The Main Event: HDV--Is it for Me?
Posted Jul 8, 2005

I haven't seen anything like it since DV was introduced. I'm talking, of course, about the buzz and controversy surrounding the new HDV format. A lot of the arguments about the new format, both pro and con, sound very familiar to anyone who was around for the early days of DV. As Yogi Berra said, "It's déjà vu all over again."

So, should you run out and buy a load of HDV equipment, or sit tight and wait a while? The decision you make will depend on several factors, many of them specific to your business, its clients, and its competitors. Let's look at some of the pros and cons.

Noted author and videographer Douglas Spotted Eagle has stated, "Standard definition is dead; it just doesn't know it yet." That's a pretty strong statement, especially considering that there's still plenty of analog video being shot even after digital formats have been on the scene for ten years now. But he does have a point. Consider the following:

• Congress and the FCC have accelerated the timetable for broadcasters to switch over to digital TV formats.
• More and more widescreen televisions are showing up in stores (16:9 is now pretty much the norm in Europe, and the U.S. is moving in that direction quickly).
• Two new high-definition disc formats are almost here: HD DVD and Blu-ray. Once these are widespread in the marketplace and inexpensive burners for the discs are available, the distribution chain for HD material will be complete.
• More and more consumers are building HD-capable home theaters.
• HDV camcorders from Sony, JVC, and Panasonic are on the market now, with models shipping or announced that target pros, prosumers, and consumers. • Most major editing applications can now handle either HDV or a digital intermediate format.
• A new generation of dual-core, 64-bit computing platforms is here. These new machines will handle HDV editing with almost the same ease that today's machines handle DV.
• Regardless of the new format, many shooters have hailed the Sony Z1U (and to a lesser extent, the FX1) as superior cameras. They give better control over more aspects of shooting than previous DV camcorders.
• HDV camcorders and related equipment priced comparably to current professional and semi-professional DV equipment.

Still, many videographers have adopted a "wait and see" attitude toward the new format. Their arguments may apply to you and your business:

• At present, HDV either takes considerable rendering time, or needs a real state-of-the-art computing powerhouse and maybe an accelerator card … much the same way that DV did back in its early days.
• Clients aren't yet asking for HD in most U.S. markets.
• It probably won't be possible to charge a large premium for HDV, especially since the means of distribution and viewing aren't yet in place. When that does occur, HDV productions may warrant premium pricing only briefly as their uniqueness fades.
• Many videographers have a large investment in fairly new DV equipment that they're loath to sell of at a loss in order to jump on the HDV bandwagon early. • The current crop of HDV camcorders have poor low-light performance compared to the most popular DV camcorders—even though the HDV cameras tend to produce much less picture noise when gain is applied.
• HDV demands more of the operator. The picture is much sharper, and less forgiving of focusing errors. At the same time, viewfinders on current HDV camcorders are not sharp enough to guarantee you'll be able to verify focus exactly. Some shooters are bringing HDV LCD monitors to shoots, just to have something big and sharp to look at.
• The DV shooter with skill and experience can produce a better product than the deep-pocketed "wannabee" who lacks the expertise to make good use of HDV equipment.
• You may need to maintain compatibility with other facilities in your area. If you go HD, will they be able to use your shooting or editing services?
• The early HD equipment will soon be replaced by cheaper, better models, just like what happened with DV. Anyone remember the FAST DV Master, or some of the early Pinnacle offerings?

In the end, it's a decision that has to be based on business factors (do you need it to stay competitive? Can you recover the investment?), as well as on our desire to offer the best product possible to our clients simply for our own satisfaction.

What am I going to do, you ask? I'll probably be moving to HDV in the next 12 months. But don't do it just because I am, or because of industry hype. Make your own decision, based on your own needs and goals.