NAB2007 marked a watershed event in the annals of HD cameras and support. The advent of efficient IT-oriented camera systems was certainly a part of it. The two-hour plus wait to see the Miracle Machine of Color (aka Red) was just one example of the IT juggernaut running roughshod over diverse market sectors from broadcast ENG to feature films and digital cinema. For shooters, there was another angle to consider at the show: Brains, not brawn, will ultimately carry the day. Inexpensive and increasingly intelligent gear is having a profound and mostly positive effect on the quality of our images.

Intelligent camcorders

This trend has been apparent for several years. The Panasonic HVX200, for example, is able to capture remarkable HD images, despite its relative low price, coarse resolution imager and modest prosumer-grade optics. This is because the camcorder understands the shortcomings of its permanent non-interchangeable optics and can therefore compensate for them digitally to achieve satisfactory lens performance. The HVX doesn't feature the typical breathing of focus one might expect when zooming through a low-cost lens. Why? The soft spots known to the camera manufacturer and engineers are mapped out as a function of the camera's routine image processing.

The HPX500, the company's new 2/3in 3-CCD P2 camcorder, goes a step further, extending the notion of the intelligent camcorder to embrace the challenge posed by interchangeable lenses. Here the dogging issue is chromatic aberration (CA), an ugly fringing artifact found to some degree in all zoom lenses. For HD shooters, CA is a major occupational hazard, as such defects can be highly visible in HD because of the increased resolution.

Panasonic has uploaded the performance details for four currently available Chromatic Aberration Compensation (CAC) lenses from Canon and Fujinon. When a CA lens is mounted on the HPX500 (or HPX2000), the camera recognizes the make and model of the optics and applies the necessary compensation profile from the appropriate lookup table stored in the camera's memory. The performance gains in modestly priced lenses can be remarkable, with such optics suddenly exhibiting the clean look characteristic of lenses costing twice the price.

Studio smarts

For years studio integration of 1/3in camcorders has been a source of frustration. Much has changed, and now many users are adapting this gear for serious multicamera and studio use. The advent of HD-SDI output and genlock in some models has helped considerably, but the studio/multicamera challenge remains for corporate, event and small-market broadcasters.

Targeting its GY-HD250 720p60 camcorder, JVC addressed this issue in a big way at NAB2007. The new KA-HD250 studio adapter incorporates a standard 26-pin connector so the camera integrates nicely into new and most existing studio setups — a smart move that substantially extends the versatility overall of the HD250 camcorder. This versatility also includes the ability to output directly from the camera's onboard MPEG-2 encoder for microwave and satellite feeds. This makes the small-format HD camera well suited for modest-sized multicamera broadcast applications.

Thinking beyond HDV

The fortunes of the world's most inadvertent HD format continue to fade as manufacturers look to smarter, less onerous codecs to carry the torch for low-bit-rate HD. Long-GOP HDV was designed to take advantage of dual-use cameras that could shoot both SD and HD in the same inexpensive package. Now with SD becoming less of a priority for shooters, the overarching need for dual-use gear is no longer as compelling. Thus, demand is growing for an alternative HD format that can provide better performance without the dread and hassle of native HDV editing in your favorite NLE. Sony's XDCAM certainly fits this bill, and this year the company unveiled the XDCAM EX, a three-chip 1/2in flash memory-based camcorder that can shoot a wide range of frame rates and resolutions from 1080i/720p at 50Hz/60Hz on two 16GB onboard media cards.

Flash memory allows great flexibility in terms of economy, recording formats, frame rates and resolution — a reality consistent with the more IT-based workflows of the future.

Integrated agents

The tools in a shooter's toolkit often interface poorly and provide little or no feedback from one to the other. This had been the case with interchangeable lenses that (until CAC) failed in most implementations to inform the camera of potential shortcomings, such as egregious artifacts like chromatic aberration.

The same disconnect had been true for support gear with respect to unwanted camera movement. The head, lens and camera have traditionally acted as independent agents with only the expertise of a highly disciplined operator to hold the entire shooting enterprise together.

Pioneering technology from Vinten and Canon allows precise pan-and-tilt data from the Vector 950 Active head to be transmitted to the stabilization system in Canon's long field lenses. The benefit is compelling: a dynamic stabilization system that can distinguish between intentional camera motion and unwanted vibration or wind buffeting or even the unintentional slip of the operator's hand. Now that's progress!

In summary

More relevant to most of us than a new camera sporting native 4K resolution, these latest-generation smart tools reflect a newfound sensibility on the part of the industry to intelligently and economically address the HD shooter's specialized needs. Look for CAC to become de rigeur in future camera gear. Look for smart image stabilization and smart support to become commonplace as well. In the future what our cameras might lack in brawn and expensive glass, they will more than make up for in technological savvy.

Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from Focal Press/Elsevier.