Remember the War between the States, the Trojan War, remember the Alamo? Now, those were real wars. However, we camcorder and video people have our own wars and battles as well.
How about the VHS versus Beta wars? Three chip versus one chip? VHS versus 8mm? S-Video versus regular video? Color viewfinders versus black&white? How about the new Digital Video battle?
But, have you heard about the zoom wars? Camcorder manufacturers are battling to see who can offer the biggest and most powerful zooms on their cameras.
I remember many years ago that if you had a 6x zoom, you were pretty hot stuff. Slowly the zoom ratios crept up to 8x, 10x and 12x. (I have always wondered why zoom numbers always ended in even numbers?)
For many years, the 12x zoom plateau was were most camcorders lived. There is a good reason for that. Even with the best image stabilization and expert camcorder holding technique, it is quite difficult to handhold a close-up of an image steady at the maximum 12x zoom.
Recently, the zoom wars have intensified. The numbers are once again starting to creep up. Companies like Canon, Hitachi and Samsung are marketing camcorders with 40x optical zoom or more. There is no way to hold it steady with just your hands.
Adding fuel to the fire is digital zoom. Recently, I have seen digital zoom numbers as high as 1000x! This is marketing hype. Its all BS. Unless you really, really have to, you never want to use digital zoom.
If you have used digital or electronic zooms, you probably realize that all digital zoom does is to magnify the image and make the middle larger. Any distortion or electronic noise gets amplified as well. The pixels of color and light that make up the image get bigger as well. As the digital zoom ratio increases, the image you see consists of fewer and fewer pixels, with each pixel just a lot larger. Eventually, all you get is pixels and you can’t even recognize what you are aiming at.
Most camcorders offer three options for digital zoom. You can leave it totally off, you can go to the first level or detent, or you can maximize it. I personally prefer to usually max out my digital zoom at the first level. If you need to capture your images at the best quality, leave digital zoom off and just walk a bit closer! The closer you get, the better it will look.
By the way, there is no limit to digital or electronic zoom. As it is an electronic function, manufacturers can easily set it to what ever range they want. A camcorder manufacturer could offer 1000x digital zoom or more.
The secret of evaluating the quality of a digital zoom is the level of optical zoom it is based upon. For example, 100x digital zoom from a camera that offers 10x optical zoom means that the electronic image has been blown up 10 times. On the other hand, a 100x digital zoom on a camcorder with an optical zoom of 20x, only needs to blow up the image by five times. Hence the image generated by the camcorder with the 20x optical zoom will look a lot better than the image generated by the camcorder with only a 10x optical zoom.
The bottom line: Ignore Digital Zoom Numbers!
Yes, there are a few technology workarounds that can help improve the image, but in general, the greater the optical zoom, the better the image will look after digital enlargement.
Adding to this quality conundrum is digital image stabilization versus optical image stabilization. As mentioned earlier, it is quite difficult to hold an image steady at 20x. With today’s small camcorders, I find it difficult to handhold an image steady at just 6x or so. That is why image stabilization is so important. If you are not going to be using a tripod for your extended zoom shots, image stabilization can be a lifesaver.
The first image stabilization technologies were sort of funky and didn’t work well. You’d notice a freeze frame effect at times as the stabilizing circuitry tried to figure out just what image it should be holding steady, Over the last decade, image stabilization has made great moves forward. There are two types of image stabilization, optical and electronic/digital. (Some companies call it digital, some call it electronic – it is basically the same) Both optical and electronic/digital use electronic technology but optical is based more on mechanical means and digital is based on electronic technologies.
Digital and electronic image stabilization, like electronic zoom, can degrade an image whereas optical image stabilization, like optical zoom, is a mechanical technology that has minimal effect on image quality. Most electronic/digital image stabilization technologies generate about 5% image degradation as they enlarge the center part of an image. The technology is still getting better. On some of the most recent camcorders you might not notice any difference when you turn on Image Stabilization versus when it is off.
A good hint is if the camcorder’s instructions recommend turning off electronic or digital image stabilization when you are using the camcorder on a tripod. The best quality images are generated by optical zoom combined with optical image stabilization. If you know in advance you are going to need to use large zoom ratios, digital or optical, use a tripod. That way, once you have your camcorder firmly locked down, you don’t need image stabilization and can turn it off.
Telephoto Lens Filters
Various manufacturers offer telephoto adapters that can be screwed onto the front of your lens and will optically increase the telephoto length. A 1.5x adapter lens will increase the overall zoom by 50%. You will still have the same ratio of 12 to 1 but everything will be 50% larger. Look at the front of your camcorder lens. Is there a set of lens threads that will enable you to screw on an accessory lens? Note what width lens you have. Most camcorders are in the 30 to 50mm range.
Telephoto adapters are not all the same. Sometimes they don’t fit quite right and when you zoom out to maximum wide angle you may see the sides of the adapter ring. Quality is also an issue. Whenever you add another lens between your subject and the camera, you end up degrading the image, however slight. The cheapest lenses are made of plastic and may unacceptably distort your image. Better lens are made from glass. However, a good glass telephoto adapter may cost more than your camcorder! I recommend taking your camcorder with you and trying different adapters and see what the image looks like. And, if you don’t have one already, buy a good tripod while you are at the photo store.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom
While we are on the subject of zooming, lets discuss the how and why of zooming. In my classes, I always stress that zooming is a crutch to be avoided. It is much better to physically pick up your camcorder and tripod and simply get closer to the subject.
