Review: JVC GY-HD100U ProHD Camcorder
Posted Mar 28, 2006

And there it was. A true 24p high-definition camcorder, all mine to play with. And did it live up to its advance billing? To prevent all of you from fast-forwarding to the end of the movie, er, I mean skipping to the conclusion, if you want a true HD camera with 24p capability, put down the magazine and write your friendly JVC dealer a check. This camera rocks! It has image quality, features, and flexibility. I think it is the best of the HDV releases from NAB 2005 and—from what I've seen so far—2006. Here's why.

Looks and Intro
As you approach the camera you will notice that it is very well thought-out in every respect, from the layout of the buttons to the professional shoulder configuration and design. It is clear that JVC took a serious approach to building this HDV camera, the first of a new generation of smaller HD offerings from JVC.

It is almost a mix between a large shoulder cam and the new smaller handheld versions, which, if anyone looked recently, are quickly growing past their "handheld" size and weight! The HD100 weighs about 7 lb. with lens.

At the Front
Your video enters the camera via an included 16x Fujinon lens, with F1.4 being the largest aperture. There is just no substitute for a real piece of glass in your hand. Naysayers may point out that the actual cost of the lens is only $800. Until a few months ago, the cheapest HD camera lens was many multiples more, too. While the lens breathes heavily, I must admit that it is not impossible to rack-focus during a scene. I never experienced overly poor chromatic aberration, as many have observed with HDV.

Today, cameras are about personalization and control, and that is what a real manual lens gives you. This is much better than some quasi-plastic, servo, shoot-by-wire lens, period. The lens uses a 1/3" bayonet mount, but JVC offers 1/2" and recently 2/3" adapters. So your lens choices are wide open.

Controls and Layout
From its three user buttons to the vast array of camera controls, the HD100 lets you paint your pixels the way you want. Pros should find it easy to tweak the camera to their "look" or to match the colors from another camera. Some shooters have already begun to post custom "looks" online. In addition, with the use of the built-in SD card reader, you can transfer their or your looks not only between your PC and camera, but between cameras as well. This is a big plus if you rent an extra camera from time to time.

A full display of camera parameters is available on-screen. And with the JVC, unlike my older Sony, you do not have to power down the camera to change settings. You can access all these functions via an extensive but easy-to-use onscreen menu system.

Processing Parameters
This could be a separate article by itself, but suffice it to say, the HD100 offers everything from a skin-tone detail circuit to high-end image controls like gamma and knee. You have black stretch/compress, separate red/blue/green gain, basic color saturation and matrix, master black, and detail settings.

All these parameters, about 18 of them, can be set up in scene files, the same swappable ones mentioned earlier. You can tweak to your heart's content, more so than with any other camera in this price range. This would save me time in post.

Unique Features
The thing that makes a camera truly easy—or, dare I say, fun to work with—on a day-to-day basis are the small touches. On the HD100, at the top of the "small-touch" list is a focus-assist function that turns the images black and white and creates a color-peaking display, which is necessary in such a fine resolution format. This is usable while recording. This is a great advantage for HD100 users; most cameras from other manufacturers disable their focus help while recording.

All these types of features can be accessed via any one of the user-configurable buttons. Let's say I don't need the lens-return switch to give me a review of what I shoot. Set it up this way, and while you are shooting and focusing, just hit the lens-return switch, and now you have focus-assist. After focusing, hit it again, and the viewfinder will change back to full-color. There are three user-settable buttons right up high on the side, easily found during recording. Again, applause!

I counted three Record-Start-Stop buttons: one at the tradition lens thumb location; one on the side of the camera, up front; and one on the top of the camera handle, for off-shoulder shooting. Another dedicated Focus-Assist button is located up top as well. The typical mechanical gain switch gives you nice, smooth transitions, as does the white balance. Speaking of white balance, there are memories and a preset setting. Also present are two ND filters, along with a high-speed shutter and adjustable shutter speeds.

A color viewfinder and flip-out LCD is helpful for previewing your work. The viewfinder is not, however, of the super-high-res CRT type I am used to. The adjustable shoulder pad helps steady the camera. I even think the camera is too light, I am used to carrying over 20 lb. All the usual things we take for granted like switches for the tally lights, onscreen audio, f-stop, timecode settings, 4:3 and 16:9 markers, etc., are also part of the deep onscreen menu.

The JVC employs the HDV1 format—specifically, 720p. The chip is a pixel-for-pixel match for the recording format. Progressive scan provides outstanding stills, and you have the choice of shooting in 24 or 30 frames per second. Just as the Model T Ford came in only black, if you need a 24p HD camcorder that records to tape, the JVC is the only game in town for under $20K.

As you know, HDV uses interframe MPEG-2 to cram an HD signal where intraframe DV signals used to live. Unlike the Sony Z1 and other models from the 1080i camp, the JVC uses a six-frame group of pictures (GOP), which means there are many more I frames in a second of video than the 15-frame GOP of 1080i60 HDV2. More I frames are a good thing. More data for fewer pixels makes for better, more uniform recordings. Besides, progressive frames are easier to compress.

When panning, the JVC solution is much better to my eyes. And it makes sense—which would you rather have? Also, I feel uneasy about 960- or 1440-line cameras recording 1440, compressing it via MPEG, and then scaling it up to full 1920x1080 HD. The 1080i version of HDV seems like too much of a compromise, one I am not willing to be a part of at this level of camera.

Video Image Quality
Make no mistake; the images this camera makes are breathtaking. Even shooting in SD I was impressed by how the image quality compared to many other 1/3" cameras I both own and have worked with. The image produced by the 1280x720 native progressive CCD sensor yields beautiful, smooth-looking pictures. The camera gain is very clean and I found myself using 9 dB often. In SD mode the camera does look cleaner than my trusty DVX-100A.

