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Video on Vacation Pt 1: What to Pack

June 10th, 2012

Most of us bring a video camera along on our vacations. Fortunately, today’s cams are small, light, and easy to fit in among our other travel necessities. But at the same time, travel security has also gotten tighter. We go through more hands-on and rough inspections than ever before, both in the U.S. and abroad–not to mention the x-ray machines, metal detectors, and confusing “prohibited” lists.

But don’t wimp out and just leave your camcorder at home! Vacationing with your video equipment just requires some simple thought and planning. In this post, we’ll provide some tips for preparing your video camera to travel on vacation with you.

Consider your transit type and destination.
There’s a big difference between:
– Driving by car to the Jersey shore and staying in a local motel for a week.
– Driving to and boarding a cruise ship that’s going to Mexico.
– Flying via a foreign airline to China or India.
In other words, if you’re driving, especially to a domestic location, you should be fine. But if you add in any kind of public transportation or visit to a foreign country (especially to a different hemisphere), higher levels of planning and even some purchasing might be in order. So first, think of where you’re going and begin your planning accordingly.

Checking your equipment? Buy a solid camcorder case.
If you can, put your camcorder into your carry-on bag rather than checking it. But if you must check your camcorder, pack it to withstand the worst mistreatment and mishandling you can imagine. The good news is that there are a lot of well-made travel cases for video equipment that can stand up to considerable abuse. Look for exterior materials such as anodized aluminum, high-impact plastic, or collapsible cloth with metal bracing. On the inside of the case, look for deep foam padding. The case should be highly shock resistant and equipped with a tamper-proof, rock-solid lock. At right is an example of a good camcorder case; this one has reinforced plastic walls (hidden under the cloth) and extra-thick interior padding.

Don’t take more equipment than you will need.
Your camcorder, charger, batteries, and blank media (depending on your camcorder type) are givens. But pare down all other accessories, such as external lights, microphones, and tripods, as much as possible. After you’re used to the wonderful sound that your shotgun microphone produces, you might never want to travel without it. But it’s just an extra part that can be easily mistaken on any airport scanner or even lost. So save yourself the hassle: if it doubt, leave it out.

Traveling abroad?
Buy a voltage converter and plug adapter.

Voltage differs around the world, as do the size of the holes in electrical sockets. The U.S. and Canada operate on 110/120 volt 60 Hz, but much of the world functions on 220/240 volt 50 Hz. If you’re going to a country where the voltage is different, buy a converter that transforms 110 volt into 220 volt (or the other way around). And accompanying transformers are needed for any appliances that contain a microchip or circuit–which includes most electronics. You can usually purchase a combo voltage converter and transformer (with stabilizer) for under $100. Finally, various countries use different-size wall sockets. Kits exist that contain multiple types of plugs, or you can buy the right plug you need on an individual basis. The kit shown above contains a voltage adapter as well as a selection of commonly-used adapter plugs from around the world.

In the next post, we’ll discuss some security issues that face travelers with video gear.


Essential Video Tip #28 – Filming Moving Objects

June 7th, 2012

Have you ever tried to film a football game? If yes, have you ever successfully zoomed in tight to follow the football after it’s thrown? If so, congratulations! You’re in a rare group of videographers.

But if your first reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me! All I got was blurry sky,” then you’re not alone. Filming objects in motion is one of the most difficult tasks in videography.

Shooting a moving objectThe best technique to make these shots successful is to keep your camera angle as wide as possible. In other words, don’t zoom in on that football when it’s thrown.

By staying wide, you’ll be able to see the player throwing the ball, and have enough space in your picture to follow the ball’s path to the player who is trying to catch it. Conversely, when you zoom in, it’s all but impossible to follow such a tiny object from far away–not to mention the focusing problems for the camcorder.

Think of NFL games on TV. Have you ever seen a shot of the football in motion, up close? No. Even the professional camera crews keep their shots wide during passes and kicks. They don’t focus closely on individual players or faraway objects until a play is completed.

If you find you can’t follow motion smoothly even with a wide shot, consider purchasing a tripod. A good tripod can make camera motion much smoother and prevent arm strain as well.


Dish Network's Commercial-Skipping DVR

June 4th, 2012

Dish Network recently released a new DVR called the Auto Hop, which can skip commercials automatically when playing back recorded TV shows. Not surprisingly, the device is being blasted by production companies, and most specifically by Disney CEO Robert Iger.

I’m no fan of commercials. I’ve been using VCRs to run through ads for over 30 years. But the bottom line is that many TV shows are paid for by advertisers. They wouldn’t exist otherwise. So how far can you go before advertisers will refuse to pay for TV shows at all?

