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HD on a Budget

HD on a Budget

Articles - Directing

Field testing the JVC GY HD100U.

Six months ago, only two modestly priced cameras meeting the HD standard were available for purchase. Since then, the manufacturing trickle has become a flood. New, modestly priced camcorders have recently become available in both HD and HDV video formats. What’s affordable is often in the eye of the beholder, of course, as is the definition of what is or isn’t HD. Ultimately, the way you plan to exhibit and distribute your video must guide your decisions about where to put your camera budget.

There’s still a lot of confusion about what constitutes a High Definition (HD) camera. Technically speaking, the new HDV format qualifies as HD because of the size of the final image. But the way an HDV camera captures and digitizes your video is very different from a high-end HD unit. For the purposes of this article, I’ll note whether a specific camera captures in HDV or HD. I’ll also be noting whether the new cameras are backwards compatible to standard definition format. Think of standard definition (SD) as what you see on an older television—the issues/61/images captured by a prosumer Mini-DV camera such as the Sony DCR-VX2000.

To compare and contrast high definition cameras, you need a basic understanding of how HDV and HD formats differ (see sidebar). You also need to evaluate several basic features that separate video cameras. Among them:
1. The quality of the lens. More expensive lenses are better.
2. The size of the CCD chips. These tiny photosensitive devices (charge coupled devices) convert light and color information into digital data. Bigger is better.
3. The size of the storage tape or media. Wider tape may hold more data with less compression. On board hard disks can offer even more storage capability.
4. Downward mobility. Can the camera capture and store video in standard definition (720 x 486 pixels) DV format?
5. Special features. More perks such as gamma settings, professional audio inputs and programmable presets add value.
6. Progressive versus interlaced modes. If you’re planning conversion to film later, shooting at a 24p mode makes sense. In this mode, the camera captures every frame in full.

I chose five of the newest and most affordable HD and HDV cameras for your consideration, plus a couple of soon-to-be-released prototypes. Before you buy, be sure to rent your future camera for the afternoon. The $200 is money well spent to avoid the aggravation you’ll have if you buy the wrong equipment. Most rental houses will even let you test a camera for free at their facility.

Resolution Reality Check
Canon XL-H1 Sony HVR-Z1U Panasonic AG-HVX200
 
Resolution Sampling Color
Data Rate Compression
Human Brain 3,000+lines 4:2:2 16+bit 1GBS Depends
Film 4,000+lines 4:4:4 20+BIT 1GBS None $10,000
Viper (HD) 1080 lines 4:4:4 10Bit 2.9GBS None $110,000
HD-Cam/24p 1080 4:2:2 10Bit 140MBS 5:1 $90,000
Digital Beta 525 lines 4:2:2 10Bit 90MBS 2:1 $45,000
HDV 1080i 4:2:0 8Bit 25MBS 22:1 $3,000
Mini-DV 525 4:1:1 8Bit 25MBS 5:1 $3,000
Applea and Oranges. This chart shows some key differences between prosumer level and professional cameras. Data rate refers to how much disk space (in megabits)  is used to store one second of video. Note the compression ratio (the amount of change between the image actually captured by the lens and what ends up on tape) of HDV video. To achieve that level of compression, a lot of color information has to be ignored.
*MBS=megabits per second
Source: Adapted from “Digital Moviemaking” by Scott Billups (www.pixelmonger.com)

Dream in Technicolor
Panasonic AK-HC900 (HD)

Think big. If you want to make your movie with a professional HD camera with a cinema-quality lens features, right now this model is about as economical as you’re likely to find. The AK-HC900 sells for $28,500, and captures true widescreen (16:9 ratio) video in 24 frame progressive mode at 720p resolution. That means the camera captures the complete image each time, using 720 lines of resolution. (A standard definition camera uses 480 lines to capture the same image.) It includes ultra-sensitive 2/3-inch CCDs—making it a good choice for low-light shooting. Unlike lower cost cameras with progressive scan capabilities, this model can capture progressive frames at up to 60fps. That means less unwanted blurring in high action footage.

