What's better: A camera that shoots movies, or a videocam that records still pictures?

by Derrick Story

I get lots of questions from people trying to figure out how best to spend their hard earned money. And looking at the latest generations of both digital camcorders and cameras, it's sometimes difficult to decide which way to go.

Many digital still cameras, such as the Canon G5 and S-400 can shoot video up to 3 minutes long, and you can edit the clips in playback mode. The Olympus C-5050 takes this a step further and enables you to shoot video until your memory card fills up.

On the DV side of the coin, Sony's new DCR-TRV70 MiniDV, which is a heck of a camcorder, enables you to capture 2 megapixel still photos and save them to a Memory Stick. It even has a popup flash!

So which way do you go?

A look at the features .

Well, here are a few things to keep in mind as you shop:

  • Most digital still cameras, not all, have a time limit on the footage you can shoot. IMHO, the 3-minute limit is often a good thing in amateur film making because that's long enough for most scenes. But think about the types of scenes you shoot and keep this in mind.

  • The typical frame dimensions for QuickTime movies shot with still cameras is 320 x 240. That's about half of what you get with a DV camcorder. Half size is perfect for computer playback and web publishing, but not so good for TV playback. Also, the frame rate on still cameras is usually 15 fps... again about half the frame rate of DV cams. Not a huge issue here, but you should be aware of it.

  • When shooting movies with still cameras, the zoom feature is often disabled. Again, this might not be a bad thing since excessive zooming during the shot is a dead amateur give-away. But there are times when you might want to creep in or out during the take.

  • If you're not up to speed working in QuickTime Pro, editing video from a still camera might not be as convenient as working in iMovie or Movie Maker. And editing is important.

  • Going the other way, 2 megapixel pictures are wonderful, and more videocams than ever can capture stills at this resolution. But that only equals a 5" x 7" photo quality print, or an 8" x 10" enlargement at best. So your stills captured with a videocam are mostly for snapshots, email, and web publishing.

  • If a videocam is your only digital still camera while on vacation, etc, you might miss some shots because you left the camcorder back in the room while going out to dinner, etc. Camcorders tend to be more bulky than those little point and shoot wonders such as the Canon S-400 that fit nicely in your pocket.

  • Videocams cost more than digital stills. Prices are changing all the time, but figure that a video cam that has what you want is going to cost about twice as much as a digital still that has all the features you need.

Bottom line.

If your main interest in movie making is for computer playback, such as on CD, DVD, or the web, and you consider yourself primarily a still photographer who likes to capture the occasional movie, then pay close attention to the "movie mode" specs on still cameras. You might find the perfect tool at an affordable price. Be sure to factor in the cost of a couple 512 MB memory cards -- you're going to need them!

On the other hand, if you consider yourself a video aficionado, but want to have still picture capability, then take a close look at the current crop of camcorders that feature still pictures of 1.3 megapixels or more. If you use iPhoto, you might want to do some testing to see if you can upload directly from the camcorder. Currently, Apple only lists the Canon ZR 65 and ZR 70 on its iPhoto compatibility page, but often devices that aren't listed will work too. Worse case scenario is that you get a media card reader for uploading.

Keep in mind that if you find yourself leaving your videocam behind more often than not, you might want to start saving for a pocketable point and shoot digital still camera... just so you don't miss too many of life's precious moments.

Last, but not least, consider getting both my Digital Video and Digital Photography Pocket Guides. You can purchase both books together for less than the price of a memory card, and you'll maximize your equipment investment, regardless of which route you choose.


2003-08-05 09:34:29
Video Cam Snapshots
I have the Sony TR27 MiniDV camcorder.
It takes stills with 1 MegaPixel resolution.

It is only useful in bright daylight.
Indoor snapshots come out low contrast with grainy texture. My techie friends say this has to do with the CCD device being optimized for video (repeated frame capture).

That being said.. it is very convenient to switch
from taking a movie to taking a snapshot. When my daughter was born we took two still cameras and the TR27. I left the other cameras in the bag and took everything with the TR27.

2003-08-05 14:42:36
jack of all trades..
In general, think of the still features of
a DV camcorder or the movie features of a digital
camera as gravy. One can't substitute for the other in general use.
2003-08-05 17:28:10
camera / videocam
An important point you missed -

Adding a dozen or so pictures to a video camera should not upset the use of the videocam.

Adding a 30 second MOV to digital camera will severely fill up memory card and reduce ability to take pictures...

That said.. I am looking to buy a digital camera to show short MOV (a Fuji F700 which captures 640x480 at 30 FPS...)

Tom W

2003-08-05 19:39:52
camera / videocam
Well, I didn't miss it actually. That's why I recommended getting a couple 512 MB memory cards. As for the Fuji that captures 640 x 480 at 30 fps... let us know what you think if you do get it. Those are great specs!
2003-08-05 19:43:12
re: jack of all trades..
I tend to agree with you. And I'd think most folks would be happiest if they could have both the camcorder and the digicam. But many people have to pick one or the other. And many of then have asked me about the best way to go when they have interests in both stills and video. There's no perfect answer, but a little info can help make the decision easier.
2003-08-06 01:44:56
As already noted...
...Fuji has long had excellent movie mode in its digicam line, with the M601, S602 and M603 all using the VGA mode @30fps, with length limited by your memory card. A 1Gig microdrive gives 15 mins of continuous shooting. I've tested the S602 and it really is quite good, with a thruput of around 1MB/s. Using iMovie and iDVD, these S602 clips compared quite favorably next to clips from my brother's JVC MiniDV cam.

