As the HDV format gains acceptance, many people are wondering what camera to buy. Sony, JVC and Canon offer competing models and formats, with the most significant difference being the choice between 720p and 1080i.
Sony has adopted the 1080i format, and now has enough models available to compete with itself. First there was the HDR-FX1, a high-end consumer HDV camera. Then Sony offered a professional version of that camera, the HVR-Z1U. Sony also makes a number of consumer-grade HDV palmcorders.
Now there is the HVR-A1U, which essentially lies between Sony's line of consumer and professional HDV cameras.
But this middle ground can be a bit confusing. Sony product literature describes it as a professional HDV camera, but indicates that the A1U should be viewed as an auxiliary camera, with a small size and weight for those hard to reach places.
So the questions are, is it good enough to be a primary HDV camera for the professional, and how does it compare with the HVR-Z1U?
(click thumbnail)The most obvious difference between the two cameras is in the chips. The Sony HVR-Z1U contains three 1/3-inch, one megapixel CCDs, while the HVR-A1U has a single three-megapixel CMOS imager. The CMOS imager boasts some new innovations, but in my tests does not reach the level of three-chip camera performance.
Camera size and weight are apparent, with the Z1U weighing 4 pounds, 10 ounces, and the A1U weighing 1 pound, 7 ounces. The Z1U is a heftier camera (slightly larger than the Sony PD-170), while the A1U can be held and operated with one hand.
Part of the weight difference is due to a larger and faster lens on the Z1U, which has a 12X optical zoom as opposed to a 10X zoom on the A1U.
The audio is handled similarly in both cameras. There are two channels with XLR inputs, 48 kHz sampling rates, phantom power and independent control of each input.
Both cameras record HDV 1080i using MEPG-2 compression. However the Z1U also records 50i PAL and 480 progressive in standard definition. Both cameras also record standard DV in the DV SP or DVCAM mode.
Both cameras offer "Cineframe," which simulates the 24 fps look. But buyers should be aware that it is not true 24 fps and is not a substitute for 24p cameras that can do direct frame-to-frame film transfers.
The more useful film-look feature offered on both cameras is Cinematone Gamma. It adjusts the gamma curve to match that of film. It is effective on both cameras in improving the color depth and range in black areas. While there are software solutions that achieve similar results, having everything uniform on capture can save many hours of tweaking and rendering in post.
Both cameras also allow you to output standard DV from an HDV recorded tape over IEEE-1394. This can be useful if you want to input the material into an NLE for an offline edit that can later be recaptured at HDV resolution.
The LCD screen on the two cameras is also visibly different, with the Z1U offering 250,000 pixels compared to 123,200 on the A1U. The resolution of HDV and standard DV is indistinguishable on the A1U LCD screen.
However, since the A1U is about half the cost of the Z1U, there are obviously going to be significant differences. It ultimately takes a test to see what the two cameras deliver.
I set both cameras next to each other on tripods on a busy city street and rolled tape simultaneously. First I shot footage in the HDV 1080i mode, then HDV 1080i in Cinemotion 24, and finally standard DV. I then captured the material using Final Cut Pro and set it up for split screen playback.
HDV capture, professional and
HDV1080i, DV, DV SP or DVCAM recording; XLR audio inputs
HVR-Z1U $ 5,946
HVR-A1U $ 3,100
I analyzed the HDV footage first. The image difference between the Z1U and A1U was immediately apparent. The Z1U provided a rather stunning image with excellent detail and very pleasing color rendition.
The A1U, on the other hand, had colors that were paler and detail that seemed artificially enhanced. The image also was highly subject to the "moirŽ effect," which results in distracting horizontal line interaction. The Z1U image had more detail, but appeared to be smoother, while the A1U image was harsher and seemed to have difficulty with narrow lines.
The Cinemotion 24 on both cameras produces an artificially stuttered image that is not a faithful match for true 24 fps capture. It emulates a 3:2 pulldown through a complex process that juggles frames and fields while actually recording at 60i. Personally, I would only use it as an effect, as it is not an acceptable 24 fps look. If you want to shoot true 24 fps, use a different camera.
