Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In Search Of The Perfect HD Camera

September 25, 2009 by  
Filed under All Posts

One of my main quests on my recent trip to DVExpo was to get information about which new HD camera to buy. Many of my readers are shooting in HD already, but I haven’t made the … switch. I’ve actually never had a client ask for HD. My trusty Canon GL2s have made me a bundle of money and continue to work flawlessly, so I just haven’t jumped in yet, but I have a big project coming up with a budget to match, so I can justify the jump.

I just wanted it to be a simple decision. Wrong!

I started out a couple of weeks ago by buying Larry Jordan’s excellent video series (special interest videos!) about choosing an HD format. Not satisfied that I had an answer, I asked Larry directly. His answer was; “…camera technology is RAPIDLY changing. If possible, rent for a year and give this mess a chance to settle down.”  Gee, thanks.

Renting isn’t a good option for me. I shoot often and many times without a lot of advance notice and there is no rental location within 150 miles of me. I really need a camera (two of them, really) on hand.

Budget is a consideration of course, but size and complexity are also factors. Larry suggested a Sony XDCAM unit or any 422 camera, but these are on the higher priced end. Also, my wife and I do a lot of shooting where there isn’t a lot of setup time, so simplicity is desirable.

I’ve been intrigued by ads for the innovative new JVC GY-HM100 and this was the first real camera I got my hands on. This little beauty packs a lot of technology into its miniscule body. It records in the .mov format that you can simply drop clips from the camera directly into Final Cut Pro, my NLE of choice, and edit without any transcoding.

Plug the camera in through a firewire port and it simply shows up as an additional disk drive. You can edit right away or drag just the clips you want to use onto an attached drive for subsequent use. Very, very cool and great where you don’t have time to capture from tape. I went back to the JVC booth numerous times and was always blown away by the beautiful images of the demo unit. It typically retails for $3,499, which includes the XLR mic adapter and shotgun mic.

Also floating to the top of my list is the spanking new Panasonic AG-HMC40, a direct competitor to the JVC on many counts, including size. This model records in the AVCHD format, which scares me a little bit because you have to transcode the files before editing in Final Cut Pro. From what I can tell, this can be a somewhat timely task, depending on the computer you are using. You can create Pro Res  Lite files for low res editing, but sooner or later you have to walk away and let the computer do a lot of transcoding and rendering. Anyone with experience with this process, please chime in.

The Panasonic records in a variety of formats, including 1080/24p (native) and can record up to an amazing 12 hours on a single SDHC chip in its extended play mode, which didn’t look bad. This is perfect if you have to record Wagner’s Ring opera. It has 1/4″ 3MOS sensors. It’s street price is $1995, but realize that doesn’t include the XLR microphone adapter, which runs about $300. You still need to add a shotgun mic.  I have a couple of Beachtec adapters, which I would probably use instead.

I figure the real price difference between the two cameras, all things being equal, is about $750. There is still not a clear choice in my mind. There are pros and cons to each, which I’ll explore in another article.

The lovely Brooke Rudnick gave a superb demonstration of the equally sexy Sony HVR-Z7U. This camera is a monster compared to the JVC and Panasonic units I was considering. It is considerably more capable and complex, and you could almost buy three of the Panasonics for the price of one of these beasts ($5,875). By the time you bulk up on batteries and a good Pelican case you are well over $7K.

The Z7U records in the HDV format which many people say is a dying breed (Larry Jordan counseled me to stay away from HDV), yet Brook’s samples were to die for and some TV shows, including Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” use this camera.

The larger 1/3″ 3CMOS chips allow you to achieve a more film-like narrow depth of field. Lugging this camera around for a lot of setups is a consideration not to be taken lightly, but you can be sure it would impress your clients more than the diminutive models I’m considering. With high end clients size does matter, unfortunately. A scaled down and more affordable version without a removable lens is the HVR-Z5 ($4,250). A further scaled down consideration in the Sony line is the HDR-FX1000 ($3,100).  All of the can record to tape as well as solid state media.

The tape backup factor is one that gets my attention. Nobody has a good answer for how to archive digital media that is recorded to P2 or SxS cards. The JVC and Panasonic cameras record to more affordable SDHC cards, and the best answer there is to save the cards as backup just as you have with tape. This issue is the elephant in the room regarding tapeless recording.

Canon was a no-show, although their DSLR, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is the hottest thing going among the indie film crowd. You really can get HD film quality out of this camera, but for my type of shooting it just isn’t the right choice. I don’t think so, anyway. I have shot with it and find the form factor difficult to use for video. I’m betting that Canon will take all that is good about that camera and make a real video camcorder out of it and scoop the whole industry. I hope they do.

Canons venerable XH -A1S is also on my short list.

So, after all of my investigations, listening to overly enthusiastic salesmen trying to gloss over the weak points of their cameras while pointing out those of their competitors, I still don’t know what to do. The answer I came up with is this: “It depends.”

It depends on the type of work you intend to do, your budget, your editing system, your workflow, how strong your back is, how long you expect your investment to last, how confident you are in tapeless media and how you will store it.

To be honest, I cannot answer all of those question myself. My work is all over the place. Sometimes it is run and gun, where I need a simple and lightweight camera. Sometimes I’m doing studio work where I have time to setup lights, block camera moves and shoot cinema style.

I know that it is all changing so rapidly that any investment I make will probably have a short life-span, so do I want to buy the most expensive and capable camera at this moment, or buy something less expansive that’ll get me to that next technological corner. There is just no easy answer.

In the following week, I will focus on the three cameras I looked at and give my in depth opinions of the pros and cons of each and where they would fit in your business. To follow me on this thread, be sure to subscribe to my feed.


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