As a society, we’ve gotten used to not having to pay for our entertainment content. That wasn’t always the way. If you wanted to avoid commercials, you had to pay for a VCR or pay to rent or own shows or movies on tape or DVD. If you wanted to watch commercial-free channels like HBO or TCM, you had to pay for cable, and often for premium packages to boot.

But since the advent of music-sharing sites, we have slowly come to believe that we don’t have to pay for our entertainment anymore. Free video streaming via Hulu and YouTube have exacerbated this situation. It’s also one reason why DVD sales have dropped off: consumers keep getting more opportunities to consume movies and TV shows for free.

The thing is, “free” doesn’t last forever. Someone needs to pay for the costs that are associated with production. For movies, theatre sales still serve that purpose. But TV is largely ad-supported. If the ads dwindle or go away completely, there simply won’t be any TV shows left to watch on that Auto Hop DVR.


Upgrading to an HD Camcorder

June 2nd, 2012

While many of us only have an HD television, video producers have been working with HD camcorders for years. HDTV improves the entire video experience, from the high resolution of the video picture to the exceptional sound quality. Videographers know the basics of good lighting, color balance, and contrast, and that’s why they were the most anxious to adopt higher-quality video.

HD home videoBut these days, it’s tough to even find a new camcorder that isn’t high-def. That’s good for consumers: family home video has never looked better than it does in HD. And camcorder media comes in a variety of formats, from HDV tape to Flash memory cards to built-in hard drives, so you can easily choose the option with which you are most comfortable.

Shooting video in HD does pose unique challenges, however. While the resolution of the picture is the most obvious advantage, this level of clarity can become a hindrance. (Back out of the room slowly before Mom sees that pesky wrinkle on the large-screen TV!) HD shows everything, from the stains in the furniture to the scratches in the paint on your car.

Working with widescreen 16:9 video is also a new task for most home video hobbyists. From 8mm film through Mini DV tape, we’ve been used to shooting in the 4:3 “television” ratio for more than 50 years. But widescreen enables you to plan new types of shots, such as having two people talking on opposite ends of the picture. It takes some planning, but if you’re already familiar with the differences between 4:3 and 16:9 in movies, you’ll be ahead of the game.

HD is growing every year–grab a camcorder and get in on the fun!


As the Betamax Turns

May 30th, 2012

Betrayals, corporate intrigue, alliances…bet you didn’t know how much Betamax had in common with Survivor! The early days of the Betamax format were a veritable soap opera – albeit one that few people know about. Here’s how it began…

In the early 1970s, Sony had success with a video tape format called U-matic. A bulky cassette a little larger than a VHS, U-matic was used extensively in news reporting and professional production. Sony began trying to figure out how to develop the basics of U-matic into a consumer tape format that would revolutionize home video.

In 1974, Sony approached JVC and Matsushita (parent of Panasonic), its two manufacturing partners in U-matic, about this new home format, which they called Betamax. In the process, Sony disclosed developmental ideas about the new format’s potential specifications and technology, assuming that both companies would again be its partners. Big mistake! And neither Matsushita nor JVC would commit to the project at the time.

Betamax SL-7200In 1975, Sony released the first Betamax, the LV-1901, which was a large TV and VCR combo. A year later, they introduced the first stand-alone Betamax unit, the SL-7200 (shown on right). Retailing for $1,200, the SL-7200 had no inputs, could only program one recording at a time, and needed a $45 add-on to even display a clock! Like all early VCRs, it featured a top-loading tape mechanism.

Shortly afterward, JVC introduced the first VHS VCR…and Sony was stunned. When Sony’s engineers opened the new VHS unit, they found the same technology that was used in their Betamax. JVC had definitely been listening in that initial meeting in 1974–even if they hadn’t acted interested at the time!

While Sony was justifiably steamed that its technology and ideas had been stolen, they weren’t worried. Betamax offered a higher-quality video picture, plain and simple. And that wasn’t just marketing jargon: Betamax VCRs possessed a head drum that was 21% larger than those in VHS VCRs. As a result, Betas were able to achieve a 21% higher video head writing speed and a larger video bandwidth. Therefore, the notion that “Betas had a better picture” was not just hype by enthusiasts, but actually a legitimate claim.

Both companies spent the rest of 1976 trying to convince other electronics manufacturers to support their respective formats. Matsushita/Panasonic participation was especially desired, since they had partnered with both Sony and JVC in U-matic production. But when Matsushita took a look at the internal parts of Betamax and VHS units, the choice was clear: VHS would be cheaper and easier to produce. The higher quality of Betamax was rejected in favor of cheaper parts. (Sad, but typical.)

