We have been trying for ages to get our hands on JVC?s HD101E and finally, Mike Jones scored a weekend with one. Here?s what he thinks.
The arrival of the HDV format brings with it an enormous amount of promise and expectation. This promise and expectation extends across the quality and characteristics of the format itself and to the cameras and lenses that acquire it.
With great expectation comes great scrutiny, but so far, virtually all the HDV cameras released to the market have held up remarkably well. Sony?s FX1 and Z1 led the charge and delivered superb bang for buck high quality images in compact and ergonomic packages. Canon answered with the XLH1 and delivered a level of sophistication and control not often seen in cameras under 25k.
But of all these, it might be said that JVC?s GY-HD101E is among the most interesting of the high-end HDV releases. Far cheaper than the Canon XLH1, closer in price to the Sony Z1 but sporting an interchangeable lens system such as that which made Canon DV and now HDV cameras so sort after, the GY-HD101e is a fully professional HDV camera under $10,000 with an enormous amount of shooting flexibility.
Is this the camera to usurp the positions so strongly held by Canon and Sony models? Or do JVC still have some lessons to learn before they can steal some of the thunder?
I suspect JVC did their market research and in particular looked at the Canon XL1 and XL2 and asked themselves the simple question of what was it that made this camera so popular for small and indie production (and even not so small and indie). The answer of course, above all others, was that the XL2 was the only camera in its class with interchangeable lenses and precise lens control. Well it seems JVC have decided to take Canon head-on with a camera to directly compete with the XLH1. In this vein, it certainly is the HD101E?s lens system that is by far the best thing going for it.
The HD101E offers a 1/3inch lens mount compatible with a small but growing number of HD lenses and with a simple 1/3-1/2inch lens mount adapter, the range of configuration options greatly expands.
More than just interchangeable lenses the HD101E offers the only servo driven lens system on a camera anywhere close to this price range. Even the Canon XLH1 costing some $4000 more than the HD101E doesn?t offer this. This lens system uses a small motor to drive focus and zoom resulting in very smooth zooms and focus that match to precise lens barrel markings. Additional to this, the HD101E also offers fixed focus ring adjustment with exact focal length markings. Instead of the usual infinite focus rings of all other current HDV cameras, where the focus ring rotates infinitely and gaining focus is a matter of pure visual selection, a fixed focus ring allows the operator to more finely adjust focus control and set focus to specific focal distances. To see a lens allowing this on a camera under $10,000 is quite remarkable.
The lens quality itself is also outstanding, employing Fujinon glass that provides both excellent clarity and distortion-free images along with good depth of field control from aperture settings given in actual f-stops (rather than the rather arbitrary ?exposure-slider? on many DV and HDV cameras). The lens also has a macro extension ring for pulling focus at very short focal lengths that was also very effective and sharp.
For audio, the twin XLR balanced audio inputs and independent manual level control dials give very good sound options. The supplied shotgun microphone however is a little on the poor side and whilst functional enough, will probably be quickly replaced by experienced users with a Rode or Sennheiser shotgun mic.
One of the features garnering most attention on the JVC is the inclusion of true 24p recording. Niether of the HDV cameras from Sony nor the XLH1 from Canon offer this and it is a feature much sort after by many video makers looking for the closest possible match with that elusive look and feel of celluloid film.
There is much to be debated here of the merits of 24p capture over 25 or 50i. From a purely technical and practical perspective, if the intent is to shoot on HDV but deliver on projected 35mm film for theatrical cinema release, then 24p is a perfect choice as no drop-frame matching techniques are required to conform the original digital footage to the 24fps of film projection.
Likewise, the Progressive manner of capturing and constructing an image is often lauded as much more ?film-like? than Interlaced capture. The reason for this is that the slightly more staccato image movement of progressive scanning, that is not as visually smooth as interlaced fields, gives a more film-like cadence or feel to the motion of the image.
What this indicates is that, ironically, we as audiences actually associate a perception of quality with an image that is actually slightly diminished. 24p is effectively giving up one frame (from the usual PAL 25) and the progressive capture makes the image ever so slightly less smooth.
This prompts the real question of does 24p actually look better? Or is it simply learned behaviour on the part of audiences to associate quality with a particular ?feel?? Some video-makers might ask ?Why throw away a frame for a slower frame rate when you don?t have to??
