A Quick Guide to Camcorder Formats

There are lots of camcorder formats in use today. They come in a myriad of confusing names that all sound alike. If you’ve ever wanted to find out what the differences are between camcorder formats like VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C and S-VHS-C, keep reading. If you’re curious about the distinctions between 8mm, Hi8, Digital8 and DV then this guide to the camcorder formats will be very helpful.

For each type of videotape, there are some important features to examine. First, there’s the picture quality of the camcorder format, which is expressed in lines of resolution. The more lines of resolution you have, the better your picture will look. Next is audio dub. Audio dub is the ability to record audio over existing video without erasing the video portion. Next is the format’s ability to resist generation loss, or the video noise that occurs when you copy a tape. Combine these features with factors like tape length and size of the tape (and camcorder) and you have a pretty good idea of the features that differentiate the camcorder formats. Let’s take a closer look at them format by format.

VHS

This is one camcorder format that practically everyone knows and uses to some extent. VHS is the big ole videotape that your home VCR uses, and for some technologically-inhibited individuals, this is enough of a reason to use a camcorder that records in VHS. The simple ability to shoot a tape and stick that tape right into their VCR is the most important feature in these peoples’ minds.

Almost every videographer will end up using VHS for distribution copies, but besides that last step in the video production cycle, professionals will avoid VHS like the plague. You’d think that it might be because of VHS’s large overall size, but it’s really because VHS has a low overall picture quality, maxing out at about 250 lines of resolution. VHS also has horrible generation loss, making the editing of VHS tapes a tricky endeavor for linear editors.

VHS-C

Once, one of the main complaints against full-sized VHS was the size of the tape, and the corresponding large size of the VHS camcorder. So JVC introduced a reduced-sized VHS and called it VHS-C (or compact VHS). On the plus side, it could play in a regular VCR with an adapter. By reducing the size of the cassette, they also reduced the length of time it could play. Size and length are the most significant differences between VHS and VHS-C.

S-VHS-C

This camcorder format is dwindling. JVC is only company that currently makes S-VHS-C camcorders. The format has the same pros of S-VHS: better resolution, S-video connections and timecode, and the overall size reduction of VHS-C. However, it has a shorter maximum length of tape.


S-VHS

S-VHS or Super VHS is an improved version of standard VHS. It looks similar (with the only visible difference being an extra slot in the tape case to verify that it is a high-band tape), but it offers superior video quality, and more editing flexibility.

S-VHS offers almost twice the video resolution of VHS. It’ll give you up to 400 lines of resolution. Most S-VHS equipment also supports S-video connections. S-video connectors keep the video signal separated into grayscale (luminance) components denoted as (Y) and color (chrominance) components denoted as (C). This Y/C, or S-video, signal has less generation loss when making copies so it holds up better in the editing process than standard VHS. Finally, S-VHS supports LTC and VITC timecode which is essential in linear editing and very handy for computer editing if your system has machine control features. Unfortunately, you will find these timecode features only on the professional models.

8mm

In many ways, 8mm is great for videographers that just want to shoot some video of the family around the house and not edit. It is small, so the camcorder won’t break your back lugging it around. The video quality of 8mm is about the same 250 lines of resolution that VHS offers. It has roughly the same recording time. The AFM audio on 8mm is mono, but it sounds good to the ear. All in all, as long as you don’t want to do any major editing, 8mm is great.

If you do edit though, especially if you do linear editing, 8mm shows its weaknesses. First, 8mm suffers from generation loss when making copies the same as VHS. Next, 8mm doesn’t offer timecode. Worst of all, 8mm cannot do audio dubs.

Hi8

Just as S-VHS is an improved version of VHS, Hi8 is an improved version of 8mm. It offers 400 lines of video resolution, like S-VHS. Hi8 camcorders generally use Y/C connections also like S-VHS, so the format suffers less generation loss than standard 8mm. The format also supports time code (though not many models have this feature), which is essential for accurate linear editing or nonlinear tape logging. The Hi8 camcorder format, as with 8mm, embeds the audio into the video so audio dub is not possible without disrupting the video. Bottom line: if you want an inexpensive, good looking analog picture, Hi8 does a good job with a small camcorder.

Digital8

Sony introduced Digital8 a couple of years ago. This format falls in the 8mm family, but also in the digital crew that we’ll get to below. It’s here because it uses Hi8 tape, but we’ll give it the full treatment below.


Mini DV

Mini DV is a solid video format. It offers extremely high quality video and audio and has virtually no generation loss. In addition, the tape is so small that Mini DV camcorders can be extraordinarily small and portable, yet still offer long recording times.

Mini DV delivers up to 525 lines of video resolution. On the downside, you’ll occasionally experience artifacts with the way Mini DV compresses video. It is especially noticeable in patterns, but also shows up in some high action shots. The untrained eye may not catch these blocky, "pixilated" artifacts as they flash through the picture quickly, but after you start to look for them, they may become noticeable.

There are four parts to a Mini DV track: video, audio, subcode and ITI (Insert and Tracking Information). The video and audio are self-explanatory. The subcode holds timecode, date and time and track numbers. The ITI holds information for doing video insert edits.

For audio, Mini DV offers two modes: a 16-bit stereo pair, or two 12-bit stereo pairs (four 12-bit tracks total). The 16-bit option offers better quality (on a par with CD), while the 12-bit option lets you do audio dubs later to the additional tracks.

Perhaps the most-important feature of Mini DV is that it can use FireWire to transfer the digital bit stream directly to another tape, or to a hard-drive for editing. Because you are just transferring the ones and zeros that make up the serial stream, you lose no audio or video quality when you do it. That means no generation loss. Any way you slice it, Mini DV is top-notch for consumer video.

Digital8

The consumer-friendly Digital8 camcorder format uses many of the same principals as Mini DV, but writes that information onto more-common Hi8 tapes instead of the specialized Mini DV tapes. It also offers an easy upgrade path for owners of current 8mm and Hi8 camcorders who want to be able to edit current stock of video on a computer. Digital8 uses a Hi8 tape, but records information in a manner almost identical with that of Mini DV. It also includes the FireWire port that makes Digital8 NLE-friendly.

The video quality of Digital8 comes in at the same 525 lines of resolution that Mini DV has to offer.

A big plus for the format is that you can play Hi8 and 8mm analog tapes on a Digital8 camcorder, and by running it through the FireWire port, the camera will convert it to digital. This won’t change the original quality of the video signal, but it will allow you to bring your old analog footage into a computer editor with a FireWire port.

MiniDisc and Beyond

The future offers even more options for digital video. Sony has a camcorder that uses its MiniDisc as a storage medium, and soon Hitachi will introduce a DVD-RAM camcorder.

The MiniDisc camcorder stores video in MPEG-2 video and offers four 12-bit audio tracks. Perhaps the most striking feature of the only MiniDisc camcorder is that it has built-in editing. This could be an ideal format for the Web videographer.

Hitachi will soon introduce a DVD-RAM camcorder. This uses a removable DVD disc that stores ultra-high quality MPEG-2 video. Expect long recording times, high video quality and Dolby Digital 16-bit audio.

So Many Camcorder Format Standards

A healthy and competitive technological market is to blame for the diversity of video formats we have today. As camcorders get smaller and cheaper and have better video quality, we still hold on to the older, larger formats because they too have their own advantages. Before shopping, take stock of your needs. Whether you need an inexpensive cam to help you start shooting or a feature-rich one that supports editing well, you will find there is a camcorder for you.

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