New Models, New FeaturesFirst, Canon introduced the XH A1 and G1. Then Sony introduced the HDR-FX7 and HVR-V1U (above, right). As of late September, we were also expecting to see the JVC GY-HD200 arrive in shooters' hands by the time this issue hits, if not a few weeks before. Meanwhile, Panasonic has already announced an upgrade to the AG-HVX200. More important than the near doubling of choices and the redistribution of features are the new price points these camcorders offer. Checking shipping prices, as well as the suggested prices of the camcorders not yet available, yields the state of the market reflected in the table on p. 35. You can see that we now have a pretty good selection of camcorders and a range of features from about $1,500 to nearly $10,000.
Once you get above $10,000 you might as well go right to Sony's XDCAM HD (the F330 or F350), which records three HD data rates and numerous frame rates, as well as DVCAM, on removable optical media that hold up to two hours on one disk, all starting around $15,500.
You can find detailed descriptions, tests, sample footage, and more about these camcorders on the web, and to recount all that information in this article would be redundant. What follows is a quick overview of the entire range of camcorders with an emphasis on the features most salient to EventDV readers.
Sony FX1 and Z1U
The emergence of HDV as a viable prosumer and professional format began with the introductions of the Sony HDR-FX1 (left) and HVR-Z1U (see Jan Ozer's February 2005 review). The Z1U is the "pro" version of the "consumer" FX1. While more than $1,000 separates these two siblings, they are more alike than different. Perhaps their nearly complete feature-set overlap reflects a weak effort at artificially differentiating the products on Sony's part, or maybe the key area of divergence—the lack of XLR support in the FX1—is Sony's way of drawing the line between consumer and professional cameras (the cameras are marketed by two completely separate divisions). If so, it was a miscalculation, because the FX1 has largely been adopted by pros, rather than consumers, in the United States, and pro shooters almost exclusively favor cameras with professional XLR inputs. That said, both of these camcorders have had significant success in our market and have served event videographers just fine for over a year now.
I admit to being an early adopter of these Sony HDV models and have grown to love the images they produce. On the other hand, Sony's innovative, handle-mounted screen turns out to be less useful than they intended. Not only does this design remove the screen as an easy way to stabilize the camcorder, but it also places numerous controls on top of the camcorder, which is not the best place for them if you need to make adjustments when you have the camera mounted high in the air or on a crane. Sony has recognized this problem and returned to a more traditional camcorder design with its latest models. The Z1U offers the XLR jacks and better access to the menus and control that a pro might expect. Though the FX1 lacks integrated XLRs, external boxes suffice for some and easier access to some camera features isn't worth the cost difference when the imaging blocks and lenses produce the same images in both camcorders. Much as the Sony VX1000 heralded the dawn of DV, these near-identical twins led the way to HDV on their own for quite a while.
In late 2005, Sony introduced the A1U and HC1 and served notice that the HDV market would be a broad and diverse one, with palm-sized and sub-$2,000 camcorders adopting HDV technology as well as more pro-oriented models. They also represented the first HDV models that might serve as second or third cameras for event shooters.
The Sony A1U is the "pro" version of the consumer HC1 (left). Both of these single-chip palmcorders offer an amazing 1080i HDV image for their low prosumer price. It's clear from the available manual controls and the "pro" addition of XLR jacks through a hot shoe that these were not designed as just consumer camcorders.
Although low-light performance is limited, and their color balance isn't perfect, they strike a beautiful balance between affordability and HDV image quality. Many users also select them as a second or third camcorder purely due to size—they are the smallest prosumer HDV camcorders—or price, when a camcorder might need to be "expendable" either in action or in war.
While neither is likely to qualify as the "A" camera of the professional event videographer, they have earned their place. They do a commendable job, are very affordable, and, when you need a camcorder for a personal event, they are the easiest to grab—with the least amount of worry.
Canon XL H1: The Hummer of HDV
The $8,999 Canon XL H1 (left) is the big daddy in the prosumer camcorder price range. The image quality you get from the "true HD" CCDs is what you pay for. You can record DV and HDV, naturally, but the big bonus you get here is the ability to put your own lens on the front, and the ability to take HD-SDI right off the imaging block and record it to tape or a computer hard drive. Not bad for the first HDV camcorder from Canon, and under $10k to boot!
Canon has developed and revised the XL design over several years and through several iterations. The latest version maintains the best aspects. The design is definitely lens-heavy, but it works for many people. This is clear from the continued sales of the XL line.
