Upgrading its popular DSR-PD150, Sony’s latest DV camcorder, the DSR-PD170, is a serious consideration for people eyeing the Canon XL1s, the XL2 or the Panasonic AG-DVX100. The PD170 comes packed with pro features, such as built-in XLR connectors and easy access to manual controls. While it doesn’t have trendy features like 24p or proper 16:9 widescreen, the improved video quality alone puts it among the best in the Mini DV category. This camcorder may become the new favorite for documentary producers, wedding videographers, industrial shooters and journalists. This is one of the best DV camcorders that makes full manual control fairly easy.
Use Both Hands
The PD170 is a relatively small-but-solid brick of a camera, especially when compared to the Canon competition. The handgrip is behind the center of gravity, making the camera a bit front-heavy, especially if you use the included wide-angle adapter. Most common functions such as audio levels, white balance, shutter, iris and gain are assigned dedicated buttons on the camera body, preventing them from becoming lost on a menu. All are easily accessible and logically designed. The included remote control allows operation of all standard features without touching the camera. The camera shoots both DV and DVCAM, but the data is the same for both, so there is no image quality difference between the two.
The 12x zoom uses a standard rocker switch on both the tape transport and handle top, but a dedicated zoom ring just behind the focus on the lens barrel is easy to grab. Control over variable speeds is excellent with a very comfortable amount of drag on the zoom ring. With a little practice, you’ll find how smooth and easy manual zooming can be. The zoom can also be set to run at constant rates.
The PD170 focuses quickly and precisely in either auto or manual modes, and the knurled rubber focus ring provides a proper amount of drag. The autofocus is fast and reliable and does a better job than most at nailing your subject, even in low-light and low- contrast situations. Sony maintains a high degree of image quality with purely optical image stabilization.
XLR connectors are no longer an option: there just aren’t many (any?) decent microphones out there that don’t have XLR connectors. For videographers, that means that either your camera must have XLR connections or you’ll need an adapter. The two-channel XLR breakout box on the PD170 allows the user to select microphone/line levels, 48-volt phantom power and does some simple channel mixing and attenuation, but there are no level controls. The housing for the included shotgun microphone is well placed, but running cords to two off-camera microphones may require some wrangling to keep them out of the operator’s (and the lens’) way.
Sound quality from the on-camera microphone is excellent, with little noise from the transport and zoom motors of the camera. Quality is even better when using the microphone off camera and close to the subject. Auto Gain Control is fast and usually accurate, but manual control is, of course, possible. Meters on the LCD make monitoring simple, but setting levels always requires a button press and then a turn of the dial, which is not the most convenient operation. Further, since there is only a single dial, if you want to set the level for each channel individually, you need to include yet another dial press to switch between the channels. This is not a design flaw and, indeed, we can’t think of a better way to implement gain control on such a small camcorder. This is also another example of the point-and-shoot style of videography this camera encourages.
Superb Image Quality
Image quality is superb. The PD170 has squeezed about as much dynamic range and color out the DV format as is possible. In high contrast mid-day sun, one of the most challenging shooting situations, shadows still retain some detail while the highlights aren’t overly blown out. Colors are fully saturated and accurately rendered. There is no noticeable sensitivity to one or more colors providing a true color response. Even in very (very) low-light situations, colors and contrast remain rich and accurate providing an excellent dynamic range with very little noise, even when employing gain (up to +18dB).
The auto white capability is very good, but it can be fooled in multiple light temperature environments. Sony has made it so easy to white balance manually that it would be a shame not to take advantage of this. Exposure control is also under both auto and manual control. Iris and shutter have independent control via dedicated wheels. Auto Exposure Shift allows the user to change the shutter or iris, while simultaneously letting the camera select the appropriate gain for correct exposure.
Run and Gun
The PD170 is a professional-grade Mini DV camcorder. Controlled by a knowledgeable user, it can create images and audio near the top range of the format’s capabilities. If you are shopping for a camera in this class, there are only a few to consider. For example, the PD170 is much smaller, more portable and less expensive than the Canon XL2. It does not, however, have the endless imaging tweaks and subtle adjustments that are available with the new XL2 or the Panasonic DVX100. The PD170 does have all of the basic manual controls a professional needs to create outstanding images and sound, but it also has superior automatic features. This makes it an ideal run-and-gun shooter, which is why you see it in the field with journalists and documentary shooters so often.
Brian Peterson is a Communications Director with the American Lung Association and has more than 14 years of broadcast video production experience.
Format: Mini DV and DVCAM
Lens: F/1.6-2.4; fl=6 mm to 72 mm; 12x optical zoom; 58mm filter diameter
Image sensor: 3 x 1/3-inch CCD
Gross pixels (per CCD): 380K
Video pixels (per CCD): 340K
Viewfinder: color (180K pixels)
LCD viewscreen: 2.5-inch color (211K pixels)
Focus: auto, manual
Anamorphic 16:9: no
Image Stabilization: optical
Exposure: auto, manual, presets (5)
Minimum Shutter Speed: 1/4
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/10,000
Iris: auto, manual
Electronic Gain: +18dB
Frame Rate: 60i
Neutral Density Filter: yes (2)
Zebra Stripes: yes (70%, 100%)
White Balance: auto, manual, presets
Audio: 12-bit (default), 16-bit
Audio Gain: auto, manual
Microphone Input: XLR (x 2), 48V DC phantom power
Headphone Output: 1/8-inch stereo mini
Inputs: FireWire, S-video, composite
Outputs: FireWire, S-video, composite
Edit Interface: FireWire
Additional: wide-angle adapter (0.7x)
Dimensions (w x h x d): 4.9 x 7.1 x 15.9 inches (125 x 180 x 405 mm)
Weight (sans tape and battery): 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg)
Horizontal Resolution: 520+ lines
Field of View (4:3): 39 degrees
Field of View (w/ included adapter): 54 degrees
- Professional controls
- Outstanding imaging
- Relatively small size
- No anamorphic 16:9 mode
- Limited imaging flexibility
From documentaries to the nightly news, the Sony PD170 is a run-and-gun shooter for professionals.
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