V1U – The Little Brother
Sony’s latest addition to its professional HDV camcorder lineup is the HVR-V1U. This camcorder is packed with a host of features designed for serious amateurs and budding professionals.
At the Controls
The V1U is among the best-balanced camcorders we’ve used. The overall weight of about four pounds will mean you’ll probably find yourself using your left hand to occasionally support the rotational torque on long shots- but hey, if you’re not using a tripod, you should be using two hands anyway, right?
The hand strap nestles your hand comfortably against a newly designed palm grip that is integrated with the tape cover. No longer is this just the square side of the camcorder covering the tape transport, but a convex design that provides greater stability without having to increase the strap tension.
The layout of frequently accessed camcorder functions and controls is very intuitive. At the rear, and a quick thumb press away, are buttons for gain, shutter speed, white balance, menu and menu navigation wheel. At the top of this column of buttons is a slider, letting you select between Auto Lock, Auto Release and holding of manually set exposure. While there are six user-assignable buttons, the majority of camcorder controls are nested within the menus.
The V1U allows you to customize dozens of critical settings that impact camcorder operation, performance, and image quality. Sony even makes it easy for you to save all of your custom settings on a Memory Stick for easy transfer to another unit. Other useful control features include; a three-position neutral density filter, a status check button that reviews all critical camera settings, a dial for exposure/iris and a focus button that toggles between manual and auto.
On the optics front, we are glad Sony has backed away from useless digital zooms in favor of squeezing out more optical focal length with their 20x Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens. The image quality is excellent, and the zoom control on both lens barrel and handle is very smooth with built-in ease-in/ease-out. There is, however, a 1.5x digital extender that operates similar to professional lenses by enlarging the entire focal range by 1.5 times. So, while your zoom is 1.5 times greater, your wide angle is also that much less wide.
The lens hood with built-in barn doors does a nice job protecting the glass and will keep you from losing a lens cap; however, it appears it will also limit you to using one screw-on lens filter at a time.
Sony’s use of three 1/4″ CMOS image sensors and the refinement of their ClearVid technology have the advantages of higher effective resolution at the potential cost of increased image noise. We say ‘potential’ only because this tends to be the nature of CMOS vs. CCD sensors. While there is noticeable noise in dark and mid-tone areas, we did not find it too objectionable during our tests. Additionally, the V1U did well in our low-light test, showing an anticipated increase in noise as the gain was increased. The effective resolution of 1920 x 1080 and internal color sampling in the 4:2:2 color space (4:2:0 on output to tape) indeed combine to provide a remarkable picture.
One image-processing feature we dug into was the V1U’s Contrast Enhancer. We shot an 8-step grayscale chart with identical lighting and manual exposure settings, exported the still images and compared their contrast levels in Photoshop. The results confirmed that the Contrast Enhancer increased the difference between dark and light tones by 9%. Most of the change was in lowering of the dark tones. This effective increase in latitude may be useful in giving extra snap to an otherwise lifeless subject.
HD in Focus
The two lens-mounted and servo-controlled adjustment rings have a solid feel and give you smooth manual access to zoom and focus. As with all high definition camcorders, focusing becomes a greater challenge, and all of the major manufacturers approach their solutions a little differently.
The V1U gives you a hand with two features: a Focus Expansion button that temporarily enlarges the center part of the image, and a Peaking indicator that outlines high contrast areas of the subject that approach sharpness. We found we used Focus Expansion on nearly every shot, and we especially liked being able to use buttons on both the right and left for quick access. Even in manual focus mode, you can quickly engage auto focus by pressing the aptly named “Push Auto Focus” button.
The auto focus is good but not perfect. In most cases, we could rely on the V1U to focus quickly on the correct subject. With a focus test chart in a well-lit studio, the V1U’s auto focus was fast and tack-sharp. In two situations, however, it did not perform as well as others we’ve tested. When fully zoomed-in, auto focus was very slow to find a medium contrast subject with plenty of horizontal and vertical texture, even when it filled the frame. Zooming out slightly seemed to give the V1U what it needed to lock onto the target. The V1U also struggled to maintain focus tracking a gently backlit subject.