Best of all, some head-to-head tests with the Sony CineAlta and Panasonic Varicam put the image quality of the Canon H1 right up there with cameras that basically add an extra zero to the price tag. So for affordable 1080i images that really pass muster, the Canon H1 is the Hummer of HDV.
JVC Goes 60p
JVC's GY-HD100U (left) is a camcorder like no other. Not only does it represent a departure in design from big palmcorders that fill this niche, but it produced stellar images right out of the gate. Not just DV and HDV, mind you, but true 24p that garnered praise from the independent filmmaking community in addition to event and corporate producers.
Aside from an imaging software glitch that was quickly rectified by JVC, this camcorder offers features, setups, and accessories that show careful forethought for the end user's needs.
From JVC's new take on Focus Assist to the camera's interchangeable lenses, adjustable shoulder pad, and multiple integrated battery and hard drive solutions, the HD100U makes shooting easy for the user. Not least among its unique advantages is the fact that it's the only camcorder in this price range with a speaker placed next to the shooter's ear.
This makes confident run-and-gun a possibility, and the HD100U has quickly justified its cost wherever it has been used (see Marc Smiler's April 2006 review).
The JVC GY-HD200 (left) hasn't shipped as of this writing, but it will probably be available for purchase by the time you read this. JVC announced it at NAB in April, and it was a bit of a surprise considering the HD100 hadn't been in users' hands that long. But the HD200 satisfies one of the most oft-repeated requests that JVC heard from its users: support 720p60 recording in addition to the 720p30 and 720p24 offered by the HD100. JVC touts increased compression efficiency and a longer GOP to cram double the frames into the same 19Mbps HDV data rate. This means you use the same tape as you did before, and that's a nice upgrade.
JVC has also increased the number of accessories available for the GY-HD line, making the little shoulder camera chassis the basis for much more—including full-out studio cameras. While it may be a bit odd to see the small HD250 inside the studio config, it's been much-praised for the image quality it generates, and budget-constrained operations have little choice when it comes to outfitting schools, government offices, local sports organizations, etc. So JVC may have correctly identified an under-served market and provided a critical solution.
Perks and Perils of P2
Panasonic's AG-HVX200 (left) sits at about the middle of the pack—price- and picture-wise—and is the oddest bird of the lot. It is a DV camcorder, and a camera that records DVCPRO 50 and DVCPRO HD onto Panasonic's solid-state P2 PC cards. It has enjoyed rapid adoption among those who welcome its ability to record multiple HD formats at numerous different frame rates, including true 24p. This makes it an excellent second camera to augment a Varicam shoot (see Ben Balser's July review).
The HVX200 retains the the DVX100 series' compact design, which has proven to be very appealing to end users and has not seen any dramatic design changes since the original DVX100 was introduced many years ago (Panasonic also introduced the immediate successor to the DVX100A, the aptly named and DV-only DVX100B, to little fanfare in late 2005). The HVX builds on the solidity of the DVX100 design and tries to minimize differences, even though it integrates the entirely new P2 recording system. However, the cost and physical limitations of the P2 media make it a work-in-progress at best and have caused some potential owners to hesitate. Rental houses have stepped up to the plate, making the HVX a little more palatable to the pocketbook, and nonlinear software packages have integrated P2 workflow, making it easier to get the footage off the cards (for a tutorial on Final Cut Pro's P2 workflow, see Ben Balser's October Cut Lines). It's also worth comparing Panasonic's 4:2:2 DVCPRO HD system to the 4:2:0 MPEG-2 compression used in HDV. The HDV codec records 1440x1080 of luminance, but obviously its 4:2:0 color space limits it to half the chroma detail, just 720 pixels across. In comparison, the HVX200 uses three 960x540-pixel CCDs with pixel shift in both the vertical and horizontal axes. Also, like HDV, the DVCPRO HD codec itself does not record "full" HD. 1280x720p is recorded as 960x720. The more detailed 1920x1080 is recorded at 1280x1080 in 59.94i and as 1440x1080 in 50i. Here, chroma resolution is reduced from 960 to 640 pixels per line.
