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Long on Zoom, Short on Controls

Panasonic PV-L558 VHS-C Camcorder



One Panasonic Way

Secaucus, NJ 07094

(201) 348-9090

Where some camcorder manufacturers will bring out many new features year
after year even on their lowliest cameras, others will attempt to keep a
good thing going by providing the same basic quality and functionality on
most of their new gear. The latter is true of Panasonic’s PV-L558 VHS-C
camcorder, a point-and-shoot model with a built-in LCD monitor and the same
simple appeal–and some of the same flaws–of its predecessors.

Built around the concept of simplicity of operation, the PV-L558 will please
most of those weekend video warriors who want convenience and compatibility
with home VHS VCRs above all. Its long optical zoom range (23:1) will appeal
to those who like shooting nature and sports, but because it lacks image
stabilization, that zoom range will tend to introduce plenty of unwanted
camera shake, unless you shoot with a tripod at all times.

First Looks

Upon initial examination, the PV-L558 is difficult to differentiate from
older VHS-C camcorders made by Panasonic. The same tall, linear look and
feel that has dominated the Palmcorder line since its inception is present
in this model–and the addition of the 3.2-inch LCD monitor tends to exaggerate
the typical Palmcorder boxiness and bulkiness. In other words, it’s small
enough to be categorized as a compact camcorder, but just barely.

The arrangement of features and controls on the PV-L558 is likewise similar
to earlier Palmcorder models. The camera body fits nicely in the right hand,
offering easy access to zoom, power and record controls. The power/record
switch, located within easy reach of the thumb, is a slight improvement
over previous versions, which didn’t feel like they were strong enough to
survive many years of repeated use. The newer switch assembly isn’t perfect–it
still feels like it might fall apart or quit working after repeated use–but
it feels stronger than last year’s version.

Other camcorder controls are scattered around the camera body in places
that make them relatively easy for the left hand to access while shooting.
The manual focus control, for example, is a small wheel located just under
the front of the lens; pushing it in once toggles auto/manual focus, and
rotating the wheel dials in the desired sharpness. All in all, the various
controls of the PV-L558 operate fairly well; the buttons offer good tactile
feedback, and the zoom provides smooth operation at several speeds.

The camera body’s dominant feature is the 3.2-inch flip-out LCD monitor,
which offers adequate but not outstanding color images. Some noticeable
blurring of the LCD image while zooming and panning did tend to degrade
the quality a bit.

Look Again

Images shot on the PV-L558 look fairly good for a current-model VHS-C
camcorder. Problem is, most VHS-C camcorders on the market today don’t shoot
very impressive video. There is certainly room for improvement throughout
the whole VHS-C camcorder industry; the manufacturers seem to have agreed
upon a certain low level of performance that the buying public will accept,
and conformed most of their low-end products to that level (which is, unfortunately,
well below what the VHS-C format is capable of achieving).

There are two main drawbacks to the PV-L558: the aforementioned lack of
image stabilization, and the lack of any kind of manual exposure controls.
Luckily, the automatic exposure system on the PV-L558 is exceptional, offering
quick, smooth changes between shooting situations. The backlight button
is helpful in correcting a certain type of exposure problem, but it’s generally
better to have some kind of manual control or at least a handful of pre-programmed
auto-exposure settings.

The built-in light on the PV-L558 is one of its strong points, as it offers
a quick fix for the most common indoor shooting problem: insufficient light.
It isn’t enough to make all of your shots look professional by any means,
but it is enough to fish a visible picture out of the glitch and gloom that
plague all too many indoor home videos.

For those who don’t care too much about the quality of the images they shoot,
the PV-L558 has an SLP (super long-playing) mode that extends the duration
of your VHS-C tapes. This, as with other features on the camera, illustrates
a desire on Panasonic’s part to cater to the portion of the buying public
that doesn’t care too much about the quality of the video their camcorder

Bottom line: we would recommend this camcorder to beginning shooters and
those who won’t do much editing, but not for the serious amateur who wants
cleaner images and a chance to learn about exposure control, editing and
other fine points of the craft.

