There are advantages and disadvantages to using video, and especially analog video, in creating a project of this nature. The advantages include the speed, cost, and versatility of video media. The disadvantage, to be very honest and brief, can be summarized in one word -- quality. Under my (financial) circumstances, video was a compromise that enabled me to begin and continue this project.
To shoot video is fairly inexpensive. There are no processing costs and the medium is recyclable. That is, if you wish, you may tape over the existing information. I've read that this will reduce the quality of the imagery, but it may be satisfactory for general purposes. The tapes themselves are relatively inexpensive and a great deal of footage can be held on a single tape. It is also convenient to swap tapes between shoots so you can reserve designated cassettes for the project. This makes storage and retrieval of the information easier to manage.
Speed and magnification are both important aspects in capturing something as elusive as birds. In most instances, birds don't pose. If you are fortunate to find one standing or sitting still, it is generally at a considerable distance from the observer. An advantage of the video camera is its built-in zoom feature. Most video cameras on the market now have (optical) zoom in the 16X - 26X range. By contrast, 35mm SLR and digital cameras require a special (expensive!) telephoto lens to achieve similar levels of magnification. The 35mm film camera is also limited by its focus time (for those of us with manual focus lens) and low light limitations. The video camera generally has an advantage in both of these catagories. The ability to zoom and shoot in less than ideal light situations adds to the video camera's versatility.
As mentioned previously, birds seldom sit still. In fact, many of the birds were first spotted because they were moving. To track a small, moving bird with a still camera can be frustrating -- with many missed shots. With the video camera there is a greater chance of catching a bird in a momentary rest or "photographic" pose. There is also the advantage of catching the bird in action, and often times this permits viewing the bird from different angles as it moves about. There are numerous times this has aided in the post-trip identification process as I examined a sequence of frames and discerned various "markings." In addition to its ability to capture movement, the video camera has the added versatility of recording sound. With its ability to record bird behavior and sound, the video camera can be a valuable and fun field tool.
All of this is not to say there are not limitations to "video birding," especially with the equipment available to me. The most significant factor is the quality of images. While I would love to take National Geographic-quality images, it is not possible with a consumer-level video camera and not practical at a hobbist level. The results of video recording are "quick and dirty," not elegant and artful. Video does not record the detail and resolution of film photography. There is no way a single frame of film will produce an image with the same clarity and detail as a photograph or slide. In addition to this shortcoming, I have the disadvantage of needing to digitize the analog video. The conversion of analog (VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, ...) to a digital format further compromises the resulting images.
Compare the following images. At a small size both images appear acceptable. However, if you select the links below you'll get a better idea of the difference in image quality. The varied thrush was digitized on the computer from a video tape. The Canada goose was scanned from a 35mm slide using a film scanner.
One further limitation should be noted to anyone using either a video camera or a digital still camera. In order to a achieve an increased zoom factor, these cameras come equipped with a digital zoom feature. While it appears that the object is brought closer and fills more of the view finder, it does this at a cost to image quality. If possible, limit your use to the optical zoom of your camera. Otherwise, you will begin to see a blurring of colors and loss of clarity. Again, it is a matter of compromise. If you want the increased magnification, you will inevitable suffer a reduction in quality.
Another tool I would recommend, though due to my own impatience I seldom use, is a tripod. The use of the tripod helps to stabilize the image and would reduce the shaky images often seen in my QuickTime video clips. The downside is the hassle of leveling the tripod and loss of freedom to pan (turn) with birds in flight. It is a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment I plan to use more frequently in the future.
While I'm at it, let me mention the importance of having a manual focus option on your cameras. Most of the time the autofocus on my Handycam is sufficient. There are times, however, when I missed shots because the camera focused on the wrong thing. The 8mm Handycam lacked a manual focus option, and I really regret the lack of this feature. My current Hi-8 Handycam, however, does have a manual focus option and it has been very helpful in several instances.
The other limitation to "video birding" is the initial equipment costs. It can be expensive to buy a decent video camera, although the price and feature list are likely to make these more compelling bargains as time goes on. The other expense here is the editing equipment. If you don't have a computer, or if you need to retro-fit a computer, this can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on your level of sophistication. The prevalance of both computers and video cameras, however, makes this a low hurdle for many people to overcome. Especially with the growing availability and standardization of digital video equipment, this should become an increasingly interesting and exciting activity for birders or other nature observers.
Even with the limitation of video taping birds, I can honestly say that none of this would have happened without it. I love looking at crystal clear, close-up images of birds and wished I could do it. However, I am faced with the decision -- use what I have or do nothing at all. I choose to make do. In the future I hope to make improvements in my knowledge, my equipment, and my techniques both in the field and at home. It has been a pleasant, though time-consuming, process of uniting my interests in computers and nature. I have learned a great deal about birds, computers, and video taping along the way. While there are many more birds to tape and much more to learn about the digital process, I look forward to the journey. I am especially hopeful of encountering others with a passion for nature, a concern for education, and an interest in communication technology.
Michael R. Clapp
March 18, 2002
(updated January 10, 2004)
** Equipment update notice: As of Summer 2006, I have begun taking digital still images with a Panasonic-Lumix DMC-FZ20 digital camera, with a 12X optical zoom lens. Images are then cropped and enhanced (lighting & contrast) in Adobe Photoshop Elements. The image quality is much improved and has allowed me to crop more closely and to post the images at a larger size (480px X 360px, instead of 320px X 240px).
(amended January 15, 2007)