by John Henshall
If you feel you can't afford a digital still camera, it may surprise you to discover that you already have the most important part of the kit already. It's probably been stuffed away in the cupboard since the last family holiday in Torremolinos four or five years ago. Dust it off: a little lateral thought could save you a small fortune.
Your old camcorder is already an electronic camera. Like its latest digital still camera cousins, it has a CCD image sensing chip to convert light into electrons, instead of using film. The only thing it doesn't have is the part that converts the electronic picture to digital. We'll show you how to get round this.
Your camcorder has more facilities than a digital still camera costing over a grand - like a twenty five frames-per-second continuous motor drive. Moving images are just a rapid succession of stills and a European camcorder takes twenty five pictures per second. That will make sure you don't miss Granny's flash of knickers as she does the knees-up at the wedding. A one hour tape - removable re-usable image storage media - holds 90,000 images. A ninety minute tape holds 135,000 images. No digital still cameras have such features but every camcorders does.
Your camcorder probably has a zoom lens, enabling you to get tight closeups and expansive wide angles. It may have macro, to fill the frame with a butterfly on a flower. Making up retrospective albums becomes easy as this shot of my daughter Annelies, taped seventeen years ago, shows.
You'll be kicking yourself now if you flogged your old camcorder for a tenner at the car boot sale last summer.
Maybe it's time you treated yourself to one of the new 'DV' (Digital Video) jobs? They give much higher quality pictures than the older camcorders. We'll tell you how to use them as a digital still camera, capable of blasting 640 x 480 pixel digital still cameras out of the water. You'll also be able to film weddings and barmitzvahs, complete with digital stereo sound.
WHAT YOU NEED
Apart from a camcorder, you need a computer. Anything from a '486 up, or any Mac or PowerMac. Look on the back, it's a bit of a long shot but it might just be one of those which already has AV (audio-visual) inputs.
Look for a cluster of phono sockets, perhaps coloured yellow (video), red and white (audio) and also a socket about 9mm diameter with four pins and a small rectangular peg (S-Video).
If you've got these, you've got a built in video digitiser free and all you need is the cable to connect your camcorder to the computer. Use the S-Video sockets if you've got them. They keep the video brightness and colour signals separate, producing better quality pictures. If you can't use S-Video, get a good quality phono lead intended to carry video.
On The Cards
If you don't have AV inputs, you need a video 'grabber', either inside or outside the computer case.
Installing an internal card involves taking the cover off your PC. Though it's not beyond the capabilities of someone who's practical and careful, if you have any doubts at all get a qualified service engineer to install it. These cards may also give you on-screen tv and teletext, with video grabbing almost incidental. Unfortunately they don't give very sharp colour definition.
But, hey, why bother with all this when you can buy a no-compromise digitising device which just plugs into the parallel (printer) port in five seconds? It's called Snappy, made in the USA by Play Inc. Good news is that the UK price has just been halved, to £95. There's no other device like it on the market. Don't risk poking about inside your computer: buy one of these. It's easy, it's safe.
Snappy is a wacky design with two recessed blue thumbscrews which secure it firmly to the parallel port. It's light in weight but a bit bulky so connect it using a printer extension cable, which also enables you to have Snappy wherever it's convenient to connect the video cables. Apart from the 25 pin connector there are just two phono sockets: one marked 'Video In', the other 'Video Thru'. Video thru loops the pictures from the camcorder through to a television set - easier than peering at the small preview on the computer monitor.
Snappy is powered by a standard 9 volt internal battery, said to be good for a thousand snaps. It has a small (160 x 120 pixels) black and white preview window which updates twice a second with the incoming signal.
If you haven't got video connected, you see a snow storm - like a tv set with the aerial out. To grab a still from your video, press the 'Snap' button. There is a delay between the frame you see when you click 'Snap' and the frame you get - irritating if you're trying to grab the best frame of the children playing.
Version 3 of the software has just been announced in the USA, looking as though it has been redesigned by Kai Krause. It has a 'live' colour preview and a shorter delay between clicking snap and the frame you get but version 3 is only available for the American tv standard (NTSC) at the moment.
And sorry, Mac users, Snappy is only for PCs.
It's so hot it's burning
If you haven't got a camcorder, but don't mind spending upwards of a grand on the latest gear, the future - and the best stills - are here now in the form of DV camcorders. JVC, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony and now Canon all have DV camcorders, ranging upwards from £1,000. This is a hot area to watch.
The Sony DCR-PC7E Digital Camcorder
The best way to acquire still (and moving) digital images from a DV camcorder is directly into your computer is using a new digital connection interface called IEEE1394, popularly known as FireWire, though some manufacturers want it to be called 'i.Link'. Memorable, eh?
FireWire's main advantage is its fantastic speed - it will transfer data between devices at speeds up to up to 400Mbps (million bits per second). That's about 50 Megabytes per second. The other big advantage is its ease of connectivity via small thin cables, with tiny connectors and the facility to 'hot plug' devices without powering down the computer.
Not to get too technical, it is isochronous - how's that for a good new word to drop in conversation? - which means that it delivers data at a pre-determined fixed rate. This is essential for applications such as video, which needs a constant stream at about 25MB per second. Other systems, which deliver data in fits and starts, are not reliable enough. FireWire is.
Radius PhotoDV consists of a FireWire card for PCI Macs and a PhotoShop plug-in. It also comes with Color It! in case you haven't got PhotoShop. The FireWire speed advantage is immediately noticeably when you acquire digital stills from a DV camcorder.
When you've found the precise frame you want, it takes less than two seconds to capture it into the computer.The system is so simple, effective and fast to use that it makes you never want to go back to using a low resolution digital still camera with slow serial interface.
When you have a DV camcorder, you'll soon be itching to 'non linear' edit your home video movies on the computer, using software such as Adobe Premiere and Strata (formerly Avid) VideoShop. Radius have just released a FireWire video editing system in the USA for $999, which uses the already digitised sound and video direct from the camcorder. A European version is expected in the second quarter of 1998. Start saving now for a really fast computer and hard drive.