The addition of progressive scan modes in the V1U is clearly a nod to the increasing use of this level of camcorder for independent video producers. The V1U uses native progressive scan chips so there is no interpolating being done behind the scenes to degrade image quality. There are three types of frame rate shooting modes, 24p, 24pSCNa and 30p. The 24p mode does a good job of simulating the standard frame rate of film and the 24pSCNa is useful for 24p progressive editing such as in film production. Shooting in 30p reduces the strobing effect for pans and fast subjects but is still recording in true progressive mode and retains a somewhat film-like quality. Other image control features are the four color/gamma presets that include Portrait, Cinema, Sunset and monotone (B&W), plus two that are user definable. These settings cover camera setup functions such as color level, phase, sharpness, skin tone detail, black compensation, and more. Producers shooting in progressive modes may be particularly fond of the cinema settings that increase color saturation and gives the user two types of Cinematone Gamma choices.
Two XLR inputs and an external mini-shotgun external mic also set the V1U apart from its consumer brethren. You have ready access to input level controls via small dials along with auto/manual and phantom power switches all on the front part of the handle. We tested audio quality in both auto gain and manual modes at distances of three and six feet from the microphone. Of course, sound quality was better at the closer distance, but in both recording modes, we were able to capture good sounding audio. In auto, we listened closely for excessive gain in quiet sections and tape transport noise; we were pleased to hear next to nothing. Using manual controls, we found we needed to set levels rather high to acquire decent levels and we did notice a little more amplification noise. Keep in mind, however, that this is judging the performance of an on-camera mic. The majority of producers will use a lapel or off-camera shotgun close to the subject.
One purely fun feature we tested the Smooth Slow recording mode by videotaping an archer shooting arrows at a target. While the arrow itself remained mostly a blur, the V1U captured all the recoil reactions in amazing slow motion. The image quality could not, however, be considered HD as the video is heavily compressed.
All fun aside, we found the V1U to be a very well built camcorder with an incredible amount of user control over image capture, processing and display. The V1U is a great performing and versatile camcorder worth a close look.
Tape Format: Mini DV/DVCAM cassette
Video Signal: NTSC, 1080/60i specification
Video Recording: HDV/DVCAM
Audio Recording: (HDV) 16 bit MPEG-1 Audio Layer-2
Audio Recording: (DVCAM) 12-/16-bit PCM
Viewfinder: Electric; color and black and white
Image Device: 1/4-inch, 3 ClearVid CMOS Sensor system
Picture Elements: Approx. 1,037,000 pixels (effective), approx. 1,120,000 pixels (total)
Lens: Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T zoom lens, 20x (optical), f = 3.9 to 78 mm, f = 37.4 to 748 mm* at 16:9 mode, f = 45.7 to 914 mm* at 4:3 mode, F = 1.6 to 2.8
Filter Diameter: 62mm
Manual Shutter Speed: 1/4-second to 1/10000 sec.
Scan Rates: 24p, 24pSCNa, 30p
Exposure: Auto, manual (Type1/Type2)
Recording Format: 1080/60i, 480/60i (NTSC)
Conversion Format: 1080/60i, 480/60i (NTSC)
Minimum Illumination: 4 lux with F1.6 at 18dB
Audio/Video Output: XLR input, A/V OUT jack, 10-pin connector
HDV/DV Input/Output: i.LINK interface (IEEE 1394, 4-pin connector)
HDMI Output: HDMI connector
Composite Video: 1 Vp-p, 75? unbalanced, sync negative
Weight: Approx. 3 lb. 6 oz. (camcorder only)
- Sharp imaging
- Good color saturation
- Excellent user control over major camcorder features
- Moderately high-priced
- Slow auto-focus response in certain circumstances
The V1U is a well-built, feature-packed HDV camcorder capable of producing professional quality video.
Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer, and lecturer.
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