Few things in life are more fun than testing camcorders, because when you have great camcorders around, well, at least around here, it seems that more life happens. Canon's great new XL2 comes in and it's time for my daughter's first-grade class to sing for the Veterans at a local church. Seems like a great way to write off some mileage and DV tape, and butter up the first grade teacher, which always seemed to help when I was in school.
Then Panasonic's highly functional AG-DVC60 appears and my wife says that she's been promising some of the kids in her ballet class a DVD they can use to practice at home. Hmmm, sounds like a great idea for a multiple-camera shoot, and another great way to test out that cool multicam feature in Pinnacle Edition.
Then Sony's fantastic HDR-FX1 comes in, and the local Tae Kwon Do instructor asks me to film his seven year-old daughter's self defense routine. Seems she just won the world championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and wants to send off DVDs to Oprah, Jay, and Dave to see if she can get on their shows. No pressure there—fail and I can't show my face in town for the next two years.
Of course, one thing I've learned over the years is that weeks of laboratory testing can't replace the lessons you learn in one live shoot, especially when your marriage, physical well-being, or elder child's first-grade education are on the line. Now, if only I could convince my editors of that and dispense with all the grueling, time-consuming standardized tests.
Oh well, maybe I'll get to do that in the next camcorder shootout, but not this time. You've met the players; let's set the scene.
As you probably know, Sony's HDR-FX1 is a hybrid camcorder that can shoot in both DV and HDV mode. For more detail on the current state of HDV, refer to Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen's "HDV Goes Mainstream" and Stephen Nathans' "From HDV to DVD" in EventDV's November and December issues, respectively (I've learned later in life that it pays to butter up editors as well).
However great the promise of HDV, my take is that about 1% of the initial buyers of the FX1 will use it solely for HDV, and that most will use DV at least as much as HDV, if not more. Not only right now, I'd argue, but possibly as long as they use the FX1 as their primary camera, given the 2-3 year turnover in technology products at this level. For this reason, this article will focus exclusively on the camera's DV performance, with HDV performance and workflow examined in a follow-up article in the February issue.
Similarly, I'm thinking that few in our audience are concerned with a camera's ability to produce video they can later transfer to film (mostly an indie filmmaker application), and I'm confident they're pretty well-divided on the issue of whether you can actually make digital video look like film based on the technology you use to shoot it—or the effects you apply in post, for that matter. For this reason, I didn't compare the cameras based on the XL2's ability to shoot in 24 frames per second progressive mode (24p) or the FX1's CineGamma feature that reportedly makes your video look like film. (Although Panasonic pioneered prosumer 24p with the AG-DVX100, the DVC60 doesn't support it.)
Instead, I ran a battery of tests—some standard, some a bit off the beaten path—to illuminate the differences between these camcorders. When I could, I included the Sony DCR-VX2000 in these tests, just to see whether folks who own the VX2000, Canon XL1, or Panasonic AG-DVX100 need to upgrade to achieve additional quality.
All tested camcorders are 3-CCD camcorders. Just for the record, I checked prices at Express Cameras.com and found the FX1 at $2,899, the DVC60 for $1,799 and the XL2 at $3,799 with 20X zoom lens. The Sony DCR-VX2100—successor to the VX2000—costs $1,589.
I'll start by describing our formal tests, weaving in the real-world tests when they add value to the discussion.