What is a Betacam?

John Lister

Betacam® is a name of a videotape format developed by Sony and used for both professional filming and home use. The name is also used to refer to equipment and accessories which use the format. There are both analog and digital versions of Betacam®, though the format has been replaced by non-tape formats in some professional use.

Component video is split into three separate streams in order to offer a better quality picture.
Component video is split into three separate streams in order to offer a better quality picture.

All Betacam® products use tape which is half an inch (1.27cm) wide, replacing previously common three-quarter inch (1.9cm) formats. Although there are several versions of the Betacam® format, all use the same shape tape in one of two styles, making it easier to upgrade equipment without needing new tapes. The tapes are color-coded to indicate their format.

One of the main reasons why Betacam® became popular with professional video users such as TV news crews was that it was among the first for which a camera was produced which had full playback facilities. Previous camera formats had meant the camera itself could only display the recorded footage in black and white, if at all. The introduction of color playback made it much easier for film crews to check their recordings and reshoot material if needed.

There have been several new Betacam® formats over the years, each responding to changes in technology. Betacam SP®, short for Superior Performance, was introduced in 1986 and increased the resolution of recordings. Digital Betacam, introduced in 1993, replaced composite video with component video. This splits the video information into three cables for superior picture quality.

Another digital format, Betacam SX®, was introduced in 1996 and offered cheaper equipment and tapes, along with a much better rate of video compression, meaning better quality footage could be stored on the tape. The MPEG IMX format, released in 2001, did a similar thing while allowing all the data from the camera to be carried through a single cable.

There are also two high definition variants of the format. The first, released in 1997, was HDCAM. The follow-up, HDCAMSR, was released in 2003 and offered a much higher resolution. Many professional camera crews still use the format when shooting footage "in the field." In TV studios, however, the format has lost some popularity. Many production crews prefer to work with formats based on hard drives rather than tape. These allow for immediate digital editing and do not have the problem of tape degrading after consistent reuse.

The format should not be confused with Betamax®. This was a format of cassette used for home video recorders. It famously lost a "format war" with VHS.

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