I’m not going to hold you in suspense waiting for my opinion of the new Sony HVR-Z7U—I think it is the best video camera for the event video market today. It has the picture quality of the Canon XH A1, the low-light sensitivity of the Sony DSR-PD170, the interchangeable lenses of the JVC GY-HD110, the flash recording capabilities of the Sony XDCAM EX1, and none of the CMOS problems of the Sony HVR-V1U.
There is a lot to take notice of on the Z7 but the first thing I noticed was how many accessories it comes with. There is no way not to notice them all as they occupy an entire layer of the packaging that separates you from removing your camcorder from the box. Some of them are familiar or improved over previous offerings but I’ll focus on the new ones such as the new Compact Flash (CF) memory recording unit and its i.Link cradle and the ones that are missing, including a CF card and an optional S-Video connector. The new recording unit is designed to record to CF cards as an alternative to or at the same time as recording to tape. As much as I like the improved workflow of recording to flash memory, I love the redundancy that recording to tape offers. I currently record to a Focus Enhancements FS-4 or to a portable hard drive connected to my laptop using Adobe OnLocation, but with a 2-camera shoot I fill up my FS-4 after 3 hours and have to rely on tape if the show runs a bit longer.
From a capturing standpoint it is much easier to work with one type of file storage and much faster to transfer files from flash or hard drive memory than from tape. An added bonus with a continuous file is that you don’t need to resynchronize as often in a multi-camera environment. 32GB cards are readily available and they can hold just under 2.5 hours of DV or HDV footage. Although I prefer longer recording times for a stage production, it is very easy to switch to a fresh card during the intermission, giving me 5 hours of record time. Although I was hoping to play with my new camera out of the box, I had to settle for some delayed gratification as it took me a few moments to orient myself with the location of all the controls, some in much different locations than I got used to with my Sony PD170 and Canon XH A1.
After a slow start with the unit I was able to turn the auto switch to manual and begin to take control of my new camcorder. I started with the iris ring which was more similar to the smooth action of the ring on the XH A1 than the small dial on the PD170 that clunked-in iris settings. I then was able to switch the zoom between the manual setting to enable the zoom ring and back to servo to allow use of the zoom rocker and control via my LANC controller. It did take me a bit longer to switch the focus from auto to manual. The control for this function is to simply move the focus ring from its forward auto position towards you to switch it to full manual. I guess I should have figured it out sooner as it works the same way as my other manual lens—the one on my DSLR still camera.
Once I oriented myself I found the camcorder easy to use and very impressive to look at. Although the Z7 is a bit front-heavy due to the weight of the interchangeable lens, it balanced nicely on my tripod when I slid the plate backwards. Handheld, the hand grip is slightly angled and contoured, creating a more ergonomic and stable feel than previous models. The Z7 weighs in at just over 7 pounds in a typical setup with the recording unit, tripod plate, supplied shotgun microphone, and NP-F970 battery connected. By comparison Canon’s A1 is only 5.5 pounds with its largest battery and tripod plate connected.
I was excited to see that the pair of XLR audio inputs could be independently assigned either a line or mic level input—a feature missing from the Canon XH A1—but was initially concerned when the mic attenuate setting was missing from the external controls. I later learned that this function was renamed Input Trim and formed part of the audio menu. Although it takes an extra step to go into the menu, the effort is well worth it. You can select from 6 trim levels between -18 dB and +12 dB, offering you the maximum in flexibility when dealing with hot or low audio levels. Although often underrated, advanced audio controls mean I can now leave my inline attenuators and portable mixing board at home.
On the back of the camera is located the connections for the headphones, LANC controller, A/V and component out, 6-pin FireWire, and HDMI. The manual states that an optional S-Video connection (not supplied) can be connected to the A/V port, offering even more connection possibilities, but it also indicates there is a connection priority of HDMI, component, S-Video, and finally Video (yellow RCA). On the PD170 you can output video using both the S-Video and RCA at the same time, and with the Canon XH A1 you can output video via BNC and either Component or RCA. The Z7 sends only one signal, according to the connection priority, regardless of how many devices you have connected. In my workflow this creates an issue as I often require two signals.
A simple solution would be to use a monitor with a loop through to gain an additional output but most on camera LCD monitors do not offer a loop-through and occasionally I am required to output both an HD and SD signal to two devices such as an HD projector for a live video feed and a DVD recorder for a delayed playback.
Although the importance of the location of the cassette compartment is not as critical on a camcorder solution that includes a CF recorder, Sony has to be given credit for their rear-facing door that loads the tape vertically and makes tape changes while the tripod is above eye level that much easier. Having said that, Sony needs to rethink the location of the headphone volume and LCD display buttons, which are now located on the top of the camera under where the LCD rests when in the closed position. This high and forward position makes adjusting the volume and display impossible from a standard shooting position where the camcorder is at eye level.
The location of the card reader is above the battery compartment, which means you have to remove the recording unit in order to change the battery.
Similar to the Z1, the Z7 ships with a dual-purpose battery charger and AC adapter that connects to the camcorder using a battery-shaped connector that takes the place of the battery. I first used this type of connection with the XH A1 and have to say that I like the old system where I could leave a battery connected to the camera while plugged into a smaller DC transformer. It makes removing your tape after you unplug your camcorder much easier. At the same time it allows me to be more spontaneous if I want to leave the sticks while plugged in and switch to battery power.
My first shoot with the Z7 came only hours after I picked up the camera, and the second happened the next morning, so I was able to put some good hours on the camera before reviewing the footage. It was around that time that I started to read online posts with concerns about the performance of CMOS sensors, specifically performance issues related to skew, where a vertical line bends when panned; and camera wobble, where your subject appears to shake like Jell-O when the camera is shaken quickly. I didn’t see any signs of these two problems in my own footage, so I performed some more demanding tests and was pleased when I could not get my images to wobble or skew.
My next set of tests was to compare the footage of the Canon XH A1 and the Sony Z7 using an HD studio monitor. Both the images produced by the CCD-based A1 and the CMOS-based Z7 were very similar in terms of resolution and latitude, but the biggest difference was the low-light sensitivity of the Z7. The contest wasn’t even close, with the Z7 delivering low-light sensitivity similar to the PD170, the SD low-light champ.
Compact Flash Recording
My last test was to record video on a Compact Flash card. At first I couldn’t get the recorder to record when I pressed the button with the red dot on the recorder, the universal record button symbol. It took a closer look at the adjacent button that was curiously devoid of any symbol and realized that to record required pressing both the record and the blank button. After that oversight I was able to record to the CF and playback on the camera in VCR mode. I like the fact that the CF card has its own little tally light on the LCD that changed from white to red when recording and flashes when the CF card is approaching capacity.
Transferring the entire 18 minutes of footage it took to fill the 4GB SanDisk Extreme III card (at this writing, I have much higher-capacity cards on order) was trouble-free. I connected the recording unit to its i.Link cradle, attached a battery, and plugged it in to my computer using a 6-pin FireWire cable. Windows recognized the new storage device and I was able to transfer the footage to my hard drive in 5 minutes, which is over 3.5 times faster than real time. I imported the footage into Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 and, after it conformed, was able to edit my HDV footage the same as if I had captured it from tape.
For an extensive study of Compact Flash recording with the Sony Z7U using a variety of flash media, see Marshall Levy's article, Compact Flash Test Results, on Anthony Burokas' TechThoughts blog.Shawn Lam, MPV (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancover video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005-7 and the 4EVER Group's Video 07. He won an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award in Stage Production at Video 08.