Image: Canon digital still camera
Canon
Canon’s high-end, 21.1-megapixel EOS 5D Mark II camera with HD video capability is in demand among both videographers and still photographers, said a spokesman at retailer B&H.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/9/2009 8:47:26 AM ET 2009-07-09T12:47:26

In the beginning was the Word. Then came pictures. And digital still cameras began doing double duty as camcorders, while nearly all camcorders allow some form of still photography as well.

The integration of video capabilities into still cameras began roughly four years ago, fueled by the growing popularity of sharing video on the Internet, said Jeff Smith, Amazon.com's director of camera and photo.

"No one manufacturer or camera started it — video just worked its way into still cameras' feature sets," Smith said.

Of Amazon's 10 best-selling still cameras as of July 6, eight also shoot video. Of those, three offer the latest twist in video: high definition.

High definition records moving images at up to 1280-by-720 pixels for greater clarity and detail, and at up to 30 frames per second so that motion isn't blurred.

Some still cameras record even better-quality HD of up to 1920-by-1080 pixels, though often at only up to 20 frames per second. The others record only at standard definition — 640-by-480 — though some of those shoot at up to 30 frames per second.

One of the eight bestsellers, Canon's $300 PowerShot D10, takes stills and videos even 33 feet underwater.

"Customers are really loving these ultimate vacation cameras. They do it all," Smith said.

But only to a certain point.

Still cameras with video capabilities still fall short of dedicated camcorders in many respects. The Digital Preview lens- and camera-review site, as well as Amazon buyers, are quick to point out their shortcomings.

Sound
Most still cameras with video have only a small monaural microphone and no jack for connecting an external stereo mic. The mic is often poorly placed so that it can be brushed or covered by the user's hand or can pick up the noise of the lens zooming. In contrast, camcorders usually have higher-quality, top-mounted stereo mics.

Stereo sound is a big part of the high-definition experience, and some camcorders even enhance it with Dolby noise reduction, a feature rarely found on still cameras.

Focus, software
The autofocus on some video-capable still cameras tracks moving subjects poorly compared to camcorders.

Also, low-light performance can be inferior compared to camcorders, which tend to have lenses that admit more light.

Some still cameras don't allow refocusing or optical zooming while shooting a video.

And some cameras' video output don't work with all video-editing software. But that may not be a problem for many users, who don't edit their clips at all, instead posting them immediately to YouTube or another site, said Smith.

Image stabilization, battery indicators
Still cameras that lack image stabilization, which is built into either the lens or the camera body, may produce wobbly videos, though this is true of the latest small camcorders, too.

Some still cameras lack battery indicators, and because shooting video uses more power than shooting stills, users could find themselves out of juice without a warning.

In at least one respect, shooting video with a still camera can offer advantages over a camcorder. The single-lens reflex cameras that shoot video — extending up through the prosumer, or advanced consumer, level — let users switch among the high-quality lenses they likely already own. This offers a flexibility that would cost thousands of dollars to replicate with a camcorder.

Canon's EOS 5D Mark II, a newer 21.1 megapixel still camera with HD video capabilities, is in such great demand among videographers that still photographers resent not being to get their hands on it or its key accessories, said Mordhay Levy, a salesperson at retailer B&H in New York. The camera body itself retails for around $2,700.

"Videographers are saying it gives them image quality that rivals videocameras costing 10 to 20 times as much," Levy said. "They're buying four or five of them at a time. It's still a still camera, so there are limitations, but the image quality can't be beat by anything at the same price point."

He said the 5D Mark II limits a single clip to 24 minutes in standard-definition and 12 minutes in high-definition. Other still cameras are similarly limited because of the design of the devices. 

Though designed principally for still photos and making short clips, the camera is being pressed into service to make commercials and short movies, Levy said.

"These guys are jury-rigging their way around the problems," he said. "The line between still cameras and video cameras is getting very, very blurry."

Still images on camcorders
Though camcorders can produce still images, they tend not to excel at doing so. Amazon's two best-selling camcorders — the $180 Flip UltraHD and the $187 Flip MinoHD — both allow producing still images through software that allows selecting a single frame within a clip and saving it as an image. This is still slightly more complex than simply snapping a still image with a dedicated camera.

Up the price scale, though, the picture improves. Canon's HFS100 (about $900) and HFS10 (about $1,090) allow shooting still images separately from video clips, or even doing both at once. Each delivers images of 8 megapixels, a size that allows for large prints and heavy-duty cropping without losing resolution.

"It's really excellent, to get that kind of resolution in still images from a videocamera," said Mark Lorner, another B&H salesperson. "Canon has the jump on everyone when it comes to still pictures from a video camera. A serious still photographer would not be happy using a video camera to shoot stills, but for the average consumer, it's perfect."

The highest end still and camcorders don't mix those functions because doing so would require unacceptable quality compromises. But B&H's Levy said he sees a time when even the most expensive, sophisticated still cameras will include video capabilities.

Such single-lens reflex cameras used for action — mostly sports — have a burst rate of about 10 frames per second. That's pretty fast, but it's only one-half to one-third as fast as camcorders shoot.

"If you could video Manny Ramirez with the right facial expression as the bat meets the ball, then scroll through a five-second clip and pick the money shot, it would be incredible," Levy said. "Eventually, we'll probably have something like that."

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