Camcorder nostalgia

The first video camera I ever used was the Sony HVC-2000P, with its “outstanding” 6X zoom lens. It weighed a “lightweight” 2.5kg, so you had to brace it on your shoulder and peer into the monochrome viewfinder.

That was just the camera. To actually record something, you needed the SL-3000 portable Betamax VCR. That was the size of a small suitcase, and weighed an additional 9.1kg. You wore it on a shoulder strap, on the shoulder that wasn’t supporting the camera. The proprietary cable allowed the camera to start and stop record on the VCR.

The battery was about 1kg of the weight, and was rechargeable, via a charger the size of a shoebox. The VCR didn’t include a tuner, so it wouldn’t record TV shows; if you wanted to do that, you needed another shoebox-sized box.

Once you had recovered from a couple of hours of shooting and went home to watch the result, you got 260 lines of video resolution, in color, with mono sound. There was no real way to edit it, of course, other than to have a second VCR and use the pause button a lot.

All of which reminds me of my first bit of home video editing: I ran the audio from the camcorder through my Mac, running Cubase. I manually synchronized Cubase with the video, and it mixed the soundtrack in real time according to my prearranged instructions. At the same time, I ran the video directly from the camcorder to the VCR. I then operated the pause button on the VCR according to a list of start/stop times, in order to edit out the appropriate bits of video. Audio latency was low enough that the end result looked pretty good. When I finally got hardware capable of DV editing, though, I went back and did it again that way.

Anyhow, yesterday I got yet another video camcorder. It’s about the size of a pack of (long) cigarettes, a bit bigger than a BlackBerry or iPhone. It records on an SD card, in h.264 QuickTime format, 720 line HD video. You can get about 80 minutes on a dirt cheap 4GB SDHC card, then plug in to the Mac and copy it all straight into iMovie, no tedious conversion required. It’s powered by two plain old AA cells, so you don’t need to worry about running out of power while on vacation. How far we’ve come in 30 years. And the most amazing part, to me, is the price: it’s the Kodak Zi6, which you can pick up factory refurbished for as little as $99. (That includes a pair of rechargeable batteries and a charger, but no SD card.)

Sure, it’s not a pro quality tool by today’s standards. It has no zoom lens, no image stabilizer, no exposure controls… But think about it–it shoots sharper video than the professional studio equipment used to make all those great 70s and 80s TV shows, it fits in your pocket, and it’s under a hundred bucks. At that price I can keep it kicking around in my shoulder bag, or use it on the beach and not worry too much about accidentally ruining it. I can give it to someone else to use to record me, and it’s simple enough that they’ll be able to operate it. For trivial home movies, small, cheap and simple beats big, expensive and complicated. Plus, in a couple more years an SLR upgrade will get me a still camera that shoots good video through high quality zoom lenses with image stabilization.