Shooting Stars
Posted Apr 1, 2003

Whether your focus is DVD, film, or Web delivery, pro-quality video begins with a pro-level camera. How do you choose the three-CCD DV camera that's right for you?

April 2003|Video is the ultimate "garbage in/garbage out" medium, and whether you're shooting for film, video, DVD, or Web delivery, it all starts with the camera. Here we look at three DV cameras, the Canon GL2, the Panasonic AG-DVX100, and the Sony VX2000, that raise the quality of your video input to new levels—especially for the sub-$3,500 price range.

At a high level, the three cameras are very similar, built around the same Sony VX1000-inspired design, with a long, narrow body style, handle with boom microphone on top, tape bay on the right, and LCD panel on the left. All the cameras have three CCDs, providing the optimal quality environment, with optical image stabilization, manual audio gain controls and volume meters.

Features like zebra-striping and color bar-generation are also relatively consistent among the three models, along with external, easy-to-access controls for white balance, neutral density filters, and exposure gain control. Though there are some varia- tions in quality, especially in low light, all three cameras are capable of outputting sufficient quality video for broadcast or even independent films.

Complicating your selection is the price compression occurring among these three units. At www.epinions.com, for example, we found the GL2 for $1989, the VX2000 for $2070, and the AG-DVX100 for $3250; all these are bound to drop in the next few months.

Focal Points
So, how do you choose the three-CCD camera that's right for you? To break down the process, we rated each camera on seven different metrics (as shown in Table 1) with 1 being the best, and 3 the worst. Let's quickly identify each of the different parameters, most of which are discussed in detail in the individual reviews.

Table 1 

CANONPANASONICSONY
Progressive scan213
Advanced features213
Ease of use132
Video quality1.511
Low light312
Still-image capabilities132
Look and feel312

One of the most significant differences between the cameras relates to progressive scan capabilities, useful when shooting for film or the Web. For example, the DVX100 can capture in 24 and 30fps progressive scan mode, while the VX2000 can only manage 15fps. The newest and most expensive camera reviewed, the DVX100, also offers more advanced features, like six programmable shooting modes.

A consistent theme in all of our reviews, however, is ease of use. Professional videographers need more control over shooting, but understand the interplay between the various features and can tune them accordingly. On the other hand, if you're a novice, or buying a camera for use by novices, you need a device that functions optimally in automatic modes.

Of course, video quality is always important, and we spent significant time in both formal and informal testing to identify significant differences here. Since lighting is usually suboptimal outside of a studio, we also tested low-light performance.

For professionals, still-image capture capabilities are usually not a concern, though they're a convenience for many other users. Though we didn't comparatively test still-image quality, we discuss each unit's capabilities in the review.

Finally, if you're spending close to $2,000 on a camera, you want a unit that looks and feels sturdy. This is assessed in "look and feel."

How We Tested
To assess video quality, we tested under a range of conditions using both automatic and optimized controls. Using each camera's automatic setting, we shot videos indoors under low light, indoors under adequate but florescent light, and outdoors in bright sunlight. To produce these images, we loaded all three cameras on the same platform and shot all videos simultaneously.

Then, working with each camera individually, we optimized each camera's settings and shot indoors under normal and low-light conditions. Continuing to shoot, we ran each camera's zoom controls to its extremes several times to identify zoom noise.

Finally, to get a feel for usability, we shot with each camera for several hours under less formal settings, usually a family holiday or event. Hey, it's tough duty, but someone has to do it.

Canon GL2
Canon's GL2 is what you would recommend if your rich brother-in-law called and asked which DV camera to buy. It captures very good quality in automatic modes, features a 20X optical zoom and 1.7-megapixel (Mp) progressive scan image capture (1488x1128), and is the smallest and lightest of the three. The only downsides are comparatively poor low-light performance, a smallish LCD, and a plastic case that feels a bit chintzy for a camera that costs just under $2,000.

In morphing from GL1 to GL2, Canon addressed most major weaknesses of the previous camera. New features include audio gain control, conveniently placed on the upper left panel, with audio meters in the viewfinder, LCD screen, and on the panel over the LCD. Also new is the MA300 XLR adapter for inputting XLR audio.