Another ColorWriter From Sima

Sima SCW-2 ColorWriter Plus


Sima Products Corporation

140 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bldg. #5

Oakmont, PA 15139

(412) 828-3700

Not too many months ago, we reviewed Sima’s ColorWriter Magic, a low-cost
titler aimed at the consumer video market. This issue, we look at the ColorWriter
Plus, a product that’s intended to be a notch above the ColorWriter Magic
in quality and functionality. Our tests have shown, however, that even though
the newer ColorWriter Plus incorporates several important features and capabilities
not found on its predecessor (see below for details), the same basic drawbacks
apply to both units–specifically, a lack of color choices, poor output
resolution, poor signal-to-noise ratio and overall poor implementation of
controls and functions.

This doesn’t mean that the ColorWriter Magic has nothing good to offer.
The logical arrangement of controls, the presence of a GPI trigger and the
easily-accessed placement of video and audio inputs and outputs are several
key design elements for which Sima should be commended. Even so, the most
important characteristic in any piece of video equipment is the quality
of the output, and in this area, the ColorWriter Plus fails.

Button, Button

One of the first things that you notice about the ColorWriter Plus is the
fact that it makes use of the small rubber keys that cause instant headaches
for those who are used to typing on an ordinary computer keyboard or typewriter.
The lack of tactile feedback and cramped arrangement of this type of keyboard
almost necessitate the use of the hunt-and-peck method of typing; when attempting
to type normally on the ColorWriter Plus, we discovered that it was easy
to skip letters, which means you have to do a lot of correcting of your

On the positive side, the ColorWriter Plus has a handy Quick Start guide
printed along the left side of the unit. This makes it very easy to set
up and begin working within a few moments of opening the box. Most controls,
in fact, are very self-explanatory–to choose one of the three fonts available,
for example, all you have to do is push one of three buttons. Controls for
color, outline and size are similarly easy to implement.

The main drawbacks of the unit become apparent when you turn it on and run
the demonstration. One of the first things you notice when you view the
output is the jaggy, low-resolution quality of the fonts, which is worsened
by the large amount of electronic noise (fuzzy, snowy particles) present
in the images. Next in line comes the small number of available colors (8),
followed by the poor quality of the transition effects (scroll, wipe and
zoom). The quality of the fonts is so poor that the built-in titler on most
typical consumer camcorders will deliver a much sharper line than the ColorWriter

We should note that all of these characteristics, as poorly executed they
are, do show some improvement over the earlier ColorWriter Magic product.
On the earlier unit, the fonts looked jaggier and the transitions looked
poorer. Even with the improvements, though, the ColorWriter Plus compares
poorly to other titlers in this price range.

Title Here

In use, the ColorWriter Plus proves to be relatively easy to operate. The
manual is helpful, but the real simplicity comes from the fact that the
unit isn’t capable of performing much of anything. Some interesting combinations
of colors, outlines and effects are possible, but the small number of fonts
and colors is very limiting.

Those few small improvements that exist in the ColorWriter Plus are a step
in the right direction for Sima, but when you get right down to it, there
are better titling options available on the market for the same amount of

Easy Nonlinear Editor

Strata VideoShop 4.0/3D Nonlinear Editing Software for Mac

($89 introductory price)

Strata Inc.

2nd W. St. George Blvd.

St. George, UT 84770

(800) 678-7282

Nonlinear digital video editing–to many, it’s the Holy Grail of videography,
a goal that combines both editing power and ease of use. Imagine–editing
by just dragging and dropping your clips on a computer timeline, cutting
and pasting just like a word processor; if you’ve edited video the old-fashioned
way, you’ll know why such a technical feat is so desirable.

Unfortunately, beginning videographers often view nonlinear editing as an
unattainable goal, something for computer nerds and/or video professionals–not
for those just starting out in the craft. Luckily, some nonlinear editing
software manufacturers are dedicated to providing powerful tools at a price
the rest of us can afford.

The race to provide multimedia videographers with the definitive nonlinear
editing application at an affordable price has been going on for a number
of years, and the VideoShop package has been in the forefront of low-cost
Macintosh-based solutions from the beginning. It began life as an attempt
by Avid, a company that’s had considerable success in the high-end video
market, to bring some of the power and ease of use of nonlinear editing
to home Macintosh users and multimedia developers.

