Technology seminar: Cameras

Let's think back in time, way back to the halcyon days of NAB2005. Affordable HD was all the rage and coming on strong, specifically HDV. This substantially compressed long-GOP DV variant was loudly touted to shooters as “high-definition image acquisition for the rest of us.” At NAB2006, the HDV juggernaut continued to assert itself, of course, especially in the more capable models from JVC. But in general, HD, from a broadcast shooter's perspective, reflected a new dynamic.

The transformed HD landscape featured the former cinema-oriented wündergear of past years — the Thomson Grass Valley Vipers, Panasonic VariCams and Sony F900s — recast as new products with increased relevance and accessibility for broadcast shooters and professionals. From the lower end of the spectrum, a comparable trend could be observed as last year's prosumer-targeted HDV gear acquired more professional capabilities, such as HD-SDI output and 60p image acquisition. Who could have envisioned that ENG shooters would warrant such consideration at this year's show?

At NAB2006, one thing was apparent: We broadcast shooters of the world are the mainstream now. On the other hand, maybe we always were.

Moving upmarket

Looking at HD from a prosumer perspective, JVC introduced the next iteration of its GY-HD100U. Moving clearly upmarket, the company released the GY-HD200U and GY-HD250U models with 60p capability. The HD250U also sports broadcast features, such as HD-SDI with embedded audio, time-code synchronization and genlock.

Canon initiated the movement to HD-SDI in its XL H1 model introduced last November. This marked the first time that on-board uncompressed HD output was offered in a modestly priced, small-format HD (actually HDV) camcorder — and the company continued to tout the camera's HD-SDI feature at this year's show. As many of us in the broadcast industry understand, HD-SDI opens up a plethora of switching and compositing options and signifies greater integration potential in low- to medium-sized studio facilities.

Speaking of facilities, HD integration into existing SD studio environments is facilitated in the JVC HD250U because the camera shares the same 26-pin connector used by the company's previous lineup of non-HD CCUs and related gear. This key compatibility obviates much of the hassle and expense one would normally associate with transitioning a facility into the HD realm.

The upmarket trend at JVC is reflected as well in the company's latest models featuring 60p image acquisition. The higher frame rate can often improve the look of an HD field recording as it provides much smoother motion for action news and sports events.

Filling the HD need

The mainstream HD movement at NAB2006 was also evident in Sony's new XDCAM HD models. Exhibiting many similarities to HDV, including a reduced 4:2:0 color space, the PDW-330 and PDW-350 models recognize the ENG and EFP shooters' need for a rugged image acquisition tool at a reasonable cost. For many, tapeless acquisition in HD will for many reasons swing towards Sony's blue-laser recorded disc. Therefore, the XDCAM models featured at this year's show could play a major role as the impetus for HD news and workflows takes hold.

Sony's XDCAM HD models illustrate that HD cameras are transitioning to the more mainstream broadcast markets. Sony, with respect to its ENG cameras, appears to be migrating to the smaller, more economical 1/2in camcorder models. This downsizing of the camera imager and higher compression of the MPEG-HD codec offers considerable price and weight advantages over the company's top-level HDCAM gear, which has been a favorite of EFP and long-form independent producers for years.

The smaller imager in the XDCAM HD models may have a less-than-favorable effect on depth of field, however, so maintaining appropriate selective focus with respect to background sharpness could become more challenging for shooters. Nevertheless, I'm first to admit that many of my ENG brethren never give much thought to such cinematic notions as selective focus, depth-of-field control and off-speed recording.

Speaking of which, the PDW-F350 allows off-speed recording from 4fps to 60fps, the effect of which can be played back in the camera's VF without the need for an external frame converter. Both new XDCAM HD models can record 1080i60, 1080i50, 1080p30, 1080p25 and 1080p24, so PAL standard-definition compatibility is assured. User selectable bit rates for HD recording range from 18Mb/s to 35Mb/s. At 18Mb/s, the camcorder can record more than two hours of HD (albeit with greater compression) on a single 23GB disc.

With the emergence of Sony's XDCAM HD models, a new lineup of 1/2in broadcast lenses was also introduced. Both Fujinon and Canon announced new smaller-gauge objectives.

Fujinon showed a versatile 16X zoom equipped with a 4.6mm wide-angle and built-in 2X extender. The company's 13X super-wide angle is designed specifically for the harried ENG shooter, who often shoots in cramped quarters like inside moving vehicles or ridiculously tight production trailers.

Joining the fray

Panasonic joined the rush to the HD mainstream with the introduction of the AJ-HDX900 camcorder, the heir apparent to the highly rented standard-definition SDX900 camera. The commercial-grade HDX900 camera is built like a tank, features the latest 2/3in imager, extreme low-light sensitivity and 24p recording.

This is a lot of camera at this price point, a clear effort by Panasonic to take control of the critical middle ground by usurping many technological advances of its higher-level VariCam models. The HDX900 does not include the adjustable frame rate capabilities of the much pricier AJ-HDC27H, but the look of the new camera's pictures — if the company's current HDX400 is any indicator — will likely be groundbreaking.

Of course, the AG-HVX200 bandwagon just keeps on rolling with tens of thousands of units reportedly shipped and many more still on backorder. In the mainstream ENG space, the company introduced the AJ-HPC2000, its first P2-based HD camera with five P2 slots and FireWire/USB 2.0 outputs. The ruggedness of the recording system, having no moving parts, makes P2 attractive for ENG and EFP shooters who are prone to operating in perilous or extreme atmospheric conditions.

Going mainstream

The push into the HD mainstream for broadcast shooters is perhaps best illustrated in the open-source Thomson Grass Valley Infinity camera. The absence of a proprietary image capture and recording media gives shooters enormous flexibility for optimal integration into any station or production facility's workflow.

The camera is built around Grass Valley's high-end Viper and advanced JPEG 2000 compression scheme (the same codec used in Digital Cinema). The Infinity embraces the industry's established I/O protocols, including Gigabit Ethernet, MXF, FireWire and recording to standard Flash memory or readily available Iomega drives.

As shooters in the burgeoning HD mainstream, we must remember our image acquisition tools are only the beginning of a long, creative, data management process. The Infinity looks to be the best indicator yet of the inexorable trend towards a more IT-based workflow. The camera is positioned in the thick of the competition price-wise. And its open design places it optimally for ENG, EFP or literally whatever creative space you aspire to work in.

Hail the mainstream HD shooter

Across the spectrum of camera manufacturers at this year's show, the concerted push into the broadcast HD mainstream was evident and will surely yield enormous dividends for shooters. For years, camera manufacturers seemed more concerned about appealing to the low-end prosumer, designing and building inexpensive gear that lacked robustness and brains. That changed at NAB2006, and we found such promising trends as Ikegami bringing the virtues of a 1000-line CMOS imager to its Editcam HD line.

These developments in imager technology hold major promise for all of us who slave away daily in the industry trenches. As more of us in the mainstream migrate to HD news and long-form programs, we can increasingly avail ourselves of the ever more capable and robust ENG and EFP cameras at reasonable price points.

We've got the tools now. We've got the power. Now let's go shoot HD!

Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer with more than 20 years experience in feature films, documentaries and music videos. He is currently serving as a digital media expert and consultant to major studios. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from CMP Books