Certainly the number of productions being shot on HDV and printed back to 35mm film for theatrical release is very, very small. And only a fool would believe that celluloid has any future in the cinema process for either shooting or projection. Going forward, the overwhelming majority of HDV productions will find their audience in the home-theatre where delivery will be in 25 or 50i. Even when projected digitally 25p or 50i is just as easy as 24p. Some supporters of 24p argue that footage shot at 24p can easily be delivered as 25p or 50i in the home and it retains the look of ?film? and so has the best of both worlds. The immediate truth is that JVC are smart to include this feature because they know, rightly or wrongly, it has a popular perception of desirability. But there is an argument to be made that the perception of 24p desirability is actually based on a visual myth. Time will tell.
1080 versus 720
It is here that we have the most interesting element of the HD101E, and more broadly JVC?s unique approach to HDV production in what they call their ProHD line of products, that sets them out on a very lonely limb of the HD tree. The HD standard, developed quite some time ago, allows for two frame sizes ? 1920×1080 pixels and a smaller 1280×720 pixels (generally referred to simply by the last number ? ?1080? and ?720? which indicates the number of lines of resolution vertically).
The original intention of having two formats was first that the smaller one would allow for a stepping stone transition on the way to the full size 1080. As a result most of the HDTV?s sold in the past few years are only capable of 720. It?s only now that we?re starting to see the 1080 HDTV?s as commonly available. The second, was having a smaller frame HD size allowed for a progressive-scan format that wouldn?t require more data-width than the larger 1080 which is interlaced (720p and 1080i). But this isn?t quite the whole story either as there are high-end HD cameras, such as the Sony Cinealta, that shoot 1920×1080 progressive, which is arguably the ultimate destination of HD imagery.
So where does that leave JVC and their choice of 1280×720 over 1920×1080? JVC?s justification is the notion that having progressive scan is worth the sacrifice of a smaller frame size. Sony, and Canon (as well as Panasonic with their alternative DVCProHD format) evidently don?t agree and have all chosen to go 1080 which leaves JVC looking rather lonely.
All that said, JVC aren?t stupid enough to cut their users completely off from options and so the HD101E can record in DV as well as HDV and even output 1080i images to your editing system from the recorded 720p. This is essentially a process of extrapolation where the data captured as 1280×720 is reprocessed and expanded out to the larger 1920×1080 (or 1440×1080 anamorphic). JVC would argue this is the best of both worlds and you can have 1080i if you want it. The truth is that, just as converting interlaced to progressive scan in editing is not really the same as shooting progressive in the camera, so too is making 1080i out of 720p not quite the same result as 1080i direct from the camera. Both will have a different feel and any transcoding from 720 to 1080, or vice versa, is a reprocessing of the image data that is not often desirable.
Will time prove JVC right in their choice of 720 or have they backed the wrong horse in the HD race? Certainly there is always a public perception (arguably arrived at mostly in ignorance) that ?bigger is better? and since the 1080 frame is not only taller but substantially wider this can?t easily be dismissed. Also, 1080i acquisition can, in post-production, be rather easily trans-coded into progressive-scan 1080p. JVC would argue that the resulting image is not the same as capturing progressive in the first place from the camera and this is technically true. There are however a multitude of extremely effective post-production options for creating the look of film and the cadence of progressive scan that many movie makers might opt for in an attempt to have the cake and eat it; 1080 and the look of film, without sacrificing frame size by going with 720.
That said, there?s no doubt that 1280×720 is a big and glorious improvement over the paltry SD resolution of 720×576 and it?s not like you can easily look at a 720 HD image and immediately tell that it?s smaller than a 1080 one.
The bigger question however is whether 1280×720 has any long term future as a HD format? Only time will really be able to answer, but on the face of it, it?s very hard to see anything but natural progression to the larger frame of 1080. This is especially since all the other major camera developers have opted for 1080 and are virtually ignoring 720 except in some cases as an optional extra.
What also must be remembered is the over-arching golden rule when dealing with raster images (those made up of pixels) you can always come down, but you can?t go up. This means that if 720 is the desirable delivery format (as currently many TV stations do) you can easily down-convert in editing 1080i footage to 720p; you?re not trying to create pixels that aren?t there ? which is exactly what you?re doing when you go from 1280×720 up to 1920×1080.