Now, VideoShop belongs to Strata, a company that has had its own run of
success in the Macintosh-based 3D modeling and design software market. (Ever
played the game Myst? That’s a finished product developed on Strata’s 3D
design software.) Their latest version of VideoShop incorporates a number
of 3D design elements that produce some very impressive effects with a minimum
of effort. It’s possible, for example, to map your video onto a moving 3D
object with VideoShop 4.0/3D. This, however, is only one of its many impressive
features. In fact, its rare combination of simplicity, functionality and
overall elegance make Strata’s VideoShop a strong contender for Adobe Premiere
or any other desktop nonlinear application on the market today.

Did You Say Micons?

Four windows make up the bulk of VideoShop 4.0/3D’s workspace: the Bin window
(where you organize files and review file statistics), the Canvas window
(where you preview your movie and operate motion, size and transparency
controls), the Digitize window (where you capture your clips from tape)
and the Project window (where most of the actual editing occurs).

While the Digitize window operates similarly to most other software of its
type, the Bin window has one interesting characteristic that others lack:
micons. Most other applications simply show you a list of the files you’re
working with in a given project, with perhaps a picon (single frame) from
the beginning of the clip. A micon adds motion to the picon, providing a
tiny preview of the clip when you click on the image. This can be very handy
for those situations when the beginning of the clip doesn’t tell you much
about the contents of the clip–those that fade up from black, for instance.

The Canvas window is more than just the simple playback window that many
nonlinear applications provide. It serves as a true canvas on which you
can move, rotate, resize and manipulate the transparency of your movie.
This provides a much more intuitive way of working than the approach used
by other applications, which usually consists of using a number of pull-down
menus to access the window you need.

Storyboard vs. Timeline

While many nonlinear editing applications choose between a storyboard-based
and a timeline-based editing environment, VideoShop 4.0/3D incorporates
the strengths of both. In Storyboard view, you can view the overall movie,
add and remove untrimmed clips and audio tracks, rearrange the rough order
of your video or play your movie. In Timeline view, you can view each frame
of your video, cut and paste frames or sequences of frames, trim clips,
add filters and transition effects and perform any layering and compositing
effects (such as titles).

Though the VideoShop 4.0/3D program is easy to use overall, there are some
environments that require practice. The Timeline window in particular, offers
a bewildering array of buttons and controls. Each individual item in itself
is simple to use and understand, but the sheer number of them can be daunting.
To simplify the learning process, Strata has provided an excellent tutorial
booklet that walks the learner through each stage of the program.

On the audio side, VideoShop 4.0/3D incorporates TuneBuilder, a music creation
software tool that cleverly builds a song of the exact length you specify.
These songs aren’t your typical flat-sounding MIDI re-creations; they’re
performed by real musicians with real instruments, then digitally prepared
in such a way that chopping them up into little pieces and re-combining
them will not break any standardized rules of harmony, tempo or tonality.
On the user side, all you have to do is provide a certain length you want,
and TuneBuilder will deliver a musical expression of that length–with a
beginning, middle and end you can use. This useful tool is worth VideoShop
4.0/3D’s $89 introductory price on its own.

We tested this package on an AV Power Macintosh 8500 with 16MB of RAM and
found it capable of working at the maximum built-in video capture resolution
available on that platform (320×240 resolution, 24-bit color, 16-bit stereo
audio). For higher resolutions, a better capture card (such as the miro
DC30) and a wide SCSI-2 capture drive would have been required, but the
Videoshop product had available settings to support up to 640×480 NTSC resolution
if the platform had been up to it. Rendering on this platform was quite
slow as well–about five minutes were required to create a complex one-second
3D transition. Those who work on newer Power Macintosh platforms with more
RAM should be able to render fairly quickly, but those with older computers
should consider themselves warned.

In short, VideoShop 4.0/3D delivers the goods at a bargain price. It is
easy enough to learn–and easy enough on the pocketbook–that beginners
shouldn’t fear taking the plunge into nonlinear editing.


