Applications: ENG, cable TV, corporate, government
Key features: DVCAM and DV formats; traditional camcorder form factor
www.sony.com/professionalRecently while shooting a U.S. Department of Labor hearing in San Antonio, Texas, with my school’s Sony DSR-300, I found myself wishing I had a tilt-out LCD monitor like the one on my Sony DSR-PD100. I travel solo on these stints, and it’s quite enough to haul camera, tripod and accessories on an airplane without having to haul a monitor. When you’re shooting hours of testimony, you’re not likely to spend the whole day with your eye screwed up to the viewfinder.
I made do with the eyepiece raised up, but a few times I asked myself whether I’d have been wiser to bring along the Sony DSR-250 I had for this review. It has a tilt-out LCD, albeit a smaller one than the one on my PD100. But the much pricier DSR-300 is better in available light, so I’d opted for it.
Performance or features – that seems to be the choice when considering the DSR-250.
The DSR-250 is Sony’s new in-between camera that tries to claim the part of the digital video camera market that the JVC GY-DV500 has recently moved into. The JVC camera, less expensive but roughly the same price range, is a more fair comparison than the DSR-300.
First, what are some of the features that make the DSR-250 stand out? There’s the already mentioned foldout LCD screen, which is unique, as far as I know, on a camera of this professional size and design. This is in addition to a good monochrome eyepiece viewfinder.
Then there is the fact that this camcorder plays and records in both the DV and the DVCAM formats (mini and regular size). This means you can have the economy of DV or the durability, data indexing and longer times (up to 184 minutes) of DVCAM. The JVC GY-DV500 records only on DV mini cassettes, which limits you to 60 minutes.
Then there’s the DSR-250’s autofocus capability, which worked well in my limited testing. Unlike the PD100, this camera’s lens functions well for manual focusing; the focus ring has a good feel and the amount of turn required to rack focus is short. It does lack external calibration though, so if you want an assistant to pull focus, you’re out of luck.
Finally, unusual on a camera in this class is the ability to record noninterlaced stills onto a memory stick for transfer to a computer. When I first got my PD100 I thought I’d never use this feature, but I use it quite a bit. At the hearing in San Antonio I kept the PD100 pointed at a computer projection screen and clicked off a memory stick still every time the witnesses changed the graphic of their Power Point presentations.
Most of these features are shared with the PD100 palmcorder (which records only in mini DVCAM format). If it sounds like the DSR-250 is a kind of hybrid between the PD100 and the DSR-300, that is my impression also. Besides the LCD foldout monitor, the autofocus and the memory chip stills shared with the PD100, the menus work in much the same way, so it was easy for me to use the menu on this camera.
On the other hand, in size and general design, the 250 is more like the 300. Sony has wisely decided to create external switches or potentiometers for some of the functions that are menu functions on the PD100. Audio levels, zebra, audio monitor switching, white-balance and many more are right there where you would expect them to be on any professional camcorder.
I especially like the end search function that finds the end of your recorded video so you don’t record over shots or leave a gap in your timecode.
The audio inputs are XLR. One thing I found useful at the San Antonio shoot was plugging two wirelesses into the rear audio inputs and a simultaneous translation feed into the front mic input. I could switch one of the audio tracks between the rear and front input as needed. This was on the DSR-300, but is equally possible on the DSR-250.
The only function that I think they should have made external, but which they left as a menu item, is the color bar display. The menu is extensive and gives you a lot of control over setting up the camera for your preferences or to match the situation. Among things you can menu-set are shutter speeds, gain levels for the three-position external switch, setup (black level), Steadyshot image stabilization and 16:9 aspect ratio.
What about performance? The DSR-250 uses three 1/3-inch CCDs for image pickup. This compares to the 1/4-inch CCDs on my PD100 and the 1/2-inch CCDs on the DSR-300 and on the JVC GY-DV500.
The DSR-300 has a clear edge in terms of low-light performance and lack of visual noise, as one would expect of a camera in a much higher price category. If you compare the DSR-250 to the more comparably priced GY-DV500 on a waveform monitor with the gain set to low and the lens capped, you can see a slightly wider band of noise on the flat black video portion of the DSR-250’s waveform, but I found any difference hard to detect in actual images. The two cameras are very comparable in terms of low-light performance. The DSR-250 does show more pronounced aliasing on high contrast diagonal edges, especially when there is movement.
On the issue of lenses the JVC camcorder offers interchangeability, and therefore more choices of models and zoom ranges. The Sony’s built-in 12x 6mm to 72mm optical zoom lens offers autofocus, if that is a useful feature for you. Its wide-angle coverage was about the same as that of the 14x 7.3mm to 102mm lens on the JVC that I had access to, but the JVC had an edge on the telephoto end.
For on-the-shoulder use I found the DSR-250 initially a little bit clunky, but I think I could get used to it. The zoom ring is very close to the focus ring, and I used the wrong one a couple times before I got the feel of it. The rocker switch for the servo zoom has good action, and the manual/auto switch is where you’d expect it to be. The zoom and iris rings, like the focus ring, are not externally calibrated, but you get a readout in the viewfinder for aperture and zoom, as well as shutter and many other things, if you want to leave them all displayed.
I liked the lithium batteries, which are the same as those used on the DSR-300. It’s nice not having to worry about fully discharging before recharging and the built-in charge level indicators are useful. The JVC camera uses NP1 nicad or nickel metal hydride batteries, but can be fitted for Anton/Bauer packs.
To reiterate then, your choice between the DSR-250 and another camera may come down to weighing the price, features and performance.
In the same price range, the JVC GY-DV500 with 1/2-inch CCDs and lens interchangeability may have an edge in terms of handling and image quality. But if features like a foldout LCD monitor, multitape formats (with longer record times) and the memory stick still image capacity are important to your projects, this may tilt the balance in favor of the DSR-250.