Video or still? You needn't choose anymore

Camera makers shoot for hybrids that can simultaneously take high-quality motion and still pictures. Photos: Hybrid shooters

Camera makers are trying to develop cameras that won't make you choose between shooting video or stills.

Hybrid cameras--which can capture TV-quality video or high-resolution photographs, or both at the same time--have emerged as a goal for camera makers, which face increasing price pressures amid rising shipping rates. With these cameras available, consumers conceivably only have to buy--and carry--one black-and-silver box for virtually all their photographic needs.

An early version of a hybrid is the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505, a 5-megapixel digital still camera that can also take 640-by-480-pixel, or TV-quality, video. The $499 camera, coming later this month, also contains a function that lets high-resolution still pictures be extracted from video for printing. Hence, consumers shooting video will still be able to obtain snapshots through the print function.

In a similar vein, JVC last year came out with the Everio GZ-MC100 video camera. While in a particular shooting mode, it will stop shooting video momentarily--dropping in speed about nine frames from the usual 30 frames per second--to take a 2-megapixel picture. The photo is preserved on an SD card, while the video clip is stored to a 4GB mini hard drive. A 5-megapixel version of the camera comes out later this year.

Sony, by contrast, believes that video cameras and digital still cameras represent distinct markets. Still, the company is tinkering with products that blur the lines. Late last year, Sony made its first foray into hybridization with the Cyber-shot DSC-M1, which preserves a few seconds of video before and after a still shot.

"The M1 is not really a still camera, and it's not really a video camera, but it contains elements of both," said Mark Weir, senior product manager for digital still cameras at Sony. "You are taking a snapshot, but you are recording enough of the circumstances so that you are telling more of the story."

The camera also compresses 640-by-480-pixel video in such a way that it is less of a space hog on memory cards.

In the future, Sony might try to come out with cameras that would allow consumers to pluck several high-resolution frames out of every second of video footage, Weir added, thereby turning videos into incubators for still shots.

Currently, most video cameras can take still frames, while still cameras can shoot a few minutes of video. However, they generally don't do both well. Individual pictures plucked out of a video stream taken on a video camera are often somewhat grainy because of the lower resolution of video. Many video cameras have built-in 1-megapixel cameras, but users have to stop shooting video to use it.

Conversely, the video shot by today's still cameras is taken at fairly low resolution--about 320 pixels by 240 pixels; video clips enlarged for TV viewing look like Bigfoot's home movies.

Hybrid cameras, ideally, will perform both functions well and concurrently. In hybrid still cameras like Sony's M1, the camera continually captures a video stream into a buffer. When the shutter is snapped, the processor preserves the 5 seconds before the shot and the 3 seconds after the shot on the memory card.

In video hybrids, concurrent shooting is accomplished by dropping a few video frames so that a picture can be captured. Future hybrids will

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