Mobile Sounds

Nady 802 Platinum Series Wireless Microphone System with LT-5 Transmitter


Nady Systems

6701 Bay Street

Emeryville, CA 94608

(510) 652-2411

Everybody knows that camcorder built-in microphones are almost useless if
the subject is more than a few feet away. The golden rule of audio is "get
your microphone close to your subject". What do you do when you want
to shoot a subject that isn’t right next to the camera? You can use an external
wired mike, which leaves your subject attached to your camcorder with a
sonic umbilical cord, or you can cut the cord and go wireless, which usually
means fighting static and interference.

The Nady UHF 802 Platinum system includes the 802 receiver and your choice
of one of the four transmitter packs: the HT-5 which includes a handheld
microphone, the GT-5 instrument body pack (to attach to instruments such
as electric guitars), the SX-5 body pack transmitter with mini balanced
input (lets you use any microphone, though one is not included) or the LT-5
lavaliere body pack. This month, we’ll examine the Nady 802 Platinum Series
wireless microphone system, with the LT-5 lavaliere microphone transmitter.

Ultra High Performance

The 802 system operates in the same UHF (ultra-high frequency) band professional
gear uses. The UHF band provides improved performance and less interference
than VHF (very high frequency, the band used by most consumer gear), because
of its higher frequency and lower use.

The 802’s receiver, which operates on 12-volt DC power with the included
power supply, has two outputs for more versatility: a balanced microphone
level output with a three-prong XLR jack, and an adjustable line-level output
with a 1/4-inch jack. The adjustable mute helps block out unwanted RF (radio
frequency) signals.

True Diversity

The 802 receiver features two separate channels, so if there is interference
or another wireless mike on one channel, you can use the other. The Nady
802 is a true diversity receiver, which means that it uses two separate
receiving circuits and antennas, unlike some systems which claim to have
diversity receivers, but really use a single receiving circuit with two
antennas. If one circuit is receiving a static-filled transmission, the
other circuit should have clearer reception. The diversity system automatically
senses which receiving circuit has the strongest signal, and switches to
that circuit.

In Operation

We tested the LT-5 transmitter, which has a range of 250 feet under typical
conditions and 500-plus feet during line-of-sight operation. The LT-5 transmitter
is permanently attached to a Nady E-701 lavaliere microphone with a frequency
response of 25-20,000Hz. The only controls are a three-way switch for power
off/channel 1/channel 2, and a switch that allows the user to turn the mike’s
power off, but keep the transmitter on (to prevent receiving unwanted outside
transmissions). It also features a small LED (light emitting diode) to show
battery level.

The system was very easy to set up. The only problem we encountered with
the overall operation is that the receiver, although small and lightweight,
isn’t designed to mount on the camera. Instead, it is made to sit on a table.
Because of its stationary design, dual outputs (line and microphone levels)
and high-quality signal, the Nady 802 system is well suited for event videography
with a multi-camera setup, a video mixer and a recording VCR. Of course,
one could also sit it on a table and run long cables from its mike outputs
to the camcorder’s input.

In operation, the system worked flawlessly. The microphone was very sensitive
and picked-up voices at an even level, no matter which way the subject’s
head was turned. In fact, during testing, the only time we received any
static was when the transmitter reached the far end of our testing lab a
floor below where the receiver was setup. Overall, the 802 system worked
with the reliability and clarity of a wired microphone.

Although pricey for the average consumer, the Nady Systems UHF 802 Platinum
Series wireless microphone system is a worthwhile investment for the prosumer,
especially when you consider that the price includes a high-quality lavaliere


A Little Light on the Subject

Smith-Victor M-75 & MP-100A On-Camera lights

($250 & $165)

Smith-Victor Corporation

301 North Colfax Street

Griffith, IN 46319

(800) 348-9862

Lighting is one of the most overlooked aspects of video production. Beginner’s
videos are famous for the "I can see fine, why shouldn’t my camcorder?"
approach to lighting. Manufacturers claim that their camcorders work in
extremely low-light conditions, but these claims are somewhat deceptive.
Yes, without proper lighting, you may get a picture on your tape, but chances
are your subject will be hard to isolate from the harsh shadows and blotchy
color that dominate poorly-lit video. In the June issue of Videomaker
we reviewed the Smith-Victor K-86 studio light kit. While light kits are
necessary for professional three-point lighting, they’re bulky and inconvenient
for most casual shooters.

