Should You Be Shooting HD or SD When Videoing Depositions?

Today’s topic of discussion will mostly be covering videos with regards to the legal industry and the enhancement it provides with litigation support. We will briefly examine the history of professional video cameras, advancements in tape formats as well as picture quality, and then list some pros and cons to help anyone reading this article decide whether high definition (HD) or standard definition (SD) is the most optimal choice when recording a deposition or other types of video for use in trial.

The Video Era:
Since the late 70’s and early 80’s, many depositions were recorded on VHS tape in order to preserve witness testimony along with the written transcript created by the court reporter. Though the court reporter is definitively the true keeper of the record, videotaping a deposition brings forth an additional layer of authenticity that doubles as an extremely valuable trial presentation tool. Playback quality for most depositions that were videotaped during the late 70’s to early 80’s will more than likely have poor audio and video quality due to degradation over time. This degradation in video quality is caused by generation loss commonly found in older media formats which previously consisted of magnetic tape. The magnetic tape would slowly degenerate over the years and cause the quality of the video and audio to become drastically distorted. Avoiding this problem proved difficult for legal videographers for a long period of time since recording to magnetic tape was the only method for capturing video, but all that has changed. Most, if not all, of the magnetic media formats listed below are no longer being used or will be completely phased out within a short period of time due to advancements in technology. Past media formats which were comprised of magnetic tape include: 

  • Mini DV
  • Hi-8 and 8MM
  • DVCAM
  • HDV
  • VHS / S-VHS
  • BETA, BETA-SP, & BETACAM
  • VHS-C

The Shift in Technology:

Advancements in video deposition technology are changing rapidly and have immensely improved the quality of professional video cameras and media. Most professional cameras have changed from being oversized and heavy to more compact and portable, while recording media has changed from magnetic tape to memory cards and hard drives. With these advancements, we’ve seen a significant change from lower quality (SD) standard definition videos to crisp (HD) high definition videos. These shifts in the technological paradigm have also eliminated any chances of future generation loss due to degradation over time by enabling cameras to capture video and audio without using tape. We may have greatly reduced the variety of tape formats used but along with this transition, we’ve encountered an entirely new problem… media storage space.

The Evolution of Storage and Its Issues:
Storage space has always been an issue in the past and continues to be a problem now. In the past, it was storage boxes and secure storage facilities for archiving old deposition videos. Now, it is mostly comprised of computer hard drives and rack-mounted servers. Sure the costs for hard drives and servers are becoming more and more affordable but the amount of storage that digital media can occupy continues to grow at an almost exponential rate. According to pcworld.com’s article, “Timeline: 50 Years of Hard Drives,” IBM released the first ever hard drive in 1956 that supported a whopping 5 megabytes (MB) of data and “was as big as two refrigerators.” To put things into perspective with regards to digital media and the massive storage space it can take up, one hour of a highly-compressed standard definition (MPEG-1) format video roughly equates to 1 gigabyte (GB), or 1,000 megabytes. Can you imagine how much more office space that would require with all those refrigerator-sized hard drives? On an entirely new playing field is the premium high resolution video, where file sizes start to exceed 20, 30, and 40 GB per playing video hour. In order to compensate for these ever-expanding digital file sizes, Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic reshaped the consumer and professional markets alike in 1995 by inventing and manufacturing the first ever DVD’s, often referred to as “digital video discs” or “digital versatile discs.” With improvements being constantly reinstated, single-layer DVD’s came to support roughly 4GB of video data and double-layer DVD’s evolved to handling up to 8GB of video data. DVDs are a great form of backup which can be stored on-site or off-site for retrieval at a later date, but it would be much faster and easier to access media files if they were stored on a cloud server or local drive. To determine how much server space you’ll need for storing HD files, you’ll need to know what bitrate was used when producing the files. Most of the video files we produce are recorded straight from the camera at a bitrate of 24mbps (megabytes per second) which uses around 20 gigs of storage space every 2 hours. As you can see, this will add up quickly if you’re shooting on a regular basis. To save space, it is possible to convert the raw HD files into an MPEG-4 format at 3,500kbps which will help retain the HD quality and only use up an estimated 2 gig of storage for every 2 hours. In the past, people were accustomed to viewing videotaped depositions on standard definition (SD) televisions and projectors only capable of producing 480 lines of resolution so anything recorded with the new high definition (HD) format really wasn’t noticeable. However, with the introduction of high definition televisions and projectors capable of displaying 720 to 1080 lines of resolution (HD), recording depositions with a camera capable of producing an image equal to 720 or 1080 lines of resolution has become increasingly important. This importance becomes very noticeable visually when projecting deposition testimony recorded at 480 lines of resolution onto a large screen in a court room. With all eyes in court on a product you are both endorsing and displaying, you want to put your best foot forward with obtaining optimum visual quality with your videotaped depositions.

