Why must my MiniDV videos look like home movies?
May 3, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Why exactly do videos shot on consumer grade MiniDV camcorders generally look like bad home movies as compared to that of high-end professional MiniDV cameras? What are the relevant differences between them?

I've dabbled in MiniDV recording for a while now, always with lower-end Canon camcorders. And regardless of the lighting or anything else, the videos they produce always have a certain "home movie" quality, in that they're somewhat fuzzy and grainy, and just lacking that film-like quality. However, I know this is not a limitation of the format, since plenty of decent looking indie movies are shot on MiniDV. Of course, they're using much more expensive professional grade cameras.

So, in layman's terms, what exactly is it about the more expensive cameras that makes the footage look so much better? The lens? The resolution? Something else?

Lastly, the two cameras I often see recommended as the cheapest entry into professional grade MiniDV are the Panasonic DVX100A and the Canon XL2, which I realize are both SD and rather old models at this point. Is that still the best recommendation for a semi-affordable camcorder that will let me escape the home movie look? Or is there a newer and cheaper alternative?

I'm on a shoestring budget, and although I mostly make videos for the web at the moment, I'd like to have the option of submitting to short film festivals and the like down the road.
posted by iamisaid to Technology (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the "quality" has as much to do with the cameraman as it does the camera. Often, amateur videographers zoom in and out a lot, pan around too much, hold the camera not level, and generally try to overdue it from behind the lens. Instead of focusing on the camera itself, closely watch some of what you consider high quality video footage and take note of what the camera operator is doing, how their monitoring the action and how they respond.

Also, most camcorders have a quality setting. I don't remember what they're called now, but they used to be ELP, SLP, VLP which basically compromised video quality for longer recording time. The more you stretch out the recording medium, the less quality you get per frame and/or the fewer frames per second. Try setting the camera to a higher quality and buy extra media instead of cramming everything onto one.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 7:21 PM on May 3, 2009

So, in layman's terms, what exactly is it about the more expensive cameras that makes the footage look so much better? The lens? The resolution? Something else?

Great movies can be made with consumer-level cameras. What is lacking in home movies is things like proper lighting, sound, etc.
posted by jayder at 7:23 PM on May 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The DV tape format, and the professional DVCAM format use the same bitrate and codec, so you are right that it's quality differences in the camera.

The main differences are:
Sensor size - the bigger the sensor, the larger each pixel is, the larger the pixel, the more light gets in, the higher the signal/noise ratio.
Lens quality - the better the lens quality, the more light can get to the sensor.
Sensor number - better cameras have a chip for each of the primary colors.

The biggest single thing you can do to compensate for this, shy of buying a better camera, is to light things properly.
posted by tomierna at 7:27 PM on May 3, 2009

A lot of it has to do with the technology on the camera - the size of the sensor (bigger is better, yada yada yada), the color space, frame rates, etc. Going into detail about these could be kind of crazy, but I would definitely start reading. Lots of reading. DVInfo.net, DVXuser, HV20.com, etc. are all great resources for learning more about the technical aspects of film production.

That said, there are a lot of great works being created with consumer-level camcorders too. The HV20 is a popular consumer HD camera for short filmmakers because it's cheap and it has the ability to record to 24fps (or at least something like it - it involves some work in post to get it right). 24fps is the magic framerate for 35mm film, and is often something no-budget filmmakers are trying to duplicate.

A big thing that can improve your video on consumer-level equipment (and just in general) is knowledge of lighting and sound. Learning about exposure, f-stops, shutter speed, and the various things you might have control over on a consumer level camcorder can give you tremendous control. Really, the more you understand about digital video and the technology in general, the better equipped you are to make your video look better.

Just as an example, here's a video created with the HV20 (with an adapter that allows it to use 35mm lenses for Depth of Field).

Hopefully this is a good starting point for your research. Good luck!
posted by cvp at 7:28 PM on May 3, 2009

since plenty of decent looking indie movies are shot on MiniDV

Depends on what you mean by "decent," but miniDV is pretty much a dead format at this point. With a lot of skill, you can do something that will look good on Youtube, but blown up on a movie screen it will probably still look absolutely horrendous.

To me, the two things that really scream "amateur video!!!" (besides the obvious ones like bad lighting, bad performances, bad sound) are:

1) 30fps ("tv speed") rather than 24
2) Lack of depth of field (ie everything always completely in focus).

it's hard to do anything about #2 without a pretty sophisticated camera where you can change lenses. An XL2 or any decent Prosumer camera will do 24fps though.

If you are really serious about making movies, I would recommend against buying a camera, unless you can afford a five figure investment. You are much better off renting for the weekend you want to make the film. Of course at this point you may need to start hiring people who understand the more advanced camera well enough to make it worth you while, but this is how sausages are made.

To answer your question about what makes it look better:
1) yes, the resolution.
2) yes, the lens. Or actually the changing of lenses as the shot merits.
3) Color correction in post production (have you ever seen raw footage from a Hollywood movie? it looks incredibly dull and low quality)
4) People with more expensive cameras tend to also have money to hire a professional crew.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:35 PM on May 3, 2009

The newed HD digicams that I've seen eat the DVX100 for lunch. It's a really old camera at this point. Like CVP sent you. I'm more a photographer, but I'm really excited about these new consumer cameras. People are doing amazing stuff with them.
posted by sully75 at 7:39 PM on May 3, 2009

Small sensors are cheaper (more per wafer, better yield) but you have to use a longer exposure time to collect enough light, so moving video shot with a smaller sensor will have more motion blur.