Ready to Roll
Sony HVR-Z1U (HDV)

Sony has jumped into the HDV camera niche with both feet. This camera, priced at $5,946, includes three 1/3-inch CCDs, built-in microphone XLR audio inputs and a shotgun mic mount—plus a built-in stereo microphone
and more extensive image controls. The fixed lens is of good quality, with 12x optical zoom.

The HVR-Z1U records onto standard Mini-DV tapes in 1080i format at rates of 50 or 60 fields per second. Although the CCDs actually capture only 960 x 1080 pixels, something called “pixel shift” allows the camera to output 1440 x 1080 pixel issues/61/images. The camera also records in standard definition, along with a mode called CineFrame that simulates 24, 25 or 30 frames per second film. This mode captures one of the two interlaced fields from the CCDs, replicates the field and throws the other field out. It then enhances what’s left. In other words, it “fakes” the look of film by throwing away a certain amount of resolution. Be advised that the motion reproduction doesn’t look like film shot at 24 fps—although you may like the way it looks for certain projects. If you’re planning to output to film, you may want to avoid shooting with CineFrame.

The picture quality from the HVR-Z1U is far better than that provided by standard definition Mini-DV camcorders in terms of resolution, but don’t expect a significant increase in color information compared to the Mini-DV format. That said, used with care, these HDV cameras can produce terrific looking issues/61/images for very little money.

Techno-File
HDV vs. HD Formats

Comparing HD and HDV video results is no job for the techno-phobic. But before you shell out thousands for a new camera, here’s the technical lowdown comparing the two formats.

Compression: Borrow and Steal
If you have a television that receives digital cable in HD, you are watching what is in essence the HDV format. Video saved in HDV uses a compression method originally developed for broadcasting television. This method creates issues/61/images 1440 pixels wide. HDV video is captured and edited on your computer in an MPEG-2 format. (The same format you typically use when burning a DVD.) Audio is compressed into an MPEG-1 format. In order to save space, HDV cameras look at multiple frames in your video and compress them into what’s called a group of pictures (GOP).

The first frame, as recorded, contains a complete picture (I-frame). The subsequent frames of video, as recorded, only contain information about the changes from the preceding frame. That’s why an HDV signal fits on a Mini-DV tape. But only the first frame has complete picture information. A typical HDV camera can record a 720p signal at 24, 25, 30, 50, or 60 frames per second; or a 1080i signal at 50 or 60 frames per second.

Compression: Frame by Frame
Cameras shooting in HD formats compress each individual frame separately. That’s one reason you may see differences between video from HD and HDV cameras, despite the fact that both say they are capturing 720p or 1080i.

Resolution: Fudge Factor
The pixel resolution of both HD and HDV video may not match the specifications. HD video recorded at 720p in DVCPro HD, for example, is 960 pixels across by 720 lines. In the same format, the HDV version actually has more horizontal resolution. It records 1280 pixels by 720 lines. The other major HDV format—1080i—as recorded both in HDV and HDCAM is 1440 pixels wide (it’s actually wider, but truncated to fit most TVs.).

Color: Critical Differences?
The HDV format uses a 4:2:0 sampling to acquire color information. Those three numbers refer to the “colorspace” in which issues/61/images are sampled. That format is effectively identical to the 4:1:1 scheme used for a prosumer Mini-DV format. As you might guess, HD cameras retain a lot more color and luminosity information than HDV. HDCAM, for example uses a 3:1:1 sampling; and DVCPROHD is 4:2:2.

