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

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
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

drop far fewer frames and take several high-resolution shots per second.

High-definition video, a feature available now in only a few expensive consumer cameras, will also become mainstream, said Gary Baum, senior vice president of marketing at NuCore Technology, which makes the image processor inside the JVC Everio.

"High-definition video is going to start to come down to the $599 price point," Baum said. "You are going to see a ton of stuff in early 2006, late 2005."

Still cameras sporting resolutions in the range of 8 or more megapixels will also shoot DVD-quality video, Baum added.

"High-definition video is going to start to come down to the $599 price point."
--Gary Baum, senior vice president, NuCore

To date, physical and technical limitations have made it difficult to combine a good video camera and a good still camera in the same body.

The imager--the chip that captures light from the outside world and turns it into electrical signals--is actually quite large on a digital still camera, measuring about a half to two-thirds of an inch wide, Sony's Weir said. The large size permits chip designers to cram numerous pixels onto it. The imagers on a video camera are much smaller.

But what happens when you combine the imager with a lens? The larger imager requires a larger lens, a situation that zoom functions exaggerate. A 10x zoom lens on a digital video camera (with its smaller imager) is still relatively small. Conversely, a digital still camera with a 10x lens and a larger imager would need to bulk up.

"Once you get past a 3x zoom, you have a lens of considerable size," Weir said.

Function is another issue. "Imagers for multi-megapixel still cameras are optimized for megapixels. They aren't trying to capture action at 30 to 60 frames per second," he added. "Typically, they are optimized for speed or resolution, but not both."

Increased processing power, however, is changing the picture. Better chips now allow some cameras to snap two to three pictures a second in a continuous shooting mode. (In one test of a Kyocera camera, a reviewer took 2,800 shots in 14 minutes of continuous shooting.) Better processing power enables camera makers to switch rapidly from video to still functions and vice versa.

Imagers are also improving. Now digital video cameras mostly come with an imager that takes stills with a resolution of 2 or fewer megapixels. In two to three years, 5 megapixels will be more the norm. Hence, video cameras will, by default, function like good still cameras.

The improvements come at a time when the digital camera is prospering, and staring into a dicey future. Units of digital still cameras will grow from 62 million in 2004 to 74 million this year--a 19 percent increase, according to iSuppli analyst Shyam Nagrani. Revenue, however, will stay roughly flat, at $15 billion, and then drop in 2006.

Digital video cameras, meanwhile, are puttering along. Units hit 14.4 million last year and are growing at 3 percent to 4 percent annually.

"How often do you want to watch those tapes? If it is your daughter taking her first steps, you will watch it. If it is a family picnic, you won't," Nagrani said. "And what are the odds that you will have a camera when your daughter takes her first steps?"