Recently, a “shootout” with 4 affordable HD cameras and 2 not so affordable HD cameras was conducted by Adam Wilt, Barry Green and others. The camera’s included were: a Canon XL-H1 ($10000), JVC HD-100 ($5500), Panasonic HVX-200 ($6000 + storage costs) and a Sony Z1 ($5000). The not so affordable cameras were a Sony F900 (CineAlta) (+ $50000) and a Panasonic Varicam. Adam Wilt’s write up can be found on (registration required, look for an article called “Four Affordable HD Camcorders Compared”). Barry Green’s take and subsequent responses can be found in this 43 page thread.

I’m not going to repeat everything written about the shootout but I’ll point out some things that interest me instead. Number one being resolution: the 4 affordable camcorders all have 1/3 inch CCDs. They’re trying to create a 1920×1080 pixel image out of a 4.8×3.6 mm imaging area, and it seems they’re hitting the limit of what affordable lenses can do at the moment. It doesn’t surprise me that the Canon and JVC come out at the top. Both have interchangeable lenses. Canon is a well respected lens maker and the JVC has a Fujinon lens. Even though, the Canon tops out at 800 horizontal TV lines and 700 vertical lines, the JVC measures at 700 H and 700 V (it’s only recording at 1280×720), the Sony at 550 H and 700 V and the Panasonic trails at 550 H and 540 V (Adam Wilt’s numbers, with reserve about the Panasonic). This means that the image from the Panasonic could very well be recorded at DV resolution, the Sony would lose some vertical resolution if we did and the Canon and JVC would lose some more. But they’re nowhere near the CineAlta’s > 1000 H and > 1000 V numbers. No wonder people call them half HD or 1.5 SD cameras.

I wonder what people will think of footage shot with any of these cameras once they’re used to real 1080i material shown on a native 1080 line monitor. That doesn’t mean the footage shot with these cameras isn’t better than DV at all – it is – but I think most viewers are a bit too optimistic considering almost all HDTV’s sold right now are in the 1386×768 range. — Side note: I don’t talk about 720p because I don’t believe it’s going to make a dent in Europe at all. It’s too close to PAL resolution and thus won’t be enough of an incentive to get people to buy new TV’s — IMHO, if you’re buying any of these cameras aside from the Canon, don’t do it for the HD factor but because you can deliver a sharper SD sized image. It’s the only thing that makes sense in Europe anyway.

Next up is gain. Adam Wilt measured the 6 cameras at somewhere between 320 and 160 ISO. The Sony Z1 trailed the pack at 160 ISO and the Panasonic HVX-200 leads at 320. Various people commented on how the Panasonic is somewhat noisy and the Sony being the cleanest of them all. Some people even start talking about cinematic noise vs. video noise, but the truth is that you can’t rely on gain numbers and sensitivity numbers at all. To me, the Panasonic HVX-200 and older Panasonic DVX-100 shots I’ve seen look like they’re shot with about 6 to 12 dB of gain. They’re not, but I think Panasonic is willing to boost the output of the CCDs a far bit more to be able to be the low light sensitivity champion. The sad thing about this is that you can not turn this “boost” off, so you’ll always have some kind of noise in your picture. Truth to be said, Canon does offer a -3 dB mode that does exactly that.

Last but not least is Depth of Field (DOF). 1/3 inch cameras offer such a large DOF that it’s very difficult to create “cinematic” images with them. That why a lot of people are turning towards 35 mm adapters. A 35 mm adapter consists of a moving groundglass, a lens for a 35mm stills camera projecting an image on the ground glass and a macro lens to be able to focus your camera on projected image. It’s a bit like filming a movie projection. Trouble is, said adapters cause you to lose a lot of light (about 1.5 to 2 stops, people talk about 60 ISO equivalent for an Canon XL2 with a $10000 P+S Technik Mini35 system) and most of the footage shown is really soft. I’ll be trying one later this year, but I think most of the resolution you win with these affordable HD cameras will be downright lost once you put a 35 mm adapter in front of them.

Another thing that I found remarkable is the fact the JVC-HD100 behaved a lot better than what you would expect from its modest tech specs. It looks like JVC is a bit under the radar for most people considering a camera purchase, but I have to say that I’m really impressed by the JVC-DV5000 we use at school. In fact, if you’re looking for a sub $10000 camera in Europe and you don’t mind the weight and heft of a real broadcast camera, try the JVC-DV5000 or 5100. You’ll have better low light performance, a real broadcast lens and you look professional too.