Fancy Features
JVC GY-HD100U (HDV)

JVC’s GY-HD100u has some professional features that give it a leg up in the HDV category. The standard package ($5,995) includes an interchangeable Fujinon 16x servo-zoom lens, a shotgun microphone mount (mic not included) and weighs just under seven pounds with batteries. For a whopping $11,995 more, you also can fit it with an optional wide angle Fujinon 13×3.5 HD zoom lens. The GY-HD100U looks like an electronic news gathering (ENG) camera shrunk in half. The ergonomics follow that design model, making this camcorder a comfortable fit on your shoulder.
The camera has three 1/3-inch CCDs that capture issues/61/images 1280 x 720 (in square pixels). Most impressively, JVC’s camcorder can record HDV in 720p at 24, 25 or 30 frames per second. It will also record SD video at 480/60p, 576/50p, 480/60i or in 480/24p or 480/24pa. That means you can still create footage your old nonlinear editing system can handle.

The camera’s menu settings include gamma, color matrix, color gain and phase, detail, black stretch and compress, shutter settings and aspect ratio. Menu settings can be saved and recalled. The GY-HD100U records a true 24-frame progressive image, which makes it easy to output to film, and includes a proprietary motion smoothing feature that softens the stuttering commonly seen in 24p video.

Lord of the Lens
Canon XL-H1 (HDV)

Much loved by the indie crowd for its Mini-DV cameras, Canon now offers a unit at the upper price range ($8,999) in the HDV market. Is the extra cost worth it? My answer would be yes, primarily because of one feature: A built-in HD-SDI output that allows you to record the HD output of this camera directly onto any suitable disk drive or tape drive, potentially delivering a high-resolution image that’s far less compressed than HDV.

The XL-H1 uses three 1/3-inch CCDs to capture 1440 x 1080 non-square pixels and features one of Canon’s gorgeous 20x optically stabilized lenses (which you can easily switch out).

Canon took an unusual approach when trying to emulate the film look that so many shooters want. The XL-H1 records HDV in the 1080i format, but it also records at two other frame rates that Canon calls 30F and 24F. These frame modes were designed to replicate 30-frame and 24-frame progressive capture. But the XL-H1 has CCDs specifically made for interlaced capture. To overcome that obstacle, in frame mode, the CCDs capture at 24 or 30 frames per second instead of 60. The resulting camera output is recorded as 60 interlaced fields. This approach creates an image that looks more like one that is progressive-scanned—but further testing is needed to determine whether 24F is of benefit when outputting the footage to film.

The camcorder weighs 8.3 pounds with its built-in shotgun microphone and battery. The body of the camera is identical to Canon’s XL-2, so the unit ends up being a bit front heavy. But a comfortable shoulder brace can help balance this camera.

The XL-H1 has some other interesting features. For example, it can simultaneously record still issues/61/images, stored onto memory cards, as you’re shooting HDV. “Console,” an optional Windows-only program ($599) provides remote control for all the camera’s functions. The 1080/60i footage shot for the camera’s introduction is some of the best-looking interlaced HDV footage I’ve seen. Canon also showed a program shot in 24F mode, recorded onto DVCPro HD via the HD-SDI output. Motion reproduction appeared similar to Canon’s frame mode on its SD cameras. The lens clearly makes a significant difference in the image quality.

Beyond Tape
Panasonic AG-HVX200 (HD)

With this cutting-edge camera, Panasonic is edging into the “tapeless” future. In some ways, the HVX200 resembles its HDV competitors. It has three 1/3-inch CCDs and a fixed 13x zoom lens. This camera, however, captures in HD—not HDV format, onto P2 memory cards (similar to the ones you might use in a digital still camera). That’s why it’s priced at $9,995, almost double what some HDV models are going for. That price includes two 8-gigabyte P2 memory cards, each of which can store 40 minutes of 720/24p footage or 16 minutes of 1080/24P footage. This use of memory cards also gives the HVX200 the ability to capture variable frame rates and lower the amount of storage required. You can record at 12, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 30, 32, 36, 48 or 60 frames per second when in the 720p format. (This is currently the only HD camera under $10,000

capable of variable frame rate capture.) HD footage can be stored on the P2 cards in many flavors: 1080/60i, 1080/24p, 1080/30p; or the 720p formats: 720/60p, 720/24p, 720/30p.

