by Steve Smith
Accessories for
Digital Cameras
A cottage industry dedicated to developing accessories for miniDV camcorders has sprung up in the four years since the introduction of these compact digital cameras. Today, you can find a wide variety of optical converters, audio enhancements, camera support rigs, power supply options and myriad other ancillaries, all designed to expand the capabilities of the basic camera.

The zoom lenses on most miniDV camcorders are not particularly wide. And most photojournalists, I know, are in love with wide-angle shots. Century Precision Optics has produced a line of optical converters that help overcome this drawback. For the popular Canon XL1's 16x lens, Century makes a .7x zoom-through adapter, a .6x partial zoom-through (up to half the range) and a neat fisheye attachment (no zooming). These pieces are made from high-quality optical glass, and are appropriately coated. A really nice feature is the way they bayonet onto the front of the Canon 16x zoom lens--no threads to screw around with.  

The .7x is sharp and introduces very little distortion. Likewise, the .6x. The fisheye provides a vignetted image and lots of distortion, which makes it a great effects lens. It provides about the same coverage as a 19mm lens on a 35mm still camera. Century also makes a 1.6x tele-converter if you need just a bit more "oomph" at the long end of life, and a set of achromatic diopters for high-quality close-up work.

The Century adapters are certainly a cut above the converters available at most camera shops, and are priced accordingly. The .7x lists for $795, the .6x for $395, and the Fisheye for $495. The tele-converter is $895 and the diopters list for $395 each.

With the new Canon 3x wide-angle zoom, Century has just introduced a fisheye adapter that really sings, and a .6x non-zoom-through converter that I especially like for close-in  work. They list for $395 and $495 respectively.

Century does a line of optical converters for the more compact cameras too. The range is similar to the Canon adapters, but the prices are a little less.  

On the audio side, miniDV life took a great leap forward when Harry Kaufmann introduced his Beachtek DXA-4 dual-XLR audio adapter.  Originally designed for the VX-1000, this little box screws onto the bottom of the camcorder and takes two balanced mike or line inputs, through professional XLR plugs, and outputs a two-channel unbalanced signal through a stereo mini-plug. This passive device is much quieter than powered systems like Canon's MA-100 XLR adapter. DXA's are now available for a variety of cameras, including Sony, Panasonic and Canon. The units list for $195 and have proved absolutely indispensable to many digital camera operators.

Famous for their range of microphone windscreens, Light Wave Systems has just introduced a couple of interesting products for the Canon XL1. The EQ-XL1 is a mesh/fabric slip-on windscreen for the Canon on-board mike. It will attenuate (tech talk for "reduce") wind noise by 30dB, enabling the cameraperson to shoot in winds up to 40mph without noise. A companion piece, the Universal Mini-Mount, moves the on-board mike off the camera's viewfinder clamp and isolates it significantly better than the current arrangement, cutting down on handling noise. The final item, the SI-XL1 System Isolator, puts two blocks of rubber-like material between the camera body and the viewfinder (to which the mike is mounted), further isolating the microphone from camera noise. A secondary benefit of the SI is to move the eyepiece about two-inches further forward, which helps to improve the camera's balance. All three Light Wave products are being distributed by Canon. The screen lists for $150, the Mini-Mount for $150 and the System Isolator for $125.

One of the limitations of this new generation of digital camcorders is their batteries. Most on-board batteries will only run the cameras for 45-60 minutes. There are a number of solutions. Bescor makes a line of low-tech "gel-cell" batteries that can drive a Sony or Canon for 4-5 hours.  

The MX5 series is probably the most popular, and comes in versions for various cameras. These are meant to be hung from your belt, but can be mounted to the camera with appropriate adapters. The MX5 sells for about $130, including a slow (10-12 hour) charger. The main disadvantages of the gel-cells are their size, weight and inability to be fast-charged. But, they do provide beaucoup power at relatively little cost. 

If you're using an XL1 and don't want to hang a Bescor from your belt, you can use a Videosmith Schnapple XL Battery Clip to mount the MX5C to the top of the Canon MA-100 audio adapter. This makes for a very compact package and shifts the weight of the camera more to the rear, improving the balance significantly. The Schnapple also mounts on the back of a Videosmith Mightywondercam Classic Shoulder Pod, so you can use the Bescor batteries with other brands of cameras too.

Again, for Canon users, at the high-end of the spectrum, is the Anton/Bauer battery system. A/B makes a bracket that also fits onto the MA-100.  This lets you snap-in one of their high-capacity 14.4v nicad "brick" batteries (or use the sexy new nickle-metal-hydride "Hytrons"). A built-in voltage converter steps-down to the 7.2v needed by the XL1. The A/B TrimPac will run an XL1 for 4-5 hours and can be fast-charged in just one hour. This system allows you to use professional 12v on-camera lights, like Anton/Bauer's own Ultralight II, which can be lamped from 20-100w, depending upon your needs. The main drawback is the price. A two-battery system with bracket and one fast charger costs close to $1000. However, that buys you lots of quality and a system in use, literally, around the world. 

A third system, also for the Canon XL1, is the Power Mate from Dolgin Engineering. Like the above products, this unit is a battery bracket mounting to the MA-100. It uses 12v Panasonic AG-456-style batteries, and like the A/B system has a built-in 12v-7.2v converter. The Power Mate lists for $199, and the lead-acid batteries are about $25 each. The battery life is 90 minutes.

In the future we'll take a look at camera support products for the miniDV cameras and check-in on what's new in the digital world.

Steven T Smith has been a television photojournalist for three decades. Currently based in Philadelphia, he works with his sound recordist/wife Martha for clients like "60 Minutes" and the Discovery Channel. In 1980 Smith created Videosmith as a full-service video production and post-production company.  In 1996 he sold off the editing and graphics units to concentrate upon equipment rentals and retail sales.  Smith is the developer of the Mightywondercam line of support products for small camcorders.  An unusual assignment was to play himself in James L Brook's 1988 hit film, "Broadcast News."  Future columns will look at trends in digital video technology and review new products, especially accessories that extend the capabilities of digital camcorders.

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