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.).