NAB was particularly unnerving this year, and I'm not just talking about the hour-long wait for overpriced coffee in the convention center Starbucks. As the pace of innovation and products introduction continued unabashed, it seemed no one was subjected to more befuddlement than we shooters who had to make sense of the ongoing madness and then somehow convey a coherent message to our bosses and colleagues back home.
Well, good luck with all that. With respect to shooters, a major trend that emerged from the 2008 NAB Show was the lack of a clear theme from the major manufacturers. At Sony, the introduction of the PMW-EX3 (a Pick Hit winner) and PDW-700 camcorders reinforced the company's commitment to capturing images on both Express/34 flash memory cards and spinning optical disc. Gone were the loud pronouncements of past years touting optical discs' inherent superiority over flash memory as an image capture medium or assured archival master. The acceptance and relative merit of recording to flash memory à la Panasonic's P2 appears now to be an industry fait accompli.
Panasonic for its part communicated a similar juxtaposed message. After having disparaged the evils of HDV and long-GOP recording at past NABs, the company abruptly reversed course this year and embraced long-GOP AVCHD as the ultimate replacement format for all things DV and HDV.
So out of this chaos, what is the poor shooter to think? The merit of Sony/Panasonic triangulations aside, sometimes I feel like the beleaguered baseball fan with allegiance to my favorite guys only to find my guys abruptly traded away for the other team's guys — for whom I'm then supposed to feel just as much conviction and abject loyalty. It could be just me, but I usually don't like my belief system threatened that much, that often — whether in baseball, in life or in professional HD camcorders.
O come, all ye faithful
Luckily, if you're still enamored with the concept of recording on a spinning disc, you'll find great solace with the introduction of Sony's new PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorder. The much-anticipated 2/3in 50Mb/s upgrade reflects a maturing of sorts of the XDCAM HD format, using 4:2:2 color sampling and dual layer media.
Just as luckily, if you're one of the growing number of folks who recognize the efficiency and economy of shooting on flash memory, you'll feel much more fulfilled now that Sony has expanded its compact XDCAM EX line to include the new PMW-EX3, a Pick Hit winner.
Accepting the latest 32GB SxS PRO solid-state memory cards, the EX3 incorporates most of the EX1 features, plus interchangeable lens capability, genlock and time code I/O for multicamera operation.
So many new cameras, so little time
At Panasonic, a coherent message for shooters was just as tough to discern as the company expanded its lineup of professional AVCHD cameras dubbed AVCCAM. The AG-HMC150 sports many of the same features found in the pricier P2 camcorders, such as the upgraded HVX200A. The HMC150 offers cine-like gamma settings and a full array of recording modes and options, including 1080p24, 720p24pN and 720p60, among others.
One big difference in the realm of AVCCAM: The HMC150 records on SD and SDHC flash memory, obviating the need to invest in a cache of costly P2 cards. The performance of the HMC150 is not likely, of course, to match that of the P2 ProHD line, but with a concomitant bump in bit rate at 21Mb/s to 24Mb/s in PH mode, the image quality can be quite startling nevertheless and more than sufficient for many smaller market and event shooters.
Despite any inherent keying limitations and increased risk of motion artifacts, the long-GOP AVCHD compression scheme certainly has its advantages, allowing up to three hours of 1920 × 1080 recording on a single 32GB SDHC card. For some shooters, this is a key advantage that underlies the economy of the format.
In the area of low-cost camcorders and overall industry trend, Panasonic's AG-HPX170 camcorder represented perhaps the show's most significant offering. Weighing in at 1.3lbs less than the HVX200A, the new, more-compact model dispenses with the vestigial MiniDV tape drive, forever severing this legacy medium from our collective pasts.
The slimmed down camera addresses many of the concerns of shooters employing this type of camcorder: the reduced mass and size, helping to ensure its unobtrusiveness in almost every situation; its ruggedized six-pin firewire connector, eliminating the four-pin menace that has bedeviled shooters for years; and the long-demanded HD-SDI output providing easy integration into common baseband workflows.
Most notable of all, the HPX170 features a built-in vectorscope and waveform — the first implementation of this vital feature in a camcorder at any price.
For broadcasters at the high end of the spectrum, Panasonic also introduced its P2 Varicam lineup, offering two new models (both Pick Hit winners): the AJ-HPX2700 at 720p and the AJ-HPX3700 at 1080p native resolutions. The HPX2700 features variable frame rates from 1fps to 60fps with 10-bit 4:2:2 full sampling recording using AVC-Intra.
