with award winning documentary team tony wilson and leo sullivan


Sony HVR-Z1P on left - Canon XH G1 on right

Left, HRV Sony Z1P - Right Canon XH G1


I have just had a loan of the recently released Canon XH G1 HDV camera for a couple of days and took the opportunity to do some comparative tests between it and my Sony Z1. Note that Canon and Sony use the same HDV system unlike Panasonic and JVC who each have their own proprietary systems, an 'issue' for post-production houses! List prices for the G1 $11,499 is around and the A1 $6,500 (see note at end of article).

In Australia Canon have been well behind in sales to the prosumer market, till now dominated by Sony with a series of fine DV and the newer format HDV cameras. I have my own opinions as to why, not least among them their lack of an LCD and the fact that they looked as though they were designed by the same people who designed the Alessi kettle, cool, but not so cool when you are trying to do low-key shooting.

On their first attempt into the prosumer market with the XL1 they also had some 'issues' with auto-focus, and whilst I was doing a review for a video camera magazine, the sun actually burned a hole in the viewfinder LCD, oops!

Just as in real life though, where we should always be ready for the unexpected, (like Shane Warne announcing his retirement or John Howard acknowledging global warning) Canon has come good, with a camera - that has an LCD! Fortunately as you'll see they didn't stop there, as included on the G1 and A1 are many features found in their up-market, and now all black ($11,499) XL H1.

With Sony also releasing a new HDV model this December, the HVR-V1P (see review), (costing approx. $6,500 and based on the successful DV PD150/170 cameras), the choice for potential HDV camera purchasers has become more complex.

How I did the tests

Rather than shooting test charts, on this type of camera/lens assessment I prefer to shoot the kind of scenes that I am likely to encounter on a regular documentary shoot (if there is such a thing as a 'regular' regular documentary shoot). This entailed shooting a combination of interior and exterior scenes with many of the interior scenes in very low light using varying degrees of gain, up to 18db. Incidentally both cameras have a 36db gain setting but as I don't do war zones I didn't feel the need to go there!

I also shot some mainly static wide-shot night scenes (dusk actually), but these I did using slower shutter speeds (25/12) rather than using gain. Focus tests were done shooting an aboriginal 'dot' painting, an excellent 'focus chart' for judging edge to edge sharpness, and far more entertaining to view back than a regular black and white test chart - though slightly more expensive.

I shot 'shot-for-shot' first shooting a scene on one camera, swapping the tape to the other and repeating the same shot, in (hopefully most of the time) the same light.

The test tapes were played back through the Sony Z1 camera via a component cable to a Sony CRT HD 16x9 television, a pretty decent screen for checking picture quality.

While we're on the subject, the Sony comes with a thin component cable about a metre and a half long with the three standard (red/green/blue) component plugs on one end (for the monitor/TV) and a small 'fire-wire' plug for the camera on the other end. Canon on the other hand give you a three metre long heavy duty cable with the regular component plugs on one end and a sturdy 4-pin (IEEE1394 compliant) connector that clicks firmly into the rear of the camera on the other. That kind of attention to detail says a lot to me about Canon's philosophical approach to and support for their product.

Having the camera for such a short time didn't allow for going deeper into the many picture option available in the menu (as there are on the Z1 too), but what follows are in my view the relevant Good and Bad points about the G1. Unlike my The Good, The Bad and The Ugly review of the Z1 on this website, I'm happy to say I really didn't find any anything that I would rate as 'Ugly'!

Canon XH A1/G1, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Good

The main Iris (exposure) control stands out and is easy to reach! This is one of the worst features of the Z1, where it is in an awkward place requiring you to take your supporting left hand from the camera to reach it. It's also in a line with other buttons of the exact same size and shape (Gain, Shutter, and White-Balance) so you often end up selecting one of the others by mistake, sometimes with dire consequences.
The camera starts when you press start. This is of particularly relevance on docos where, when you see something about to happen you need to have the camera roll when you press the start button, (not too much to ask I would have thought!). The Z1 can take up to 5-6 secs to do this sometimes, and I'm not just talking about when the heads have wound down - often immediately after you buttoned off from your last shot.
Doesn't appear to drop T/C (in Preset mode) which the Z1 does when it is switched off - or after 3 mins of 'non use' or when you use 'Quick Start'. Note to Z1 users - always shoot on Regenerate mode.
Superb 20-1 lens. The Z1 is pretty good too but this lens is exceptional. Both cameras handled the focus 'test chart' well with no back-focus problems. Obvious curvature as with all lenses on cameras at this price level but let's remember to compare apples with apples not apples with oranges!
An excellent sharp colour viewfinder (less excellent, but OK LCD - the Z1 wins this hands down. When it comes to LCDs, size matters too!).
Clear Scan (for avoiding the rolling bar when shooting CRT computer screens).
Constant or Variable speed zoom with (from memory) 12 preset speeds.
Easy and quick to set-up Focus and Zoom presets - zoom to your end point, press set, reframe zoom to the start point, when ready press ON and the zoom automatically moves to the point you set. The same procedure can be used with the focus too. Unfortunately they can't be used together as they can with the Z1 Shot Transition feature, which among other parameters can also incorporate aperture changes - a very nifty and useful feature! See image right
The G1 is about half a stop faster than the Z1
Excellent Gain, and a still very acceptable picture even at 18db (as has the Z1 too).
Headset level is very good - on the Z1 it's almost impossible to hear audio in even a slightly noisy situation
Play-back (conformation audio) for the recordist/operator if they want it.
Additional mini-jack mic input (for those who may still want to use their Sennheisser MK300 mics!) - using this cuts out the internal camera mic and I don't think it would be operable when using XLR inputs.
Camera records 25f (progressive scan) as well as 50i (interlaced) - though scenes shot at 25p on the Canon did not play back on the Z1 which does not have a progressive scan mode. (The new V1P though does shoot 25p.)
As well as the Daylight and Tungsten factory pre-sets, there is also a pre-set K (Kelvin) on the body of the camera under the partly swung out LCD see image right. With the White Balance set to this position you can 'dial-up' the degrees of Kelvin (colour temperature) you want to shoot at, with the K amount showing on screen as you adjust it via the Shutter/K wheel. The Z1 has a less variable but still very acceptable (and if the camera is set up properly a very accessible) version of this, where you can go 7 steps warmer or 7 steps cooler. Each of those steps is 500K, so from the Daylight position clicking the cooler User button 4 times (equivalent to 2000K) virtually takes you to the Tungsten colour balance setting, without having to go into the menu to do this. Note-this only works with the WB in the Daylight pre-set position.
High capacity SD Memory Card - for recording either stills or camera settings.