The latest HD camcorder from Sony is the HVRA1P. Mike Jones took it out to play for a week.
HD video has arrived? well kind of. Editing systems say they can cut it, the camera shop shelves are filling up with cameras that say they can shoot it, but we?re still waiting on some substantial pieces of the HDV puzzle; namely ubiquitous HD TV sets in every household, some way to deliver HD on a disc (Blu-ray, HDDVD, are you out there?) and, not to mention everyday computers fast enough to manipulate it!
No doubt all these things will become the norm in the very near future but Sony, pushing hard with three HDV cameras now on the market has done its best to make sure you feel the tremendous urge to become an early adopter of the new technology. The latest bait is the new HVRA1P HDV camera; one of the smallest and most inexpensive HD cameras yet made.
The HVRA1P is a camera that at first look seems little different from any other hand-sized camcorder (and indeed shares the same chassis as its compatriot, the Sony HC1). Many cameras are smaller but you would hardly call the HVRA1P big. It is the next in Sony?s HDV camera line and, whereas two of the previous HDV models (the FX1 and Z1) are twice the size and geared more overtly towards the professional end of town and the HC1, the HVRA1P places portability as its prime aspect.
In some ways the HVRA1P is to HDV what the PDX10 was to DV; it carries most of the features of larger camera stable mates in a more compact size and more affordable price point. The HVRA1P offers the same recording options as the Z1 and FX1. At the top end there is of course HDV using the higher of two HD standards, 1080i, which records 1080 horizontal lines presented as two sets of interlaced fields, shown 50 times per second (to make up 25 full frames per second ? same as DV and the standard PAL TV).
The HVRA1P can also shoot, with the flick of a switch, in standard DV mode recording the usual 720 x 576 image we?re all used to. As an added bonus, that will be meaningful to some and meaningless to most others, the HVRA1P can shoot in DVCAM format. DVCAM is a Sony developed variant on the normal DV format that is exactly the same as normal DV except that the tape moves faster through the camera. This means the recorded data is spread out over more tape (subsequently tapes run out quicker) and this is designed to improve tape ?stability? and avoid time-code dropouts. In regards to image quality, DVCAM is identical to DV; the recorded information is exactly the same. In truth I suspect DVCAM is mostly a marketing ploy and more accurately represents the quality and price of the camera in comparison to consumer models rather than any format advantage.
Adding to this flexibility of recording formats is the ability for the HVRA1P to down-convert formats on the fly during capture to the computer editing system. In other words you can shoot HDV 1080i but then capture that signal as standard DV. This is a very smart move by Sony with its HDV range as it effectively means there is no reason (other than price) not to make your next camera a HDV. Even if you don?t have an HD TV or a Blu-ray disc burner you can shoot HDV and then capture, edit and output SD.
This has advantages not just in future-proofing your videos and making them HD ready when the time to go HD comes, but the fact is an HD image down-converted to SD looks significantly better than SD alone. Because the image began with double the resolution and the greater colour depth and accuracy that comes with this, the down-converted image is the best SD picture you?ll get.
The HVRA1P offers a wide range of terminals including all the usual suspects; Firewire for HDV/DV transfer (called i-Link by Sony in a logo/branding effort), analogue A/V, component output, headphone socket and external mic input and USB for transferring still images off the Memory Stick.
The HVRA1P shoots still images, in what is now camcorder standard practice, in resolutions up to 1920 x 1080, which is effectively a two-megapixel photo. No replacement for your dedicated still camera, but none the less a handy feature for a decent-sized image.
The HVRA1P has a very useful Expanded Focus switch which, at a click, snaps to a zoomed in view of your image so you can check if your subject is in focus; something which is often hard to be sure of when shooting from a distance.
There is, as you would hope, a substantial degree of manual control on the HVRA1P over elements such as exposure. This is shown, as with other Sony cameras, as a slider with a centre zero flag so you can selectively and manually under or over expose the image to suit. The downside of this is that Sony has elected not to show these exposure changes in useful f-stop measurements as one would expect on most cameras let alone one with substantial professional leanings. Professional users or photographic enthusiasts will find this very annoying.
What is great, however, in regard to exposure metering on the HVRA1P is the inclusion of live updating histogram. This is displayed in the corner of the LCD screen, giving a read-out of luminance levels within the frame.
The HVRA1P test camcorder came with an external top-mounted audio adapter; indeed the same unit that is bundled with the Sony PDX10. This is an excellent audio interface that provides balanced XLR mic inputs and phantom power for condenser microphones. It attaches to the HVRA1P through the ?intelligent? shoe and so communicates directly with the camera with all its functions, automatically disabling the onboard mic when connected. This unit also comes with short ?shotgun? microphone that gives substantially better audio than any built-in mic. The unit includes a universal mount so you can also attach any ?shotgun? or hyper-cardioid mic you fancy. Audio is virtually without exception the most neglected area of every digital video camera on the market. The inclusion of this unit with the HVRA1P is an excellent choice by Sony.
