Shooting Like a Pro
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 11 (November 2002)

Shooting Like a Pro

It wasn't that many years ago that you needed a video camera costing upwards of $25,000 to shoot professional-quality footage. In fact, cameras costing $40,000 or even $100,000 were standard pieces of equipment for video pros and production facilities. But with the advent of the digital video (DV) format in the late '90s, that all began to change.

Feature film producers and those shooting for high-end broadcasting applications still have a need for cameras that cost tens of thousands of dollars. But today, many video pros are getting by just fine with cameras priced in the $3000 to $6000 range. In truth, even consumer-grade cameras that use the miniDV format and cost less than $2000 can produce video that has a resolution equal to that of BetaSP, the analog video format that once ruled the roost in the broadcast world. But it's only when you get up into the $3000 to $6000 price range that you find the cameras with the kind of professional feature sets and imaging capabilities needed to make most video pros happy.

At the moment, two of the most popular cameras in this category are Canon's XL1S, priced at $4699, and Sony's DSR-PD150, priced at $4400. The Canon XL1S is by far the strangest looking camera on the market—not quite a handheld and not quite a shoulder mount—but its versatility and professional features have made it a favorite of many video pros and even some film directors. It's the only camera in this category, for example, to offer interchangeable lenses and viewfinders, and it has even attracted third-party developers offering such optional accessories as matte boxes and follow-focus knobs.

This ability to customize the camera for different types of shoots, along with some of its other professional-grade features, such as the ability to generate 16:9 aspect ratio guidelines and manually control four audio channels, was the reason Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh chose this particular camera to shoot his recent movie Full Frontal. Soderbergh's use of the XL1S has been proudly promoted not only by Canon but also by all the makers of DV cameras as proof positive that these low-cost units have what it takes to produce professional-quality work.

Meanwhile, Sony's two-year-old DSR-PD150 has enjoyed its own moments of glory. For example, it was the camera of choice for the directors of Personal Velocity and Tadpole, two award-winning films at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Unlike the XL1S, the PD150 is a true handheld camera. This not only makes it easier to maneuver, but also provides shooters with a less intimidating piece of equipment when a shoot requires a discreet approach. Though it's not as customizable as the Canon XL1S, the Sony PD150 does offer other advantages. For example, in addition to supporting the miniDV format supported by the XL1S, it also supports the more robust DVCAM format, which is better suited to the rigors of professional post-production.

Web-integration features put JVC's GY-DV300 Streamcorder in a class by itself.

The success of the Canon XL1S and the Sony PD150 has made it clear that professional-quality video is now affordable to everyone from the event videographer to the independent filmmaker. But even more significant for digital content creators of all stripes is the fact that the camera choices available in the $3000 to $6000 product range are continuing to grow.

In recent weeks and months, several new units have come to market that offer features never before available in this price range. These new offerings will compete directly with cameras that have already established a strong foothold in this critical segment of the video market. And they will broaden the range of choices, making it easier for shooters to find a camera that will meet their specific needs.

One of the newest arrivals is the Panasonic AG-DVX100. Priced at $3795, this new handheld has excited the video world because of one feature in particular—the ability to shoot video at 24 frames per second (fps). While video is traditionally shot at 30fps, film is shot at 24fps. Until now, only the most expensive HD video cameras have offered the ability to shoot at 24fps. Panasonic's accomplishment in building this capability into such a low-priced camera is a significant revolution in camera technology. Suddenly, the ability to shoot video that has the distinctive look of film is now available to virtually anybody.

But that's just one highlight of this minDV camera. In addition to offering the ability to shoot in the cinema-style 480p/24fps format, the AG-DVX100 also supports image capture in 480i/60fps (NTSC) and 480p/30fps, giving it enormous flexibility. As important, the camera is equipped with three newly developed, 1/3-inch, progressive-scan, 410,000-pixel CCD chips. While all the cameras in the $3000 to $6000 price range offer three CCD chips—unlike consumer miniDV cameras, which are equipped with just one—not all chips are created equal. In this case, the chips in the AG-DVX100 offer significantly higher pixel density than those in either the XL1S or PD-150. And, because they are native-progressive CCDs, they eliminate interlace artifacts including horizontal jaggies and motion-edge tearing.

Rounding out the strengths of the AG-DVX100 is a 4.5mm wide-angle lens, and a host of professional-grade camera features, such as color bars, repeatable focus, and servo/manual zoom with stops and barrel markings.

Panasonic's AG-DVX100 offers the ability to shoot at 24 frames per second, the rate at which film is typically shot.

The other notable entry is JVC's GY-DV300 Streamcorder. JVC is no newcomer to the low end of the professional DV market, having already enjoyed a fair degree of success with its GY-DV500 camcorder. But with the launch in early summer of its miniDV GY-DV300, JVC has introduced a camera with unique Web-integration features that place it in a category by itself. For $4294, the GY-DV300 comes bundled with a companion product, the KA-DV300U MPEG-4 adapter, that enables the camera to stream video to a LAN or the Web via a wired or wireless connection so that the output can be viewed on a computer screen located nearby or halfway around the world. It's even possible for someone with a Web browser to remotely control various camera parameters including the "start" and "stop" taping functions. The camera can also record simultaneously to tape and to a memory card. So once shooting stops, you can pop the card into your computer to begin editing or to email video footage to clients and colleagues.

Never before has a camera made it so easy to distribute video so quickly in so many ways. It's an ability that could be useful to everyone from those doing field production or news gathering in remote locations to those creating Webcasts for

corporate or entertainment events. Even high-end production facilities could use the camera to quickly send test footage to clients before proceeding with a final shoot. The potential applications are limited only by one's imagination.

Also significant is the fact that these features don't come at the expense of image quality. Built around three, 1/3-inch, 410,000-pixel CCD chips, the camera features 12-bit A/D and 12-bit DSP. What that means, claims JVC, is that the camera has a 400 percent dynamic range that allows it to exceed the picture quality produced by either the PD-150 or the XL1S "by significant measures."

Finally, at the lowest end of this market segment come two new miniDV cameras from Sony and Canon—the Sony DSR-PDX10, priced at $2900, and the Canon GL2, priced at $2995.While neither would be considered a direct competitor to the PD150 or the XL1S, both offer many of the features found in the higher-priced models, including a three-CCD chip architecture, XLR audio connections, sophisticated picture adjustment functions, and image stabilization technology. Both have the ability to take and store high-resolution still images onto a removable memory card, and both offer FireWire compatibility, making it easy to transfer video and sound to a PC for editing.

Taken together, these new additions to the $3000 to $6000 segment of the video market have given today's independent filmmakers, event videographers, Webcasters, and digital content creators the ability to create professional-quality video at an affordable price. And although sorting through the camera choices can be a bit intimidating—given the wide range of features and dizzying array of product specifications—the fact that the number of offerings is increasing means the chances of finding a camera that exactly meets your particular needs are greater than ever before. ..

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.