As with the Canon DC10 reviewed last year, the DC40 is ergonomically very good. The circular DVD imposes a naturally comfortable shape to the camera and most of the controls fall easily beneath your thumb or fingers. It’s wise to ensure the hand grip strap is properly adjusted because it really improves the way the camera fits snugly into your palm. In this respect the camera is very well designed, although serious home videographers will need to take care when panning, tilting or zooming because this is yet another of those masterpieces of miniaturisation that are, in my opinion, too small for serious hand-held work. This difficulty is completely overcome by using a tripod or other supporting device.
As with its smaller brother, the DC40 can accommodate only one size of battery -beck
an 850 mAh lithium-ion BP-208. This lives in a rectangular well within the LCD viewfinder bay which is good because it can be changed while on a tripod, but bad because you can’t use a larger, long-life battery. Battery life ranges from a typical value of up to 45 minutes to a theoretical maximum of 80 minutes, which is not a lot, especially if you use the LCD viewfinder and overuse the zoom.
In real-world shooting, the camera has serious limitations. Each battery takes about 150 minutes to recharge so you would be well-advised to buy several and keep them always fully charged. Furthermore, the small 8 cm DVD only holds about 30 minutes of highest quality video, so your travelling kit will certainly include a spindle of blank DVDs and a bum bag full of batteries.
My impression of the DC10 was that it was a very cleverly designed camera and the same holds true for the DC40. The flimsy looking zoom lever is actually quite easy to use and features a pressure sensitive variable speed.
There’s an array of clearly labelled buttons on the left-hand side of the body, including the excellent preset wheel and the ‘Omni Selector’, a small four-direction joystick with a central selection button. I’m not overly impressed with the Omni Selector. It’s too small and is a bit ‘floppy’ in use. It’s too easy to push sideways when you meant to push it up or down. I guess it has to be small to fit onto the tiny camera’s body but, again, I wish it had been better designed to work with adult human fingers.
In use, you toggle through video, still or playback mode by pressing down on the power switch then select your shooting mode by rotating the mode wheel.
‘Auto’ is self-explanatory – the camera attempts to optimise the image and does a very good job of it, although it will be tricked by backlighting or filming a spotlit subject. There are overrides available for those kinds of situations.
‘P’ selects from Program AE, Tv (shutter priority) and Av (aperture priority). When set to Tv, for example, you can select the shutter speed you want and lock it in. Similarly, within Av you choose the aperture you want and it’s locked in.
Video shutter speeds range from 1/6 to 1/2000 of a second, with apertures ranging in 14 increments from f1.8 to f16. In stills mode the range is from Â½ to 1/720th of a second. The settings you choose are retained even after powering off, which is a very useful feature that other manufacturers could emulate.
Presets are selected from the SCN position on the mode wheel. With eight to choose from, these represent a very snappy way to rapidly set the camera up for different types of shooting. Available scenes are: Portrait, Snow, Spotlight, Sports, Beach, Fireworks, Night and Sunset, and you can see the difference they make in the LCD screen.
Manual settings include exposure lock and adjustment, manual focus with infinity adjustment, and eight white balance presets, including full auto and full manual white balance. Metering can range from evaluative, which can handle quite complex lighting situations, through centre weighted average to spot metering. These are options commonly found on professional stills and video cameras and, used properly, can give superb results.
The DC40 as a stills camera
A major advance over the earlier DC10 is in the provision of a 4 megapixel image sensor for taking stills. Coupled with the excellent 11-element multi-coated Canon lens, this makes the DC40 a surprisingly competent stills camera, capable of producing good-quality prints up to about A4 size. The highest quality stills are 2304 x 1736 pixels putting this camera on a par with all those hundreds of dedicated 3-5 megapixel stills cameras on the market. The only limitation with the lens is that it’s not very wide, at 41 to 47mm (35mm equivalent). Given that wide-angle shots are very popular in home movies, weddings and scenery shots, this is way too narrow. You would have to invest in a good wide-angle adaptor when you buy those extra batteries.
Given its great stills specifications, wide range of extremely useful presets and manual controls, great lens and great ergonomics, it’s easy to get quite enthused by this little masterpiece. The only quibbles are that the power switch feels as though it might easily be broken, the Omni Function pad is a bit klutzy and the viewfinder and LCD screen are a bit grainy.
I’ve come to realise that DVD cameras are really designed to record home videos that can be played back on the family telly without any editing, and in this role they’re excellent. The MPEG2 compression is good, producing sharp pictures with relatively little movement artefact. If you want really good pictures you should use a tripod and pan or tilt very slowly. That way you’ll get very sharp pictures with rich colour.
If you want to edit your video, you can use the supplied Roxio My DVD for Canon software to do limited editing in the camera. You can also transfer the video, and stills, to a computer. As with all MPEG2 DVD cameras, you’ll have fairly severe problems trying to edit using your favorite NLE software. There are two important reasons for this.
Firstly you’ll find preview playback performance is very poor when attempting to play back an MPEG2 file. It takes a huge amount of CPU power to decode the highly compressed video stream and this will leave you unusably slow frame rates, down around 1-3 frames per second.
Secondly, having edited your family masterpiece, you then have to render it out to the format of your choice. Even with top-end software, the results will be disappointing. If you re-render to MPEG2 so you can put your edited video back onto a DVD you’ll have fairly fuzzy images and shocking movement artefacts. My advice is that if you want to edit video, use a tape or hard drive camera. If you want to video the kids and play it straight back on the TV, then DVD cameras such as the DC40 will give very good results.
The DC40 is an excellent camcorder with a raft of really useful pro-style features, mostly easily accessed through buttons and dials. Image quality is great and its stills are of very high quality, given that a 4 megapixel chip was considered a luxury just a few years ago. Ergonomically it’s one of the best in its class. Provided the limitations of the DVD format are appreciated – especially when it comes to editing – the camera will be great for home videos. For semi-pro use the same features on a tape-based camera would be sensational.