The Moving Picture: My AVCHD Summer
Posted Sep 13, 2007

I spent the summer with the Panasonic AG-HSC1U 3CCD AVCHD camcorder, a fun experience that imparted some serious lessons about tape vs. Flash-based storage, MPEG-2 vs. AVCHD, and what viewers really like about high-definition formats (as compared to what we camera evaluators like to measure). Let me start with a bit about the camera and I’ll share my insights.

The 3CCD camera is about the size of a 12 oz. can of soda, and comes with a 4GB Flash card and a battery-powered 40GB hard drive you can use to offload video from your Flash cards in the field. At top quality, a 4GB card stores about 40 minutes of video, enough for most wedding ceremonies, but not concert sets or acts in a ballet or concert—though obviously with 8GB cards, which are now just hitting the scene, capacity rivals that of tape-based systems.

The camera itself costs as little as about $1,900 at B&H online, with compatible Flash cards dropping as low as $40 while I had the camcorder. Still not close to the $3 or so I pay for my DV/HDV tapes, but way down from even a few months ago.

I shot a panoply of events here in Small Town, USA (aka Galax, Virginia). I started with the county fair, which rolls into town on those 18-wheelers you see on the interstate on occasion, midway rides precariously folded like mechanical origami, looking rickety enough to spawns silent promises of "never letting my kids onto that thing." (Somehow I do, and they survive, every summer, but please don’t tell my wife.) Then there was demolition derby night, with big-bicep types in undershirts driving cars I coveted in my youth—save for that ugly green AMC Pacer I never would have touched, even at 17 with a freshly minted driver’s license and few other options.

Then there was the granddaddy of all events, the 72nd annual Fiddler’s Convention, which draws participants and attendees from around the globe. It’s a social and cultural event nonpareil, even if you don’t know the difference between a bluegrass and clawhammer banjo. There I shot, sans tripod, a motley band that included family friend Susan performing Ralph Stanley’s version of "Pretty Polly" to the delight of the Saturday night crowd (watch it here).

What did I learn from my summer with the camera? My first conclusion relates to CCD size. True, 1080i HDV has a resolution of 1440x1080 pixels, which translates to 1,555,200 total pixels. Camera CCDs can have fewer pixels than that and still produce HDV; in fact, many do. However, those with fewer pixels capture at their largest native resolution then scale the captured frame to HDV resolutions, just like you could do in Photoshop.

Even if you make it sound respectable by terming it "interpolation," the fact remains that you ain’t got the pixels so you have to make them up. Regardless of what you call it, this translates to loss of sharpness compared to camcorders with CCDs of sufficient size to perform full-resolution capture.

The first camcorder I tested with more than 1,555,200 pixels was the Canon XL H1, and later its little brother, the XH A1. Both beat my beloved Sony HDR-FX1 hands down in resolution tests, and I swore I would never buy another camcorder lacking the raw pixel count to support the storage format.

In truth, the AG-HSC1U can’t touch the clarity produced by these Canon camcorders, but the lesson was that my audience didn’t care. When I showed the Blu-ray "Pretty Polly" video, my wife looked over and said "great camera," strong praise from a casual observer who has many times seen the fruit of both the XL H1 and XH A1. The lesson: HD is better than SD even when shot with CCDs that don’t deliver the full resolution.

The second observation relates to AVCHD, which is based upon H.264, the first video standard to be endorsed by both the ITU and MPEG standards organizations. Proponents claim that it offers twice the quality of MPEG-2 at the same data rate, and this is certainly true. MPEG-2 has been around since the early 1990s and few, if any, of us will be shooting in it 2010 and beyond. Some form of H.264 is the obvious successor.

What about workflow? Well, it’s getting there. I captured the video in Final Cut Pro, which converted the AVCHD to ProRes for editing. I rendered a Blu-ray-compatible file in Compressor that loaded just fine into Adobe Encore, which produced a Blu-ray disc for me and SD discs for the band (happily reproducing the latter on my XLNT Idea Nexis 100AP). No suite can take you full circle, since DVD Studio Pro doesn’t produce Blu-ray discs and Premiere Pro can’t import AVCHD, but I’m sure that will change by mid-2008, if not sooner.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed shooting to solid-state storage, both for the immediate access to scenes and faster than real time capture to disc. I haven’t studied cost accounting since college, but you can look at a simple, one-piece 4GB Flash card and complicated multi-part DV tape and know that sometime in the future the Flash card will cost less.

So, much like a gas-guzzling SUV, a tape-based high-definition camcorder based on MPEG-2 will soon be a dinosaur. You heard it here first.

Jan Ozer is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of DV 101: A Hands-On Guide for Business, Government & Educators, published by Peachpit Press.