theCameraClass

with award winning documentary team tony wilson and leo sullivan

WHICH CAMERA AND WHICH FORMAT - By Tony Wilson, ACS, July 2009

using a Sony A1P at the camera class
the camera class workshop

Purchasing new camera or sound equipment ...

As part of the Camera Class, Leo and I talk to and advise many course participants and corporate clients about purchasing new camera and sound equipment. People in many cases who are not accustomed to handling cameras at all, but who now either have to pick one up as part of their 'day job', or who want to take advantage of the low cost and accessibility to start making their own films.

With the introduction of HDV in 2005 and its almost universal acceptance by broadcasters, the choice is no longer whether to upgrade from DV to HDV but rather to which make or model of HDV camera, and more recently, to which make or model of tapeless Memory Card camera.

The DV format will be around for a while yet (on some SBS docos and for web usage) but the quality difference makes the choice between formats an easy one, with HDV and pro memory card cameras like the Panasonic P2 HPX-170 and HVX-202 (shoots tape too), Sony's XDCAM EX1 and EX3 and now JVC's GY-HM100 cameras clear winners.

To give some idea of the HDV formats mainstream acceptance, a while back I was the DOP (Director of Photography) on an ABC-TV production of an Opera Australia performance of Pirates of Penzance - we shot it with nine Sony Z1 cameras, during two live performances at the Sydney Opera House, (you can buy the DVD at ABC shops!). And talking of Opera Australia, I was recently there doing some one-to-one training. They now have two Sony XDCAM EX3 (memory card) cameras which are used for shooting promotional website material, and interestingly, in some live productions where pictures from the cameras are projected onto parts of the set.

So, now when you upgrade, it's not just to which camera but to which format and whether to a tape or memory card camera. The following is a summary of some of the more popular cameras, their features, good and less good, which hopefully will make that choice a little easier - for more comprehensive reviews of some of the cameras go to 'more gear, tips and reviews' at the right.

HDV CAMERA OPTIONS

Back in 2006 the choice of HDV cameras for most people who came to CameraClass workshops came down to mainly two - the Sony Z1P or the Sony A1P. Fortunately the choices are far greater now, but for some more confusing.

Sony offers the largest choice and in some cases have pro and domestic versions of the same camera e.g. the Z1 and FX1000. Key differences are that domestic models usually lack many essential pro audio features like audio XLR inputs, independent control over each sound channel and lack of directional 'shotgun' mic. On the video side, Gain may operate only in automatic which can mean unnecessarily grainy pictures, and from an operational perspective fewer Assign button means more drilling down into menus to reach commonly used features. Assign buttons allow you to access many frequently used menu items via buttons on the camera body and on newer models there are often six or more.

In this article I'll be referring to only professional models and in general don't recommend purchasing domestic versions, especially if good sound is an issue. Note that some cameras may now be out of production but still around in large numbers and worth considering as a second hand purchase.

SONY HVR-A1p (TAPE)

If size, weight and cost are issues then the A1p is a camera to consider. Picture quality in good light is pretty good though not up to any of the larger HDV cameras, and in low light significantly worse. Whilst having professional features like XLR mic inputs many of the camera controls like white-balance and sound levels have to be accessed via the touch-screen LCD rather than physical switches and controls on the camera body itself. It does have two features not usually found on professional cameras which are Spot Focus and Spot Exposure. When selected (via the menu) these allow you set either the exposure or focus to the point you touch on the screen - an easy option for the less experienced.

Most frustratingly you have to remove the camera from the tripod (and the tripod plate) to change tapes, as they load from underneath the camera! If much of your shooting is interiors the standard fixed zoom lens will require the additional expense of a supplementary wide-angle lens. I have used the camera in spaces where I have not been able to fit a larger camera but would not recommend it as a main camera unless you found the weight (and/or expense) of the larger cameras an issue.

Note: The A1p was released over 5 years ago and a new model with improved chips has recently been released, so I would expect an improved low light performance.

Note: If the size and weight is an issue, in mid-2009 JVC released a small and very light memory card only camera, the GY-HM100E (see review). It records to inexpensive SDHC cards (2 slots), has independent audio channels, and records native QuickTime files that can be directly imported to Final Cut Pro for immediate use without any file conversion. It can also record MP4 files for PC based edit systems.