Design and layout
The HVRA1P is certainly small and lightweight for a camera well suited to professional use; even more so considering it?s an HD camera. The trade-off for this compact chassis however is a certain degree of operational cramping, where function buttons feel somewhat awkward to use. But this is not so much a criticism as a simple trade-off for ultra-portability, and to its credit the HVRA1P makes good use of the small surface area it has to spare.
An effective example of this is the dual-purpose ring that, via a switch, can be swapped from manual focus to manual zoom. On such a small camera it?s not feasible to have separate rings for both these and this is a very effective and functional feature.
That said, there is one major design flaw that, for many pro and enthusiast users, will be a major turn off? The HVRA1P loads tapes from the bottom. Using the camera with a tripod becomes a major pain as it has to be unlocked and removed from both the tripod and tripod plate in order to put a new tape in.
After having designed and manufactured more video cameras than any other company in the world I?m stunned silly that Sony would persist with a bottom loading camera, particularly one that it intends professionals to use as part of its HDV/DVCAM range. It?s a big mistake and one I suspect will impact on take-up sales by pros much more than the company realises.
The other very problematic element of the HVRA1P is the choice (which is part of a trend Sony has shown across its whole range of video cameras) to have all controls accessed from a touch-screen system on the LCD.
Some may like it, Sony seems to think it?s popular, but it can be incredibly problematic. The LCD screen is certainly one of the most fragile and delicate elements of the camera. Push too hard and it can very easily be damaged, the cost of repair of which may border on the cost of replacement. Not to mention the fact that the screen gets very, very grubby as a result of use. The LCD isn?t just a handy feature, it?s the window to seeing what your audience will see; it is the prime compositional tool for the video. Any good camera operator wants two things from their viewfinder: for it to be clean and for it to be accurate. Using it as a touch screen will render it neither of these.
Beyond the physicality of the touch screen, it is also a quite clumsy way of accessing features that would be far more efficiently utilised via the usual buttons and dials. The only upside I see to the touch screen menu system, which is overtly crowded and complex, is that it can be customised to improve efficiency.
A very simple element that many users will be thankful for on a daily basis is the built-in lens cap that opens with the flick of switch from the detachable lens hood. No more losing the lens cap or having it bang about on a string! This too however has a downside in that the bayonet mount lens hood can?t be attached if you use threaded lens filters such as a skylight or UV.
The HVRA1P takes a new approach to image capture and receptor technology (particularly in the context of it being intended in large part for professional use) in that it dispenses with the usual pro standard of a 3CCD array. 3CCD cameras dedicate an individual charge coupled device (CCD) to each of the three colour channels RGB.
Alternatively the HVRA1P instead uses a single CMOS sensor with a 3 million pixel surface area pickup. The advantage with this seems to be the significantly lower power drain. This means the HVRA1P can run longer on a standard battery or use smaller batteries (which form a big chunk of the weight of any camera).
In theory this should, however, mean the HVRA1P?s ability to capture a deep range of colour limited In practice this proved not the case and the HVRA1P can hold its own with any 3CCD camera in its class. Indeed, add all those extra HD pixels and the image is actually superior to just about any similar SD camera for sharpness and clarity.
Having just a single sensor, it was expected the HVRA1P would suffer under low-light but this to proved not to be the case and the HVR-A1P proved remarkably effective under low-light, evening and unlit conditions. There was some chromatic noise in black areas of a low light image but not any more than you get from all compressed digital formats, such as DV and HDV.
Sony is sticking with its partnership with renowned lens manufacturer Carl Ziess and so, despite its size, the HVRA1P has a remarkably good lens. Combined with the expanded focus feature, crisp, sharp focus was available at any focal length.
The auto focus mechanism is likewise very good, being quick and accurate in most lighting conditions. Only under mixed or low-contrast conditions would you have to resort to manual focus. The only drawback of the lens was that its zoom at full wide was not particularly wide and tended to restrict tight indoor spaces somewhat. A wide converter may be a very useful accessory for this camera.
The HVRA1P is yet another camera that greatly blurs (or arguably dispenses with) divisions of ?professional? and ?consumer?. At a price tag of $3,499 it?s not a cheap camcorder, but at the same time its not an inaccessible one and, as a pro featured HDV camera, it?s exceptional value.
Enthusiasts chomping at the bit to get into HDV will take to it with abandon; documentary filmmakers and independent news reporters will also love the HVRA1P because if its bang for buck portability and quality.
But, that said, it?s hard not to feel disappointed by some aspects of the HVRA1P as well. Internally the HVRA1P is excellent. Externally, some simple (but to some users, fatal) design flaws hold it back from true greatness. Deliver us from idiotic bottom-loading tape mechanisms! Likewise, Sony?s insistence on touch-screen controls in place of real buttons and dials could deter or frustrate many users. I do accept however that others may not be bothered by this, and for them this makes the A1P an excellent choice for super portable HD.