I have a confession to make. My husband and I are film festival junkies. We thrive on viewing films and videos — whether short experimental pieces or feature-length documentaries — long before their potential distribution among the masses. We especially love to see how modern filmmakers and videographers have embraced the latest camera technologies. So, every winter, we make the long drive from our home in Los Angeles to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival.
Though the increasingly commercialized gathering isn’t the ultimate litmus test for the most popular formats and innovations, it’s been rather exciting, in recent years, to note the escalating prevalence of stories shot via DV and HDV camcorders. Given their compact nature, affordable tape stock, good sound capability and such improvements as low-light CCDs, 24x optical zooms and 24p cinematic modes, it’s no surprise that many amateurs and professionals have been trading in their film cameras for the latest in DV and HDV technology.
This year, consumer and prosumer digital video cameras have evolved by leaps and bounds. With each technological advance comes a wider range of choices, and, if you’re anything like us, you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the sheer variety of DV and HDV camcorders currently available. Ranging from the affordable, streamlined Canon ZR100 ($350) to the professional-level, high-definition Sony HDR-FX1 ($3,700) and beyond, the latest crop of cameras offers an assortment of practical features and welcome enhancements.
So, whether you’re a soccer parent hoping to capture your daughter’s winning goal or a professional videographer shooting a nighttime concert with multiple cameras, you’re bound to find the features you need — at the price you want. To make sense of this month’s buyer’s guides and select the camera that best suits your purpose, consider whether you’re looking to satisfy a household need, a leisurely whim or a professional goal. No matter your answer, remember to aim a little bit higher — after all, the best cameras allow a shooter room for growth.
Capturing the Family
If you’re a typical family shooter, you’ll probably want an affordable, easy-to-handle camera that serves multiple purposes. Specifically, you’ll need a compact, lightweight camcorder that can preserve memories as varied as a summer vacation to Yellowstone, Christmas at Grandma’s house and your teenager’s first starring role in the school musical. To ensure such versatility, most major manufacturers offer the same basic features in all entry-level DV cameras.
For a street price of under $500, you can find a Mini DV camcorder that provides reliable automatic focus and exposure controls for vacations, decent still photographic capability for holiday gatherings and an effective optical zoom and low-light mode for plays, concerts and graduations. The JVC GR-D295 ($500) and Canon ZR300 ($500), for instance, each offer consumers all of the above features plus a color viewfinder, a high-resolution LCD monitor, a 1/6-inch 680,000-pixel image sensor and a digital image stabilizer.
Shooting as a Hobby
Perhaps your shooting needs transcend those of the average family. If you’re seeking a DV camcorder that allows you to videotape wildlife on the weekends, create experimental videos with some in-camera effects or teach yourself a few new editing tricks, you’ll need more than the JVC GR-D295 or Canon ZR300 have to offer. Besides large optical zooms, low-light modes, high-resolution LCD screens, digital stabilization and playback options, you’ll probably want more professional features such as a microphone input and a headphone jack.
As you search for a DV camcorder that does all that and more, you might not consider affordability a primary concern. But, for less than $1,000, you can find a number of versatile choices. The Canon Optura 50 ($1,000), for instance, offers a true 16:9 widescreen mode, a manual focusing ring, adjustable audio levels and a 2.2-megapixel CCD image sensor that transfers 1.2 million effective pixels to tape. Alternatively, the ergonomic JVC GR-DZ7 ($1,000) features an auto flash, digital wipes and fades, analog inputs and USB outputs.
Taping Major Events
As a professional event videographer, you’ll need a high-end, 3-CCD camcorder to chronicle broadcast-ready gatherings like weddings, rock concerts and corporate conferences. For events involving a lot of action — such as soccer games or marathons — you’ll want features such as optical image stabilizers, fast shutter speeds, large optical zooms and manual controls. For staged events such as plays, awards shows and other ceremonies, you’ll need not just manual video options but also adjustable audio controls, effective low-light performance and a tripod mount.
With suggested retail price tags that range between $700 and $5,000, these 3-CCD DV camcorders offer a wide array of essential features. On the lower end of the spectrum, the well-respected Panasonic PV-GS250 ($1,000) is equipped with a Leica Dicomar lens, captures sharp images in low light and allows you to adjust the focus, exposure, gain, white balance and shutter speed manually.
If the Panasonic’s solarizing LCD screen and unwieldy navigation keypad prove distracting, you can upgrade to the Sony DCR-VX2100 ($3,000). In addition to manual zoom and focus rings, the Sony DCR-VX2100 offers a 12x optical zoom, an aspherical 58mm lens, an optical stabilization system (preferable to a digital system), a progressive shutter system, 340K-pixel image sensors, manual white balance and shutter speed controls, a 19-step exposure dial and an wide array of video, audio and USB jacks.
To create high-quality commercials, music videos, feature-length films and more, many filmmakers and videographers — whether recent film school graduates or seasoned camera professionals — have begun to consider the recent HDV trend. Although a relatively new format, HDV entices moviemakers because it stores 16:9 high-definition video on regular DV or Mini DV tapes. With HDV, prosumers can now achieve professional quality of expensive HD cameras for under $5,000.
As with any fairly new technology, however, the HDV format is still experiencing growing pains. While the image captured via an HDV camcorder can indeed look sensational, variables like contrast, exposure and shutter speed can prove problematic. In addition, HDV compresses video in an MPEG-2 requiring a non-linear editing system that specifically accepts HDV.
HDV users cannot simply aim, shoot and expect to edit on their old computers. Oftentimes, they must embrace cinematic lighting techniques, use neutral density and low-contrast filters and find compatible editing systems. Although major players such as Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro and Sony’s Vegas Video currently support HDV editing or incorporate HDV-specific plug-ins, the longer you wait to invest in an HDV camera or HDV editing system, the more equipment and software choices will be available to you. As with DV, technology will continue to improve, even as prices decline.
In the meantime, Sony and JVC both offer HD camcorders that provide manual focus, iris controls, advanced audio options and optical zooms. The Sony HVR-Z1U ($5,950) supports a 1,080-line, interlaced-scan resolution, allows you to switch between HDV and DV recording, utilizes an optical stabilizer and contains 3 1/3-inch, 1.1-megapixel CCD imagers. For almost half the price, the JVC GR-HD1 ($3,500) also provides optical stabilization and a DV mode as well as a 1-CCD progressive imager, cinematic effects and in-camera transitions.
Many filmmakers, however, prefer 3-chip camcorders that offer a 24p-frame rate, which can mimic the look of film. Until an HDV camcorder can truly provide this preference, you might consider the Panasonic AG-DVX100A ($4,000) or the Canon XL2 ($5,000). Both provide an optical stabilizer, adjustable 4:3 and 16:9 capture modes, a FireWire interface for digital transfer, XLR audio inputs, manual audio levels and built-in color bars. Also, while the Panasonic provides cinematic gamma controls, the Canon offers an interchangeable lens system.
Choosing the Camera
As the accompanying buyer’s guides attest, there are a host of DV and HDV camcorders on today’s market. Ranging from $300 to over $5,000, the offerings combine a wide assortment of basic features and thrilling innovations. So, take a deep breath and consider your needs. The perfect (or nearly perfect) camcorder is waiting for you.
Laura Martone is a screenwriter, producer and co-founder of the LA Indie Film Group.