Is the “one-device-does-it-all” camera here yet?
Consumer digital still cameras have long offered limited movie-shooting capability, and some digital camcorders have provided the ability to shoot decent-quality still images. But of late, those capabilities have improved immensely, and today you can make good videos with many digital still cameras, and good stills with a number of digital camcorders.
Why this "convergence" of digital still and movie capabilities? Because consumers asked for it, lots of R&D effort (and expense) has produced the technology to do it, and, as Chuck Westfall of Canon U.S.A. (which offers both digital still cameras and camcorders) points out, "The rapid advances in broadband penetration and the resultant increases in computer and Internet usage worldwide have created an ongoing movement toward a new level of popularity for digital imaging of all kinds."
What does it all mean to you? We'll get to that shortly, but first let's look at some of those improvements.
Today, all but the lowest-priced digital still cameras (and digital SLRs) provide movie capability. Resolution is up, with clearer-looking images on TV sets and bigger images on computer monitors. Quite a few of today's digital still cameras can shoot movies at 640 x 480-pixel VGA resolution, which matches the video on any standard-definition television. The Canon PowerShot S80 digital still camera lets you shoot movies at 1024 x 768-pixel XGA resolution—closer to HD television.
Frame rates are up, too. A number of current digital still cameras will shoot VGA-resolution movies at 30 fps, a big improvement over the 15 fps that was once the still-camera standard: 30 fps is comparable to what you see on television, while 15 fps looks a bit jerky. Faster frame rates not only mean smoother-looking movies on-screen, but can provide slow-motion capabilities. Several of the Canon Digital Elph models and the new Canon PowerShot S3 IS will shoot at 60 fps (at 320 x 240-pixel QVGA resolution). Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-TZ1 and Lumix DMC-FX01 models can shoot wide-aspect VGA (848 x 480-pixel) movies at 30 fps.
While early digital still cameras that could also shoot movies were limited to short durations (sometimes less than 30 seconds) by the camera itself, many of today's models allow you to shoot until you fill the memory card in the camera. A number of current still digital cameras employ MPEG-4, a video compression technology that gets more information into a given amount of space than MPEG-2, so you can shoot longer video clips at camcorder quality. Pentax's Optio A10 and Optio S6 feature DivX technology, which shrinks digital movies up to 10 times as much as MPEG-2 while retaining excellent image quality. Note that you probably won't be able to edit MPEG-4 and DivX movies with older editing software; you'll need the newest versions to handle the newest technologies.
Digital clips can take up a lot of space on memory cards. The higher the resolution, the greater the frame rate, and the longer the clip, the greater the amount of space required: A given-length 640 x 480 video takes up four times as much space as a small 320 x 240 clip of the same length, a 30-second 30 fps clip takes up twice as much space as a 30-second 15 fps clip, etc.
Camcorders use 80-minute miniDV tapes, 30 GB mini-hard drives or record directly to DVDs (many will also record on SD cards), so memory isn't quite the problem it can be with a still camera. Today's memory cards come in much larger capacities and are much more affordable than they were a few years ago, so you can just buy a 1 GB or larger-capacity card if you want to do a lot of videos with your still camera. DivX and even standard MPEG-4 compression have made this much less of a problem than with earlier still cameras.
A number of digital still cameras offer built-in image stabilization, which is probably even more important when shooting movies than for still photography—you don't want to make the viewers of your movies "seasick" from incessant camera jiggle. Some allow you to zoom the lens during movie-shooting, another handy feature. The Canon PowerShot S2 IS and S3 IS utilize Ultrasonic focusing and zooming motors, which minimize noise during zooming and focusing—not a problem with still shots, but definitely a factor when shooting sound movie clips. Some digital still cameras will adjust exposure, white balance and focus as necessary during filming, while others won't.
Speaking of sound, most digital still cameras that can shoot movies can also record sound. But not all can, so if sound movies are important to you, make sure a potential camera purchase provides this capability. Also, while most camcorders have a jack for an external microphone, few still cameras do.