Other new features include a color bar generator, a "Clear Scan" mode for matching shutter speed to computer monitors, dual zebra patterns, and enhanced controls for adjusting color gain, color phase, sharpness, and level. Unlike the other two units, however, the GL2 has 1/4" CCDs, as opposed to 1/3", though the effective pixel count jumped from 250,000 to 380,000. In addition, advanced users will bemoan the lack of a zoom ring to complement the manual focus.

Wisely, Canon didn't "mess with success," retaining the GL1's high-quality fluorite lens that delivers 20X optical zoom and 100X digital zoom, which, unlike most consumer camcorders, is actually usable well into the 40-50X range.

Like the GL1, the GL2 can shoot in both progressive and interlaced mode at both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, and offers the only realistic still-image capture capability in the group, capturing up to 1.7Mp progressive scan images on the included 8MB SD Card. Also new is a USB connector for downloading images if you don't have an SD adapter.

The unit has comparatively fewer controls on the body panel, which users shooting in automatic mode definitely won't miss. The switches that were present, like the auto/manual focus button, were a bit susceptible to inadvertent toggling, ruining one of our test shoots. Like the Panasonic unit, the GL2 has zoom and on/off controls on the handle, making shooting from the handle a viable option.

In addition to the laboratory testing, we used the Canon to shoot a birthday weekend, which included serious play time in the converted attic, the usual candlelit birthday cake scene, plus some TV time watching the latest Scooby-Doo DVD. The GL2 proved an excellent choice, highly responsive to changing conditions in automatic mode, and comparatively light and unobtrusive.

Over the weekend, the GL2 shots were very solid, though later comparative tests showed that the GL2 trailed both other cameras under low-light conditions. The GL2 also tended to reproduce background noise as a slight, high-pitched whine, where the other two cameras exhibited a lower hum.

Where the unit excelled, however, was in its flexibility—you almost have to try hard to make the GL2 take a bad shot. Where both the Sony and the Panasonic needed frequent manual adjustments to produce a well-balanced picture, the GL2 simply adjusted to changing conditions and took good shots. While not quite matching the other two when it came to top quality under optimal conditions, you had to compare the images side by side to see the difference.

This makes the GL2 ideal for non-professional users who need to shoot a conference, training session, or other presentation and produce consistently strong results. And for your wealthy brother-in-law, of course.

Panasonic AG-DVX100
The success of digitally shot indie films like The Blair Witch Project has catapulted digital filmmaking to the fore. The first camera capable of 24fps progressive scan shooting mode, Panasonic's AG-DVX100 is sure to win a starring role in many future films, while the unit's excellent quality, configurability, and usability make it a great choice for more traditional video tasks.

You have to be an experienced shooter to coax the best out of this camera, however, where the GL2 is more accessible to typical corporate users. This and the comparatively high price ($3,250) should steer most non-professional videographers to either the GL2 or VX2000.

The DVX100 uses a large, Leica DICOMAR lens with only a 10X optical and no digital zoom—a feature most pros disable anyway. Shooting modes include two 24fps progressive modes, 30P and the normal NTSC 60i, though there is no auto-focus or gain control progressive modes, and there are four configurable gamma curves to adjust image tone. Worth noting but probably unmissed are still-image capture capabilities.

We spent our special day with the DVX100 at the Atlanta Zoo. While none of these cameras will fit in your pocket or purse, the DVX100 was the largest, weighing in at about 4.5 pounds. Still, that's not significantly more than the other two, and usability features like the awesome 3.5" LCD panel will quickly make you forget the extra weight.

In addition, shooting controls are very accessible, with audio gain on the bottom left, white balance and gain controls on the left panel near the two stop (1/64, 1/8) ND filter. While chasing toddlers, we shot extensively using the cameras handle, and greatly appreciated the three levels of zoom control and start/stop button on the handle.

Professionally oriented features abound. For example, you can configure scene files with presets for different scenes (Oval Office, press room, south lawn) or different types of shoots (24fps for file, 60fps for NTSC), all accessible via a jog wheel on the back panel. There are two user buttons configurable to any of nine functions, including a switch to maximum gain or hide or display color bars. Two XLR connectors supply phantom power, so you don't need battery-driven microphones, and the unit displays extensive configuration data, like zoom and focus settings, in the LCD and viewfinder, helping avoid errors and simplifying repetitive shots.

Though a touch more prosaic, other features will please all users, like the ability to use standard RCA connectors for audio and composite video, so you don't have to scramble to find the custom adapter. You control video playback via a small, intuitive joystick on the camera body, enabling true, no-look control.

