Effective Dj Vu
Sony’s new HC9 looks and feels a lot like last year’s HC7, all in all a good thing. The design proves to be solid and usable, and it captures good images. For some users, the very best feature is one you can take out and hold in your hand: tape.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I will admit to liking tape. In this era of solid-state memory cards and high-capacity on-board hard drives, there is something gratifying about a consumer camera that still stores its images on a good ol’ spool of magnetized Mylar.
What’s new in the HC9? A nice little lens hood to block the sun. Spot meter and spot focus. And a peaking feature that helps with manual focusing.
This camera targets the home user as its main audience, but the wide range of manual controls makes it a very nice choice for the professional as a throw-it-through-the-air / tape-it-to-the-fuselage B-roll camera.
Get Your Hands on It
The most-used controls sit in pleasantly ergonomic locations. The right index finger and thumb hover over the zoom control and start/stop button respectively. The photo button sits just behind the zoom rocker, easy to reach but recessed enough that it’s not too easily bumped.
The stereo mic hides below the lens on the front of the camera. I thought I would like this location a lot, since top-mounted mics are so easily disturbed. Unfortunately, when I stabilized the camera with my left hand, my fingers wanted to fall in a tripod arrangement that put the end of my middle finger right on top of the mic. Your hand may want to do something completely different.
Sony deserves commendation for putting so much manual control in a consumer camera. It deserves even more commendation for putting much of that control in a physical wheel (the Cam Control) that you can program for manual control of four functions: focus, exposure, auto exposure shift and white-balance shift. The only improvement on the system would be to enlarge the wheel itself, which is a somewhat touchy roller actuated by your fingertip.
You can make your choice between the 2.7″ LCD screen monitor and the color viewfinder. The viewfinder conveniently slides back, which allows for a bit more nose room. It also has a focus adjustment.
On the back of the camera, you’ll find the DC power jack and the full-size HDMI jack. Other jacks hide behind a small fold-down cover below the LCD screen on the port side of the camera: component out, A/V out and i.LINK (FireWire). Behind the LCD panel, you’ll find a mini-USB jack. That’s a lot of connectivity options.
For those who want to control the camera remotely, a LANC jack is next to the FireWire port. That feature just may cinch the deal, if you want to use this camera on the end of a crane or in some precarious position.
The lens cover activates automatically, similar to many new digital still cameras. Turn the camera off: it closes. The new hard plastic lens hood screws into the lens. It also contains 37mm threads to allow you to screw small filters inside. Surprisingly, the instructions say that you must remove the lens hood when using the flash, as it will cast a shadow in the frame of your stills.
Speaking of stills: a slot for Memory Stick Pro Duo cards allows you to store up to 8GB of stills on one card. It would have been nice to also have this card as a secondary storage for video clips. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be an option.
For novices or serious shooters who want to rest their brains for a while, the Easy button gives you a break. Sony offers this feature on a lot of their cameras. Once you press the Easy button, most of the menu options disappear completely, and the camera goes into auto-everything mode. Kinda nice for the family picnic.
Don’t forget the looks of the camera. For this year’s summer fashion, black is the new black. It’s sleek. It’s modern. It’s black.
The quality of the images we captured with the HC9 left us very satisfied. This one-chip camera sells at a street price of well below a thousand dollars. For that price range, it performs well. Colors reproduced in a lifelike fashion, but they didn’t have exotic vibrancy. A Camera Color adjustment allowed for greater saturation if desired. Details held all the sharpness you’ve come to expect from HDV.
CMOS cameras commonly manifest the symptom of marginal performance in low-light conditions. The HC9 is no exception. In moderate lighting, colors still look good, and all the automatic controls function well. In low light, noise creeps into the image, the auto focus starts hunting and the white balance struggles a bit.
On the other hand . . . in well-lit situations, the image quality speaks for itself, and the auto focus and auto white balance perform very well. The spot focus/spot meter feature worked as advertised, adjusting to the portion of the frame selected. While I was stumbling through the menu maze, it took me a while to realize that, while one button has both spot focus and spot meter linked, another selection allows independent use (that’s a good thing).
The Peaking feature places a thin colored edge around objects in focus. For the edge color, you can choose white, red or yellow. When focusing manually, just keep adjusting until a thin colored border appears around the object of your choice. Works like a charm.
The onboard mic works about as well as most small onboard mics. It captures nearby sounds (within about eight feet) pretty well. As always, serious shooters will want to use an external mic.
Other Cool Stuff
The Nightshot feature works well. The infrared light will illuminate anything up to about ten feet away, even in total darkness. The video does glow monochrome green, not color, but what the heck . . . you never know what you’ll see in the dark.
You can also choose to put a “guideframe” on the display, so you can practice shooting to the Rule of Thirds. The histogram feature will surely impress your friends. Even if you have no idea what a histogram is, you’ll feel like a pro with that little dancing bar graph in the corner.
Smooth Slow Record records three seconds of video at a 4x frame rate, thus letting you play it back in slow motion over 12 seconds. Under Digital Effects, you’ll find Cinema Effect, Still, Flash, Trail and Old Movie. Trail will work well if you want to do a trippy counter-culture music video. Old Movie is the sepia-toned, slow-frame-rate effect that is good for a quick laugh, but it can be easily overdone.
Number of CMOS image Sensors: 1
Size of CMOS: 1/2.9″
Pixels on CMOS: 3.2 megapixels
Video Effective Pixels: 2.28 megapixels (16:9), 1.71 megapixels (4:3)
Max Video Resolution: 1440×1080
Data Storage: MiniDV tape, Memory Stick Pro Duo for stills
Shutter Speed: Auto/manual (1/4- 1/10,000)
Lens f-Stop: f1.8 – f2.9
Programmed AE: Full Auto, Beach, Candle, Fireworks, Landscape, Portrait, Sports Lesson, Spotlight and Sunrise & Sunset
Light Measuring Modes: Auto, spot (via touch screen)
Zoom: 10x optical
Focal Length: 40mm-400mm
Filter Diameter: 37mm
Image Stabilization: Optical
Manual White Balance: Yes
LCD Monitor: 2.7″ color (211k)
Video In: FireWire
Video Out: Mini-USB 2.0, mini component video, FireWire, HDMI (cable not included)
Onboard Mic: Stereo
Microphone In: 3.5mm jack
VU Meters: Yes
Audio Level Controls: Auto/manual
Headphone Jack: 3.5mm
LANC jack: Yes
Memory Card Included: No
Flash: Normal, low, high, red-eye reduction
Wireless Remote: Yes
External Battery Charger Provided: No
Battery Type: Lithium ion
Onboard Video Light: None
Accessory Shoe: Proprietary Active Interface Shoe
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz. with battery
Dimensions: 3.25″ W x 3.25″ H x 5.5″ D
- Tape-based for easy archival
- Wide array of manual controls
- Great image quality
- Lens hood obstructs flash and IR light
- Small Cam Control wheel
- Curious menu layout
A robust, flexible camera. Good choice for those who want their video on tape.
Greg Robinson is the owner of an independent production company.
Sony Electronics, Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo, MZ 7104
San Diego, CA 92127