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03.17.09

video

I'VE BEEN FEELING WEIRDLY NOSTALGIC lately, but I'm not sure what for, exactly. Maybe it's the househunting, which keeps pushing us back near the orbit of the neighbourhood where I grew up - a place I've insisted to my wife I'll never live in again. Still, my mind keeps wandering back to growing up in Mount Dennis, and my memories of the place keep belching up into half of what I write these days. Like this, for instance ...

I GREW UP IN A KODAK FAMILY. It's not just that we were loyal customers of the red-and-gold brand - three generations of my family worked for Kodak, starting with my mother, who got her first job in the factory in the 1920s, and worked there until just after World War Two. We literally lived a stroll away from Kodak's Canadian plant at the end of Photography Drive on Camera Heights, in the Mount Dennis neighbourhood of Toronto, where it moved during World War One, and remained until the company closed it down in 2005.

I was vaguely aware that other people made cameras - my brother and my brother-in-law owned Nikon cameras - but Kodak film was, as far as I knew, all you put in them; my understanding of photography was defined by the certainty that Kodak was, indeed, photography. The top shelf of both downstairs closets were home to several red-and-gold boxes containing old cameras and accessories like flashbulb holders, and at least two or three slide carousels, and the drawers of my mother's dresser inevitably contained a half dozen little boxes full of Kodachrome transparencies, imprinted with the shadows of past Christmases and vacations and Sunday trips to the deer pens in High Park.

My cousin Terry, who worked at the factory decades longer than either my mother or sister, was the family photographer, with the largest collection of red-and-gold boxes, and a few years ago, after moving from her big split-level home to an ever-smaller series of apartments, she decided to pare down and divide her photo collection up - if we were the main subject of a photo, it was ours. I was particularly thrilled that she also said she was having her 8mm films transferred to VHS, as I'd never seen most of this footage, and imagined at least a couple of hours of what would be the closest I'd ever get to a time machine to my family's past.

Imagine my surprise when Terry handed me a tape containing just over ten minutes of footage of film, mostly from the '60s, which included film of my cousin Donna and her mother on vacation. This was, she explained, literally everything Terry shot on her Kodak film cameras, and even with generous employee discounts on equipment and processing, the sum total was barely longer than a Looney Tunes cartoon.

It took me a while to get an inkling of what would only become obvious to me many years later, when we were awash in digital pictures and video shot on small, easy-to-use cameras and - more importantly - cell phones, and which will be hard to explain to young people who've grown up in the post-film age.

The digital revolution happened a lot quicker than any of us thought, especially the people making film and cameras. Kodak is still here, but Polaroid and Agfa have virtually disappeared from the scene, and Ilford has transformed itself from a major player to a boutique company a fraction its former size. Nikon, Canon, Olympus and other big name camera companies are either completely out of the film business or have kept vestigial interests in the business, and everyone - the big three, as well as Fuji, Samsung, Sigma, Sony and Panasonic - is bringing out a dozen or more new models of digital cameras every year, most of which are variations on either the point-and-shoot snapshop camera or the SLR. At least half of these companies are producing a line of video cameras, though by this point the ability to shoot video and stills is pretty much standard in anything calling itself a digital camera.

The only really innovative thing that's actually happened to camera design, though, is the cell phone. You can scoff at the low image quality of cell phone pictures - mired around 2 megapixels for years now, though that's starting to change - but the fact is that having a camera in your phone means that you'll use it when you've either forgotten your "real" camera, or simply decided that low quality was the price you were willing to pay not to carry around another gadget.

The avalanche of photography we're seeing on Flickr and Facebook and Shutterfly and Photobucket and Snapfish and YouTube and Vimeo and Google has come about because we've solved the problem that meant that my cousin only had ten minutes or so of 8mm footage after years of owning film cameras - ease of use, distilled literally down to the press of a single button.

My kids will probably be amazed to learn that, before we could take a single frame of film, we once had to buy film, take off at least a layer or two of packaging, load it into the camera with varying degrees of fidgeting, make several adjustments to the camera for ISO, f-stop and/or shutter speed, before finally shooting. Then you'd have to wait until you'd shot all the film inside the camera to send it away to be processed or spend a few hours in your own home darkroom to see the results. They will think this was simply insane.

All that ritual preparation made film a precious commodity in a way that pixels never were, even back when digital memory and storage were at a premium. Let's not even talk about the several layers of labour and technology necessary to put a picture in a mass-produced print medium like a newspaper or a magazine, versus the ease of publishing it online.

