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The new ZR line of Mini DV camcorders from Canon is helping put affordable Mini DV into the hands of novice videographers. At the top of this palm line, the ZR30 MC has many of the manual features that experienced operators look for in a camcorder. With Digital8 breaking the $1,000 digital video barrier first, it was a sure bet that the purveyors of the Mini DV format would follow suit to capture a share of a swelling market. While some obvious cost-trimming measures show up in the body construction materials it’s lightweight plastic body, for instance the image quality, acceptable ergonomics and manual features make it well worth consideration.
In terms of handling comfort, the ZR30 MC is very user-friendly. It fits in the hand comfortably and has easy-to-operate record, on/off, zoom and photo controls. In our opinion, the zoom was just a fraction of an inch too far back on the camera body to have a totally natural feel. The actuation and control of the zoom function was smooth and no motor noise was heard when recording or on playback.
The photo-still shutter button and the toggle between video and still mode were both easy to access with the index finger. Concealed buttons for record line-in (a great feature), an auto/manual toggle, media card playback functions, digital effects and the all-important menu are located under the modest 2.5-inch flip-out LCD. The tapered LCD made the image feel slightly askew on first impression.
The VCR transport controls, including dual toggle functions for auto/manual focus and exposure, reside in an attractive, lit row above the camera body’s LCD. Although this row of buttons is tapered and with repeated use will become familiar enough that the user won’t have to look to see which button is which, a nub or texture indicator would have been a nice addition. Defined by the user, this group of focus and exposure controls can be lit with any of three colors (for no particular purpose) whenever the camera is on, or turned off to conserve the life of the BP-535 lithium-ion battery. The battery does not have a separate charger; you must charge it while it’s on the camera. This means that you cannot charge one battery while you use another. Users will need to plan ahead to make sure enough power is handy for long shoots. Like most small camcorders, features were densely-packed on the landscape of the camera body. This posed some ergonomic problems, but the ZR30 MC handled the job well with easy and unobscured access to all video and audio ports.
The IEEE-1394 and S-video connects are on the front of the body. The A/V headphone, LANC and external mike jack, welcome additions all, are located on the hand-held side of the ZR30 MC and did not interfere with our operating hands. Our review unit included an 8MB-memory card that loaded conveniently on the side next to the LCD. The tape transport, however, loads from the bottom, making a tape change a chore when using a tripod. Loading the tape from the bottom seems to be a trend (that we hope will go away) with many manufacturers on many camcorder models, not just the Canon ZR line.
The control wheel for menu scrolling, manual focus, exposure, etc., was easy to navigate and access. When used during manual focus shooting, physically turning the notched wheel made it hard to use without making the image jump and, on our test unit, created audible operator noise on the tape, especially in low audio-level situations. The ZR30 MC also has a hot shoe for mounting accessories.
We took the ZR30 MC on a shoot at a local nursery to capture some of the vivid springtime colors on display. For comparison, we brought a mid-priced, three-chip Mini DV (from another manufacturer) along for the ride to shoot the same shots with identical settings. We were not trying to officially pit a sub-$1,000 single-CCD camera against a plus-$2,000 3-CCD camera; we just wanted to conduct a little non-scientific look-see.
We white-balanced both cameras in the same light to the same white card, set both shutters to 1/100 of a second and let both auto-expose since the ZR30 MC does not have actual, adjustable f-stops. For a test, we shot a vibrant fuchsia clematis flower against a contrasting tan wall a difficult task for any image device. The ZR30 MC looked very natural, displaying the flower with remarkable prowess. Unfortunately, the three-chip image did not look as good. We asked the nursery staff which one it thought was a better representation of their plant and the ZR30 was a unanimous winner. Much to our surprise, the ZR30 MC did extremely well in our on-the-spot camcorder comparison.
Who Would Know?
Canon’s new ZR camcorder line camera bodies may be constructed with some lightweight materials, but the inner workings of the ZR30 MC seem to be comparable to other, higher-priced camcorders on the market. The price/performance ratio is changing and you can acquire excellent Mini DV image quality, manual features and design sensibility for a minimal investment. Canon makes wonderful products in their upper-end Mini DV roster and the expertise that comes with those winners is reflected in the affordable ZR30 MC. We commend Canon for that.
Format: Mini DV
Lens: f/1.8 – 2.9
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/8,000 sec
Image Sensor: 1/4-inch CCD, 460,000 pixels (approx. 290,000 effective pixels)
Viewfinder: 2.5-inch color LCD, .44-inch color eyepiece
Focus: auto, manual
Exposure: auto, five preset exposure modes, manual mode
White Balance: auto, indoor/outdoor presets, manual
Digital Effects: Sepia, Art, B&W, Mosaic
Audio: four tracks at 12-bit 32 kHz or two tracks at 16-bit 48kHz
Inputs: FireWire, A/V, S-video, mini-mike
Outputs: FireWire, A/V headphone, S-video
Edit Interface: LANC, FireWire
Other Features: 8MB multi-media card
Dimensions: 2 1/4 (w) x 4 (h) x 5 1/4 (d) inches
Weight: 1 pound, 3 ounces (540g)
The Canon ZR30 MC, with its excellent image quality and manual features, packs a punch at just under $1,000.