On-camera lights, powered by a separate battery pack, are a simpler solution
to most lighting problems. While they won’t give you the look of professional
three-point lighting, on-camera lights will provide enough illumination
to salvage video shot in low light. This month, we’ll take a look at a pair
of Smith-Victor products, the M-75 and the MP-100A on-camera lights.

The Basics

The Smith-Victor M-75 and MP-100A lights mount on the hot shoe (an on-camera
mount for attaching accessories, which sometimes supplies power) found on
some camcorders. Optional mounts are available for camcorders lacking hot
shoes. The M-75 uses a 75 watt, 12-volt quartz lamp, while the MP-100A sports
a 100 watt version.

Besides wattage, the main difference between the lights is the M-75’s AC
adapter, and the type of battery plug each one uses. The lights plug into
the battery packs (or AC adapter for the M-75) with a plug that cannot be
attached the wrong way. The MP-100A uses an automotive cigarette lighter
plug. This feature also allows it to be used from the cigarette lighter
of nearly any vehicle.

Both lights use a gel-cell lead acid battery, which is kept in a soft case
with a shoulder strap (A gel-cell battery uses sulfuric acid in a gelled
state). Don’t plan to unpack the system and immediately put it to use, though.
First, you’ll need to charge the battery, which is shipped partially-depleted.
The battery must be fully-charged before use, which means eight-hours attached
to an AC outlet. The batteries will reach their fullest capacity after four,
full discharge-recharge cycles. A fully depleted battery requires 16 hours
to recharge, and cannot be charged for longer than 24 hours, so plan ahead.

Light Show

When you’re ready to use the system, you first need to attach the bracket
to the light, which is a quick and easy job using the supplied hardware.
The light bracket slips onto the camcorder’s hot shoe and tightens down
with a thumbscrew, providing a very secure mount. Because of its light weight
(8 ounces), the light doesn’t make a big impact on the balance and feel
of most camcorders.

We tried the M-75 first, using the AC adapter. The plug’s connection between
the power supply and the light is very secure. In fact, it was a little
difficult to plug and unplug the light, which could be a dangerous situation
if a desperate user decided to use a screwdriver to pry them apart. This
unplugging problem was apparent on the M-75 only; the MP-100A’s cigarette
lighter plug slipped in and out easily.

The first thing you’ll notice after turning these lights on is that they
quickly get hot. Even though both lights have glass safety shields, be careful
when using them. Don’t place them near anything combustible and allow them
to cool before putting them away or changing the lamps.

To change bulbs, you first must remove two Phillips head screws on the bottom
front of the lighting unit, then remove the entire reflector and safety
glass assembly. This seems like a difficult task in the middle of a shoot.
It would be nice if the units had a better design, incorporating a quick
and easy way to change lamps. So, if you use the M-75 or MP-100A lights,
it might be a good idea to include a Phillips screwdriver in your gear bag.

A nice feature of the M-75 is that the heavy AC adapter comes with a soft,
cloth case that clips to the a user’s belt. The power supply is also equipped
with a hot shoe mount, so you can mount it on a camcorder. You can mount
the power supply on your camcorder, but that leaves nowhere to put the light.
It would make more sense if the power supply also had a mounting bracket
for the light on the other side of the hot shoe mount. Then you could put
the power supply on top of the camera, and the light on top of the power
supply. It doesn’t, so the power supply’s hot shoe bracket seems like a

Both lights do a very good job of lighting subjects. When used close to
the subject, the lights were a little too bright, causing a hot spot on
the subjects face. Tilting up the light to bounce off of a white ceiling
(just loosen the wingnut) makes a big difference in close situations.

With the included battery packs, you can take either of these lights outdoors
to use as a fill light during the day, a great advantage over AC-powered
light kits. For daylight shots to look natural, however, the light should
be corrected to daylight color temperature with clip-on gels. It would be
nice if both kits included some form of clip-on daylight correction and
diffusion gels.

Watt’s the Difference?

