I’ve been shooting a documentary with the Sony HVR-Z1U HDV camcorder and it’s a fine camera if you’re into the 1080i thing (I prefer a progressive approach to my imaging technology as with my politics). Working with this camera has convinced me that 2005 was the year affordable HD has come into its own and 2006 is the year of transition for both personal and professional video. The time has come to purchase a personal HD camcorder and portability is a factor. What to do?
After shooting with the Panasonic AG-HVX200 I’m convinced that’s the camera I’d like to own, but there are two downsides to the HVX200 (as well as the HVR-Z1U) and that’s the cost and size. If I’m going to own an HD camcorder I’d like to be able to take it with me everywhere I go, so size and weight are critical factors. But a personal camcorder should also be affordable. For personal use I’d like something as small as possible, when I need something bigger I prefer to rent (that way you always have the latest technology when you need it). But for a personal go-everywhere camcorder the criteria are different. What I’d really like is for Panasonic to take their AG-HVX200 and create a little guy like Sony’s HVR-A1U, and I’m sure they eventually will. In the mean time, I need something to shoot with, so what to get?
Given my requirements of (1) compact size; (2) HD aquisition; (3) XLR mic/line audio inputs with phantom power; (4) picture quality that’s good enough to intercut with prosumer cameras like the Sony HVR-Z1U and Panasonic AG-HVX200; (5) real progressive scan; and (6) complete manual control… the Sony HVR-A1U is the only thing that comes close, fullfulling four and a half of my requirements. It does not offer real progressive scan, (Sony being firmly entrenched in world of 1080i), and while it does offers manual control, it’s with some gotchas as far as I’m concerned, but four and a half out of six for a tiny HDV camcorder that sells for just over two grand after rebate is not too bad.
So I bit the bullet (it’s hard to go without progressive scan) and bought a Sony HVR-A1U on Monday from Rule Broadcast Systems. Why Rule and not an on-line discount retailer? Because they offer an amazing loaner program: if your camcorder needs to go in to a Sony authorized service center for service during the first two years you own it, Rule will give you a loaner, for up to 30 days, for free. Now that is worth more than any extended warranty to me. They also offer a 5% credit of your purchase of Sony Professional equipment towards a rental. And on top of that Sony is offering a $500 rebate on the right now… how could I resist? Yea, I was thinking of waiting till the next model of tiny camcorder, they keep getting better, but I need a camera now.
I was curious, how does the Sony HVR-A1U compare in terms of image quality to to it’s big brother, the Sony HVR-Z1U? I’ve assembled a Flickr photo set of still frames that offer some insights. I discovered that while the the Sony HVR-Z1U does in fact produce a more pleasing image with richer colors, the Sony HVR-A1U holds it’s own and does a remarkable job for a one-chip camcorder, which I believe has a lot to do with some really good digital image processing techniques (which Sony calls EIP: Enhanced Imaging Processor) and the use of CMOS technology.
CMOS imagers were originally developed by NASA for the Hubble telescope (yet another dividend of the space program). CMOS has been used successfully in digital still cameras for quite some time. The technology has evolved to the point that it’s practical for video cameras. CMOS chips make excellent high-resolution images possible with a tiny 1/3″ chip. It uses very little power compared to CCD chips, is cheaper to manufacture, and does not exhibit vertical smear of highlights like CCD chips do. The only down side of CMOS chips is reduced low-light sensitivity. This camera has a 2.97 megapixel CMOS sensor and in addition to video you can shoot still images and store them on Memory Stick at a resolution of 1920×1440. While recording video the resolution of still images is limited to 1440×810 because camera does not use the full sensor (it needs the extra space for the electronic Steady Shot image stabalizer I presume.
Let’s be real, this is a tiny HDV camera, with both strengths and weaknesses. The biggest weakness it shares with its big brother: the high compression HDV format with long 15-frame GOP MPEG-2 encoding. A pain to edit, drop-out prone (requires the use of Sony’s high-end “Digital Master” videocassette to avoid drop-outs which in MPEG span several frames within a GOP).
Yet the A1U offers a nice set of features: user-settable timecode, a detachable audio module that supports balanced microphone or line inputs, a clever lens hood with built-in lens cap, a telephoto macro feature for close-ups, a single “assign” button, programmable menus (you can select your favorite settings to come up first and in the order you want them), LCD touch screen (good and bad, I’d like more buttons), some gamma settings for a film look.
The camera has some sore points, too: Sony’s infamous focus ring has been with us for years and here it is again! The ring turns continuously in both directions, and unlike the DVX100, you can’t reliably pull focus with this camera. The low-light performance of this camera is relatively bad. Part of this, I’m sure, has to do with the use of CMOS technology, which is less sensitive that CCD. We’re not going to get into the “CineFrame” feature except to say that fake 24 is a bad idea (Adam Wilt has written an explanation of how it works and why it sucks). Give me real progressive scan, please! I guess you can’t have it all and progressive scan is what I have to give up to have this tiny HDV camcorder.
For 24P HD work I will still have to use a Panasonic HVX200 or JVC HD100U, but they are not take it with you everywhere kind of cameras. I don’t expect a little camcorder like this to be the right tool for every shoot, but for something that one can carry everywhere all the time, it’s not too bad. I’d like to see Sony, Panasonic, and other vendors take the small professional camcorder form factor more seriously and design one from the ground up as a professional camera (just like Panasonic did with the DVX100) rather than tack on some professional features onto a consumer model like they did with this camera.
Small, cheap, and consumer need not be the the only design point. Professionals are willing to pay more for a camera that meets their needs. Consider the amazing number of DVX100 cameras Panasonic has sold into the professional and independent filmmaking market. I’m still waiting for the video equivalent of the A-Minima, until then, I’ll be shooting my casual stuff with the Sony HVR-A1U and whatever comes after it.
In a future post I’ll include some links to video shot with the camera, but I can say from the shooting I’ve done so far it’s pretty close to what I’ve been getting with the HVR-Z1U.
Pros: Small and under three pounds, CMOS imager offers good image quality, film-like gamma mode, XLR balanced audio mic/line inputs with +48v phantom power, programmable menu, HD recording (technically it’s not full HD, but who’s splitting hairs)
Cons: 1080i recording without progressive scan option, Sony’s infamous focus ring, focus assist mode does not work while shooting, poor low-light performance, only one assign button, the HDV format, manual is not truly manual (no specific control of iris)
Sweet Spot: A personal carry with you wherever you go camcorder or crash cam, or second unit work that requires a tiny camera
Suggestions for designers of future small professional cameras: please take a cue from the designers of the Panasonic DVX100, give us a real focus ring, real zoom ring, real manual exposure control, and while we’re at it, how about real optical image stabalization and let’s get away from the HDV tape format too! A small video camera designed expecially for professionals would make a lot of people out there happy…