A larger sensor can collect more light per unit time, so it doesn't have to be exposed as long per frame. Shorter exposure means a crisper image. But larger sensors cost more.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:45 PM on May 3, 2009

Yeah the framerate has a huge effect on the "movienes" of the resulting video, which is ironic since higher framerates are actually higher 'quality'

One thing to consider, although I don't know much about how it works with video cams is the dynamic range of the sensor. But these days even $300/$400 digital cameras have great, high-resolution sensors in them. But who knows how the technology has advanced since the time that DV was cutting edge.
posted by delmoi at 7:46 PM on May 3, 2009

In addition to what everyone else said, professional movies also have a lot of work done in post-production to make the footage look good. If you take the raw footage out the back of the pro camera, it would look a lot more like a "home movie" than the final product that you see in the theatre.

Although, I would have to agree, the lenses and lighting probably make the most difference since those are more or less fixed during shooting. Other stuff (such as a "film look") can be fudged in post-production with decent results.
posted by bengarland at 7:52 PM on May 3, 2009

Just one other comment... I'm sure you're thinking about it but it's always important to stress... (this is assuming you're looking to do narrative film, which I'm guessing you are since you said you want to submit to festivals)

Even if you have the worst technology and old cameras and just a really bad tech situation all around, the best thing you can do is have damn good direction and great actors. Not direction in the visual/technical sense, but the ability to work with actors, fully understand your script, etc. In film, a lot of directors tend to be very technical and very focused on the visual look of the finished product, and sort of ignore the actors along the way - when the actors are your most important asset!

I'd suggest reading books like Directing Actors by Judith Weston and try taking some acting classes if possible. The stronger your knowledge of actors and how they work is, the more easily you'll be able to work with them and help extract great performances. And ultimately, great performances can help the audience ignore the consumer appearance of your images, and more importantly help them focus on the story you're trying to tell. After all, that's why we make movies :)
posted by cvp at 8:29 PM on May 3, 2009

Similar previous discussion.
posted by knave at 8:43 PM on May 3, 2009

The expensive cameras have 3 CCD's and much better lenses. Then after they shoot on those cameras they move the footage into a color correction bay. Occasionally, after doing that the project will be run through a special effect to make it look grainier. The 24 frame mode has something to do with it, but it's these other things that make the most difference. Also, I don't know how many indie films you've seen have been shot on MiniDV, though it has been used all over the place on TV.
posted by mzurer at 9:52 PM on May 3, 2009

White balance. Most amateur videographers are surprisingly clueless about properly setting the white balance on their cameras.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:17 AM on May 4, 2009

Maybe I'm out of date, but using a tripod instead of hand-held is usually a great step up in quality. This is especially true if you are panning or otherwise following action. The object is to move the camera smoothly, with no jarring what so ever.
posted by Goofyy at 5:11 AM on May 4, 2009

I second Thorzdad on white balance. That will make a huge difference there.

And then lighting. Look up "key lighting."

But actually, the killer is sound. What kills most amateur video is the horrible sound quality. The audience will put up with muddy picture, but if the sound is bad, we have to turn it off.

You get good sound by having a separate microphone, on a boom, hovering over the actors.
posted by musofire at 6:40 AM on May 4, 2009

First off, let me get my video snobbery out of the way (I'm a professional editor and colorist that works/has-worked with nearly every low-end and high-end format out there).

The term "high-end professional MiniDV camera" is an oxymoron. DV is not a professional format. There are indeed many high quality "prosumer" DV cameras available which have better glass and sensors than cheapie models (btw, the number of "chips" in a sensor does not necessarily determine its quality. Nowadays single-sensor, bayer-pattern based CMOS chips are used in many high-end cameras, such as the RED One), but the extremely low datarate and drastically compressed color resolution of the DV format generally precludes it from being used in professional pipelines as a first (or even 3rd or 4th) format of choice.

That said, if you know what you're doing, and understand how to work around the limitations of DV, you can get truly amazing results with it.

The most important factor that makes "home video" look like home video is not necessarily the framerate, per se, but it's whether or not you shoot in interlaced or progressive mode. The reason home video looks "real"--versus stuff shot on film--is because it's technically recording 60 slices of real-world imagery in the span of 1 second. So something shot on a DV camera at 29.97 frames/sec in interlaced mode is technically recording 2 fields of motion for every frame (60 fields/sec). This gives you smoother looking motion when played back, because you're actually sampling 2x more temporal information per frame (albeit at a technically lower vertical resolution) than you would if you shot in progressive mode.

When you shoot in progressive scan mode, you can still shoot at 29.97 fps, but the result will look much more "filmic" than if it were shot at the exact same frame-rate, but with interlacing. This alone will get you 85-90% of the way towards getting your video to look less video-ey.

The DVX100 has a fairly ingenious (but sometimes a huge pain to work with in post) method of shooting at a more filmic 24 fps framerate, even though it's still recording onto the tape at 29.97 fps. It does this by recording the 24 fps cadence to the 29.97 tape using a form of pulldown, with basically a similiar method that real film is transferred to videotape via the telecine process. You need to remove this pulldown before you start editing the footage, so you can work with the original 24 fps cadence.

Other than that, what everyone else said is 100% correct. It's all about framing, lighting, artistic composition, proper exposure, depth of field, color correction etc. The camera itself ultimately has much less to do with the perceived "quality" of the video than the person who is actually operating it.

If you want to learn techniques that will help you milk the best quality out of your DV camera, check out Stu Maschwitz' fantastic book, The DV Rebels Guide. It's widely considered the bible of guerilla filmmaking using DV-level equipment, and Stu has real-world experience behind him (working for ILM and The Orphanage) that can give you great perspectives on how to apply Hollywood production values to el-cheapo gear.
posted by melorama at 6:45 AM on May 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

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