Choosing and Using a DV Camcorder

A DV camera enables you to capture your own video and easily import clips into iMovie via FireWire. Obtaining a DV camera can be a baffling and sometimes intimidating process. There are many brands, and each offers many models with dozens of different features. This adds up to more choices than you might want to deal with.

However, by assessing a few specific factors, you can quickly reduce the dozens of choices you have to just a few.

  • iMovie compatibility Compatibility with iMovie should be the most important factor you consider when you choose a DV camera. What does iMovie compatibility mean? Basically, it means that you have the easiest time and get the best results using that camera with iMovie. This is because you can control the camera from within iMovie, which makes transferring clips from the camera into iMovie a snap.

    Apple maintains a list of iMovie-compatible cameras on the iMovie Web page. To see this list, go to You will have the best results if the camera you choose is on this list.

  • Format Many video camera formats are available; the good news is that you need to consider only two formats: Digital8 and MiniDV. The difference between them is, as you probably surmised, size. Digital8 cameras use a digital tape that is the same physical size as an 8mm tape. MiniDV tapes are considerably smaller, and MiniDV cameras tend to be considerably smaller, as well. Because of the size benefits and the fact that MiniDV has become the standard for DV camcorders, I recommend that you consider only cameras that use the MiniDV format.


    If you already have lots of 8mm tapes, give the Digital8 format a closer look. Digital8 cameras can record on standard 8mm tapes as well as digital 8mm tapes. This means that you can continue to view and use your current 8mm tapes. However, if you don't have this situation, MiniDV is likely to be a better choice.

  • Cost How much you have to pay for a camera is likely to be one of the first things you think about. And it might indeed be the most important factor of all. To quickly find out how much specific models cost, make a note of some of the models you see on the supported cameras list. Go to your favorite retail Web site?try search for the models you noted to see how much they cost.

  • Size, shape, and comfort How often you shoot video with a camera is usually a matter of how convenient it is to carry and use. Fortunately, MiniDV cameras are very small; in fact, a few are almost pocket-size! Make sure that the camera you get is small enough that you're willing to haul it with you (you can't shoot video if you don't have the camera with you!).

  • Magnification The power of the lens determines how close you must be in order to shoot something. Two values are quoted for DV cameras. One value is for optical zoom, and the other is for digital zoom. Optical zoom uses the physical lenses to achieve magnification; digital zoom uses digital enhancements to make the image larger. Optical zoom provides higher quality, but both are useful. For both values, bigger numbers are better (for example, a 20X optical zoom is better than a 10X optical zoom).

    If it comes down to a choice, larger optical magnification is more important than a larger digital magnification. Optical magnification actually improves the image, whereas digital magnification uses the same amount of data to generate the image. For example, a 20X optical zoom with a 75X digital zoom is probably preferable to a 15X optical zoom with a 250X digital zoom.

  • Lighting options Some models have built-in lights to use when you shoot in low-light conditions. Others feature shoes into which you can plug external lights, such as those used for high-quality still cameras. Some models are designed to use the same lights as their 35mm film-based still-image cousins.

  • Input and output ports In addition to the FireWire port, other ports are available to get information into or out of the camera. These include a headphone jack so that you can connect and use a higher-quality or focusable microphone, additional audio/video input/output ports, and so on.

After you have obtained a digital video camera, using one is very similar to using an analog camcorder. Hopefully, you will use a script or storyboard to plan the shooting you will do with it to get the clips from which you will build your movie.

After you have a collection of video clips, you are ready to get into iMovie to begin making a movie.


Make sure that the DV camera you get has a port that enables you to record from an external source. This is usually called an A/V port. Often, this is the same port that is used to export video from the camera (the same jack is used to record from a source as is used to export the video to a VCR). This feature enables you to use an analog source to capture clips for your movies (in effect, such camcorders function as digitizers). For example, you can record from a VCR and then use FireWire to transfer that footage through the DV camera into iMovie so that you can use it in your movies. This is easy to do, and the quality is very good (better than with most consumer-level digitizing devices). Even better is a model that enables you to pass-through a signal so that you don't even have to record it with your DV camera because the signal passes through the DV camera into your Mac (via FireWire). This means that you get a higher-quality first-generation recording in your movie rather than a second-generation recording (as you would if you have to record the video on the DV camcorder before you import it into iMovie).


Before you start making DV movies, you should make sure that you have lots of space in which to store your iMovie project. If you have 2GB or more available, you have enough to get started; however, you won't be able to store very many minutes of DV footage. If the free space is between 1GB and 2GB, you can get started, but you will have to carefully manage your disk space as you work. If there is less than 1GB of free space, you need to move some of your files off your disk because you won't have enough room for anything except the briefest of movie projects.

    Part I: Mac OS X: Exploring the Core
    Part III: Mac OS X: Living the Digital Lifestyle