Why Digital Cameras Have a 30 Minute Video Recording Limit

By Norman Chan

It's not just a heating or file size issue.

One of the significant upgrades in Canon's $3500 5D Mark III DSLR was the extension of the video recording limit from 12 minutes to just under 30 minutes. In the 5D Mark II, 1080p video clips could not be longer than 12 minutes due to the 4GB size limit in the FAT32 file system. DSLRs of that era--the first to record high-definition video--also weren't optimized for video capture, so the processors would overheat after extended periods of recording. That's a problem that still exists today in more compact mirrorless cameras that shoot in 720p or 1080p (like the Sony NEX 7). A 12 minute cap might not have affected professionals using DSLRs for TV shows and independent films--where most individual shots don't last longer than a few minutes--but we definitely felt that crunch when shooting our iPad autopsy video. Newer cameras overcome heating issues with redesigned interior hardware arrangement, and the 12 minute FAT 32 cap is negated with seamless file spanning. But the 30 minute continuous recording cap still stands. And it turns out that it's completely arbitrary.

Photo Credit: Flickr user snapeverything via Creative Commons.

Back in 2006, the EU controversially decided to classify high-end digital cameras as video recorders, which attached a customs duty of 5-12% for digital cameras imported into Europe. The classification was decided not just based on digital cameras' improving abilities to record video through its lens and sensor, but their ability to record direct input from external sources like televisions. A home video recorder tax would theoretically offset money lost from users recording movies off broadcast television or cable onto digital devices, though the EU has never been very clear on the tax's intent. The tax's consequence, though, has been felt in every digital camera user looking to use a DSLR in place of a camcorder, as camera manufactures would rather limit recording capability in software than raise the price of its cameras (or lower their margins).

Potentially good news came last week with reports of informal talks between the United States and other WTO countries concerning the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA). According to Nikkei news, the WTO is considering adding video cameras to the domain of the ITA, which would override the EU's tariff. DSLR enthusiasts are understandably watching this development closely and await the WTO's decision.