Avoiding Video Distortion:
During the course of certain trial situations, attorneys will hire trial consultants to assist with their trial presentation. When this happens, there are usually consultants working on opposing sides to help deliver case data and playback any video testimony from previously recorded depositions. Having HD quality video will ensure that the picture doesn’t distort or pixelate once it’s projected on a 100 or 200 inch screen for the jury to watch. At least, we all hope there isn’t any distortion or pixelation once the video is projected to a large screen. One thing to keep in mind during the pre-trial or deposition phase of a case is that not all HD video cameras will produce the same high quality image. Here is a small list of considerations when deciding whether to use SD or HD video.

  • SD produces a lower quality video while HD produces a more crisp final image
  • Enlarging HD will look great but SD tends to look blocky or distorted
  • Using SD equipment instead of HD when viewing high definition video will not have a crisp final image
  • Using HD equipment to play standard definition videos will not create a more crisp video
  • Not all HD will produce the same high quality picture

The Different HD Cameras Available:
In the last bullet point above, we mention “not all HD will produce the same high quality picture”. This is due to the different types of cameras and other handheld devices which are capable of shooting HD. There are consumer based HD cameras, prosumer cameras, and broadcast quality cameras. Below is a small overview of each type we’ve mentioned and which we recommend for depositions, site inspections, and witness interview situations for use in documentaries or Day-In-The-Life videos.

  • Consumer HD – These cameras are generally small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and are fairly inexpensive to purchase. In this same class of camera would be iPhones, iPads, and GoPro cams. Most consumer grade HD recorders are great for family fun and vacations. Costs for cameras in this category are typically less than $1,600.
  • Prosumer HD – These tend to be larger than the consumer cameras and are capable of producing far better picture quality when using proper light kits. The costs for mid-range cameras in this category start as low as $2,000 and can reach prices of $3,500. The low cost enables legal videographers and other enthusiast on a budget to purchase gear that will produce videos similar to that of a broadcast quality camera.
  • Broadcast Quality HD – On the extreme or higher end of the scale, there are professional or broadcast cameras. These cameras are generally used by companies with larger budgets such as news stations, production facilities, and television networks. Some court reporting firms are opting for these cameras in order to better preserve the deposition testimony of terminally ill witnesses. Cameras in this category are relatively expensive but produce picture quality that is unmatched by the other categories listed above. Prices range from $15,000 to $130,000 depending on features.

Video for Trial Presentation:
Regarding the consumer market of the television, videography, and visual technology industry we’ve seen an exponential increase in accessibility to HD video and what today’s “standard” video quality is. As of 2008, all cable and satellite TV networks established that the overall image resolution of their channels would be broadcast in a high definition format. This includes iPhones, iPads, Galaxy, Android and more, provided that the average consumer market had adopted this new standard of high resolution video quality. Given the circumstances, it is only natural that this premium quality video would find itself in the courtroom representing deponents as they deserve to be represented. In consideration of the available trial presentation methodologies to be exhibited in the courtroom, you will soon come to understand the importance of highly-enhanced video quality in preparing your case data prior to trial. When the overall appearance of your case data is under scrutiny by those who are in control of the case verdict, every minute and detail counts. Should you find yourself in a position seeking the highest quality of legal video services available, our next blog will provide a comprehensive overview of how synchronizing your deposition video to its corresponding transcript may be what makes you exemplary in comparison to the other side. So, the question remains, should you be shooting HD or SD when videoing depositions?