Smaller Isn't Always Better

I can remember breaking into the TV business when news photographers still shot film carrying a Bach Auricon 400-foot film-magnetic conversion camera. It came with a separate amplifier for adding sound on a magnetic strip down the side of the film. With a separate battery for mobile operation, we shouldered about 40 pounds.

We shouldn't have complained, I suppose, because the station had pictures of earlier news photographers carrying wet-cell car-batteries instead of ni-cad battery packs, but as you can well imagine, we prayed for something smaller and lighter.

Eventually, they came: Cinema Products incorporated the amplifier and battery into the body of the camera itself. The company used a crystal-controlled motor that eliminated the need for an AC inverter, and substituted plastic for the magnesium used to make the film magazines (the mouse ears atop old film cameras).

The new CP-16s weighed just north of 20 pounds. Wow! It made a huge difference in how fast and how far we could move. Where we used to grab our silent camera, the three-lens turreted Bell & Howell Filmo to cover breaking news when we had to move fast, we could now take the CP-16 and capture synchronous sound while shooting.

Still, you gave up some things with this miniaturization, if you can call 20-plus pounds "miniature."

For one thing, the controls and VU meter for the amplifier were located at the back of the camera. This meant when you operated from a tripod, you had to take your eye away from the viewfinder to adjust sound levels. With the camera on your shoulder, you just guessed.

(With the older, 40-pound version, the cameraman could use his non-shooting eye to glance down at the separated amplifier and read the VU directly. That's why many shooters from that era have an un-caged left eye that gives us that maniacal Jack Elam look.)


This whole history of television lesson is by way of saying that as camera equipment is reduced in size, other changes need to be made to give the operator the features and the feel of the equipment replaced.

You need look no further than today's studio cameras for exhibit A. The guts to the camera are no larger than a field-portable model, but you need a certain size unit on which to mount a box-lens, studio viewfinder and teleprompter. There's also the benefit of all that weight to dampen and smooth on-air camera moves. And controls can continue to be placed where the experienced operator is used to finding them.

At NAB, a number of camera makers showed portable high-end cameras that could work as both shoulder-held or studio cameras. They offered frames (called sleds) the portable camera slipped into that gave it the size and feature set of a regular studio camera.

Even with the high quality of the palm-type cameras, there will continue to be demand for shoulder-type camcorders. For one thing, the palm-size units often lack balanced audio inputs and reasonable audio-level controls.

Similarly, they also lack reasonable focus and exposure control. And despite lens stabilization, you can't hand-hold a palm-sized camera as steadily as a more massive shoulder-style camcorder.

Lens makers will also make an argument that you can't have the optimum lens without more glass.


I did hear a dandy reason to carry the palm-type camera the other day. A recently returned, embedded journalist from the war in Iraq remarked that the shoulder-mounted camcorders looked a lot like weapons on the shoulder of cameramen in the theater, making them targets for snipers.

You can be assured cameras will continue to get smaller. The introduction of HDTV CMOS sensors as a replacement for CCDs, with their ability to carry more of the camera's processing circuitry on the sensor chip itself, and their lower-power demands, makes for cameras that may look like nothing but lenses.

And Panasonic's introduction of solid-state recording media at NAB also makes for a smaller camcorder. After all, these units won't require the motors necessary to wind a tape or spin a disk, nor the extra battery power those motors require.

Smaller can be better, if you don't give up too many features.