Our shooting experience was mixed, which highlighted the need for an experienced and adept hand at the controls. From a color perspective, automatic mode proved less competent than either the Canon or the Sony, producing some off tones before correcting with white balancing. This was especially true during dramatic scene changes, like shooting outside in the sun and then inside under fluorescent lights.

We were also uncomfortable with our own optimization efforts, never feeling like we achieved the camera's true potential. In automatic modes, the images were sharp, but the colors slightly off. When optimized, we corrected the colors, but never duplicated the sharpness produced in automatic mode.

That said, the camera clearly won our optimized low-light trials, showing a brighter picture with less noise than the VX2000, while blowing the GL2 out of the water. Audio quality was good, though zoom and focus noise was excessive, and easily picked up by the unit's on-board microphone. Obviously, this won't be an issue with an external microphone.

Sony DCR-VX2000
First introduced in May 2000, Sony's CDR-VX2000 will be nearly three years old by the time you read this review, plenty of time for others to play catch-up with newer camcorders. Still, except for a few notable feature deficits, like inadequate progressive capabilities, the VX2000 is one of the few cameras you can recommend with almost utter confidence, knowing that virtually all users can produce excellent video under an extreme range of shooting conditions and enjoy the experience, especially with the price flirting with the $2,000 mark.

The VX2000 feature set is competitive, with 1/3" CCDs, 12X optical/48X digital zoom, with auto and manual zoom and focus, two-level neutral density and zebra patterns, color bar generator, and manual audio gain control. Though the VX2000 supports progressive scan mode, the maximum frame rate is 15fps, inadequate for digital filmmaking. Still-image capture is limited to 640x480p, suitable for Web images, but not for printing.

We missed dual-channel audio volume meters, available on both other cameras, and a dedicated audio gain control. Note that users who require XLR inputs with phantom power and separate gain control, should check out the VX2000's professionally oriented sibling, the PD150.

The unit is long and narrow, with a sturdy magnesium body that feels more rugged than the GL2. Controls are convenient and uncluttered, with shutter speed, white balance, and audio volume controls on the back, and ND filter and exposure controls on the left behind the lens. Also on the body are backlight and spotlight modes.

The 2.5" LCD panel is sharp enough, but felt small next to the Panasonic, and doesn't offer the range of information available on the DVX100, like focus or zoom-related data. Other usability deficits include the lack of zoom controls on the handle, which complicates below-the-waist shooting.

In informal tests, the VX2000 produced simply stunning video quality. We filmed the 2002 holiday season with the VX2000 under a range of good and poor lighting conditions. Displayed on a 36" HDTV, most video looked almost high-def, with images so clear they looked as if displayed in 3D. In a rapidly changing holiday setting, the unit's auto-focus mechanism also proved highly responsive, instantly zeroing in on new objects with no perceptible fuzziness.

Our benchmark tests, performed under a wider range of conditions, revealed several chinks in this armor. For example, in automatic modes, the VX2000 performed poorly in brilliant sunlight and under low-light conditions. When optimized, however, the VX2000 often outperformed both other cameras, especially the GL2, though trailing the Panasonic slightly in low-light conditions.

Audio quality was generally good, though the camera seemed a touch more susceptible to clipping than either of the other two. In addition, the microphone does pick up zoom noise during shooting, though not nearly as much as the DVX100.

Shoot Out the Lights
So which camera do you buy? Well, if ease of use is your top priority, the GL2 is a natural choice, especially if you anticipate using the camera for still-image capture tasks. This class of user should definitely avoid the DVX100.

At the other end of the spectrum, digital filmmakers will flock to the DVX100 as if the other two cameras didn't exist, craving the 24fps progressive scan mode and programmability.

Between these two extremes are experienced shooters making their first foray into the DV world, or budding videographers who don't mind learning the ins and outs of white balancing, ND filters, and aperture and exposure settings to produce absolute top quality. If your sole output mediums will be videotape and DVD, save a grand and go with the VX2000. If your long-term dreams include an Oscar nomination in any film-based category, the DVX100 is your only choice.


COMPANIES MENTIONEFD IN THIS ARTICLE
Canon USA
www.usa.canon.com
Panasonic www.panasonic.com
Sony Corporation www.sony.com