This is a major development for more advanced shooters because 10-bit recordings at virtual D5 quality significantly improves performance across the board, reducing the risk of contour and motion artifacts on the one hand, while dramatically expanding post-production's color correction capability on the other.
Both new Varicam models feature chromatic aberration compensation to defend against objectionable fringing along an image's high contrast edges. This artifact, which will never be confused with art, has grown increasingly apparent and objectionable with the introduction of cameras with high native resolution imagers. Of course we would all prefer high-resolution images to see greater picture detail. The problem is that at the same time, increasingly, we're seeing a lot more lens defects.
Sticking to their roots
Canon seemed to stay on track this year with the introduction of its revised XL H1S and XL H1A models. These updated offerings represent more of a tweaking than radical change of thinking. The H1S is geared mostly for multicamera applications. The H1A lacks HD-SDI and genlock and is intended primarily for simpler more straightforward uses.
The H1S and lower priced H1A feature an updated 20X lens with much needed mechanical enhancements, most notably the addition of a manual iris ring. Shooters also now have the capability to focus while zooming, a feature long taken for granted by most ENG folks. In addition, color adjustment is more tweakable in the new models as is the various buttons' touch sensitivity. One significant and critical improvement: Embedded audio is now standard in the HD-SDI signal output. Hurray for that!
In the realm of new camcorders or revised camcorders, JVC seemed to run a relatively quiet show, introducing the GY-HD200B, which can capture and record 720p at multiple frame rates. Significantly the new model can also stream 1080i at 50/60Hz via firewire, a capability that has so far eluded Sony's XDCAM HD models as well as JVC's own HD250. For some shooters who require live capture of video via firewire for DVD dailies for example, this new capability in the HD200B could be significant because previously such functionality in long-GOP MPEG-2 cameras was limited to 25Mb/s SD.
Some goodies of note
Fujinon has been impressive lately, offering high performance lenses at modest price points. This appears to be especially true in the area of general-purpose optics for field acquisition, where even the company's package lenses that ship with various cameras, like the Panasonic HPX500, exhibit low chromatic aberration and flare, producing compelling images more typical of lenses costing twice or three times the price.
It is in this vein that we are seeing a high level of optical performance in the company's new ZA Select HD series of lenses. Three different models comprise this new lineup: the ZA 12×4.5BE wide-angle, ZA 17×7.6BE general-purpose and ZA 22×7.6BE extended range zooms.
In the support area, Manfrotto introduced a rugged and simple new set of carbon fiber tripod legs — the MPRO. The model 536 with a 100mm ball can support a load up to 44lb at a height of 6.5ft with absolute stability. This relatively inexpensive tripod is suitable for use with full-size ENG camcorders.
The Sachtler SOOM is lighter weight and much pricier, but its functionality, versatility and speed of setup is a tour de force of efficient design. The system consists of four components that serve multiple functions: as a rugged pair of baby legs, monopod, standard tripod and center-column elevated tripod. The maximum weight supported in the current model is only 13.2lb, so the SOOM with its diminutive 75mm bowl is certainly not for full-size camcorders like Sony's new PDW-700 or Panasonic's HPX2700. For shooters using lightweight cameras, such as the EX3 or HVX200A, the SOOM is a fantastic all-purpose support platform.
Shooters wishing to exercise greater image control may want to check out Schneider's new line of HD Classic Soft Filters. Most diffusion filters, including Schneider's own Frost and Classic lines, have seen little practical application in small-format HD because of the risk of the filter's image pattern appearing on-screen, especially when shooting at full wide-angle and at tiny f-stops.
The Schneider HD Classic Soft mitigates the risk by employing a clever offset pattern along the inner surfaces of the filter's bonded elements, a strategy permitting for the first time use of such filters on 1/3in camcorders exhibiting a typical enormous depth of field.
Needless to say, this year's NAB was a challenging time for us shooters' besieged belief systems. Manufacturers seem to be raiding with apparent abandon each other's technology bins. Hitachi is manufacturing its own dockable P2 camera — the SK-HD1000. And Fujifilm is manufacturing its own P2 memory cards up to 64GB.
And then there is the RED juggernaut with its loyal band of followers and a belief system fervor like no other. Whether broadcasters will ever embrace the Scarlet 3K camera with its less-than-streamlined RAW workflow is doubtful. But one thing is sure: It will rattle the belief systems of industrial giants' executives ensconced at the highest levels in Japan.
And that, in the long run, has to be a very good thing for shooters — whatever the camera manufacturer du jour we happen to believe in.
Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from Focal Press/Elsevier.