The AJ-D200 digital videocamera archives and edits like a pro

There's no comparison between the
resolution of a $5,000 digital still camera and the far better resolution of a good $500
single-lens reflex film camera.


The bother of paying for film and processing, then scanning images into a computer is
what makes the digital still camera's extra cost and lower image quality acceptable to
buyers.


An ordinary videocamera can work with a $300 PC video capture board to make video for
presentations, but the quality is poor. Digital videocameras in the $2,500 range give
better results. But to get the highest video production quality, you need a professional
digital camcorder such as Panasonic's AJ-D200.


What separates near-professional and professional quality images is the number of
charge-coupled devices in the camera. The AJ-D200 has three 1/3-inch CCDs with a
resolution of 270,000 pixels per CCD. The CCDs change images into electronic signals.


The cost of entry into this market has dropped since the first digital videocameras
arrived. A sub-$1,000 digital still camera can capture images for a World Wide Web page or
a report.


But be warned: Photos taken with a $10 disposable camera look better than images from a
$500 digital still camera.


Continuing the hierarchy of comparisons, a $500 consumer camcorder can't touch the
quality of a low-end digital one. Professional digital videocameras raise the bar another
couple of notches.


The professional-level Panasonic AJ-D200 is different from lightweight consumer-grade
digital videocameras. A hefty 13 pounds, it's a camera that's easier than other
videocameras to hold because it has a bit of heft.


The camcorder is in the new DVCPro line that takes advantage of tape for archival
storage and high-quality video capture and a hard disk for random-access editing and
storage.


The DVCPro system is not proprietary to Panasonic and was developed with an eye to the
coming changeover to high-definition digital television. Its compression technology and
tape formats maintain all-digital imagery from capture through broadcast.


For post-production work, the compressed DVCPro video signals can travel over Ethernet
networks. DVCPro has editing software for Microsoft Windows NT and Silicon Graphics Inc.
platforms.


If your agency needs images to last longer than two or three years, now is a good time
to move from analog to digital video.


With the future HDTV migration in mind, you can select from Panasonic's standard TV
format or the optional wide-screen 16-to-9 format with a resolution that is only half that
of the proposed digital broadcast format.


This isn't a drawback because digital signals can easily scale up to higher
resolutions.


The camera will play back video through standard SVideo and BNC composite connections
for PC viewing or direct VCR editing, but it's really intended as part of a professional
video gathering and editing system. Many users will buy a special editing station that
accepts the D200's digital tapes.


Audio connections are professional-grade. There are two three-pin microphone inputs to
supplement the two built-in mikes and the usual RCA connectors for audio out.


This isn't the camera to use to take a video inventory of the office. But if what you
did on summer vacation was go on NATO maneuvers, and you want to distribute video clips to
news media or use them in-house, it's just right.


If the weight isn't a problem, I recommend it to anyone who needs to produce
semi-professional videos for internal training or for recording accident or crime scenes.
It's also good for making clips for news organizations.


Another important use is as a tripod-mounted studio camera for videoconferencing or
other studio work. An optional five-inch monitor is available. Shutter speeds vary from
1/100 to 1/8000.


You could leave the AJ-D200 on its tripod, but don't forget it's portable. Clip on a
battery and carry the camera to record a remote scene.


The 12-volt power plug makes it easy to find a remote power source, and battery life
closely matches the 123-minute recording time of a single tape. Other batteries and power
sources are available, including a power-input connector for studio use.


Professional still photographers don't haul around bags full of lenses for fun; each
lens has advantages and disadvantages. Right from the start, the AJ-D200 targets
professionals, because you can buy it without a lens.


Lens technology changes almost as rapidly as computer technology, and the AJ-D200
accepts any of the latest generation of 1/3-inch bayonet standard lenses as well as older
1/2-inch bayonet lenses.


The Panasonic's lack of image stabilization is a detraction, but that is less a
complaint than a note to readers who are unfamiliar with professional camcorders. Nothing
in this price range has image stabilization.


The 13-pound operating weight, counting lens, battery, viewfinder and tape, will come
as a shock to those used to home video. It's a good weight for a tripod-mounted or
shoulder-carried professional camera.


The camera, which is used widely by professional videographers, doesn't require
automatic stabilization. Special gyro-stabilized universal mounts are available for those
who need them.


To speed editing, you can key the best scenes, and the DVCPro nonlinear editor, which I
did not test, will download those scenes for more editing.


The large 11Ž2-inch viewfinder is black and white, which also will surprise home
video users, but this is not unusual either. The 600-line resolution and built-in diopter
adjustment are essential for precise focusing. There's no autofocus on these lenses, but
manual focusing is not difficult, and the image snaps into clear focus in the
high-resolution viewfinder.


The viewfinder's adjustments for brightness, contrast and peaking will rival camera
adjustments on less expensive camcorders.


For recording, the three factory white-balance settings are satisfactory, and there is
an auto-white balance mode. For special lighting situations, you can store additional
custom color-balance settings.


Most adjustments other than shutter and gain are made through software menus. There is
a built-in speaker on the left side of the camera, so it's suited only to right-shoulder
users. Many people will prefer headphones.


If you need even higher-quality images, Panasonic's AJ-D700 starts at $16,900 without
lens. It has three half-inch CCDs and 410,000-pixel-per-CCD resolution.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.


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