Mike Jones has had a play with one of Canon?s latest. Read what he thinks and why.
We love our digital video cameras; one look through the window of your local electronics store will attest to the fact that we must. Not a just a few models to choose from; there is, rather, a host of cameras of all shapes and sizes. New cameras are released on what seems like a daily basis and where most consumer markets would either plateau or bottom out, the market for cameras just seems to keep growing.
So it is, into this environment, that the MVX40i is thrust; a new edition in Canon?s consumer DV camera line-up. Canon has a reputation for some of the finest and most popular still cameras around (professional SLRs and consumer happy snappers alike). Likewise their DV cameras at the pro/enthusiast end such as the 3CCD XM2 and XL2 are very much the cameras to which others are compared. At the consumer DV end however the competition field is significantly tougher, the likes of Sony, JVC, Samsung and Panasonic command substantial market-share and have over the last year released some superb cameras. So what does Canon?s MVX40i offer and how does it stack up?
In truth is the MVX40i doesn?t offer anything that can really be called new or unique in the way of features, instead what it does endeavor to offer is a camera with all the usual trappings delivered to a very high standard in a concise package.
The MVX40i?s most significant claim to fame is its true widescreen recording option. Any given camera off the shelf will give some sort of setting for shooting in a 16:9 aspect ratio but in actuality this is most often simply a standard 4:3 image with black bars at top and bottom; you end up with 30% less image space and could be forgiven for thinking what?s the point? Not so with the MVX40i?s true widescreen which, through some clever pixel juggling, is able to make better use of the CCD?s surface area and deliver a true, uncropped, 16:9 widescreen image contained within a standard definition signal.
Arguably a good yardstick to measure the value of a camera (or software for that matter) is its ability to do the job you want it to do but also to grow with you as your confidence and skills increase. The MVX40i is certainly this. Put it on full auto and absolutely everything will be taken care of to good standard. But cameras are not intelligent beings and camera work can always be improved with manual control. Here the MVX40i offers excellent manual controls; from a solid lens mounted focus ring (not always the case in many modern cameras), to exposure control, shutter speed and manual audio level setting. Similarly the MVX40i also has plenty of input and output terminals including analogue A/V, USB (for stills), Firewire, headphone, S-video and the all important mic input which far too many modern consumer DV cameras seem to leave off of late.
As with most DV cameras the MVX40i presents itself as viable digital still image camera as well. Whilst this will never truly be a replacement for a dedicated still camera it is, nonetheless, a very functional option. Still images can be captured at 1632×1224, a respectable 2.2 megapixels. Canon?s website claims this can give you prints at A4 size but this is highly ambitious unless you?re into image artifacts and pixelation as an aesthetic choice. But certainly the images will make perfectly acceptable postcard size photos and be great viewed on screen in slideshows.
As nice bonus on the MVX40i you don?t see everyday on DV cameras moonlighting as still cameras is a self-timer for still photos to avoid leaving the poor cameraperson out of every shot. Similarly there is also a forward mounted flash.
In a smart move, that again not every manufacturer is making standard, the MVX40i has analogue A/V input as well as output meaning the camera can function as an analogue to digital converter. If you?ve got an old Hi-8 or VHS-C camera and tapes, this is the cheap and effective way to transfer to digital. Canon also goes a step further by making A/D converter a pass-thru to signal can be converted on the fly.
Many cameras have built-in video effects that can be selected prior to shooting but rarely do these effects move beyond a status of dreadfully tacky. Certainly the MVX40i has a few of these but it also a few that are rather good and, dare we say it, useful. If you plan to be editing your video in post production then you wouldn?t touch any of these effects with a barge pole; there?s nothing in the camera that cant be done better in a software editing system (along with the ability to ?undo?). But if you don?t plan to edit these effects become quite valuable, in particular the Low Sharpening and Soft Skin Detail effects work well to soften and smooth the oftentimes harsh contrast of the DV format.
Design and layout
As technology moves forward and cameras get smaller and smaller there is an increasingly strong ergonomic argument for keeping some bulk in the camera. Larger cameras are often distinctly easier to operate, easier to hold steady, potentially more robust and resistant to knock and bumps. The MVX40i is in this category. Whilst certainly being small – smaller than your hand – it still feels like a sturdy little camera with a good weight to it that makes getting steady shots much easier than it would be in a lighter pocket-sized camera. The downside is that the camera is quite large enough and a bit square in shape and so the grip can feel quite awkward to users with large hands, as it?s really only the length of the fingers that are doing the gripping. Hand cramp after a while can be an issue but this can?t be said to be unique to the MVX40i and is the common trade off for smaller cameras.
The layout of 80% of DV cameras available follows a traditional underhand grip, fingers pointing up and wrapping around the grip body of the camera. This long-standing approach is arguably the legacy of shoulder mounted cameras and is not a particularly steady or comfortable way to hold a non-shoulder mounted camera. The industry is crying out for a rethink of camera design. But, having said that, the MVX40i makes very efficient use of space and doesn?t over crowd its controls.