SONY HVR-Z1p (TAPE)

First introduced in 2006 the Z1p has been a workhorse for both documentary and low budget filmmakers, and I'd suggest by far the most popular HDV camera around. A 'first impressions' detailed review of the Z1p can be seen on other pages but having used it as my main camera for a couple of years (I now have a Z7p), here are some updated thoughts.

Great lens and LCD

Two of the best attributes of the Z1p were its lens and LCD. The lens, a 12-1 Zeiss was wide enough on the wide end of the zoom to not require additional and costly wide-angle supplementary lenses (a common problem with all earlier cameras). Rarely did I need the Century wide-angle adaptor I carried, and incidentally didn't carry and hardly ever felt the need for a telephoto adaptor. The LCD was and still is one of the best. My present camera, a Z7 has a sharper but smaller LCD - but I think I'd rather have the one from the Z1!

Innovations

There were many Sony 'firsts' on this camera, among the most useful were six Assign buttons (the A1P had one!) which you could set up to access frequently used features without going into menus. I set Assign buttons 1 and 3 to the WB (white balance) Level + and WB Level -. With this (in Daylight WB Preset) I could warm or cool the picture 7 'clicks' warmer or cooler in K500 stages - a fantastic tool. I often found this the quickest way to get the WB setting 'look' I wanted - e.g. shooting a scene at midday to cut into an early morning scene was simply a case of pressing the Assign 3 button (set to WB Level -) till my picture looked suitably 'cool' enough.

Other innovations were the ability to see the focus distance readouts in the viewfinder or LCD. Another was Expanded Focus, a focusing aid, though only useable when shooting in HDV (not DV). When selected (via an Assign button) it doubled the image in the viewfinder, making manual focusing easier, especially in low light situations. I also particularly liked the option to see or not see various camera data on the screen whilst shooting. By cycling through the Display button you could either see the camera data (at the bottom of the screen), and time-code, zoom and other info (at the top of the screen), or just one of those options, or nothing at all. When opting for the nothing option however you still saw REC to let you know you were actually recording - a minor detail!

PAL/NTSC

When shooting for international clients another useful feature was the ability via the menu to swap the format from PAL to NTSC. Some newer models can also be changed, but require a visit to a Sony technician - a little more time consuming!

Drawbacks

Some of the less popular features particularly if you had just moved from a DV camera (probably a PD150 or 170) was that Z1s were less sensitive in low light. In the case of the PD170, two stops less sensitive - so wide open on a PD170 would mean shooting with 12db gain on the Z1. The fact that a picture shot at +12db on the Z1 was still far better than a picture shot at 0db gain on a PD170 made up for this though.

The most infuriating issue (that Sony didn't appear to be able to fix, and that was on a par with the changing tapes issue on the A1p) was the fact that on occasions the camera didn't always instantly start recording when you wanted it to. The layout of controls, particularly the Iris wheel, also took some getting used too, especially when hand-holding, and it didn't come with a 'shotgun' mic - you had to purchase one separately (usually a Rode).

Z1 summary

Looking back on my review when I first got my hands on the camera I'm surprised at how many of the 'Bad' and 'Ugly' bits I got used to! With time I came to really like this camera, it had lovely clean pictures and handled low light situations really well, even with levels of gain you would normally try to stay away from. The 12-1 lens suited most situations and the camera was incredibly reliable. The Z1 is no longer in production (August 09), but would be a very good choice if considering a second hand camera.

Click here to go to the earlier full review and more pictures.

SONY HVR-V1p (TAPE)

The V1p is an HDV version of the popular DV/DVCAM Sony PD150/170 cameras. Aside from the obvious picture quality improvement the most appealing feature of the camera for many will be its size, fitting neatly between the smaller A1p and larger Z1p.

Notable is the lens, the first Sony to come with a 20-1 lens, which if shooting wild life or sport is a huge asset, another for many was its ability to shoot 25p progressive pictures. (When shooting for TV I recommend shooting 50i - easier on the eye). The V1 can also shoot slow motion pictures, though depending on your frame rate, at a much lower quality.

Assign buttons

It has six Assign buttons and through the menu there were various options to link the Iris with the Gain and/or Shutter. Unlike nearly all earlier cameras if you were operating either the Gain/Iris/Shutter/WB/Focus functions in auto mode - you did NOT see its setting in the LCD/viewfinder. The V1 was the first camera to change to a different method, where you always saw the reading but when in auto the particular item would have an A adjacent to the readout, and an E when in manual.

