If recent reports are correct then one of the top purchases over the festive season has been digital cameras. While most people probably bought with the intention of simply taking digital photographs, even the budget cameras are now sophisticated enough to allow you to take short, low-res video clips.
Naturally, the video quality and features of a digital camera have nothing on a camcorder, but you are more likely to be carrying your digital camera when an opportunity presents itself.
Shooting is usually a matter of point, shoot, hold the shot and then press the button to stop (i.e. like a camcorder controls). These little cameras are great for impromptu or surreptitious shoots, although I'm not recommending that you start shooting up peoples' skirts, kilts or whatever.
If you find yourself shooting a lot of video with your camera, you will need a bigger disc than the one that came with it. I bought a Canon Powershot A70 which came with a measly 16MB disc. I immediately replaced this with a 256MB disc which I've yet to fill up in a single session.
The PowerShot A70 records up to three minutes of video at three different sizes: 640 x 480, 320 x 240 (the size I use mostly), or 160 x 120 pixels. It also records audio at the same time through a small condenser microphone. The sound is tinny but clear enough for the low-res domain.
There is a problem though. You can't always edit these clips, even with expensive programs like Adobe Premiere. Premiere doesn't recognise Canon's M-JPEG CODEC (a "codec" is the software that compresses the video - it literally means "compression-decompression").
For the same reason, other PCs, especially those with older operating systems, won't play your clip, even though it has the common .AVI multimedia filename ending.
Premiere comes up with a message saying no can-do, I don't recognise that compression format.
This weekend I had about 14 .AVI clips that I had shot with the PowerShot that I wanted to put together. I needed to make cuts, trim ends, and add titles.
Pounding around Google, I soon found a nifty little program called Virtual Dub (www.virtualdub.org). It's an open-source (free), linear editing program created by anime enthusiast Avery Lee. As well as being a simple editing suite, Virtual Dub is especially good at converting video formats that your capture card or editing program do not recognise into formats that they do recognise. Parfait!
It comes with a set of filters, like blur, sharpen, resize, rotate, crop, add mask, and plentiful keyboard short cuts to speed up common tasks.
Virtual Dub being open source, there is also support, and more filters, available from the community at large. It doesn't have the editing power of Adobe Premiere, but if you are looking for a way of converting or cleaning up files or even doing simple editing then Virtual Dub is well worth a look.
One thing I did notice was that the conversion process made my files balloon to 10 or 11 times the size. For example, one of the original clips that I shot with the Powershot was 4.5MB for a 16 second clip at 320x240. After passing this through Virtual Dub the clip was 57MB.
But I could edit it now. And I would squash my final edit back down to size later.
Opening the converted AVIs in Premiere, I was able to quickly create a final edit of 1 minute 40 seconds. I exported the clip from Premiere as a Real video file to get a reasonable quality 320x240 pixel clip that weighed in at only 4.25MB. That included music, audio effects, titles and a couple of transitions.
If you are editing with Virtual Dub, you can compress your final edit into Real Video (.rm file) using the free Helix Producer Basic encoder (www.real.com) or for that matter into a Windows Media file (.wmv file) using Windows Media Encoder (www.microsoft.com).
Although iofilm has a Windows Media server, I was emailing this particular clip so I exported two similarly sized versions of the same clip in Real and Windows Media for comparison. Real looked and sounded better on this occasion, so that's what I went with.
If you are looking for other options to make those AVIs editable, Lead's Multimedia Converter integrates nicely with Premiere, but this is not free and the evaluation version adds a notice in the form of a band at the bottom of your clips.
Another option is to use QuickTime Pro (www.apple.com/quicktime), although again you have to pay for the upgrade from the standard version of QuickTime if you want to do editing and you can only do very basic edits.