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Digital Still Cameras for QuickTime Movies, Part One


Chances are you already own a digital camera, or are thinking about getting one soon. Many of the later models have a "movie mode" that allows you to capture short bursts of QuickTime video. If you haven't considered the value of this feature yet, read on, and you might be surprised by the engaging content you can create with it.

Traveling light in the air

On a recent trip to Vancouver, BC, I wanted to travel as light as possible. Now that the FAA says that we can only carry on one bag, I wanted to tote as little equipment as possible so I wouldn't have to baggage-check any valuable items. (Airport security might be better these days, but my faith in baggage handlers hasn't changed one bit.)

As a result, I opted to bring only a digital camera, a Canon G1, and leave the DV recorder at home. Even though the G1 is designed primarily for still pictures, it can capture 30-second clips of 320 x 240 QuickTime video at 15 fps. And now that I use a 1 GB IBM microdrive as my media, I've been depending on the G1 more for movie making.

When I tell people about this approach, they often say, "What good is a 30-second clip of video? You can't make a movie with that."

My argument is that if we limited everyone to 30-second clips of video, amateur movie making would be much more interesting, because people would be forced to edit their content. Professional movie makers don't typically set the camera on a tripod and let it roll for 10 minutes at a time. They shoot short segments and edit the material to make an interesting presentation.

Canon G1

Many current model digital cameras such as this Canon G1 (and its new sibling the G2) allow you to capture short bursts of QuickTime video.

Usually, I only use a few seconds from a 30-second clip, and discard the rest. Sure it would be nice to have the ability to shoot longer clips, but for Web movie production, it really hasn't been a problem.

Overcome the limitations of media and power

What can be a problem is in-camera storage. if you're using a 16MB flash card to store your images, movie making is out of the question. On average, 30 seconds of 320 x 240 video at 15 fps with audio requires around 7.5 MB of storage. That means that you can store a whopping one minute of video on a 16MB card. Not very practical.

New improvements in Compact Flash technology have pushed storage limits to 512MB. Now, that's reasonable for QuickTime work. I also like IBM's microdrives that hold up to 1 GB of content. (Note: check your camera's specs to see if it can accommodate microdrives -- not all Compact Flash cameras can.) On my trip to Vancouver, I shot a couple of hundred still images at highest resolution and a handful of QuickTime videos, and still had plenty of free space on the drive when I returned home.

This arena is where SmartMedia shows its weaknesses. I also have an Olympus C-3030 digital still camera that captures excellent QuickTime video. I love the camera and the pictures it produces.

IBM MicroDrive

Advanced storage solutions such as IBM's 1 GB Microdrive allow us to capture more video.

I use the Olympus a lot around town and at home, but when I hit the road I'm forced to take the Canon, because the Olympus uses SmartMedia cards that max out at 128MB. That's not bad for still photography, but those little cards are inadequate for video work. I like SmartMedia, but I have to admit that it's not as versatile as Type2 Compact Flash in cameras.

The other achilles heel for video on a digital still camera is battery power. As part of my quest to travel as light as possible, I like leaving bulky chargers and cords at home. My preference is to anticipate how many recharagable batteries I will need for the trip, and take only that amount. Because I shot more video in BC than I anticipated, I came up one battery module short. I hate that!

Quick side note: Always bring a back-up camera when traveling. I carry an Olympus Stylus 35mm unit that is barely bigger than a deck of cards and weighs less. Had I not had my trusty Stylus with me in Vancouver, I would have no pictures at all from the last day and a half, when I ran out of battery juice for the Canon G1.

The moral of the battery story is... either bring your charger along, or figure out your best guess for how many batteries you'll need, then take one or two more. And don't forget that spare compact camera!

Steady boy ...

Comment on this article Let me hear your questions and comments about making QuickTime video with a digital still camera.
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Also in QuickTime Authoring:

Feds Discover the PowerPoint-QuickTime Connection

Digital Still Cameras for QuickTime Movies, Part Two

Amazing Media Player Brings PDA Video to Life

If you're traveling light with only your digital still camera, chances are you've left your 12 lb tripod at home. So how do you avoid the "shakes" and keep your video steady?

I have three suggestions for capturing smooth video on the go:

  1. The UltraPod II by UCO corporation only weighs four ounces and folds to seven inches long, yet it is sturdy and versatile. I consider it essential equipment.
  2. Monopods are useful for both video and still image work, and many can be portable enough to fit in a suitcase. I've had good luck with Bogen monopods. For example, model number 3006 has an extended height of 60.7 inches, a closed length of 18.9 inches, and weighs less than a pound.

  3. Flip screens are a bonus for video shooting. One of the features that I really like about the Canon G1 still camera is that they've added a video-styled flip screen that allows me to adjust the screen at a variety of angles while shooting. I often put the camera strap around my neck and hold the camera at my waist, pulling the strap tight so that it helps me steady the device. I then flip the screen out so I can look down at the camera and still see what it's recording.

By using one or more of these options, you can produce steady video that won't make your audience feel queasy, yet you won't have to lug around pounds of hardware to do so.

Putting it all together

Now that you have your gear together, go shoot some QuickTime video. In next week's column, I'll show you how to turn that series of short clips you've captured into an truly interesting short movie that you can serve on your Web site or burn on to CD.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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