Colour tweaking

A nice touch was the ability when using the Daylight Preset to be able to 'tweak' the colour balance warmer or cooler with just the menu dial, without the bother of setting it up to Assign buttons like the Z1. Another was that the camera was supplied with a shotgun mic, a saving of around $350.

Low Light

Less sensitive than the Z1, the pictures in low light were still pretty reasonable though not as good as the Z1 and certainly not as good as the much newer Z7. I found with the focus set to auto there was a problem when panning in that the camera would go quite soft, this could happen in reasonable light too. If you knew you were about to do a medium fast pan I'd suggest locking the focus first. Another little 'feature' is that when you set a mic in Input 1 to record to both channels 1 and 2, you are restricted to setting them both to either manual or both to auto.

V1 Summary

The V1 will suit many, particularly those used to the similarly designed and sized popular PD150/170 DV cameras. The 20-1 lens could be a big asset if you need to shoot wildlife or sporting events. For general shooting though I'd suggest you will almost certainly need to purchase the wide-angle attachment, which be warned, is heavy and not inexpensive (but does come with an excellent lens shade).

SONY HVR-Z5p (TAPE/MEMORY CARD OPTION)

The Z5 is a tape camera with a fixed 20-1 zoom lens like the previously reviewed V1, the significant difference being that the wide end of the zoom is wide enough to be ideal for most shooting situations (wider than the Z1 in fact). A downside to a 20-1 when shooting in low light though is that (when fully zoomed in) the iris closes down to f3.7, which in effect means you may need to add either more light or more Gain. See the main review for a more detailed explanation of this.

Comparison with Z7p

Introduced later than the more expensive Z7, the cameras are identical in picture quality and very similar in sound facilities. The Z5 differs in that it does not come with the memory card option (which can be purchased separately) and has the fixed 20-1 zoom rather than the removable 12-1 lens on the Z7. The Z5 also has an internal stereo mic, one channel of which can be set to one of the two audio channels - with an XLR mic to the other. Controls are more 'fiddly' compared to the Z7, especially the Menu Select/Push Exec wheel, however unlike all earlier Sony cameras there is the option to put the Push Auto Iris control to one of the Assign buttons, a big operating plus when you put it to the Assign 7 button near the zoom rocker switch.

Z5p summary

With improved picture and sound features, and similar in size and weight to a Z1, many would see the Z5 as their most suitable replacement camera. Operationally the main differences are a slightly smaller (but sharper) LCD, and an auto/manual focusing arrangement that requires you to physically slide the focussing ring toward or away from you. The Z7 has this same arrangement, but here is a tip to avoid having to do this. Put the focus ring in the manual position (with it pushed away from you) and in the Others menu assign the Button 3 to Iris and the Lens L2 button to One Push AF - now with Assign 3 you can go between auto and manual focus and when in manual press the L2 to quickly focus.

Click here to go to the earlier full review and more pictures.

SONY HVR-Z7p (TAPE/MEMORY CARD)

The Z7 is a (mainly) tape camera that offered many improvements over earlier HDV cameras - it came out after the Z1 but a while before the most recent Z5. Most notable among these improvements were more sensitive CMOS chips, and a 12-1 removable Carl Zeiss zoom lens that fully zoomed closed down to only f2 - unlike other cameras that closed down to f2.8 (or more). In simple terms this means that on full zoom it can shoot in four times less light than a Z1. As on the Z5 there is a slightly smaller but sharper LCD, and the viewfinder is one of the best. Controls are quite well laid out with the white balance +/- Outdoor (daylight) Level now accessed more easily through the menu Sel/Push Exec wheel instead of having to be set-up via Assign buttons or through the Camera menu. The Auto iris control has an SP Betacam like slide switch at the front of the zoom rocker control on the handgrip unlike the push button arrangement on Z1s. Another similarity to larger broadcast cameras is the round four positions ND Filter arrangement unlike the three position slide control of the Z1.

Memory Card Unit

The camera comes with a snap-on Memory Recording unit that takes one Compact Flash memory card that on an 8GB (supplied) card can record approximately 36 mins of HDV footage. Supplied too is the i.Link cradle that the unit fits into for downloading files into your editing unit via a firewire cable. This can be powered from either 120/240v mains or a camera battery. A nice touch is the option to fit a second hot-shoe at the rear of the top handle, a far better place to attach a radio receiver, or even a second receiver.

