Focus issues with my Canon Vixia HF20
Recently my old Sony DCR-TRV900 let me down (repairs were too expensive to be worth it), and I got myself a Canon Vixia HF20. I'm reasonably happy with my purchase, but I do have a few issues with it.
One issue that especially bugs me is its focus capabilities. It seems to have a fair deal of trouble getting good focus. Actually, the picture is never as sharp as I'd like, and sometimes it's so bad that I can't use the footage at all. Now, I realize that it's normal not to get perfect sharpness. When editing the videos I made with my TRV900, I always had to give them a sharpness boost, and I didn't mind that at all. The pictures looked just fine after adding sharpness, and they weren't that bad to begin with. But the Vixia HF20 is something else entirely. I really don't understand it. I know it's not an expensive 3CCD camcorder like my old TRV900, but still. The latter stopped being sold in 2002. I kind of expected a modern AVCHD camcorder to be able to do something at least as good as my old one, at least in terms of focus. Especially when I use MXP mode. What's the point of shooting in high-quality 1920x1080 if the picture is fuzzy?
Is it possible I'm doing something wrong, like a bad setting or handling the camcorder in a bad way? I use automatic focus, and most of the time I use a tripod (even more than before, as I learned that the much lower weight of the Vixia makes it a lot harder to keep a stable picture compared to my old TRV900, which I actually found easier to handle). I'm currently not using the custom sharpness-increasing option in the Image Effects menu, as I got some of the worst results using it (I'm not quite sure how much of a difference there is between using it and not).
Sometimes the lighting conditions aren't that great, and I admit the focus performance is somewhat better when the set is brightly lit, but even in the worst lit scenes I wouldn't say it's low-light conditions, not even close. I don't see how the camcorder can have trouble with such mild conditions. My old camcorder handled them just fine.
I tend to film people from a couple of yards away or so, as I almost always shoot in an ordinary apartment room. The focus isn't too bad when I get a wide shot, but close-ups can be awful. I don't use the digital zoom, by the way. What's inconvenient is that, unlike the actual footage, the picture in the LCD looks perfectly focused (it looks great, really), making it impossible for me to tell there's a problem while filming. Come to think of it, how is it possible for the LCD to show a focused picture when the captured footage is clearly out of focus? Anyway, the problem isn't even with shifting focus while doing a close-up shot with a somewhat mobile model or shaky camcorder. The camera doesn't struggle to get a sharp picture. The focus just remains constantly bad.
Anyway, all this to say that I'm unpleasantly surprised with the way my new camcorder handles focus. Because of it, I have to be extra careful with the types of shots I get, and it's really hard to judge. Again, it's not a 3CCD, but it's not a $300 camcorder either, and I expected a much better picture from it. If anyone has any advice, I would be most grateful. Thank you in advance.
By the way, I'm really sorry about the length of this post. I have trouble being concise when writing. Thank you for your patience.
Don't apologize for the long post, Francois... more details are always better than too few.
I don't have many solutions, but might be able to shed just a little light on your situation...
Firstly, today's super-small palmcorders can be notoriously difficult to focus (especially manually, and it seems especially Canons). I have the precedessor little HV20 that I bought just for fun... and while otherwise a great little camera for the money, it is maddenly difficult to focus.
However, usually autofocus does work pretty darn good.
I would suggest firstly that you try to improve your lighting situations, if possible. The better illuminated a scene is, the better the camera's autofocus system will work. If the scene is dim, if the gain has to be kicked up or the shutter speed slowed just to get an acceptable image, the autofocus is going to find that situation a challenge to nail sharp images.
[Francois Arsenault] "how is it possible for the LCD to show a focused picture when the captured footage is clearly out of focus?"
At least this part of your quandry is very easy. The simple answer is, the footage is not in focus, it just appears to be in the viewfinder. This is because virtually all viewfinders, especially in small cameras (either eyepieces or flip-out screens) are very very low resolution. I don't know the exact specs, but I'm betting your viewfinder shows only 200 lines of resolution or so. Ergo, a semi-soft image can look just as sharp as one that is perfectly in focus. It's similar to when you might look at HD footage on a standard-def monitor. What might appear to be razor sharp could actually be fairly soft when viewed on a real HD monitor.
And actually, that's going to be your best bet... a location monitor. Forget about trying to use the viewfinder for eyeball focusing, they are fairly useless for that (and not just your camera, but most any viewfinder). You need a decent HD monitor on location if you eyeball focus. And be wary of the little LCD TTF monitors that say they are HD... most of them simply can accept an HD signal, but are not really displaying an HD picture. Many of them are only displaying about 400-500 lines, so look at the actual technical specs very carefully should you buy one.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
So it seems I'll have to get used to the limitations of my new acquisition. I wish my old camcorder was still usable. It had its quirks, but I got used to them, and it never had any trouble at all with focus, regardless of distance, zoom or lighting conditions.
I'll try to improve the lighting, but frankly, I've been trying to do it for the last few years. My apartment is very poorly lit. I've tried many different setups, but none give truly satisfactory results. I do have two lighting kits, which help a lot, but they're very basic, and if I try to increase the light too much, it results in harsh overexposure, especially on the subjects' skin. So there's a limit to how bright I can make things. I often use diffusers in front of my lamps, but even then, either the light is still too harsh or it's not strong enough. I simply can't get strong but soft/diffuse lighting.