Design and layout
No two ways about it, the HD101E looks and feels like a professional, shoulder-mounted camera. That said it is remarkably lean in weight, the bulk of the unit coming from the lens system which forms more than half the length.
At first the HD101E seemed very poorly balanced and nose-heavy but once a large battery pack is added on the rear of the camera and the shoulder pad slid back to match the user?s arm length this imbalance will be mostly alleviated.
The viewfinder is well positioned but does not offer a flip up option for the eyecup to allow the operator to view the viewfinder image from a distance without having to put their eye to it. Whilst the HD101E has a firm die-cast metal body, it is the fixtures, such as the eyepiece, that let it down. The means by which the eyecup affixes to the viewfinder seemed strangely flimsy and in use it fell off, becoming near impossible to reattach. Unfortunately this was an indicator of a number of elements of the HD101E that just didn?t feel as robust or rugged as they should; perhaps no worse than most cameras but the direct competition of the HD101E – the Sony Z1 and Canon XLH1 – both seemed, from previous reviews and side by side comparison, to be tangibly better in this area, with more robust, less brittle and more streamlined physical design of elements attached to the main camera body.
The alternative preview method comes from the substantial flip-out LCD screen. The inclusion of this adds one more feature on the HD101E which is not available on the Canon XLH1 which goes without an LCD panel. Aside from preview and viewfinder functionality, the LCD makes the navigation of internal menus much easier. That said, the position of the LCD at the very back of the camera body makes it virtually dysfunctional, or at the very least awkward, to use in shooting. Sony?s choice with the FX1 and Z1 to move the LCD to the top-front of the camera seems all the more ergonomic and functional by comparison.
The top handle of the HD101E offers a secondary record function for easy access when shooting underhand from lower angles but JVC have left off a secondary set of zoom controls which are standard addition on virtually all other higher-end SD and HDV cameras. The zoom ring and lever is however well placed on the lens for two-hand operation, so this omission probably wont bother many users.
All other major functions are operated from buttons and dials on the main body and there?s certainly no digging around in an LCD menu to perform the sort of tasks that need to be done on the fly. Here JVC are to be praised for the rather good ergonomics of control placement, which in use generally, seemed to be just where a user would want them to be.
My own expectations were very high for the HD101E; in fact I?d go further and say that deep down I really wanted the HD101E to be amazing! Having previously reviewed the Canon XLH1 and being blown away by its quality but staggered by the rather, to me, obscene price tag, a large part of me really wanted JVC to flip the competition the bird by producing a comparable HDV camera with interchangeable lenses at a far cheaper price.
Has JVC been able to fulfil my dreams?
Shooting with the HD101E presented no real issues. Whilst balance and ergonomics weren?t perfect they were, for the most part, simply the result of trying to make the camera body smaller and leaner which most users are more than happy to have as a trade-off.
Capture however did not prove quite so straight forward. The HD101E was connected in testing to three different editing systems ? Vegas, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro ? and on all three presented some issues. The first was simply camera detection and connectivity which took more than a few camera restarts and plug reconnections. The second, and more worrying, was truncated and corrupted files that would deliver to the computer a complete clip in the length but from which only the first handful of frames had an image, the rest of the clip being blank. The third problem was a tendency for the camera to create timecode breaks and inconsistencies, seemingly when stopped and turned off between shots.
The first problem was solved with repeat attempts but you?d like to think on a premium camera on three of the most popular professional editing systems this wouldn?t be necessary. The second issue was never completely solved. Whilst I did manage to alleviate the problem I still repeatedly was left with corrupted tails on clips captured through basic scene-detection capture. The third issue, that of timecode, was resolved by first striping the blank tapes to lay-down timecode before shooting. Certainly tape-striping is common practice to avoid timecode breaks but it must be pointed out that it is, for the most part, done so that shots can be re-wound and reviewed in-camera on location ? something we did not do in testing. In truth if you?re simply shooting without reviewing, the camera should be able to stop and restart with exact frame-accuracy and not leave a timecode break simply because it was turned off between takes. When even the cheapest consumer camera is capable of this it seems odd that a camera like the HD101E could not in our tests.
I should point out here that the tape used was one supplied by JVC and was brand new out of the packet. Some of the problems mentioned above also might be attributed to dirty-heads, worn-