In HD mode, the camera takes lush, vibrant pictures. I agree that the default settings are not great for a super colorful image, so tweak/saturate to your heart's content. The most obvious difference you'll notice with the camera is that when you switch from DV to HD, you get almost a stop-and-a-half loss in light sensitivity. This is important. Many wedding and event shooters are nervous about purchasing a camera that is less light-sensitive than what they own currently. If your current main camera is a $10,000, Sony DSR 300 with 1/2" CCDs, you'll be disappointed. My primary camera is a large $15,000 DSR 500 with 2/3" chips. I am not going to sit here and say the JVC blows it away in SD.

I did my fair share of A/B comparisons, both on a component NTSC monitor, and a 47" HD display that I own and use on a regular basis. The HD100 is a great event and wedding camera, but you cannot compare apples and oranges. My 500's 480i did not scale well to 720p, and that is the real kicker. HD costs more, because as you pack sensors on the chip, it comes at a cost of light sensitivity. The JVC stands alone in the ability to have your news and cinema too, as it does 480i and 24p/30p SD, and then it adds 720p24/30/60. In looking at live and recorded imagery, the highlight handling is better than any of the other cameras out there. Blown-out highlights scream amateur and can be the difference between pulling off a beautiful high-contrast image or just another video-like handycam look.

Lets put to rest the JVC's most talked about Achilles heel: split screen. In all of my testing, which included shooting in a very dark reception, I never saw any split-screen artifacts. Those of you who attended the 4EVER Group convention will remember seeing me shooting in almost complete darkness at the end of the opening night celebration with a DJ and some colored lighting. I was very skeptical of the results, but the JVC produced very nice detailed shots and no telltale high-noise images like those of the last generation 1/3" DV cams at high-gain in a poorly lit environment.

I have always held that the content is way more important than signal-to-noise ratio. I am sure you'll all agree that we may be more judgmental than our clients in that respect. Tell a compelling story about a bride enjoying her day along with her family and friends, and you'll have no problems. Dad will never ask you what your gain setting was, and what happened to your DSR 300. Or maybe you will take a different approach to lighting when you make the jump to HDV. Not more, but more carefully placed? In professional video and film, lighting is everything, and it always has been. And shaky handheld footage looks vastly more amateurish with 16:9-formatted video—even more so with razor-sharp HD. You'll need to pay more attention to your camera work--framing and focus in particular.

I am also a cheerleader for 24p. Almost every movie ever made, and 33% of TV, is shot 24p. Why not weddings and events? I'd love for my wedding stories to be viewed as love stories and dramatic, artful pieces. Aren't we selling our creative abilities here? Forget about clients staring or objecting at the pull-down or judder of a 24p or 30p stream. I've used the DVX100A since its introduction, and in all that time no one has objected to the cadence, but they do seem to feel like they're seeing something more than just video. Is it talent, or the 24p? You shouldn't sell 24p short.

I don't care for the motion-smoothing function in the HD100, which attempts to smooth out the strobing inherent in slower progressive frame rates like 30p to make it more 60i-like. You are going to have deal with the fact that you cannot do 60p or 60i to tape in HDV. The camera will output live 60p, though.

For audio, two solid XLR connectors and real functional switches control mic/line and phantom power functions. The bonus is that the audio can actually be heard clearly in the supplied ear cup, and they even provided two jacks so another set of headphones can be used at the same time.

I have not found the HDV compressed audio to be problematic even when using a poor audio signal that needed to be recorded. The audio controls are also nicely placed up front and easy to glance at while operating—a nice difference from most large broadcast cameras, which place them behind the user's head when the camera is on your shoulder.

In terms of power, the HD100 pulls only 17 W. I believe JVC never intended anyone to use the small supplied battery as the sole power supply for shooting a real event and am surprised that they went this route. Thankfully, third-party battery manufacturers Anton/Bauer and IDX have stepped forward with solutions that more than cover any power need, with or without an on-camera mounted light.

With most true professional units, power is always a separate decision, and so it is with the HD100. I think the IDX adapter is much better than the A/B in not only its connection to the camera, but in the way it does not block the shoulder pad, and has a significant tilt—all the better to mount wireless devices on. You can use current V-mount batteries or their line of batteries. They even include an extra fuse mounted with the unit! Anton/Bauer also has a good reputation, so look at what your needs will be.

Most batteries of this type/size will power the camera for two to four hours, which is longer than it takes to charge the battery. Look to spend $700-$1,500 for a charger and a few batteries. Then you will be able to power the camera and an on-camera light. No battery belts, please.

Since we talked about the image the camera makes and what gets recorded, you'll be pleased to know that the HD100 has a full complement of outputs too. Component video and FireWire (six-pin jack) are on the camera. Composite and S-Video are available too.

I'll bring up an important point about HDV decks since most of us will get our I/O from a deck, not from the camera. I am not too excited that all the HDV manufacturers have seemed to create their own sub-standard and have stated that their own HDV tapes (Sony vs. JVC) are not interchangeable. One nice benefit of the JVC HDV deck is its ability to accommodate Mini and full-size DV tapes for longer record times.

The only small omission in the HD100's feature set left to mention here is that you cannot have both the viewfinder and the LCD active at the same time. Write to JVC, let them know about the problem, and maybe they'll provide a firmware update to address this issue.

Also, Apple and JVC need to get together and announce for certain when a 720p24 workflow will be provided in Final Cut Pro. Once we get a convenient HD delivery solution, I am looking forward to using this camera in my day-to-day operations and know it will more than pay for itself with the images it creates.