HD Today: HDV--Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You
Posted Nov 14, 2005

There are some who have jumped from DV to HDV for event video. Having made the transition to HDV myself, I'll tell you about the view from over here.

I used to use Sony's compact PD-150 and later moved up to a Sony DSR-250 for my main camera. I picked the DSR-250 because of its autofocus, auto-macro, and image-stabilizing lens. It added a dedicated iris ring and perfectly matched images from my PD-150.

Another reason I chose the bulkier DSR-250 is that it offered something I really missed from my pre-DV days. I could put everything on the camcorder—camera battery, light battery, wireless 1 and 2, stereo microphone, wide-angle lens, light, etc. Having it all on the camera with no clunky shoulder harness gives me great run and gun-ability. Being able to record up to 4.7 hours on one tape (in DV) is handy too.

In spite of how happy I was with the 250, I jumped to HD because it's cool and I'm a gadget guy. There were a couple of transitional weeks when I was using a Canon XL1S with the Fujinon "pro" lens. I outfitted it with a Frezzi light and used NPs in a holder attached to the XLR/shoulder brace.

With the Fujinon lens, I immediately missed both the autofocus and the image stabilization of the Sony. Also, the DSR-250 balances nicely on the shoulder and has enough mass to help create steady pictures. The Canon's front-heavy Fujinon lens reminded me how hard it is to keep a bride and her dad in focus as they dance when I'm 25 feet away, zoomed all the way in, in a dark reception hall, and my depth of field is about six inches.

Now I'm using the Sony HDR-FX1. I chose it over the higher-end Z1U because I still need lengthy record times, and the FX1 has an LP mode that lets me record two hours in DV, while the Z1U does not. Only after I bought it did I find that Sony had changed several key features that made their prosumer camcorders so great for event videography.

Wedding receptions offer extreme contrasts between black tuxes and white gowns. With the DSR-250 and PD-150, I can adjust the auto exposure up or down a few stops with one button-tap. This is an excellent feature because it still reacts to ambient light and I can actively compensate. In the FX1, the auto-exposure compensation is buried in a picture profile sub-adjustment menu. It does work while shooting, but it's eight steps in and fills the screen with the menu, which is so cumbersome it's essentially useless. Speaking of menus, it takes some doing getting around Sony's arbitrary limitations in the new cameras, like a digital effect "fader" that doesn't do "overlap" anymore. While I could produce very polished "edit in camera" events—such as dissolves and wipes—with the DSR-250, now I can only fade to white or black.

Rather than bury and eliminate very useful features, Sony should have added true "pro" features to the higher-end camcorder, like a waveform overlay in the viewfinder.

What's more, there is no place to mount a normal wireless receiver on the FX1. Add a light and you have to power it. I've seen people use the consumer lights with the battery built in. They are hot and focused and offer no control. I was spoiled with pro lights and now I insist on using something that's dimmable, rotatable, tiltable, and if possible, focusable too. These require serious 12 V power, and that means big batteries or a belt. I chose batteries. So my wireless receiver, audio splitter, second mic, and light battery have to go somewhere.

Out comes the shoulder harness I used before I got the DSR-250. Nobody makes a camera bag for camera and clunky shoulder harness. So this means constant assembly and disassembly. No more run and gun-ability. Plus, every wire connection and mounting point creates a point of possible failure. Though it has never failed, it's not simple anymore. I've shot a few events with the new system. It works but it ain't pretty.

There's hope on the horizon, with new cameras shown at IBC (see related story). Even though it has a manual, non-stabilized lens, JVC's GY-HD100U looks like a good balance of pro and prosumer, with space for accessories and a pro viewfinder and color LCD combo like I had on the DSR-250. Canon's forthcoming XL-H1 HDV camcorder offers an image-stabilizing and autofocus lens that should make shooting events easier and more reliable. Its LCD screen viewfinder is small at 2", but I can attest that the XL design works well for event video and you can mount everything on the camcorder.

Because we don't charge enough to pay off a $50,000 HDTV camera, HDV is where we're headed. The market is still wide open to the first manufacturer to make a DSR-250-like camera that does HDV. That was nearly the perfect event video camcorder for me. As the market grows with choices, the grass is growing over here on the HDV side, but it's not as green as it looks from over there. Give it time.