A year and a half ago, I wrote:

In the last year, a lot of cheap (or not so cheap) HD video cameras came onto the market. These cameras are targeted towards consumers or professional users at the bottom of the scale (”prosumers”).

This was ment to be the introduction to a detailed overview of all prosumer HD cameras. As you may have noticed, that overview never came around, mainly because I got bored with specs and prizes and endless internet discussions about pixels. However, people keep asking me what camera to buy. Well, based on Barry Green’s recent comparison between a Panasonic HVX200 and Canon XH-A1, I’d say that if you really need an HD camera buy the Canon XH-A1.

But, don’t take my word for it, try before you buy. You’d be amazed at what you will find out once you have the camera in your hands. I trotted along when Roeland was choosing a camera to record “Zonder Jou”. We tested the Sony Z1, JVC HD100, Panasonic HVX200 and Canon XL-H1. Here are the things that really suprised me (meaning I didn’t read about these things on the internet):

  • The JVC HD100 can’t focus closer that 1 meter, which may be a problem for extreme close-ups.
  • The lens control of the Canon XL-H1 is unbelievably awkward. You cannot reliably focus and zoom with the lens rings at all. It feels like you’re controlling a lens thousand miles away through a 56K connection.
  • The layout and controls of the menu system of the HVX200 are against my nature. I was frequently on the wrong page, pointing at the wrong item in the wrong menu. This has to do with the physical layout of the camera: the control buttons are positioned for someone standing besides the camera while in reality you’re standing behind it looking at the LCD screen.
  • Another thing about the HVX200 that Roeland found out much later: you can’t use it as a bridge connecting Final Cut Pro and an HD monitor, like you can with a cheap DV camera. One of the big selling points of the HVX200 is its use of DVCPro HD which makes editing a lot easier, almost DV cam alike. It would make sense that you could use the HVX200 to display a DVCPro HD stream on a decent HD monitor (good for basic color correction) but apparently you can’t: you have to buy an HD capture card like Blackmagic’s Decklink series or AJA’s Kona series just as you would for any other camera.

But the most remarkable thing is: they all looked pretty much alike. None of these cameras will blown any other out of the water, although the Sony Z1 was consistently the worst, mostly because it clips way too fast (not a lot of dynamic range). In the end the DP chose the HVX200 mostly because his prior experience with a DVX100.

Barry Green agrees:

The most telling thing, regarding image quality, was when I played about 20 minutes’ worth of footage back on my Sony XBR960 CRT HDTV. The Canon and the Panasonic both use the same component video cable, so I was able to cue both up to the same shot, and swap the cable back and forth. And frankly, folks, I think most people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference! They both put out an excellent high-def image. As viewed on my HDTV, from a viewing distance of about two feet, I found them extremely comparable. I asked for a backup set of eyes, which meant dragging my wife into the discussion, and she couldn’t really see a difference either. It got to the point where sometimes I’d forget which camera I was on – I’d go to fast-forward on the XHA1, and nothing would change on the screen, and I’d realize “oops – I’m plugged into the HVX instead.”


I’ve spent a lot of time testing the small HD camcorders, and organizing tests such as the original DV.COM six-way comparison test. And while we can demonstrate resolution charts and things like that, the simple fact that people don’t want to hear is: they all look about the same. There is no knockout winner among any of the 1/3” HD camcorders, and with the XHA1 the trend continues. They’re comparably sharp, and comparably noisy, with comparable dynamic range; the biggest difference between them was their rendering of color & gamma.

(BTW, my own notes on the original DV.com six-way test are here)

So, if they’re all about the same imagewise, why not buy the cheapest? The Sony FX1 is out because it is no longer sold (and its audio is lacking in all departments) but then this new Canon XH-A1 comes next.

But then, think again, do you really need a $4000 camera? This is the heart of the matter and the reason why I bothered to write this article at all. I bought my FX1 about 2 years ago when it was still the first HD camera and the Z1 wasn’t even in sight. Since then I made four or five short movies with it, filmed some concerts and a few other things, but I don’t believe I made any money on it. It’s possible that I would have been cheaper off if I had just hired a camera every time I needed one.

By renting, you may be able to film with a much better camera too: I was certainly surprised when I heard that the rental price for a Sony XDCam HD was only 30% more than an HVX200.