Video is a medium of close-ups, of tight shots of faces and things. On most home TV sets, watching wide shots of buildings and landscapes doesn’t work well. With the advent of wide screen, high definition television this may change, but now is now.
Zooming does more than just make the image larger, it also reduces depth. A wide angle shot appears to have more depth, more of a 3D feel than a corresponding zoomed close-up. Maximum telephoto shots always give you a flat look opposed to the more real wide-angle image
I am sure you remember your first videotaping experience. You popped the tape in, hit record and began making a movie. You started zooming in and zooming out, zoom in – zoom out, it is a phase all first time videographers experience. And then while watching it back on your TV set, you wondered why you got seasick?
Zooming is to be avoided, especially zooming in on objects. I recommend getting a wide shot of an image, hit pause and zoom in to a tight shot, and then re-start recording. We don’t need to see the zoom in.
If you want to zoom out from a telephoto shot to a wide angle, try panning and moving the camera as you zoom out. Instead of zooming straight out, try moving the camera left or right as you zoom out to the wide angle. That way you are surprising the viewer – showing new and different parts of the image. By the way, by moving the camcorder, you camouflage jiggling and shaking.
I prefer camcorders with variable speed zooms. Variable speed zoom means the harder you push the zoom lever, the faster the camcorder zooms. Most camcorders provide variable zooms. A fast zoom enables you to follow a fast moving object; a slow zoom enables you to concentrate on a subject while languidly zooming out.
The Zoom Focus Problem
If you insist on zooming in on something, at least try to stay in focus. (Unless you really don’t want to) Most camcorders have an acceptable auto focus function that controls focus as you zoom from one object to another. However, your auto focus may be a bit slow, or you may be shooting in situations where it doesn’t work well. Shooting in dim light or shooting an object with lots of stripes can be tough on auto focus. Many auto focus circuits also have problems shooting through glass and screens or in shots with lots of foreground objects.
If you have to use manual focus, the secret is to zoom in using your maximum telephoto and focus on the object. Now zoom out to wide angle. As long as the distance between you and the subject doesn’t change, you should be able to zoom in and out over and over again, with the image staying in focus the entire time. Of course, if you follow my advice about never zooming in and just zooming out, your images will also be in focus as you pull back from the close-up.
Why not wide angle?
Even as the zoom war ranges, many of my videographer cohorts and I wonder, why not a wide-angle lens battle? Why aren’t camcorder manufacturers battling to see who can provide the widest angle?
Using a wide-angle lens enables you to get closer to your subject and show a larger angle of coverage. Remember the joke about the videographer trying to get a shot of his family standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. He keeps telling them to back up and back up so he get the whole family in the shot? Having a wide-angle lens enables you to capture a bunch of people in a single shot, without having to pan sideways and up and down.
I love wide-angle shots – aside from the deep focus look, it is easier to shot wide angle. You don’t have to worry about focus or focal depth. Everything is in focus. I love being able to get within inches of someone’s face during an interview. I love the look of using wide angle during tracking shots and the incredible feeling of 3D that it creates. You can create dramatic shots like a close-up of someone’s face, in perfect focus in the foreground, while the background panorama of the Grand Canyon is also sharp and in focus. For example, check out the classic film Citizen Kane all the wonderful deep focus, wide angle shots. Wide-angle shots also minimize shaking and jiggle. It is very easy to walk along with someone and videotape while using wide angle. You don’t need to use image stabilization. Because the image is so wide and open, the motion of the camera is not as noticeable to the viewer when played back.
I have never seen any camcorders that include true wide angle at the bottom of their zoom lens ratio. The expensive and semi-pro Canon XLI-S includes a wide angle lens that can be used instead of the standard zoom lens that comes with the camcorder. However, that wide-angle lens is very expensive. One of my favorite camcorders, the Sony PD100 came with a high quality wide-angle lens adapter that screwed onto the front of the zoom. It was great.
You can find wide-angle adapters for many brands and models of camcorder. However, like telephoto adapters, the quality can vary from awful to wonderful. Unfortunately, using a cheap wide-angle lens is worse than using a cheap telephoto lens. Because everything is in focus, a small defect or even a lens smudge can be very obvious.
Even though I am raving about wide-angle lens adapters, remember that you can always use your maximum wide angle setting on your camcorder zoom lens. When I am shooting events and parties for my family, I mostly use my personal camcorder at its maximum wide angle and avoid even touching the zoom lever.
Zoom and The Internet
Internet video does not like zooms. This movement is not easy for video compression to handle and can cause your compression and conversion software to lower quality in order to handle the increased amount of information.
You don’t have to zoom live to create an interesting video. In fact, it may be a lot more dramatic and exciting to cut between shots at various zoom lengths. For example, start with a wide shot of a location and then cut to a medium shot that shows your two characters talking. Then cut to a close up of one as they try to make a point. Bam, bam, bam. It is more dramatic and will look better when streamed over the Internet.