I recently bought a Canon S230, and it also has VGA mode, @15fps for 30 secs, and it actually has better frames than teh Fuji, but having fewer of them, I'd rate the Fuji mode as better, with the S230 as a close second. And, interestingly, the Canon clips drop right into iMovie, no demuxing necessary.

The Oly E100RS, ancient by today's standards, was the first digicam with VGA movie mode, and it also shot at 30fps. It actually seems to be able to zoom with sound. I found a clip at one of the digicam review sites a couple years ago, and you can clearly see it zooming in action. With that big 10x IS zoom, that's impressive.

And, lastly, I tested the Sony VX movie mode, and while it may be VGA, its image is very, very soft, and quite dissappointing compared to the above.

Anyhow, I have to say I'm very happy with my S230, as I can take pics and movies that look great, while carrying the tiniest camera. Of course, I don't miss the zoom, as I used to carry an Oly Stylus Epic.

2003-08-06 08:28:45
RE: As already noted...
You've included some really useful information. Much thanks.

Just a few more notes to add on. I just sole a Canon S-200 which could capture 640 x 480 at 15 fps, but only for about 10 seconds. I upgraded to a Canon S-400, which I really like, and one of my reasons was the enhanced movie mode allowing capture up to 3 minutes. Works great! The only problem is Canon eliminated the 640 x 480 option. I had assumed, foolishly, that if they gave me 3 minutes at 320 x 240, I'd get about 45 seconds at 640. Alas, no dice.

2003-08-06 09:01:16
As already noted...
S230 is a great camera. Some friends just purchased the S400 (wasn't out when I purchased the S230). I have to say I like the layout of controls and overall sturdiness of the S230 over the S400 - the buttons feel firmer. Maybe its just me. A little off topic, but wanted people to know that even though it doesn't have the *latest* specs it is a fantastic little(r) camera.

To get back on topic, I've tested the movie function and it seems to work simply enough.


2003-08-06 20:05:03
get both
i found myself with this very dilemna.

i'm a track coach, so i need DV to tape my pole vaulters. then i edit the DV together with iMovie, post a small version (320 x 240) on our web site and burn larger versions (640 x480 or larger) on cd-roms and distribute the cd-roms to the athletes to review their vaults frame by frame - very helpful.

i also coach cross country and like to take lots of stills of the athletes when they run to post on our web site, and also to build slide shows in iPhoto as well.

i also am an avid outdoors type (mtn biking, backpacking, rock climbing) so i wanted a nice still camera for that, but it needed to be small enough to carry.

anyway, i bought the Sony DCRTRV80 DV camera w/ 2-mmegapixel still capability for about $1500. well that was perfect for last track season, but this summer i did some climbing in yosemite and had to drag that big video camera along with me the whole way to take stills.

in retrospect, i wish i had spent about half of what i did and gotten a nice DV camera w/out the still capability, then spent the other half on a pretty good still camera like an Olympus C750 for the running and outdoors pix.

i definitely could have met my video needs with a cheaper camera, and still ended up with a nice still camera to boot.

anyway, my experience - hope it helps someone else out.

2003-08-07 08:00:26
Re: get both
Yeah, I think this is a good point to bring up. To be honest, I feel this way with digital cameras too -- one compact that fits in the pocket and one "serious" camera with hot shoe, vari-angle LCD, etc.

Along those same lines, considering you can get a quality DV cam and a quality still camera for less than a $1,000 US, that's also a route to consider.

Thanks for mapping it out!

2003-08-08 21:57:24
I went with a Camera
I was faced with this very problem how best to spend my Vacation $ on Photos. I opted for the Canon A70 with the 15fps video option. and two 256MB CF cards. The canon limits video to 30 seconds. I took over a 1000 photos and many "videos" and I am delighted with the results. Excellent Photos and the short video was great at capturing some of the sounds and actions of my Vacation, like waterfall and Bison walking by. The size was the best factor as I always had the camera in a pocket on small case and could use it in an instant. I would never have carried a camcorder around all day like that.
2003-08-11 10:37:28
Minolta Dimage Xt packs a micropunch
The Minolta is a winner. It takes SD memory cards, is tiny (easily pocketable), a good (not superb) 3.2 mp digicam and to my utter surprise, takes unlimited length movies! With 256mB SD card, it can take a movie over 10 minutes long at (I think) 320 x 240. It's a remarkable little/tiny camera.

If you need/prefer tiny form factor and want a camera which does it all, takes good photos (good colors, decent resolution), and is easy to use and fairly responsive, the Xt can't (currently) be beat. An underwater housing is even available!

FYI, zoom is disable when video'ing. Movies are recorded direct to quicktime (!).

I bought it for the size, decent photos, and handy digicam. The camera's features never cease to impress. I do wish it were more responsive (I dislike the shutter delays of digicams) though it's in the better half of responsiveness for consumer digicams. However, the video aspect just boggles my mind. It can even be used as a webcam (unlimited length video (with proper software) over USB.

While there are many great digicams out there, the Minolta is it for packing the most no-compromise features into the smallest form factor.

2004-01-06 04:34:12
digital zoommmmmmm...!
I have the Canon A80. A great camera for middle of the road user. Takes compact flash and 4 loose AA batteries. Movie lengths depend on card size, but zoom in the movie mode is disabled in this model. A friend has a Nikon (model ? but 4 megapixels), and his does still include zoom feature in movie mode. I think that zoom capability is an important feature, because it allows you to get alittle closer without moving much, keeping the camera steady.