In the end, Sony managed to pull Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer onto the Betamax side. JVC held Matsushita, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Akai.

Of course, we all know how this battle turned out. VHS won the infamous format war due to many factors, including Sony’s marketing blunders, the early ability of VHS to record up to 6 hours of video on a single videotape, and the wider availability of video rentals on VHS. But Betamax remains a favorite of many video fans, including the owner of Timeless DVD. Plus, we almost always have Betamax tapes in our studio to transfer for customers, which shows that a number of consumers did accept it. Betamax was a great video tape format in 1975, and it still is today.


Microsoft Thinks DVDs are Dead

May 27th, 2012

Recently, Microsoft announced that it will no longer support DVD playback in most versions of its upcoming operating software, Windows 8. Only the pricier “Pro” version of the software will offer DVD access.

Microsoft cited two arguments for the move: First, they believe consumers primarily watch video on their computers via services like YouTube and Hulu. And secondly, since devices such as tablets and netbooks don’t have DVD drives, including DVD support in the OS by default would force owners of these products to pay for a utility they can’t use.

So is Microsoft trying to save on cost, or do they want customers to buy the more-expensive “Pro” OS?

It doesn’t really matter, because this is a bad development either way. It just feeds into the media’s mindset that physical discs, from CDs to DVDs to Blu-Ray, are dying out and that everyone is already only using streaming media…which isn’t true.

For the time being, and likely for the foreseeable future, there will be a use for physical media of some type. Many of us welcome the ease of simply popping a disc into our computers. A DVD doesn’t skip or need continuous bandwidth to function correctly. We have 100% access to it whenever we want without signing into a service or being forced to watch ads. We can take the disc to the living room DVD player if the whole family wants to watch it on the big-screen TV–no complicated tech maneuvers required.

And what about DVD transfers of home movies or family photo slideshows? Our personal videos will never be available via a streaming service like Hulu.

Microsoft should rethink its decision. After all, Apple, which began pushing drive-free, streaming technology in its Mac Air notebooks years ago, shows no signs of discontinuing its DVD Player software in its laptops and desktops. And when it comes down to it, doesn’t Microsoft just want to mimic Apple most of the time? Reversing this decision would a good place to start.


Remembering Eugene Polley

May 24th, 2012

Eugene PolleyEarlier this week, we lost an innovator who changed the way we watch television forever: Eugene Polley. Polley, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 96, is credited as the creator of the remote control.

Polley began working at Zenith Radio Corporation when he was just 20, way back in 1935. As a young engineer, he, along with inventor Robert Adler, patented the initial technology for the remote control. In 1955, they released the first wireless remote control, called the “Flash-Matic.” The device worked by activating photo cells on the television set to change channels. (Eugene Polley is shown on right with the Flash-Matic, which resembled a flashlight.)

Polley created a total of 18 patents during his long career, many of them related to video and television. In his 47-year career at Zenith, he held many positions, and worked in everything from the stockroom to catalog creation. He even developed initial technology for the video disk, an early precursor to DVD.

Read more about Eugene Polley in his obituary.


How to Send Large Video Files Online

May 21st, 2012

Customers often ask us: “How can I e-mail a video file to my dad/cousin/friend?” Well, you can’t. Most e-mail providers won’t let you upload a large file because it stresses their internal servers and bandwidth. But fortunately, there are many services out there that enable you to upload large digital files, such as videos–even for free.

The need to upload large files is a relatively new development in tech terms. Only a few years ago, data transfer was so slow that it was simply much easier to snail-mail a CD, DVD, hard drive, or floppy disk (remember those?). But when cable modems and DSL service came along–worldwide–the time it took to transfer a large amount of data shrank considerably. But naturally, this development was accompanied by the decision by many “free” services to impose file limits.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, new services arose to fill in the gap. One of the first companies to handle large-file uploading was called RapidShare, currently one of the largest file hosting services (although their “free file size limit” is much smaller than other companies’). Many other companies have also been introduced that offer free uploading.

Here’s how it works: First, you specify the file on your computer that you’d like to upload. When the uploading is done, you will receive an e-mail that includes a link where you can download the file. Anyone can then use the link to download the file. It doesn’t get any simpler than that!

The following services allow you to upload files of 2 GB or more for free:

File Up Yours (unlimited file size)

Send This File

Drop Send

Sizable Send

Large Files ASAP

So if you ordered a video to DVD transfer to MP4 of your wedding, go ahead and upload it! It’s never been easier to share large video files online.


The Composition of a Video Image

May 19th, 2012

Have you ever wondered how that picture on your TV screen is produced? Let’s go through some basics.