Also, in HD mode, you get four channels of uncompressed audio, recorded at 16-bit 48kHz sampling. The camera’s FireWire or USB ports allow you to offload the P2 cards to portable hard drives. Alternately, you can insert them into a laptop and copy the files directly to the hard drive. You’ll need a system to manage storage, such as taking a laptop on location with you so you can dump video onto it and reuse the P2 cards during the day.

The camera does include a Mini-DV tape drive, but it records in SD only. That’s not a bad feature. It makes the camera multipurposed—suitable for shooting basic video now, but ready for your HD feature later.

The HVX200 comes standard with a built-in stereo microphone and battery and weighs 5.8 pounds.

New Prototypes

Two other cameras that will be available this spring hold promise for moviemakers, although the price tags are considerably higher (both are under $20,000 without a lens) than most of the cameras profiled here. These cameras have great potential benefits for serious shooters, including larger CCDs, better quality lenses and the ability to record on inexpensive media.

Sony PDW-F330 XDCAM HD (HDV-plus)

Sony’s new HD camera records 1080i (60 or 50) signals directly onto inexpensive optical discs. The camera has better imaging capabilities than most low-cost challengers, thanks to three 1/2-inch CCDs. Image data is recorded in the same manner as HDV, although audio is recorded uncompressed (four channels) with 16-bit 48kHz sampling. The use of HDV capture might be considered a liability, given the camera’s professional price tag. But fortunately this unit offers selectable compression rates: 18Mbps, a variable bit rate that’s more compressed than HDV; 25Mbps, a constant bit rate that matches HDV; and 35Mbps, a variable bit rate with less compression than HDV. That last option will likely be the one of most interest to moviemakers. The camcorder also records 1080/24p or 1080/25p, although it’s not clear at this time how those modes will work. An optical disc ($30) holds 60 minutes of HD at 35Mbps and twice that at the 18Mbps setting.

The editing system manufacturers currently supporting XDCAM will be supporting XDCAM-HD. Fujinon and Canon will be offering professional ENG-style zoom lenses for this camera. A lens adapter ($750) to mount cinema-style HD primes and zooms (designed for 2/3-inch CCDs) is available.

Thomson Infinity Digital Media (HDV-plus)

Thomson’s Infinity camcorder records 1080i (60 or 50) and 720p (60 or 50) directly on to Iomega removable disks or compact flash cards. The ability to record onto removable hard disks is a major plus. A 35GB Iomega disk costs just $60 and holds 45 minutes of HD footage. An 8GB flash card will hold 10 minutes. Images also can be digitized in two different formats. The first is an HDV-like MPEG-2 format. The second employs JPEG-2000 compression. The advantage of using JPEG-2000 is that you end up with a 10-bit, 4:2:2 color sampled image instead of the 8-bit, 4:2:0 used in HDV. That should provide a major advantage over HDV with regard to accurately maintaining the color and luminosity of the original image. It will also help with post-production tasks such as chromakeying.

The Infinity camera has other professional advantages that should enhance the final product. Most notably, it includes three 2/3-inch CCDs with digital pixel management. And the camera automatically remaps the pixels on the CCD when you switch from 1080 to 720 shooting mode. That ensures that the entire area of the CCD always captures the image. Lenses are interchangeable as well. A standard B4 lens mount provides access to all of the professional HD lenses. The issues/61/images from this camera—judging from the specs, as there are no working cameras yet—could be spectacular. We live in interesting times. MM

 

Robert M. Goodman has over 20 years of experience in film and video production. He’s the author of the Goodman’s Guide To (www.goodmansguide.com) series of field manuals for cinematographers (AMGMedia Publishers, 2004/2005), co-author of Editing Digital Video (McGraw-Hill, 2002) and producer of Stone Reader, a critically-acclaimed, nonfiction feature, now available on DVD at www.stonereader.net.

Matthew Power is in independent moviemaker living in Portland, Maine. He writes MM’s “In Gear” column.

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