When I get a new piece of equipment, I try to see how far I can get before reading the manual. Some might argue that I am exhibiting typical male behavior, and my wife might be inclined to agree.
I justify my behavior by explaining that I am simply testing the user friendliness of the design. After all, the sign of a good design is an item whose function is intuitive and doesn’t require a manual for the user to operate it at a basic level.
When I first got my Sony HVR-Z7U, I was a bit embarrassed because I could not initially locate the "on" button. When I finally powered on my video camera and figured out how to switch it off from the factory default setting of everything auto, I found the Z7 easy to use at a basic level. But as a professional video producer, I need to consistently operate at a professional level. This requires a complete understanding of the equipment I use and how it interacts with the environments in which I work.
In order to advance beyond a basic level of understanding, I pulled out the user manual and read it cover to cover. It gave me further insight into the operation of the camera, but I still had a lot to learn.
Vortex Media’s Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U and the HVR-S270 ($90) filled in the missing pieces. It gave me a further understanding of the video camera I had already been using for 6 months.
Although host Doug Jensen is a member of Sony’s Independent Certified Experts team and is often hired to teach or shoot for Sony, he assures the viewer that Sony had no part in the production of the training DVD. He freely shares his personal opinions on the Z7U, be they good or bad. At the start of the training DVD, he urges viewers to take notes and to watch the 3-hour DVD set again (with its comprehensive 20 chapters) a month after their initial viewing. I followed this advice and added an additional page of notes to the four I took when I first viewed the DVD from my laptop, while waiting for a delayed connecting flight in Toronto.
Jensen is a great instructor. He has a way of explaining complicated technical items in a manner that is easy to understand, and he emphasizes what he feels is relevant to the learner.
The DVDs move at a comfortable pace and are full of beautiful outdoor shots. To show the difference changes in settings make, Jensen shows the same shot with onscreen titles indicating the camera’s settings as they change.
One of the reasons I enjoy Jensen’s teaching style so much is that he is not afraid to share his opinions—especially on the importance of learning how to operate the Z7 manually, saying, "If you want to shoot great video, it is imperative that you understand how to control all these features manually."
His advice on the auto control is to "forget it even exists." He later explains that in auto mode, a video camera sees the world as a medium shade of gray, so naturally, it will often get the exposure wrong.
Jensen challenges the learner to strive to be more professional by using the camera in full manual mode. Then he proceeds to show you how to use the camera’s features as well, such as the push auto button for focus and the zebra stripes for exposure, so you can easily outperform the camera’s auto settings.
Jensen makes frequent comparisons with the HVR-Z1U, which is a benefit to both current Z1 users who are considering an upgrade and those in the market for a new or used HDV camcorder. I appreciate his explanations of format choice, especially the difference between the 30p and 30p interlace scan modes, specifically as it relates to workflow compatibility.
That said, I didn’t completely agree with his advice that you should always shoot in HDV, regardless of delivery format, as it ignores workflow and capture issues. Departing from his earlier advice on auto settings, Jensen also states that the autofocus actually works quite well, but the video clip he shows of a cyclist approaching the camera suffers from focus-jogging, the telltale sign of an autofocus that doesn’t quite get it right, despite the fact the cyclist was at the center of the frame.
As a Z7 owner, I was interested to hear his opinion on the interchangeable lens and agree with his assessment that the 12x optical zoom is adequate but the zoom is a bit slow.
Opinions on technical details aside (and the fact Jensen didn’t have an S270 with which to adequately compare the camcorder-style Z7U and the shouldermount S270, including their differentiating features), I learned more from Jensen’s DVDs than I thought I would.
Before watching Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U, I was completely oblivious to the camera’s hybrid focus modes, was unaware that the status check button has a more detailed audio level display than the small display on the LCD, and felt that although brief, the Picture Profiles section gave me an overview of this most advanced of the Z7U’s 100-plus menu settings.
My lasting impression on the training I received is that it has positively changed the way I film, which is very high praise.
Although I have always been able to get great images from my video cameras, I now have a greater understanding of, and have begun to use more frequently, the more advanced camera features in my productions, including the smooth slow record, skin tone detail, and shot transition features. As video cameras become more complicated and powerful in their role as an imaging tool, camera operators have to work increasingly harder in order to master their art. Most of the cameras we use in our work today have functions that are beyond understanding through good design alone. As a result, training DVDs like Vortex Media’s Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U and HVR-S270, and the mastery they teach, are well-positioned to become standard items you purchase with every new video camera, along with a protection filter, a camera case, and a head cleaning tape.
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 is an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. 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.