Before high-definition cable and Blu-Ray, everyone watched TV the same way: via a standard-definition (SD) signal. And many people still watch that regular old SD signal today. The first basic to understand is that in NTSC (American) SD television, approximately 29 separate pictures–or frames–occur during every second of video. Each frame is comprised of 525 horizontal lines, which create the vertical resolution.

Of these 525 lines, about 480 actually appear on your screen (the others are used for purposes such as closed-captioning). A VHS tape only holds about 240 lines of resolution–one of the lowest tape counts–while DVD displays about 480 lines, or the maximum possible. This is one reason why DVDs present a much better picture than your average VHS tape. But HD video offers 1080 lines of vertical resolution–a true game-changer.

The horizontal resolution is then determined by how many dots each of these lines can hold across the screen; or more specifically, by how many dots will fit across the largest circle that can be displayed on the TV. This is where aspect ratios come into play. 4:3 and 16:9 refer to the aspect ratio of the television screen, and the difference can be seen in the graphic on the right. For a 4:3 television, a circle fills about 75% of the picture, while on a 16:9 widescreen set, the same circle circle only fills about half of the screen. Going by the “circle rule,” NTSC video has a resolution of about 330.

The horizontal lines are also broken up into two separate fields: one field for the odd-numbered lines and one field for the even-numbered lines. When the two fields operate together to create frames of video pictures, this is called “interlaced” video. However, in recent years, it became possible to show the complete information in a video frame at once, rather than broken up into these two interlaced frames. This newer technology is called “progressive” scan video.

You often see “i” or “p” alongside pixel counts on current electronics, which simply indicates the type of field scanning the device can do: interlaced or progressive. HD formats are broken down into five major groups:

480i – Digital SD video, the resolution of a DVD (720 pixels by 480 pixels), interlaced.

480p – Same as above, but progressive scan.

720p – Widescreen at 1280 pixels by 720 pixels, progressive scan.

1080i – Widescreen at 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels, interlaced.

1080p – Widescreen at 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels, progressive scan–the highest HD quality.

Given all this information, it’s no wonder that it has become a challenge to buy a TV set!


What is HDV?

May 16th, 2012

We now live in a high-definition society. Most TVs are HD, Blu-Ray grows every month, and HD cable and satellite is a given. Back in 2003, when HD was in its infancy, a consortium of electronics manufacturers began working on a high-definition tape that would replace Mini DV. The idea was to create a new video format that would enable high-definition video to be stored on the regular Mini DV tapes that many consumers already had. They called it High Definition Video, or HDV.

Today, the idea seems quaint, since almost every camcorder is high-def, and tapeless to boot. But HDV provided excellent video quality, and we often see HDV tapes at Timeless DVD since many consumers took to the format. So if you’ve ever wondered what HDV was all about…read on.

How does HDV work?

HDV creates high-definition video in the widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio. It can write directly to plain old Mini DV and DV tapes, and supports both 720p and 1080i definition. Like DVD, the format uses MPEG-2 compression and achieves the same bitrates of regular DV (25Mbps). Audio is written to MP3 and only compressed to 75%.

The downside of HDV

Unlike traditional DV encoding, HDV encodes to MPEG-2 (actually a format called MPEG-2-TS). MPEG-2 is the same format that is used on DVD discs, and so HDV is subject to the same compression issues.

The drawbacks of MPEG-2 technology can be best understood via a crash-course on “GOP,” which is an acronym for “Group of Pictures.” In American (NTSC) video, 29.97 frames occur during every second of video. In DV video, each frame carries complete data information, which is why DV video is so high-quality and takes up a significant amount of hard drive space.

MPEG-2 video, on the other hand, has been compressed so that only a few frames carry complete picture information. The other frames are space-saving, downgraded images of the real video picture. These downgraded frames aren’t noticeable when watching a DVD, but quickly become apparent during editing.

A typical GOP:

Each square in the diagram represents a frame of video. The I frames contain complete picture data and only occur a few times during each second of video. P frames are the second-most prevalent and “predict” what the video should look like based on the I frames. B frames are the most numerous and calculate data from both the full I frames and reduced P frames.

What this all means is that frame-accurate, high-quality editing is impossible with MPEG-2 video. It’s the reason why we tell customers over and over again: NO, it’s not a good idea to edit the video that’s on your DVD. So while HDV is a great video format and definitely useful for HD recording, its use of MPEG-2 encoding is its primary drawback–at least where editing is concerned.

One last note: If you do have HDV tapes and want to watch your video on regular DVD discs, Timeless DVD can accommodate you. We have decks that can downgrade the HD signal to regular standard-def video, and the results are actually pretty fantastic.


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