Tagged: review

Review: The Kodak Zi8 HD Video Camera

Super-Meta: digital image of a digital image of a digital image

I recently jumped into the shallow-end of the video camera market, picking up a Kodak Zi8 pocket-sized video camera. The Zi8 is similar to the flip cameras that journos were raving about a short time ago, except the Zi8 can record in full HD quality, has both macro and landscape settings, and has an external microphone jack – which is a major advantage for journalists using such a small piece of gear.

There are several reviews online that rave about the Zi8; however, my own experience with the camera has been mixed, and I’ve yet to see a review that mentions the issues I’ve come across.

For me, the biggest negative is that the Zi8 camera shoots in H264 (read: Quicktime’s .MOV format), which works seamlessly with Apple’s iMovie editing suite, but causes a complete horror show for most Windows users.

I have used Vegas Video on my PC for awhile now, but the raw files from the Zi8 wouldn’t work with Vegas unless they were format-converted first (to MP4 or AVI), and more often than not, this conversion would then cause Vegas to crash. I have heard this same story repeated online by many other Windows / Vegas users, and each has a ten-step workaround to just get the footage from their camera to work with Windows. Yikes.

This frustrating conversion-then-crash loop went on for a few weeks for me as well, but I recently switched from Sony’s Vegas to Avid’s Pinnacle software suite, and am happy to report that Pinnacle recognizes the raw files and works with .MOV files much like iMovie does – very simply and cleanly – just drag, drop and start editing.

This H264 compatibility issue is an important one for Windows users to know before they buy the Zi8: their usual editing software may not play nice with the Zi8, and they may have to deal with techno headaches to simply edit their videos.

The other important point to note is that the Zi8 ships with out-of-date firmware, and requires an upgrade to resolve tracking issues, low-light streaking, and a subtle (but bothersome) high-frequency sound in the audio recording. The firmware update is simple, but can not be done by just plugging the Zi8 into your PC – it requires a card reader (odd, given that the Zi8 has USB ports). So if your laptop does not have a built-in card reader, you’ll have to buy one to do the critical firmware upgrade and get the most out of your Zi8.

Having switched editing software, and upgraded the firmware, I was finally able to test the Zi8′s capabilities.

The footage is pretty impressive for a pocket-camera (and a budget one, at that). From the recommended distances, the image quality is sharp and the audio from the built-in mic is passable for web broadcast. The Zi8 only offers a 4x digital zoom, and the quality drops off noticeably with each interval. Also, like all pocket video-cameras, the low-light functionality is a little grainy.

One disadvantage of the Zi8, is that while there is an external microphone jack, there is no accompanying headphone jack on the unit. This means that audio levels have to be monitored via a little bar-chart indicator, or upon playback through the Zi8′s tiny speaker. Neither is ideal for checking levels, especially given that the Zi8′s microphone input is particularly “hot” and requires external mics to be carefully adjusted to find a balance between frequency response and outright digital clipping. So that’s a challenge for journos and media junkies alike, but with trial and error, good results can be captured.

Here are two videos I did to show the “macro” and “landscape” settings on the Zi8:

Macro Setting:

Kodak Zi8 Test: Macro Setting from scott w. gray on Vimeo.

Landscape Setting:

Kodak Zi8 Test: Landscape Setting from scott w. gray on Vimeo.

The Zi8 is pretty inexpensive – about $200 Canadian – and can shoot in full HD (720p, 720p/60 fps, and 1080p), and offers both a “macro” setting for close-up and arty filming, and a “landscape” setting that uses its fixed-focus lens. Coupled with the external mic jack and the high-quality footage, in the right hands it can be an attractive prosumer-level device.

I think as more people experiment with the unit, and work out DIY microphone rigs or DIY lens conversions, the results will improve and we’ll begin seeing some very cool multimedia pieces created with the Zi8. The price point and feature set is perfect for most citizen / freelance journos and cash-strapped media outlets to test drive the unit and see how it performs in a variety of settings.

PROS:
Inexpensive, small footprint, two lens settings, HD-quality, external microphone jack, image stabilization, face-recognition, pretty slick technology.

CONS:
H264 format problematic for Windows users, no headphone jack, firmware updates require card reader, less-than-ideal zoom & low-light features.

Final Analysis:
Ultimately, I would recommend the Kodak Zi8 for guerrilla multimedia journalists and / or digital storytellers because of its ease of use and image quality. There are a few hurdles to jump through to get your footage to an upload-ready state, but avoiding the format-conversion carousel and testing out the unit’s limitations can help you capture the events you want, cleanly and easily.

Recommended by Fauna Corporation!

Review: Anderson Cooper’s Dispatches from the Edge

On top of the stack this week: Dispatches from the Edge

On a recent trip I picked up Anderson Cooper’s memoir, Dispatches from the Edge, and read it on a long flight home. Equal parts “war stories” (ie: tales from the field that journalists share with each other over drinks) and autobiography, Cooper does an excellent job of giving context for his journalistic decision-making while also pulling back the veil a bit on his (very) private life.

The son of Gloria Vanderbilt (which was news to me) who lost his father to heart attack and then his older brother to suicide, Cooper decided to pursue a career as a Foreign Correspondent seemingly to compensate for the pain these deaths caused in his life. By surrounding himself with the suffering of others, he was both excused from publicly investigating his own pain, while also being given the external stimulus that could allow him to grieve for his personal losses.

Reading Dispatches from the Edge so soon after losing my own brother was both painful and therapeutic for me. I could see why Cooper decided to throw himself so heavily into his career, but I could also read the toll that this decision took upon his mental and emotional well-being.

While not a perfect memoir (after a certain point, Cooper begins shifting between conflicts and emergencies so quickly that they all blur together – possibly a deliberate technique, but one that inhibits the deeper understanding that most of his journalism looks for), Dispatches from the Edge still offers a lot to journalists, whether professional, freelance or Citizen-styled.

Of particular note was Cooper’s early decision to arrive in a foreign country in the midst of a civil war, with no command of the language, no flack-jacket, no contacts, no media outlet supporting him, and only a fake press pass and a Hi-8 camera as his defense. While he acknowledges it was a stupid decision, it should also be noted that this led to his big break in journalism. Is there a lesson here for you?

Dispatches from the Edge is recommended by Fauna Corporation. It can be found at most major bookstores, but is also available from time-to-time used, should you need to save up your cash until you can buy your first Hi-8 camera and a one-way ticket somewhere.