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Holiday Gift Guide: iMovie-friendly video cameras

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Funny thing about video cameras: you can spend an arbitrarily large amount of money on them, if you want. The line between the kind of equipment used exclusively by professionals and the stuff you might find in the gear bag of a weekend Scorsese has become so blurred that an $8,000 Canon HD camera no longer seems completely inappropriate for an Amazon wishlist.

Well, maybe that's a trifle exaggerated; the high-end Canon, Sony and RED Digital Cinema cameras are certainly out of reach for even the most dedicated hobbyist. (We can dream.) Nevertheless, with prosumer & consumer cameras converging in the $1,000+ range and Flip-style compact HD devices found for less than $100, which ones should you focus on if your post-production process includes editing in iMovie? (For an overview of cameras for the Mac user, see our Cameras gift guide here.)

Apple's consumer editing app, part of the $49 iLife '11 suite (but available as a $14.99 standalone buy from the Mac App Store, and shipped with every new Mac today) has a lot more in common with the company's flagship editing tool than it used to. Final Cut Pro X has moved closer to iMovie's editing metaphors and control approaches, compared to Final Cut Pro 7, so that the transition up to the $299 FCP X from iMovie is a smaller jump now (the previous midrange editor, Final Cut Express, has been discontinued). Both programs are fairly agnostic about what kind of source material they'll work with, too.

Older versions of iMovie were happy to work with DV cameras and some tapeless models, but they were picky; some would work only with specific settings, and some not at all. iMovie '09 noticeably expanded its camera support, as it included an import/transcode option for the AVCHD recording format; it didn't work on PowerPC machines, but on Intel Macs it did the job by converting the AVCHD footage to an editable native format, the Apple Intermediate Codec. This opened up the camera landscape dramatically, but it meant chewing up quite a bit of hard drive space for the transcoded video clips (AIC is a beast when it comes to drive space, gobbling 50GB per hour of footage -- see Divergent Media's hilarious blog post on editing in native formats) and also plenty of time to convert the video before editing. The import also needed to take place directly from the camera.

Now we have iMovie '11, which has camera fever; it works with scores of them. So many models are friendly with the current version of iMovie, in fact, that Apple's replaced the static support chart from '09 with a filtered list that allows you to search by storage media, recording format, manufacturer and more. All of the cameras on this list should be supported well, and there are footnotes indicating any gotchas (for instance, iMovie doesn't handle 1080p60 footage, even though some of the listed cameras do). Just like '09, to handle AVCHD content iMovie '11 will transcode it to AIC before editing; also, like its predecessor, it requires you to import directly from the camera for AVCHD.

So which cameras should you choose? My suggestion is: follow the format. AVCHD cameras are popular and readily available, but because of the transcode requirement they will definitely slow you down when working with iMovie -- even with a fast and capable Mac you would be hard-pressed to turn around a family cocktail hour highlight reel before the Cool Whip hits the pumpkin pie after dinner.

Instead, look for cameras that support H.264, MPEG-4, HDV or iFrame formats. The iFrame format is actually just a special case of H.264, locked to 30 frames per second, progressive scan mode and 960x540 resolution. That's lower-res than both common HD formats (720p = 1280x720px, 1080p = 1920x1080px) but still looks quite good on high-def TVs and conforms to the 16x9 HD aspect ratio. The smaller frame size helps keep the files manageable, although you'll still burn through your memory cards faster with iFrame than with conventional compression. About 42 minutes of iFrame video fit on an 8GB SD card, versus almost 2 hours of 720p MPEG-4 video, as the iFrame format reduces or eliminates predictive frames to make editing faster and less resource-intensive.

iFrame support in a camera manufacturer's product line serves another purpose; frankly, it's a kind of shibboleth for identifying the companies that are willing to at least make a gesture in the direction of Mac-specific capabilities. That's not to say you'll get better service or more clueful iMovie tech support from Panasonic than you would from other vendors, but consider this: historically, one of the best ways for the Mac-using community to show its support for compatibility efforts from vendors (back in the dark days where Mac support was neither a given nor a likely circumstance) was to vote with its dollars. Nowadays the buying power of Apple users is orders of magnitude more than it ever was, and every OEM out there knows it, but it still doesn't hurt to look carefully at who's making the effort to play nice.

I'd recommend sticking to flash memory as a storage medium, rather than an HDD-equipped camera. Although the larger onboard storage capacity of a hard drive-based camera may be tempting, it's going to be heavier and more battery-hungry than an equivalent SD-based unit, and you can't pull the drive out of the camera. SD cards are cheap enough now to make it economical to stock up on them -- and the MacBook Pro, 13" MacBook Air and iMac all sport SD slots for rapid import of footage (at least for non-AVCHD content, as you will have to connect directly to your camera for that).

