High-definition video has come of age. If you’re planning to add video production to your creative studio, or upgrade your existing camcorder arsenal, HD is now almost unavoidable, and fortunately, it no longer causes the problems with workflow it once did.
So here we bring together six of the best HD camcorders currently available, with models aimed at a variety of uses. From capturing video for use in your editing and motion-graphics project to full micro-budget filmmaking, at least one of these will fit the bill.
The professional HD camcorder market has changed considerably in the past year. In 2007, all but one of our selection used flavours of HDV recorded to tape. This year, only half do. Of the six models reviewed here, three use solid-state recording systems, one uses a hard disk, and only two offer tape as the sole built-in media option.
Tape’s days are clearly numbered as a primary recording medium. It’s lasted a long time, due to its low cost for large amounts of storage. But tape has disadvantages now that non-linear systems are the norm. When your editing system can randomly access your footage as quickly as you want, in any order you want, having to load it in real-time from a tape becomes a bottleneck in the workflow.
Solid-state systems are basically the same as the media cards used by digital still cameras, but usually larger and faster. The first manufacturer to offer one of these in the sub-£5,000 end of the professional market was Panasonic, with the P2 system found in its AG-HVX200. This houses flash memory in a PC Card format, which theoretically allows you to slip media straight into a reader, and edit straightaway. The card system and MXF format has, however, taken a while to be supported by editing software.
Sony has now joined the fray, although it’s hedging its bets. The PMW-EX1 uses SxS, a solid-state format jointly developed by Sony and SanDisk. It’s based around ExpressCard, a laptop version of the PCI Express expansion system. This directly competes with Panasonic’s P2, and is priced as such. A 16GB SxS PRO card will cost £440; a 16GB P2 is almost £490.
But in its new HVR-Z7E, Sony has also backed an older standard. This offers CompactFlash as a recording option, and with compatible 16GB CompactFlash cards now costing under £100, this looks like a very cost-effective choice. Nevertheless, tape is better for archiving, as it’s cheaper than solid-state memory and degrades more slowly.
Despite the change in recording options, MPEG-2 remains the video compression norm. Even though Sony’s XDCAM EX format uses a MPEG-4 wrapper and MP4 file format, it’s still MPEG-2 inside (albeit of the Long GOP variety). Panasonic’s DVCPRO HD is also MPEG-2 based, as are all flavours of HDV. This is less processor-intensive to edit, and more widely supported.
Although the MPEG-4 H.264 AVC format has made inroads into the consumer space in the shape of AVCHD, it hasn’t yet made an impact at the end of the market covered in this article. We’ve included one AVCHD model that crosses over well for some applications. But AVCHD could become a force in the professional market as well. Towards the end of 2008, Panasonic intends to launch its first AVCHD camcorder, the AG-HMC150 developed specifically for the pro market.
Whether you want something light and cheap, or large, with multiple lens options, we have more than one model to suit you. Prices range from £500 to just under £4,000 – suitable for any budget.
How we tested
To assess these camcorders, we performed a number of real-world tests. First we took each one out for a hand-held shoot, to familiarize ourselves with the controls and handling characteristics. Then we performed two controlled tests, representing the best and worst possible shooting environments. To assess how each camcorder would perform in optimal lighting conditions, we set up brightly coloured objects in a glass-roofed conservatory in the sunniest conditions available. These were shot with the camcorders on fully automatic mode.
Then, after all natural light had faded, we shot a colour-test chart from Belle Nuit Montage, lit only by a single, distant 40W bulb. We set each camcorder to maximum aperture, a 1/25th second shutter speed, with gain manually set to maximum, depending on which gave the best results. Although Lux ratings are usually quoted at 1/50th second, 25p shooting is now a standard feature of virtually all high-end and professional camcorders, making 1/25th a more natural lowest shutter setting.
Editing workflow is also a key consideration with a camcorder, so we also put this to the test. The footage was captured to a PC-based editing system running Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 and Matrox’s RT.X2 editing hardware. We then assessed compatibility and editing performance. We also grabbed sample images from both controlled tests for each camcorder.