If you want your film to look good in front of an audience of thousands, these are the cameras you should be using.Tropfest, the biggest amateur short film festival in the world, is fast approaching. Entries close on 10 January 2008. To help you prepare, this HD corner I’ve tested the four best prosumer cameras available to give you an idea of what to shoot on if you’re serious about your entry.
Although your script will ultimately make or break your film, the kind of equipment you choose to shoot on will matter to your audience (of several hundred thousand).
A prosumer camera can make the difference between a semi-professional piece of cinema and the audience wondering why something that looked like it belonged on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos managed to include drama and run for seven minutes.
Remember: the camera is only one element in a production. Unless you’re going guerrilla, you’ll need a tripod, lights, microphones and competent actors. Luckily, I’ve listed rental outlets, where available, as well as suppliers, but I’m afraid you’re on your own with that last item.
When you’re telling your story, make it original. It may seem obvious, but over the last few years entrants have been disqualified for cheating, and there has been a plagiarism scandal. If you’re interested all you’ll need is a simple search string. The words “Snakepit” and “An Imaginary Life” will help.
A favourite of Cinematographers, and my new weapon of choice
All other cameras here record 25Mb/s HD to tape. The HVX instead uses P2 cards (four SD cards in a PCMCIA housing) to record 100Mb/s HD footage. To manage that kind of workflow, you’ll need one GB of storage for every minute you shoot, a good editing program and Barry Green’s HVX Bootcamp DVD (tinyurl.com/2rsmoa). The system gives spectacular colour with better subsampling than HDV, which makes green screen work a pleasure and gives you more latitude for colour correction during post-production.
In 720p mode it gives you a choice of frame rates between the undercranked 12 frames to the overcranked 50 frames. When used correctly, this allows silky slow motion or Benny Hill speed from within the camera, without the ugly interpolation artefacts that editing programs add.
Its vast army of image control options can be saved and loaded as profiles to an SD card. These picture profiles are frequently traded within online communities, and are a good way of synchronising settings between cameras.
For these and a myriad of other reasons, it’s the cinematographer’s camera of choice. Its focus isn’t quite as sharp out of the box as some of the other HDV cameras here, but the image quality is astounding; even without the various lens adapters. By default, it produces images with a slightly warm red cinematic feel to them and a smorgasbord of gamma curves allows you to modify this to your own taste.
This is a shiny golden God of a camera. Donations to the "Buy Dave An HVX So He Doesn't Have To Keep Hiring It" fund are now being accepted.
Hire: Oz Cam Rentals
Ease of Use: 4/6
It’s a lightweight pro camera in the same sense that a deep fried low fat mars bar is healthy
The A1 represents the budget range of Prosumer HD cameras, and lacks some of the hardcore connectivity features of its bigger brother, the HX-G1. However, it contains the same electronics, optics and options for a price that’s thousands less.
The main operation dial resembles a still camera, which makes it very easy to use; however, if you want more control, almost every aspect of the camera can be tuned to your liking using the customisation menu. Adjusting the 23 picture options, 20 functionality options and 21 usability options is straightforward using the logically laid out matrix – all possible selection options are numbered and labelled. All these settings can be saved as a profile to an SD card.
Out of the box, its optics are the best in show, with minimal chromatic aberration and very sharp images. At 20X, it also boasts the best zoom here, although you’ll need both a sturdy tripod and a steady hand if you want to use this to its full potential. Lens controls are mostly excellent; three large dials around the lens control the servo driven zoom, focus and iris.
The A1’s only drawbacks are slightly fiddly shot transition options. Unlike the Sony Z1, you can only set the zoom or focus value through slide switches near the lens.
A cool feature is the inclusion of a pseudo-progressive mode, which writes a single frame to two consecutive fields on the tape. Although the effect is very convincing, it isn’t quite as effective as cameras that offer true progressive scan.
Hire: Not yet available
Ease of Use: 5/6
A camera that provides good images in a user-friendly package
The Z1’s form factor has come to characterise the HDV movement largely because the F1, Sony’s consumer grade cousin with which it shares a chassis, was the first HDV camera to be released to the market.
The professional Z1 followed soon afterwards, bringing with it XLR inputs and more image control options that have helped it become a favourite for documentary makers. The other factor is its simplicity compared to some of the other models available. Using it is by no means a cakewalk; however, it manages to do away with many of the vertigo-inducing array of options seen on other cameras, making it the most user-friendly of the bunch.
The Z1’s excellent and easy to use shot transition feature can apply delay, speed, and soft stop options to the zoom and focus settings. Automatic focus is effective in all but changing lighting conditions during dark scenes. Its images tend ever so slightly toward blue, but delicate colour correction in post-production can change this.
Like all the cameras here it’s still quite weighty, but it feels better balanced than the others on test, which is good news if you plan on shooting a skate film, a documentary or going guerrilla. It may be better suited to a simpler point and shoot style, however, it still provides all the fundamental manual controls you need for your shots, which on the whole look very good indeed.
A good camera; but not one for the tweakers amongst us.
Ease of Use: 6/6
A great camera if you can get your hands on some extra lenses
While all the cameras here can be used to create broadcast-worthy footage, the JVC’s layout and features more closely resemble a broadcast camera than the competition. It’s the only camera in this roundup to both work as a shoulder mount camera and feature interchangeable lenses; which is good news for professionals.
Although it records to MiniDV tape, it uses JVC’s ProHD format to do so. It’s almost identical to the HDV format used by many other cameras here, except it can support 24-frame recording in 720p. This is the same frame rate as film, and the result is a similar look and feel (as opposed to a TV look and feel that other cameras give you) without the insane resolution of film.
Resolution certainly isn’t everything though, and the JVC’s footage is often used to give the feel of film on budget productions or where a larger camera would be impractical. Like most cameras here it too provides a bevy of image controls. Like the Panasonic, the JVC’s focus assist system highlights the edges of whatever subject is in focus, although the JVC does a better job.
It struggled a little trying to pick up detail in shadows, and fast pans in 24p mode won’t look as smooth as at faster frame rates. If this is a problem, the more expensive HD-250 is available which can shoot in higher frame rates, but editing its footage is cumbersome.
If you want a film look without resorting to post-production trickery and a reasonably easy capture process, this is the camera for you.
Ease of Use: 4/6