I have owned a lot of video cameras over the years, including a Sony DSR-PD150, a DSR-PD170, an HVR-Z7U, and a Canon XH A1. What they all have in common is that they are camcorder-style video cameras. I recently had the opportunity to take a shouldermount Sony HVR-S270 on a series of shoots and am considering its benefits and disadvantages—not by way of comparison to other current shouldermount cameras, such as the JVC HD110 and Sony XDCAM EX3, but from the perspective of the average event video production company owner who uses camcorders and is considering a move to a shouldermount rig.
I have to admit that I have always looked at shouldermount camera operators with respect. There is truth in the notion that size makes a difference, and when it comes to video cameras, bigger cameras command more respect. When I brought the S270 to a British Columbia Professional Videographers Association (BCPVA) meeting, I watched this phenomenon in action as videographer after videographer waited their turn to mount the camera on their respective shoulders and operate the camera.
This is different from the reaction I’ve gotten when I’ve brought camcorders in the past and either put them on a table or tripod. In those scenarios, videographers would go through the menu and look at it, but something about a shouldermount camera begs its operator to mount it and practice taking shots. In the field I noticed a similar phenomenon; I often heard the comment, "That looks like a nice camera" from audio technicians, event participants, and event organizers. Although difficult to quantify—all this evidence being anecdotal—I found having a big camera makes a difference in the way you are perceived by your client and the general public.
I used the S270 on a variety of shoots, including a multiday conference and five dance recitals. During the dress rehearsal of the last dance recital, I filmed an additional behind-the-scenes segment that allowed me to move off the tripod.
Shouldermount Pros and Cons
There are several considerations a camcorder video camera operator needs to consider when thinking about upgrading to a shouldermount camera. Unlike my most recent transition from a PD170 to a Z7U, where my batteries, LANC controller, and tripods could still be used, the S270 takes an entirely different power supply (4-pin XLR 12V DC) and battery (V-mount), and requires a tripod adapter plate, along with possibly a higher weight-rated tripod.
My demo unit didn’t ship with any of those items so it took me trips to two rental stores before I could both turn the camera on and mount it to a tripod.
I’m not going to discuss all the features of the S270 that it shares with its smaller sister camera, the Z7U (see my April 2008 Z7U review), such as the CF recorder and interchangeable lenses, or discuss the image quality, which is excellent. But I will highlight a few of the features you get with this shouldermount camera that you don’t get with its camcorder-style stablemate.
The S270 supports 4-channel 48 kHz 16-bit MPEG-2 audio recording in HDV mode. While two channels are sufficient for most shoots, there are situations where the additional audio tracks are a requirement. Starting next year I will be producing video adjudication DVDs for dance competitions. These DVDs feature four audio tracks for each dance routine, with each of the three judges requiring his or her own audio track, and an additional audio track for the soundbooth audio and stage microphone mix. Four channels of audio is a requirement, and because this production will be a single-camera shoot, splitting the audio over two cameras is not a practical option.
For dance students, having individual commentary tracks for each of the three judges, accessed by changing the language selection from their DVD remote control, is invaluable to their learning process. For the competition organizer, providing an adjudication DVD is one way to differentiate his or her event from larger or more established dance competitions that offer only written adjudication.
The second major audio upgrade is one that I hope trickles its way down to smaller camcorders because it is invaluable in the field any time you are recording more than a single audio track. I’ve never been very good at turning off one of my ears the way I can close one eye when looking through the viewfinder, so listening to one input in the left ear with a second input in the right ear is a futile exercise in sensory concentration. Removing one headphone doesn’t help much either due to room noise.
The S270 features a channel select button that allows the user to solo an audio input to both ears, along with the ability to monitor either the first and second or third and fourth channels in the right and left ears. Unlike features such as the expanded focus that can only be accessed in standby mode, the audio monitoring select control can be operated while recording without changing the audio mix.
The third audio-related advantage is a small audio level dial on the front of the camera. With all my camcorder-style video cameras, I’ve found it challenging to connect to a line-level input from a soundboard because the level is often too low for the line-level and too hot for an attenuated mic level. This little dial adjusts the levels from Input 1, bringing the audio within a more desirable range. Although it might seem like a small feature, and only receives a seven-word description in the 135-page manual, while you’re working in the field, advanced audio controls can make or break a video shoot.
A larger shouldermount camera provides more real estate for video connectors, which I also found advantageous compared to camcorder models. HDMI on the Z7U is HD/SD SDI on the S270, and gone are those annoying DIN connectors that terminate in male RCA and component (S-Video connectors are available but the DIN cable is not even included and is typically a special order item).
The S270 has full-size female connectors for RCA and S-Video, and component video connects with secure BNC-style connections. Having standardized female video connections is the way most video devices both output and input video (think DVD-player-to-TV), so reversing the connection gender as done on the Z7U with male connection requires the use of barrel connectors, which cable purists will always tell you leads to increased potential for problems as compared to direct cable connections.
Although BNC and RCA barrel connectors are common, S-Video barrel connectors are rare and I’ve never heard of F/F RCA-to-BNC connectors. Sending a video signal on the Z7U with BNC cable requires the DIN connector cable terminating in male RCA, an F/M RCA-to-BNC adapter, an F/F BNC barrel connector, and finally an M/M BNC cable. As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of DIN connector cables and prefer the S270-style female connectors, which disappeared from Sony camcorders after the PD170 with the introduction of the Z1U.
Having a variety and standard gender for video connections is important but being able to use them all at the same time is an even bigger deal. Sony’s camcorder HDV models, including the Z1U, Z7U, V1U, and A1U, are limited by a connection output priority that only allows one type of video signal to be output at a time. If two types of video connections are used, only the higher-quality signal is output. HDMI is the highest (if available), then component, and finally composite (RCA or S-Video).
This is a change from the PD170, which allowed both S-Video and RCA connections; and it also differs from Canon’s XH A1, which allows BNC and a choice of RCA or Component.
In the field, having a variety and multiple video outputs is important, especially when providing a live projector feed during a stage performance while using a second video connection for a field monitor. The S270 does not have a priority output and simultaneous multiple outputs can be utilized, although the LCD panel turns off when composite video is selected.
Time Code Preset and Time Code Make
The last features I took advantage of during my shoots were the Time Code (TC) preset and Time Code make features, again an improvement over the camcorder models I’ve used.
The TC preset allows you to set the timecode to any value you assign, while the TC make, set to regenerate, continues the timecode from tape to tape, which is an improvement over camcorder models which reset the timecode to 0 when you insert a new tape.
The On-the-Shoulder Experience
Finally, operating a shouldermount camera on the shoulder is very different from cradling a camcorder. At a little less than 14 pounds with battery and CF recorder, the S270 is more stable than smaller cameras. I noticed an improvement in the steadiness of my shouldermounted shots compared to going handheld with a camcorder for pans, tilts, telephoto, and especially walking shots.
So for those who want the look and feel of a shouldermount HDV camera, Sony has a real contender on its hands with the S270. I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes it to the top of my wish list as it would pair nicely with my Z7U, and especially now that I’ve crossed off the previous top item on my list, my recently purchased Rimage Prism Plus thermal printer.
Shawn Lam, MPV (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–2007 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award for Theatrical Production at WEVA Expo 2008 and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award in Stage Production at Video 08.