The difference between the two cameras was less noticeable when comparing standard DV footage. In fact, the material looked almost identical except for the slightly paler color on the A1U. For standard DV, the cameras produce footage that is almost indistinguishable and could easily be intercut.
But one would presumably buy either of these of cameras for the HDV capability. On that level, they are clearly not equivalent.
To put it in simple terms, the A1U has a one-chip look reminiscent of consumer and prosumer cameras. The Z1U is clearly a professional camera engineered for the discerning professional in the broadcast industry.
While the A1U has a one-chip prosumer image, it also has a prosumer layout. In fact, it is basically a prosumer HDV camera with an attachable XLR module. The ability to access controls for iris, shutter, gain and white balance are embedded in menus that tend to default to automatic settings. As a result, it takes considerable effort to put all of those elements in manual mode. The iris and gain are linked, so that increasing the iris beyond a certain point causes the gain to kick in, which can result in a noisy picture.
The Z1U is set up for greater control of iris, gain, shutter speed and white balance. It is designed for the videographer who knows how to use these features, while the A1U is essentially more automated. The A1U also uses a touch screen menu, while the Z1U has a menu controlled by a dial. The Z1U also has essential features, such as white balance, gain and shutter speed, controlled by mechanical buttons on the side of the camera, which are vital for quick access. A nice touch is a physical knob that controls the iris in manual mode, allowing easy and surer control. The Z1U can also run on full auto if desired.
I did one final test to compare efficiency in low light, thinking that this might be an advantage of the A1U and its CMOS imager.
The A1U is designed like other prosumer cameras in that it automatically boosts the gain to compensate for low light. It takes a bit of time to go through the menu and turn off all of the automatic functions, but it can be done. It is much faster and easier to put the Z1U into fully manual mode. Once the cameras were in manual mode, I could compare the images shot in a dimly lit room.
It turned out that the Z1U is actually more efficient in low light. I was able to achieve an acceptable, dark image with the lens at f1.6 and 0 dB gain and a shutter speed of 60. To achieve a comparable image, I had to boost the gain on the A1U to 6 dB, which introduced some noise in the image.
The Sony HVR-Z1U and HVR-A1U are actually cameras in different classes and as such, it is not fair to compare them by equivalent criteria.
The HVR-A1U is half the cost of the HVR-Z1U and basically half the camera. I would call it a consumer HDV camera with XLR audio inputs.
The CMOS chip does not provide an image that rivals the three-chip Z1U. The consumer version of the HVR-Z1U is the three-chip HDR-FX1, and that camera provides a superior image to the one-chip HVR-A1U, although it lacks XLR audio. But if you are looking for a cheaper alternative to the HVR-Z1U, and image quality is the primary criterion, buy the HDR-FX1.
The HVR-Z1U, however, is an excellent camera that is worthy of professional use. It is one of the best HDV cameras available.
When looking at the Sony line, ultimately one has to consider the price and application of the camera.
The HVR-Z1U is a first-class HDV camera for professional use. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to acquire a top quality primary HDV camera.
But the HVR-A1U does offer an interesting option as a secondary camera. It is very small, lightweight and unobtrusive. It could be very useful as a B camera on difficult shoots, or when a camera needs to go unnoticed. It would be a great camera for one to carry while skydiving or skiing. In other words, hazardous sports photography and clandestine activity could be handled well with this camera while the HVR-Z1U covers the majority of the footage.
And I believe that is Sony's intent with the release of this camera as a "professional" model. Footage from the A1U can be mixed with that of a higher quality A camera and offer options to shoot in difficult or extreme conditions.
In fact this is a funny extension of the original logic of using HDV in broadcast. Many stations are using $80,000 full HD cameras for primary acquisition, and HDV cameras such as the HVR-Z1U as a "B" camera. Now Sony has introduced what is essentially a C camera one that can fill in high definition footage under conditions that may require a highly mobile or possibly even a disposable camera.
Low cost options are always good, and Sony deserves praise for pushing the envelope of high definition into extremely cost efficient territory.
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