By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
I took my new JVC digital camcorder to Peru this spring when my wife and I went down to the upper reaches of the Amazon. It fit in my shirt pocket.
Six tiny camcorder tapes fit easily in the other pocket. For the first time in my life, I was able to take a video camera anywhere I wanted to go and not get tired of lugging something around. But that's not even half of the good news about this new camcorder.
Two more things stood out. First, the quality of the videos comes very close to what I've seen in the DVDs we've played on our big-screen TV. (And, yes, the new JVC model can take wide-screen videos, too, just like DVDs.) But the second advantage is a real bonus: The camcorder also takes still pictures, so I had a digital still camera along with me all the time. I came back with five hours of videos and about 700 stills.
The camcorder is the JVC GR-DVM70. It's about the size of a Walkman and will record for either an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the video quality. It has a 10:1 optical zoom and a 200:1 digital zoom -- keep in mind that digital zooming just makes pixels bigger, so it's no big thing -- along with four channels of digital audio (so you can dub two of them later) and a super-quality swing-out viewfinder. You can change a setting so that the JVC makes wide-screen videos in either wide-screen format or in a compressed format that some TVs can expand into the proper wide mode.
The camcorder comes with hookup cables to connect it to a VCR, TV or PC (but not to a Macintosh at present) and has excellent software for extracting still images and movies and storing them on the computer. Also included is a very good digital video editor that lets you zero in on individual frames. You can even use any of a dozen or more different fades (such as a horizontal wipe or a fade to black) when you assemble scenes.
The camcorder has dozens more features and functions. I'll skip over most of them and get to the best stuff right away.
Video is totally digital, as are the still pictures the JVC takes. Both have the same resolution, 640 by 480. (These are the number of separate picture elements across and down.) This is much more resolution (picture detail) than you can get from a VHS video recorder or even from a high-quality broadcast of live TV. Video playback was stunning, with rich details even in shadows, amazingly accurate color rendition and very sharp images. I also took a few minutes of video along the Amazon in wide-screen mode and it looked dazzling on our huge Mitsubishi projection screen.
The JVC's still pictures were adequate for most uses. The camera did very well with close-ups but didn't have enough resolution to render such scenes as sunsets well. I'm posting two sunset scenes -- jvcsunset1 and jvcsunset2 -- along with other pictures -- jvcvillagegirl and jvcleaf -- I took so you can see what I mean. They're good, but, except for the leaf photo, which is amazingly good, they don't have much detail. (I didn't do any processing on these photos except to clean up the gamma. I'm creating an entire set of Web pages with a hundred or more Amazon still photos and some MPEG videos taken with the JVC camcorder, and I'll link that site to this page when it's done later this summer.)
The camera can take still pictures at any time -- even while you are taking videos. If you press the still-picture button while making a video, the camcorder switches to still-image mode and takes a single still picture accompanied by five seconds of stereo sound. (You can describe the photo by talking for a few seconds after snapping the picture, or you can capture the sounds of the moment.) If you hold the button down, the JVC takes one still picture a second for as long as the battery holds out. You can easily get a few hundred stills this way in a few minutes.
Taking still pictures that way puts them onto the videotape as stills, not as part of the video. The camcorder knows the difference when you play the tape back. This is a wonderful feature -- I count it as possibly the second best feature, after the quality of the video -- but it has a gigantic drawback, which I'll get to shortly.
Normally, when you're not taking videos, the camera automatically stores any still pictures you take onto a memory card just like nearly all other digital still cameras. The card is very small -- literally the size of a postage stamp -- and holds from 30 to 100 pictures, depending on the quality level. (You can choose from three.) If the card fills up while you're traveling, you can copy any or all of the pictures on the card to a videotape in the camera without losing quality. You can then erase the card and take more pictures.
So the JVC is a wonder when taking still pictures. Take along a couple of tapes and you can take all the still pictures you want. But taking stills in the middle of a videotape or copying them to a videotape later can lead to frustration when you extract the digital stills onto your computer's hard drive so that you can view, edit and print them.
Here's the problem: The still image extraction software can copy all the stills at once from your camera's memory card to the computer's hard drive. But it can't do that when the stills are on videotape. You have to do those one by one. I had to spend many hours getting hundreds of still pictures off my videotapes and onto the computer's own storage. Just last week, when I was editing the videos, I located dozens more stills that I had missed. My advice: Buy a few extra memory cards and put all your stills onto them, the good old standard way, unless you run into an unusual situation while you're traveling. (If you need to take still pictures and the memory card is full, put the stills onto tape. But don't plan on doing it this way; you'll go bonkers later.)