It was once easy to tell the difference between a photo shot on a snapshot film camera and one taken on an SLR; today, I can say confidently that photos I've shot on my 7.2 megapixel Sony point-and-shoot are very often just as good as what I've made on my Olympus E-series SLR, or the Canon SLR I bought just as the digital tsunami was overtaking us - the last film camera I'll probably ever buy, excepting a Lomo, perhaps, or the Brownies I buy at yard sales and display on the top of the bookshelves in my office.

"Capturing the moment" was the phrase of choice for film and camera companies selling to the amateur market, but the truth was that most of the time you weren't capturing anything as much as you were documenting its aftermath. It's one thing to try to explain to an amateur photographer why the complex array of rods and cones in your eye will always make nearly every photo you take seem like a poor ghost of what you remember seeing, but it's another to force them to go through a NASA-style pre-flight check just to get a few quick frames of your daughter dancing along to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

WHICH IS A LONG WAY of getting to a review of Samsung's SC-MX20 "Memory Camcorder." The digital video market has actually gone through a greater evolution than still cameras during the same period of time, and Samsung's pop can-sized handycam is a great example of how its refined itself to its most useable form.

Everybody probably remembers early videocameras that shot on VHS - great, cumbersome beasts that needed outboard batteries or even tape drives. They slimmed down, and led to smaller cameras with digital videotape drives, then cameras that recorded to 3" DVD discs. Even by this stage they were a hassle to use - the discs only recorded about 20-30 minutes of footage, and needed to be formatted in camera before you could play them on your home DVD player or computer. Even then, you'd better hope that your home machine was up-to-date enough for whatever standard your camera used to format its discs.

Flash memory digital handycams were more convenient, but you had to use cables to download the files to your computer, so it was only natural that unexpandable flash memory would give way to memory cards like the SD - the digital equivalent of the 35mm film cartridge; easy to use and close enough to a standard that you can buy new ones almost anywhere.

The SC-MX20L I tested has no internal memory - other models offer anywhere from 8 to 16 GB of internal memory - but I didn't really care. It's a lot easier to slip an SD card into a card reader than tether your camera to your computer and wait for the drivers to install. Samsung offers its own software to manage your camera, but it's so much easier to dip into a folder full of files than fire up another piece of proprietary software, especially if you're already comfortable with an editing suite whose learning curve you've already mastered.

The real joy of the SC-MX20, though, is its ease of use. The camera starts up in a couple of seconds, and features little more than a shutter button, a toggle for the zoom and a mode switch between still and video on its back end. Menu functions are dealt with by the four-position toggle next to the 2.7" LCD fold-out LCD. My only complaint was with the lens cover, which doesn't automatically open when you turn the camera on - you'll either silently curse while you fiddle with the switch on the end of the lens, or risk getting dust and lint on the lens by leaving it open.

The build quality is pretty standard - plastic with the texture of glossy and brushed metal, with a Schneider Kreuznach lens with a 34x zoom. The sensor is a 1/6" DSP CCD chip, and there are stereo mikes on either side of the lens, which doesn't exactly translate to a lot of spread in the sound image, but it's better than nothing. There's an input for the AC charger, a USB and 1/4" video out under a little flap on the back, and the handgrip swivels about for flexibility of grip, though I found that I kept it in the straight on default position if my meaty hand was going to reach around to use the zoom toggle.

The camera is about the same size as the Canon VIXIA HF10, though it's about a quarter of the price, and much easier to use. The VIXIA is an HD camera, however, while the SC-MX20 isn't - the technical specs describe a widescreen 720 x 480i  image - what Samsung describes as TV Super Fine, which means it'll look great on your computer monitor or CTR screen, but grainy on your flat panel TV.

That's not the destination Samsung is hoping buyers will be taking their video, and the camera's box notes prominently that it's "YouTube friendly." Samsung is guessing - correctly, as far as I can tell - that the ultimate destination for most home video is your computer and, beyond that, the internet, and not the screen of your home theatre. With that in mind, I picked up the SC-MX20, turned it on, swivelled over the the left and pointed the camera at my cat, who had taken up her usual midday spot on the footstool in front of the TV.



The SC-MX20 saves its files to the convenient mpeg-4 format, so it was easy to upload a discrete file to YouTube - much easier, say, than trying to edit and save a portion of the finished discs from my Sony DVD cam. You can use Samsung's Mediashow software if you want, but it's just as easy uploading straight from your hard drive to your YouTube account. With this sort of simplicity of operation, I can imagine that my cousin would have shot hours, not minutes, of family footage, if something like the SC-MX20 was available in 1961.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

e-mail:
rick -at- rickmcginnis.com

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