Sound

The sound section has been hugely improved with the record channel select switch and Line/Mic/Mic+48v switches for each input now positioned on the camera body, adjacent to the XLR plugs, rather than in the menu. Conveniently placed too under a 'see-through' cover on the left side of the body are the Channel 1 and Channel 2 Auto/Manual switches and level controls. For the more adventurous there are six Picture Profiles including two 'Film Looks' and a 'Pro Colour', any of which can be completely reset to your particular personal preferences - mine is OFF!

Z7p summary

At present the Z7 is my camera of preference, with much to like about it, especially the f2 12-1 lens. Within its menu there are a huge number of options to set the camera up to you specific shooting needs. These include being able to dial up a specific colour balance number, Extended ClearScan shutter, and endless colour and picture control. Like the Z5 the Z7 comes with a camera mic plus a battery charger that can take two batteries. The single memory card unit may prove to be more useful when compact flash cards come down further in price. At the time of writing a high speed 16GB card capable of holding 72 mins of HDV was costing around AUD$300+.

Click here to go to the earlier full review and more pictures.

CANON XH A1s (tape)

In my review of the HDV Canon XH A1 camera when it first came out I rated it fairly highly particularly with regard to picture quality, but there were serious deficiencies in its sound recording capabilities. An updated model, the XH A1s has now been released, and whilst in appearance little has changed, most of the sound problems have been fixed. In the earlier review I focused mainly on the differences between it and the Sony Z1, and it's worth noting that whilst other makers like Sony, Panasonic and JVC have moved on with the introduction of hybrid (tape/memory card) and memory card only cameras, Canon as yet (August '09) are sticking to tape.

Sound improvements

The tape, memory card and hybrid cameras now available include the Sony HVR-Z7 and Z5 (tape/one card) and XDCAM XE3 and EX1 (2 x cards), Panasonic HVX202 (2 x cards/tape), HPX172 (2 x cards) and JVC-GY HM100 (2 x cards).

I said above 'most' problems had been fixed, which was perhaps a little mean, as in fact they all have - well, except one! This is that while most cameras come with a directional 'shotgun' mic the A1s does not, so add another AUD$350 or more to the purchase price!

On a more positive note though, the sound improvements are significant - each channel can now be set to record in auto or manual, and each of the two XLR inputs can now be set independently to mic or line. Other improvements are the option to trim either input + 12db or -12db, and like many of the more recently introduced cameras listed above, the option to put one side of the cameras internal stereo mic to one channel and use the other channel for an XLR mic.

Picture pluses

Canon make some of the best lenses in the business, for both stills and broadcast cameras, and the 20-1 lens on the XH A1 is no exception being one of the best of any mentioned on this website. The wide end of the zoom is one of the widest around, and having a range of 20-1 perfectly suited to most shooting scenarios. There is an option to set the zoom speed to slow, medium or fast. A nice touch too is the ease in which you can dial up any white balance from 2,000K - 15,000K - you do this using the K setting under the LCD in conjunction with the K/Shutter wheel. For those more used to broadcast cameras there is the option to operate iris, focus and zoom manually with the rings on the lens itself, and (unlike broadcast cameras!) the auto focus on the A1s is the best I've seen. There are now three 'Custom Function' buttons (Assign buttons) which allow easier access to 21 different functions - like Colour Bars, Shockless WB/Gain, Ring/Dial Operation etc, and through the two Custom Display buttons you can fine tune various items you wish to see or not see in the LCD or Viewfinder, (but through a very un-friendly and complicated user menu interface, which I have to admit I've never quite got on top of!). Like most cameras these days there is of course the option to shoot progressive or interlaced pictures.

Other changes on the A1s

The rather nice heavy duty 4-pin fire-wire cable has been changed for a more appropriate 6-pin cable. Worth noting too is that the A1s has the same 1440 x 1080 (1.67 Megapixel) chips as the larger shoulder mount XL H1s camera, and the DIGIC DV 11 Image Processors claim to give better image quality and incorporate a new gamma system that reduces noise (grain to you and me) in monotone and shadow areas - sounds good to me!

Click here to go to the earlier full review and more pictures.