December 09, 2003

HERE'S SOME ADVICE FROM DOC SEARLS on combination digital / video cameras. It's good advice, and I looked at the tiny Sony video-still combination camera that Doc uses. It's great, but it was $1200 when I looked at it. I've seen it discounted to $995 since.

If you're a blogger, and you're looking for a web-journalism tool, it's overkill. Plus, to me an essential characteristic of a web-journalism tool is extreme mobility. That's why I bought this Toshiba, which costs about one-fourth as much -- which not only cuts the up-front cost, but makes you less worried about losing it, or getting it damaged, and hence more likely to take it with you. It shoots 3-Meg stills (overkill for the web, but you can select a lower-resolution format) and records video at 320 x 240 (entirely adequate for the web). You can see samples of both here. (I also recorded this commercial with the Toshiba. Jeff Jarvis panned it, but not for technical quality -- and it took five minutes, start to finish, including copying it to the computer.) And -- most importantly -- it runs off AA batteries, which you can get anywhere, rather than some proprietary battery that has to be recharged.

A few other pointers from my perspective: Video formats that are easy to import into any computer are important. My experience with MPEG4 suggests that, well, it sucks. Cameras that store video as MPEG-1 or -2 or AVI are good; QuickTime won't import directly into Windows Movie Maker, which means that if wide computer compatibility is important it's a poor choice, unless you find yourself constantly surrounded by Apple machines. (Sure, you can put the appropriate software on your own computer, but what if it's not handy?) Make sure it records with sound, too! Many cameras with "movie mode" don't, and they're often a bit coy about that. Newer cameras will usually record video clips whose length is limited only by the available memory; older ones tend to store only short clips.

A good optical zoom is nice, too. If you're taking pictures of news, you may find your own mobility limited, so being able to zoom in or out is useful. My main complaint about most digicam lenses is that the maximum wide-angle setting isn't really wide enough.

Likewise, the Toshiba has some rudimentary built-in editing capabilities -- it can resize still photos, and lighten or darken them, prior to exporting them to a computer. That means you can use any computer with USB and web access, even if it doesn't have photo editing software.

Most of the time this stuff won't matter. But if you're buying a digital camera with blog-journalism in mind, you might as well get something that's really suited for the task.

Ideally, I'd like to see all of these features integrated with a mobile communications device that I could also blog from. The Handspring Treo 600, which Jeff Jarvis is always praising, comes close but isn't there yet.

And remember -- any camera that you have with you is better than one that's left at home. My older Olympus camera, which to my surprise is still on the market, rides in my backpack or briefcase all the time. Its video performance is pretty weak -- QuickTime clips of up to 15 seconds with no sound (here's an example) -- but the stills are great, and it's small, rugged, and cheap. And it uses AA batteries.

I love the profusion of digital still and video cameras throughout the blogosphere and -- as you may have guessed -- part of the point of this post is to encourage their proliferation. I love it when bloggers are on hand to record events firsthand, and the technology for doing that just gets better.

UPDATE: Michael Ubaldi emails that he found this article helpful in sorting out nomenclature and technical issues on digital camerals.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Eric Scheie notes that you can get the Olympus for a dirt-cheap $159 here, though I don't know this site and can't vouch for it personally. I like to link to Amazon because they provide customer reviews and all sorts of other information, but there's usually some other place with a lower price if you want to poke around the web, or use things like Froogle.

Also the 2MP version of the Toshiba is a mere $269 at TigerDirect, and as best I can tell from the description is otherwise about the same. I've bought a few things from TigerDirect and had no problems, though nowhere near as many as I've bought from Amazon, of course.

MORE: Fritz Schranck has more observations on photoblogging. And reader Will Scovill has comments on MPEG4:

I have to chime in with my 2 cents on the MPEG4. I think it is one of the greatest things to happen to digital media. Right now Windows media is getting bigger in both audio and video and I can't stand it more. As an Apple user they only work half the time and only in Windows Media Player which for Apple sucks. You cannot do anything with the video except watch it. The same goes for audio, you cannot burn it to a CD. The thing with MPEG4 video and its audio counterpart the AAC is that the compression makes the file both smaller and cleaner than that of an MP3, WMA, WMV, AVI, MPEG1, or even MPEG2. Also, for people uploading to the web, it can create a file small enough to fit on a floppy disc but good enough quality to still sit through. Apple helped develop this new codec and then released it to the world for free, but for some reason the world has yet to pick up on it the way it has with Windows Media which is much more restrictive especially when crossing platforms.

I don't much like Windows Media either; I think that QuickTime seems to produce better quality most of the time. I like the idea of MPEG4, but in practice it seems to be hinky, and I've never seen an MPEG4 video that I thought was good -- even the allegedly high quality ones seem to have a lot of artifact and distortion. Possibly I'm underrating it.