There is a room in my apartment that I thought was significantly better lit than the others (my office). There's a ceiling lamp with a diffusion bowl in there. With one lighting kit of two, things actually look pretty nice. Unfortunately, I also noticed that with the Vixia, colored flat surfaces like walls or sheets look pixelated or something. I find myself limited to rooms with very little color, which is boring. I don't know if it's once again due to poor lighting, but I really can't make the lighting any better than it is in my office. I either have to accept a background that's significantly more grainy/pixelated than the subjects, or film in more boring and potentially darker rooms.
About the picture shaking issue that I also mentioned, I think I'll try to leave the camcorder attached to the tripod when I carry it in my hands. It's awkward, but the extra weight does help stabilize it somewhat. I guess I could use the Image Stabilizer function, but I tried it, and to my eye it makes motion look a little odd in a way I can't quite describe, especially when the camcorder is static on the tripod (in which case the function isn't useful at all, of course). Then again, I don't know if this odd effect (which is fairly subtle) is really due to the Image Stabilizer, or if it's caused by something else. I haven't had a chance to experiment enough to really tell.
As for the LCD, I guess you're right, the picture looks good because the resolution is so small. It's kinda like when I extracted stills from the footage I got with my Sony TRV900. It was quite good with video, but it wasn't designed to be good with stills, so the pictures only looked decent if I resized them as small as 320x240, or even less. It's a good thing the stills weren't critical to my project. Anyway, I'll do some research on location monitors.
It's quite obvious that I have a lot to learn, not only about the Vixia HF20 and other HD camcorders, but filming in general. What's a little sad about me knowing so little is that I've been producing videos for the last 8 years. You'd think I'd be more skilled by now, but the thing is that my project is only an amateur side thing that I do very irregularly, and I never had any formal training. The fact that my main "studio" is so poorly lit doesn't help either.
In any case, I thank you for the information. It might not provide an easy solution, but I much prefer to know that what I'm experiencing is normal in my situation than to worry that the camcorder may be defective or that I'm overlooking a setting that I might never notice. Your help is much appreciated.
Francois, if you can improve your lighting, I bet you will be happier with your end product.
I'd suggest you haunt the Cinematography or Lighting Design forums for a while, see if you can't learn some things that will improve the lighting plot.
Even a small space in an apartment and a minimal lighting kit can give beautiful images... if you use them correctly. You say you are "diffusing" the instruments, but my guess is that you are not diffusing them enough, or in the right way. There are plenty of high-dollar solutions for this (purchasing large soft intruments, softboxes, or Kinoflos), but there are also plenty of ways to do this on the cheap. Bouncing your light into or shooting them through white umbrellas will probably be the easiest/fastest/cheapest way to get nice soft diffuse light that shouldn't be too harsh on your subjects. Lots of people use big Chimera softboxes, but if you are on a budget Photoflex makes very good boxes that are much cheaper. Or hit eBay and search "softbox" under Photographic Lighting and Equipment. I've seen boxes there for as little as $20. You can buy diffusion material in big expensive rolls (Lee 250 or 251 are favorites), or you can go to a fabric store and buy frosted shower curtain material for only a couple of bucks a yard (just don't get it TOO close to your instruments). Also, bounce light. You don't need expensive reflectors. The biggest pros in the business use "bounce cards," which are simply 4x4 sheets of white foamcore. You can buy slightly smaller versions at a hobby or office supply store for a couple of bucks.
You admit your lighting in your present setup is not good... and I think that's the key and the place to start. Great images rarely come from poor lighting. Improve that, and I think you will be happy.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
> I'd suggest you haunt the Cinematography or Lighting Design forums > for a while, see if you can't learn some things that will improve > the lighting plot.
Alright, I'll do that. Thank you for the advice.
> You say you are "diffusing" the instruments, but my guess is that > you are not diffusing them enough, or in the right way.
Yeah, that's quite possible. What I use are homemade discs that I made with diffusion sheets that I bought in a photography store. I hang them in front of my lighting kits (cheap Opus ones with metal bowls). I also tend to bounce the lights off the walls and ceiling instead of pointing the light directly at the models. But again, I either don't get enough light, or the light is too harsh despite the diffusers.
> Bouncing your light into or shooting them through white umbrellas > will probably be the easiest/fastest/cheapest way to get nice soft > diffuse light that shouldn't be too harsh on your subjects.
I actually tried that last year. I bought two kits with umbrellas which used cold lightbulbs (I wanted the lights to be easier on the models than the 300W bulbs I use in my current kits). Unfortunately, I can't say I saw any real improvement. Even worse, no matter how hard I tried to get the white balance right, I always got a picture that was ridiculously orangeish, a problem I never had with my Opus kits. I must admit that I was stunned to find that my cheap $100 kits actually got better results than the $200 kits with umbrellas. I was hoping the latter would solve some of my problems, but no such luck. I returned them, very disappointed.
Assuming the umbrella kits hadn't caused a color problem, would they have been powerful enough for my needs? Soft light is important, but so is enough light, otherwise I might as well stick with my Opus kits and set them so that the models aren't overexposed.
> but if you are on a budget
Heh, I most certainly am.
> Photoflex makes very good boxes that are much cheaper.
> Or hit eBay and search "softbox" under Photographic Lighting and
> Equipment. I've seen boxes there for as little as $20.
Wow, that's impressive!
> The biggest pros in the business use "bounce cards," which are
> simply 4x4 sheets of white foamcore. You can buy slightly smaller > versions at a hobby or office supply store for a couple of bucks.
Would white plastic corrugated boards work too? How do you use bounce cards, exactly? They shouldn't take up too much space, because I'm already very tight as it is. I can barely move around when I shoot as it is.
Thank you again for your help. You've given me a lot to think about. There is only so much I can do with my limited means, especially since I'm not a pro and can't justify putting a lot of money into my project, but I'll see what I can do.