On Saturday we held a “Fall 2004 Camera Shootout” in which a group of students and colleagues including Howard Phillips, Scott Doorley, Bob Daniels and I gathered to compare side-by-side the new Sony HDR-FX1 (in HDV mode), The Panasonic DVX-100A (in 16:9 mode using both the add-on anamorphic converter lens and the built-in squeeze mode) and the Canon XL-2 (in 16:9 mode).
First impressions confirmed what most of us suspected: The HDR-FX1 image is stunning, especially when viewed on a good HD reference monitor. In terms of resolution, the Canon XL-2 holds it’s own very respectably against the technically higher resolution FX1, it’s stunning how good the Canon’s image is. The real 16:9 chip really does make a difference. A distant third in terms of resolution is the Panasonic DVX-100A, with not a huge difference when comparing the anamorphic converter lens vs. the built-in squeeze mode, though the lens does have a slightly more pleasing image compared to squeeze mode.
When comparing the three cameras in their default “cine gamma” settings without additional tweaking, the Panasonic offered the most film-like image. Of course, we can’t make any practical comparisons of image quality unless we’re looking at something recorded on a tape and played back. But all in all, while the DVX images was pleasing as always, the FX-1 and XL-2 showed advantages in terms of resolution. Unless there was lots of movement, MPEG-2 artifacts did not detract from the FX1 image. On the other hand, the DVX offers a true progressive image, and in terms of a “film look” the DVX had an edge over the FX1, because Sony’s fake 24P on the camera just does not look good compared to the DVX. When Panasonic finally comes out with ah HD version of the DVX, I’m sure we’ll be very pleased. There will be lots of interesting news at NAB this year, I suspect.
This was not intended to be a hard-core technical comparison, as we stated on the poster, instead, it was “A Qualitative Idiosyncratic Pseudo-Scientific Comparison of Three Contemporary Cancorders.” I don’t have a lot of patience for test charts and objective measurements, because these are so hard and time consuming to do right and in the end the results are dubious at best. Digital cinematography is so much more about what is in front of the camera and who is operating the camera, therefore, I tend more towards tests that are light on the technical analysis and heavy on the qualitative evaluation. In the end, each of these cameras can and will be used to create compelling images, transcending each camera’s inherent limitations. When we’re shooting a film, the slight technical differences don’t add up to that much. A great film can be made with any of these cameras.
I would have hoped Sony would come out with a true 24p HDV camcorder to compete with the DVX-100A head on. Sources at Panasonic have told me to expect such a camera from Panasonic in about a year or so to follow in the footsteps of the DVX. Sony dragged their feet introducing 24p in the professional market and it looks like they will continue to do it again in the prosumer market. On both Saturday and Sunday I did some shooting in this mode, it’s OK but more strobing than 24p with the DVX. Sony is careful not to claim this is true 24p, as the FX1 camera is using an interlaced chip.
Clearly each camera comes from a very different design point. Sony is clearly going after the high-end consumer that wants “real” and “live” looking images for their new HD plasma display or projection system at home. Canon and Panasonic, on the other hand, seem to be addressing more directly the indepedent filmmaker market need by offering cameras with true progressive scanning capability. The Panasonic is smaller and more svelte in one’s hands, while the XL-2 offers a form factor that offers the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and designed for videographers who think flip out LCDs are for wimps. The FX1 falls half way between the 100A and the XL-2.
In another note I’ll write more about the feature and handling differences between these cameras and some salient features of each. Sony gets kudos for moving the LCD viewfinder forward which makes hand-holding the camera close to your body easier and they have added a magnify viewfinder feature which makes focusing easier. The FX1 does not offer XLR inputs like the 100A and XL-2 do, for that we have to spend more and spring for the FX1’s big brother, the HVR-Z1U due in February for a grand or so more. The Sony displays the focus distance in meters on the viewfinder display. This is a fabulous step forward and I like it better than Panasonic’s percentage read out. Who thought of that?!?! Why use a conversion chart from percent to feet (or meters) when you can read the distance directly on the viewfinder? The 100A’s XLR inputs are either line level or mic level, the Canon’s is only mic levels. I guess Canon did not think that people would want to run sound from a mixer into the camera, which is better at line level than mic level in terms of rejecting RF inteference, especially on a set with lots of electrical wires all over the place. Lots of subtle differences between the cameras, and it all depends on what you’re planning to shoot and whether any of the features are important to you or not.
The next step will be ingesting and converting the footage from the DV and HDV tapes we shot, recorded to tape, and convert into a format we can edit with using Final Cut Pro HD. We can expect to see more artifacts with the MPEG files from the FX1 than we typically see with DV, but this will likely be mitigated by the additional resolution. Much happens to the video image along the production chain that is not evident upon viewing the S-Video output of the DVX-100A and XL-2) or the Component Video output of the HDR-FX1. We’ll ingest the tapes into a Macintosh with Final Cut Pro HD and convert to a variety of editing formats for evaluation: DV25 (downconversion), DVCPRO-HD 720p, and DVCPRO-HD 1080i.
We may look at others as time goes on, given Avid will have an HD solution for Avid Express Pro in the near future. It will take a few days to get around to this, as it’s the end of the term and things are very busy right now. One major question I look forward to getting an answer to when we look at the footage after ingest and conversion: how good will Sony’s pseudo-24p mode look? One thing’s for sure, I look forward to the announcements we can expect in the next several months and at NAB introducing direct ingest solutions for those of us shooting HDV, as the process we’re using for capture with DVHSCap and conversion with MPEG_Streamclip before we can edit is quite tedious and time consuming, but it does work.