You might notice that the lower-powered M-75 is priced $85 more than the
MP-100A. Why? Both lights include batteries, but the M-75 includes an AC
power adapter, while the MP-100A has a DC plug that fits into a car’s cigarette
lighter. To decide which light would be best for you, think about what type
of shooting you do.

The M-75 supports both AC and DC operation. Use this light if you work indoors
where AC is available. You can’t power it from a vehicle’s cigarette lighter,
so it would be a poor choice if you shoot your video in or around cars.

The MP-100A offers no option for AC power; indoor
use is battery-powered only. It is best suited to use in or around a vehicle,
where its cigarette lighter DC plug is useful.

With their low prices, even without the gels, either light would help
any videographer. They are both big improvements over the small, under-powered
lights that most camcorder manufacturers include with their camcorders.


Tech Specs

Panasonic PV-L558 VHS-C Camcorder


23:1 optical zoom, 3.8-87.4mm focal length, single-speed zoom, f/1.6, inner
focus, wide macro

Image sensor
1/4-inch, 270,000-pixel CCD

3.2-inch LCD monitor, 1/2-inch black and white LCD

TTL auto, inner manual

Maximum shutter speed
1/10000th of a second

Auto, backlight compensation

White balance

Digital effects



Composite video, mono audio (both via 1/8-inch mini-plug), headphones

Edit interface

Other features
Auto-fade, built-in camera light, titler, built-in lens cover

4.4 (width) by 4.6 (height) by 7 (length) inches

Weight (sans tape and battery)
2.4 pounds

Video Performance (approx.)
Horizontal resolution
250 lines

Horizontal resolution (playback)
190 lines

Performance Times

Pause to Record

0.5 seconds

Power-up to Record

2.5 seconds

Fast Forward/Rewind (30 min. tape)

4 minutes 30 seconds


  • Easy to use
  • Good auto focus, auto exposure controls
  • Built-in light


  • No manual exposure control
  • Some ghosting on LCD monitor
  • No image stabilization


Recommended for beginning shooters and casual weekend shooters, but
not for the serious amateur

Sima SCW-2 ColorWriter Plus Titler










20 pages, 360 characters/page maximum


Composite video, S-video, stereo audio, GPI trigger


Composite video, S-video, stereo audio


12.5 (length) by 8.25 (width) by 2.5 (depth) inches


  • GPI trigger
  • Simple to operate


  • Keyboard difficult to type on
  • Poor quality fonts


A step above Sima’s earlier ColorWriter Magic, but still not quite up to
par for the price.

Strata VideoShop 4.0/3D Nonlinear Editing Software



Minimum System Requirements


Any Power Macintosh


5 MB RAM minimum

Hard disk

100 MB disk or more

Operating system

Mac OS System 7.5 or later

Other requirements

QuickTime 2.5 or later

Sound Manager 3.2 or later

For live video capture: any AV Power Macintosh system or QuickTime-compatible
video capture board

Recommended system


8MB RAM or more

Hard disk

Wide SCSI-2


  • Easy to use
  • Powerful interface
  • Micons


  • None


A good nonlinear solution for beginners or experts.

Nady 802 Platinum Series wireless Microphone system

2 channel, diversity UHF receiver and transmitter

Transmitting Frequency between 800 and 850 MHz

Output balanced, fixed level XLR microphone and variable line level

Frequency response 25-20,000

Power Receiver, 12 volts DC at 150mA, tip positive. Transmitter,
9 volt battery

Outdoor range 250+ feet


  • True diversity system
  • Excellent range


  • Will not mount on camera


Great wireless system for the advanced consumer or prosumer.

Smith-Victor M-75 & MP-100A On-Camera Lights


Quartz lamps, 75 watts (M-75) and 100 watts (MP-100A)


12-volt battery packs; AC adapter for the M-75 and an automotive cigarette-lighter
plug for the MP-100A

Battery life

Approximately 30 to 35 minutes

Battery recharge time

16 hours


MP-75 Light 8oz, Battery 6lbs, AC adapter xoz

MP-100A Light 8oz, Battery 6lbs, DC adapter xoz


  • Portable
  • Hot shoe mount
  • Bright even light


  • No gels
  • Plug on M-75 hard to use


Good, portable on-camera lights made for the amat

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.