon T1i, but needed another card. I found a good price on the somewhat confusingly labeled Sandisk Ultra 16gb SDHC card Sandisk Ultra 16gb SDHC card. As you can see, it prominently specifies "15MB/s*" on the label, and on Amazon's page. Additionally, it shows a smaller "C4" (Class 4) logo.

SDHC Class ratings are minimum write speeds in mbytes/sec, so the Transcend is guaranteed to write files at 6mbyte/sec or better, which is Canon's recommended minimum for shooting video or rapid stills on the T1i. I was a bit confused to see the C4 logo on the card, but I believed Amazon's "High speed card featuring fast 15MB/sec Read/Write speeds", which would be effectively Class 15. I couldn't find any explanation for that asterisk, but the price was decent, so I ordered a card.

I just got the card and did some simple tests -- copying a 1.1gb file to and from the card through my USB SDHC reader -- and discovered a few interesting things. The SanDisk wrote at 10,600,679 bits/sec and read at 21,621,758. The Transcend wrote at 9,399,092 bits/sec and read at 18,514,338 bits/sec. This means my SanDisk Ultra card qualifies as Class 10, and my Transcend is almost as fast (but there is no Class 7-9, so Class 6 is correct). The SanDisk is much faster than its marked Class 4, but nowhere near the 15mbyte/sec write speed Amazon promised.

Tonight I did some more poking, and found http://www.sandisk.com/products/imaging/sandisk-ultra-sdhc?tab=features, which explains that asterisk:

Fast read speeds of up to 15MB/second*; write speed lower

So Amazon's page is wrong, and I sent them a correction. I'm keeping the Ultra card because it's fast enough for the camera and probably whatever else I'll use it for, but disappointed it doesn't deliver on Amazon's specs.

Tuesday, December 29 2009

Canon T1i Tips

I downloaded the T1i manual & product guide from Canon's support site, and put them on my iPhone for reference. The paper manuals are small, so the PDFs are quite readable on the iPhone.

According to Canon, due to the T1i's smaller-than-35mm APS-C image sensor, my 55-250mm telephoto is equivalent to an 88-400mm 35mm lens.

In normal use, Medium/Fine (3,456*2,304) is indistinguishable from Large/Fine (4,752*3,168), although I haven't yet tried Normal JPEG compression, which will probably also be just fine at about half the on-disk size.

I haven't used 1920*1080@20fps video (the T1i can't do 1080@30fps) -- instead I use 1280*720@30fps (222mb/minute, which should fit 73min on an otherwise empty 16gb card), but I am fortunately satisfied with both video & audio quality, despite the tiny on-body microphone (no audio input available). I'm not very conscious of the resolution (even though it's easy to see on the rear LCD display), so I need to get used to raising it to L for long/landscape shots and returning to M for normal/close photos.

Unlike the SD800 IS, the T1i is somewhat awkward in portrait orientation -- especially with the LumaLoop's lanyard hanging in front of my face. I like the LumaLoop, though.

I use BetterHTMLExport for exporting galleries to the web. Today I hit a new problem: my private December photo gallery is 849 photos, mostly a mix of uncropped Large & Medium T1i photos. The whole thing (including full-resolution images) is 3.2gb, and for some reason Mac OS X sees my private Samba share as an 8gb volume with 2.8gb free (it's actually 634gb with 198gb free). I've noticed this before, but it never mattered except when copying large OS installers up to my archive. Today I had to export to a local gallery folder and then copy it up to the server, because iPhoto refused to let me export 3.2gb to a volume with (apparently) 2.8gb free. Not BHE's fault, but annoying!


Update: I tested in-camera JPEG compression. Large/Normal and Medium/Fine are both very good, while Medium/Normal isn't quite as legible at 100%. Interestingly, Large/Normal images are smaller than Medium/Fine, so I'll use L/N. Bonus: I won't have to switch resolutions between landscapes & head shots.

As Ken Rockwell points out, video is compromised by how well the in-body microphone picks up noise from lens movement. So 'autofocus' (which must be manually triggered by hitting the AF button) and zooming are both quite disruptive.

Thursday, December 10 2009

The Magpie at Cafe Steinhof

I went out to see Gavin in his multilingual multi-instrumental band, The Magpie at Cafe Steinhof.

As my new Canon T1i's first outing, it was a success. I took 157 photos -- mostly without flash while the band was playing, and some with flash between songs. 57 of them had some redeeming value:

Gavin Gavin Dave, Brooke, & Gavin

Brooke & Eli Brooke chokes up Ross

Monday, November 30 2009

Camera Upgrade: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

I've taken thousands of photos since Julia was born, over 4,000 (that I've kept) since March 2007 with my Canon PowerShot SD800 IS. I wear it all weekend and whenever we travel with Julia, and it takes excellent pictures. But a few years ago our friend Alex got a Nikon DSLR, and I was highly impressed. The SD800 is small (which enables me to carry it without thinking), and shares the problems endemic to pocket cameras: the flash is anemic and it's prone to red-eye. Since I don't really process my photos (I just crop them in iPhoto and post), I have a lot of photos with red-eye (most of my photos are indoor shots of Julia, which aggravates the problem). iPhoto's red-eye reduction is useless, and I don't want to go through another program just to fix red-eye. The camera doesn't pick up the normal eye color, so it's not possible to restore it, and I simply don't have enough time to fix that many photos.

Additionally, I've taken several photos at concerts, and I always have to throw most of them out due to underexposure. The SD800 will gamely fire its flash if I allow it, but it cannot illuminate people onstage unless I'm sitting right in front of them, and photos without flash (to avoid distracting performers) are typically too dark to see.

I would of course love to upgrade my SD800, but it's great for what it is. Gifted photographer and camera guru Jeff Carlson recommended Canon's new S90, which sounds in all respects improved over my SD800, but there's nothing actually wrong with the SD800 and I don't think the S90 could actually solve either my red-eye or low-light problem. A few days ago I realized that I will in fact likely never upgrade my SD800. Amy and Salome only use their iPhone cameras, and they are not unusual. I have taken at least one photo with my iPhone 3GS rather than the Canon because I wanted to post it to Twitter immediately, and that will happen more over time. I'd like having my photos geotagged, but it's a hard problem for a standalone camera. By the time my Canon dies, the current iPhone camera will probably be substantially better than the 3GS camera I have today (I can hope for flash, but don't expect it), and such a camera -- always with me, and capable of instantly sharing photos -- will probably make a pocket camera irrelevant.

So my Christmas & Hannukah present to myself this year is the Canon EOS Rebel T1i. I really like image stabilization, and Nikon doesn't offer it in the same price range. I like the Canon point-and-shoots (my only complaint is their lack of battery gauge -- for which I use CHDK), and will probably ignore most of the T1i's fancy features (including raw mode), but it should do much better with low light and red-eye when I carry it. I will get an external flash later -- not an option with SD800 or S90.

Thanks to Digital Photography Review for their 30-page review.