The DVCPRO HD system offers up to 100Mbps. The frame size is fixedand shooting fewer frames does not increase the amount of data allocated to each frame. Compared to the 25Mbps of HDV, DVCPRO allocates more data to each frame, but HDV uses a much more efficient codec (MPEG-2) and interframe compression to make the most of the bits it has. It also offers a singular convenience: recording HD video to inexpensive DV tape. So while some covet the DVX200 and its vast and versatile feature set, and have hastened to make it a permanent addition to their arsenal, others have stepped back and realized those advantages are available at a lower cost through rental. Then, if the P2 system turns out to be more trouble than they expected, they can just return it at the end of the day. Or they can simply rent it for specific shoots—say, commercials or other corporate projects, rather than all-day events—where P2's shooting-time constraints don't pose a problem.
When Canon announced its XH A1 (left) and XH G1 in July, the new pair of all-in-one camcorders were immediately dubbed the FX1/Z1U killers. This is because the Canon XH G1 and A1 take direct aim at the design and the pricing of Sony's $3,500 FX1 and $4,500 Z1U. The compact design features a side-mounted LCD; XLR jacks; a nice, long 20x optical lens (double what Sony offered in the FX1/Z1U); and Canon's famed optical image stabilization. This alone could rip potential buyers from the Sony fold. Another nice feature of the new Canon models is that they are twins. Unlike the artificial stratification of Sony's consumer/prosumer camcorders—which amount to differentiating them on the basis of XLR jacks, some menus, and other tweaks—Canon's camcorders are deliberately identical. One has additional jacks and features. But other than that, you will find everything else designed to make it easy to jump back and forth between these HDV siblings and not miss a beat.
Canon also backs up the power of these camcorders by including the imaging block from the top-of-the-line H1. These are some very pretty chips. Plus, Canon also gives the power to the people by offering it in two flavors: the less expensive A1 (MSRP $3,999) for those who just need a good HDV camcorder, and the G1 (MSRP $6,999) for those who also want the ability to get the pristine images out of the camcorder on HD-SDI. We'll be reviewing the A1 in February 2007.
CMOS vs. CCD: Sony Strikes Back
Recently, Sony's HVR-V1U entered the fray and became Sony's fourth CMOS camcorder to try and replicate what CCDs have done well for decades: converting light into electric charges, processing it into electronic signals, and thus capturing digital images. Sony's HC1 and A1U were the first to use the technology for HDV acquisition. A consumer model, the HC3 came next, followed by the UX1 (see Douglas Spotted Eagle's November UX1 review). Though designed primarily as consumer models, the HC1 and A1U proved to be a pretty good implementation of the new CMOS technology. The DCR-PC1000 was Sony's first foray into CMOS land, and even that SD camcorder produced some pleasant images.
The V1U and its consumer sibling, the HDR-FX7 (left), take CMOS to the next level with a three-CMOS chip imaging block and the ability to record true 24p. Sony's new models also boast the ability to record short bursts of slow motion video they introduced on the HC1/A1U. With these new cameras Sony has also finally moved past its 10x and 12x optical zoom lenses and offers its first 20x optical in a prosumer camcorder. This lessens the lure of Canon's new, lower-priced XH models (see Douglas Spotted Eagle's November V1U review).
Although previous CMOS solutions have failed to even maintain the low-light capability achieved by recent prosumer CCD camcorders, these new camcorders could break new ground by leveraging three chips and advanced processing to take CMOS users where they have never gone before. Forthcoming optional accessories like an integrated hard disk recorder, LED light, and a wide-angle lens show that these camcorders also have some thinking behind them.
The video production market has grown considerably in just a few short years. I've shot events with everything from a two piece 3/4" system to Hi8, SVHS, Betacam, DV, DVCAM, DVCPRO, and HDV—and numerous models of each. Based on what I've seen of HDV compared with the formats that have served me in the past, I'm excited by the latest generation of products offering affordable HDV to event videographers. Though I don't have much interest in 24p, and worry about the limited record times of P2, I see the value of these features for certain applications, and understand that manufacturers are trying to make one piece of gear fit the needs of more users than ever before. I prefer usability and quality over groundbreaking innovation. I use my camcorder to make money and to tell a story—reliably, and repeatedly. I need to count on it and bank on it.
That said, I like the new Canons and the new JVC camcorders and believe they hold the most promise of the current and emerging HDV models. Even as a long-time Sony user, I hesitate to put my eggs into the CMOS basket. Maybe in a couple of years, when we see how well the CMOS chips hold up, and demonstrate improved low-light capability, I might find myself using one. Until then, I'll put my money on time-proven CCDs and stick with what has worked for me.