The main controls on the MVX40i will look familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a Canon camera, still or video. Canon has developed, over a long period time making cameras, a consistent and proven effective system of controls. They?re easy to find and easy to use. If you?ve used a camcorder before you probably won?t need the manual.
The smartest move in the MVX40i?s control layout is the choice to place a great many of the most common functions as buttons and dials rather then LCD menu functions as it makes the camera far more efficient to use in the field and in the moment.
A single universal dial control for selecting elements such as menu commands is located at the front left of the camera rather than the rear as it is on many cameras (particularly those from Sony and Panasonic). This is a good move that?s more effective to the camera?s size and very comfortable to use in a two-handed fashion.
The results of any test of performance needs to be examined in the context of cost, functions the device was designed to deliver and the type of user it was intended for. The MVX40i is a camera for the average punter who wants to get good images and is enthusiastic enough to maybe want to take some manual control in order to get the best image they can. In this regard, and with the competitive price tag of $1599, the MVX40i performed very well.
Any camera is only ever as good as its lens. Pixels and CCD?s are secondary because if the light getting to them is full of aberrations, distortions or lacking in clarity then all the pixels in the world aren?t going to compensate. Canon, it just so happens, is famous for their lenses. In particular their Fluorite lenses, as used on their XM2 and XL2, are arguably the some of the most praised in the video world. In the past however Canon?s consumer DV camera end hasn?t had the shared the same quality as their bigger brothers and with Sony and Panasonic employing famous lens makers such as Leica and Carl Ziess, the competition was stiff. With the MVX40i, Canon has improved the quality of their smaller lenses and the MVX40i was able to deliver excellent clarity and evenly saturated colour right to the edges of the frame.
The 200x digital zoom is little more than a marketing ploy executed by all camera makers. Digital zoom just makes pixels bigger, destroying image clarity, and so should be turned off and left off. The 10x optical zoom however in the MVX40i performed quite well dropping down just two f-stops from full wide to full zoom and so holding onto as much light as possible even shooting at a distance. As well the zoom control was able to, as long as you were careful, zoom very slowly towards as subject. This is something many other cameras in the same range cannot and certainly makes for more professional looking images.
In manual mode, the aperture range of the MVX40i is really quite good for a camera of this type, from 1.8 ? 8. Granted this range is electronically assisted but it is nonetheless effective for giving the user some control over depth of field. Not something DV cameras have been traditionally good at doing.
The make or break element for any consumer DV camcorder is its ability to handle low light and the MVX40i did remarkably well in this regard. Sure there was some chromatic noise present, but it wasn?t overwhelming. The night-mode was exceptional in getting a good, clear, illuminated image in near darkness. The trade off of course is that the shutter speed is so slow that you can?t move the camera or have the subject move. Still, the clarity of the image was surprisingly good for a camera of this size and price.
Many cameras offer scene modes with preset parameters for given lighting conditions or subject. In many cameras these are a bit gimmicky with little difference between them and their effectiveness in comparison to full automatic mode. But on the MVX40i they allow for a great deal of flexibility and aesthetic choice without having to go full manual. Going further the MVX40i also offers a range of Special Scene modes that are more specific, such as Fireworks, Spotlight, Sunset, Beach, Snow and Foliage, and most of these are really quite effective as semi automatic selections.
One drawback noticed with the MVX40i was that in some conditions it was quite slow to white balance or to reset its white balance when lighting conditions changed (such as moving indoors from outside). Auto white balance can be generally a hit and miss affair under mixed lighting but on the upside the MVX40i gives a wide range of white balance options that go well beyond the usual indoor and outdoor options on most cameras. The MVX40i offers the usual Tungsten (indoor) and Daylight (outdoor) settings as well as four others – shade, cloudy, fluorescent (forever the bane of the video maker) and fluorescent H for warmer fluoros. There is also a fully manual white balance setting if you happen to carry a white balance card with you.
The great neglected element of video production is of course sound. Many scientific studies have shown that up to 70% of the information we take in from the world around us is aural. Sad it is then that the sound recording element of DV cameras are most often half-baked at best. Alas the MVX40i follows suit in this regard with just about every other camera in this price bracket by having a very poor inbuilt microphone. A narrow dynamic range, poor sensitivity and a tendency to introduce a substantial amount of gain noise makes the MVX40i?s mic pretty ordinary. That said, it?s arguably no worse than other cameras in its bracket.
Making up for this a little, is a quite effective manual recording level adjustment that, if used carefully in controlled environments, greatly helps avoid clipping and gain noise in times low sound level. Having this level controllable at one-touch from a dial on the camera rather than having to dig through a screen menu to get to it is also a very smart move.
The MVX40i does offer an electronic windscreen filter for reducing wind noise but this proved to be largely ineffectual on anything more than gentle breeze. Moreover, leaving it on when shooting indoors greatly reduced the mic?s sensitivity.
Any way you slice it the MVX40i is a quality camera. It works well, its easy to use, it has lots of options and it has the potential to grow with the user?s abilities. It?s not perfect and improvements can still be made but generally the drawbacks in the MVX40i are the drawbacks in all cameras of its type. Bang for buck the MVX40i competes very well with any camera in its class.