When it comes down to specific models, there are so many variations of features, format and style that it probably pays to visit your nearest camera retailer or Apple store and play with a couple of units before making a final choice. Personally, I've been using the Flip-style Panasonic HM-TA1 for a year, and I like it a lot; it's cheap, it takes great video (including this iMovie-edited TUAW interview with Jeff from Voltaic Systems), and it's relatively indestructible. Drawbacks include a rather odd USB connector and a seeming inability to charge from anything other than my computer. It also speaks native iFrame, which is very handy for rapid turnaround projects. The TA1 has two successor cameras with larger screens, the rugged HM-TA20 and the stylish HM-TA2; both are worth a look.

Panasonic also bought the camera business that used to be Sanyo's, so the popular Xacti brand of handgrip-style cameras come under the big P's umbrella now. The HX-DC1 and DC-10 models both support iFrame, with a handy flip-out screen and 12x zoom; the more expensive DC-10 adds higher still-shot resolution, intelligent scene exposure control and a full-quality max zoom setting (the DC-1 lets you flip a switch to go between 1x-6x zoom range and 2x-12x). The DC-1 can be found for less than $180, and it should not disappoint; the DC-10 is going to be $260 or more if you can find it, as it sold quite well during the early part of the shopping season.

Moving up the quality line to full-featured HD cam models, Canon's Vixia cameras consistently get great reviews and deliver great quality. You will pay for what you get; the Canon gear is not cheap, but you should decide how much your lucky shooter will be using the camera and figure out if it's worth the investment. (They will love you for it.) Sony's pro and consumer cameras also deliver a lot of bang for the buck.

If your beloved shutterbug is equally interested in still photography along with the video jones, it might be worth considering a still-centric camera as a video device. I have a Canon S95 point-and-shoot which works excellently for clean, 720p24 video, although like many P&S models it cannot adjust the optical zoom during a video shot. That's a bygone restriction in the successor S100 model, which allows optical zoom and adds a 1080p mode to boot; also, the presence of the newer unit will help lower the price of the S95 now. If your gift recipient craves an interchangeable lens system for a compact camera, the two Nikon 1 models look extremely tempting; both support iMovie-friendly H.264 files, interchangeable lenses (including all traditional Nikon lenses, with an adapter) and add the ability to intermix still captures with movie recording on the fly. (Note that many still cameras will import video to iPhoto or Aperture rather than iMovie, but it's easy to get to from there for editing.)

Of course, Canon and Nikon's still camera lines go way beyond the point & shoot universe. Canon's EOS-7D, 5D Mark II and forthcoming 1DX set the benchmark for HD video-capable SLRs, and if you've ever seen the kind of astonishing footage that comes off these suckers you'll know why (and you'll also know why the 7D body starts at $1,200, never mind the lenses). The 5D MkII shows up on Apple's iMovie compatibility list, though oddly not the 7D; still, if you're even considering getting an SLR for video use, save a few dollars for FCP X too. For all things SLR/video, don't miss Philip Bloom's idiosyncratic and delightful site (his story of demoing the Canon cameras for the denizens of Skywalker Ranch is unforgettable).

Don't forget, too, that some of the most convenient cameras for iMovie are already bundled inside Apple's bestselling smartphone and music player. The iPhone 4S and the iPod touch are dandy for iMovie video capture, when you need the camera that's already in your pocket. After all, the best camera is the one you have with you.

If you do decide to go with a camera that defaults to AVCHD video, it should be noted that you aren't strictly limited to iMovie's built-in conversion routine, although that's the least-effort approach. Shedworx makes the $39.99 VoltaicHD converter app, which transcodes AVCHD content into other QuickTime formats. Divergent Media's ClipWrap can 'rewrap' the AVCHD content (or HDV, or other formats) into an edit-friendly bundle, with optional transcoding; it's $49.99. If you'd like to roll your own converter, there's the open-source hdffxvrt script, which does AVCHD transcoding via the ffmpeg library.

There's a lot more that goes into great moviemaking than a great camera. Sound, lighting, a solid tripod; even the iMovie missing manual might make a wonderful gift for the filmmaker in training. (By the way, there's a Joby 20% off sale on all GorillaPod models through midnight PST on December 19, so get cracking!)

If you've got a favorite (or feared) gear recommendation for iMovie '11 shooting, share it in the comments below. Happy holidays!

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