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I wrote this article back in 1997 (when I first went freelance). So, I suppose it is a bit out of date. That said, some of the points are still relevant and may make you think about what features need to be considered. If you have a VX1000 I still have my old training manual on this site. For more info on buying a camera kit try my buying guide.


by Christina Fox

The picture quality of the consumer digital video format is so good that many broadcasters are looking to it to provide a low cost acquisition format. Already an increasing number of programmes are shot on DV, and its suitability for news production is being tested by stations across Europe. But just how suitable is it for a fast moving and demanding environment like news, where it is also being subjected to use by a new breed of video journalists let loose on camera equipment for the first time. We asked Christina Fox, who devised and runs the BBC’s video journalist training courses, to give us an assessment of the top two consumer DV cameras, as being used in its regional trials.

ONE of the courses I used to run at the BBC, for news and current affairs staff, was how to operate a Hi-8 camera. Now, as part of the BBC’s move to digital operation, and the introduction of new ways of working, we’ve upgraded to digital video cameras. As 99 per cent of those coming on the courses are journalists with non technical background, including some who have only ever worked in radio, I’m happy to ditch the domestic Hi-8 cameras that were both fiddly and flimsy, in favour of the new breed of digital cameras.

As the London-based news programmes have standardised on the Sony VX1000E, so the journalist training department have bought eight Sony cameras. While, in four of its regions, the BBC has recently started a pilot to test new ways of working and the suitability of both the VX1000E and the Panasonic EZ-1 DV cameras.

This early in the training stage, the cameras have had little serious use, but we have already encountered problems. In Sony and Panasonic’s defence, these cameras are made primarily for amateur video enthusiasts willing to shell out over two grand to feed their digital habit. But, the largest buyers of these types of cameras to date are broadcasters who want to give journalists and production staff inexpensive lightweight kit. If manufacturers had woken up to that they might have come up with slightly different products at very little extra cost.

The first reaction to either camera is "it’s so light". Luckily the euphoria soon wears off and reality sets in. Hand held work with these types of lightweight cameras invariably means unsteady camerawork as arms get tired - to compensate both Sony and the Panasonic have included anti-wobble devices. The Sony method is far better; it actually works and there is no loss in picture quality. What I don’t understand is why all the other manufacturers haven’t copied it and why it is an option - all our VX1000E users leave it permanently switched on. In comparison the Panasonic stabiliser is ineffective and results in unacceptable loss of picture quality - they call it an image stabiliser, perhaps image degradiser might be more appropriate. When I teach groups to use the Panasonic I tell them not to use it. The solution? Call me old fashioned but I still think that a good tripod is the best method for acquiring usable steady shots, smooth panning and tilting. Unfortunately the move to cheap cameras has lead to a buying frenzy of equally cheap tripods unfit for the job. Make a Vinten salesman happy, choose something from their Pro-Touch Lightweight systems range.

The second reaction I get from course participants is "great, a colour viewfinder". I understand why manufacturers offer them to amateur users who are liable to forget that all important white balance. Consumers vote with their cheque books and give colour viewfinders 10 out of 10 for novelty value. I prefer one that is monochrome, as one of the most important functions of the viewfinder is to aid focusing - and these colour viewfinders do not. Luckily, with the VX1000E you can access the camera’s menu and deselect the colour option, improving your chance of getting shots in focus. Even if you do opt for the Sony’s colour viewfinder, you do have the bonus of a "push auto" focus button. With this you can use the camera’s auto focus momentarily to check focus on your subject, then compose the shot. For the amateur it’s invaluable. Unfortunately, with the EZ-1 the colour viewfinder is the only option. Bottom of the class for Panasonic.

Having used a Beta camera for some years, I’ve come to expect zebra stripes as an aide to setting exposure. The EZ-1 comes without them, which begs the question: how exactly is the amateur user supposed to get the exposure correct? Link that to a viewfinder brightness wheel that is very easy to knock and you have a recipe for disaster. To stop trainees from having to guess the exposure, I get them to put a bit of gaffer tape across the viewfinder brightness control to prevent it being accidentally adjusted. Then they switch the camera to auto iris to get the exposure about right and then back to manual to do a fine tweak. This is a bit of a rigmarole but it’s better than staying permanently in auto iris. Once again Sony wins hands down; zebra stripes are one of the menu options, which amateurs can turn off if they prefer their camera in auto.

At the BBC most of our journalists are bi-media, working across radio and television. So, it is likely that if they use the camera to gather a story, the sound they have recorded could be used for radio too. Unfortunately, for both manufacturers, sound quality seems to have been an afterthought. The first nightmare is Automatic Gain Control, three words which send most sound recordists into deep depression. Pumping, where sound levels yo-yo up and down, is apparent with both cameras, but is more objectionable with the EZ-1. Yes, the Panasonic does offer 16-bit digital PCM stereo, but who cares if the sound is pumping and almost unbroadcastable. I gather some frustrated users have overridden the AGC by feeding 1KHz Tone into the camera! Fine, if there is no breakthrough of tone onto the remaining sound track. However, next time round Panasonic should offer sound level adjustment in manual as well as automatic. Easy when you know how, and Sony does. Manual and automatic sound level recording come as standard.

As these cameras are aimed at the amateur enthusiast, the price and features reflect that. So, it is no surprise that there is only one mini-jack microphone socket. They are cheap, take up less space and are more recognisable to the amateur than the professional XLR connector. However, they are also unreliable. The course I run is very practical and when reviewing practise sessions I regularly see pictures which have no accompanying sound at all or the sound crackles and breaks up - both due to poor connections between the mini jack and socket. Obviously neither scenario is acceptable for broadcast.

To get round the problem of only one microphone socket, we’ve added a modification which allows us to plug in up to two professional microphones, which is useful for sit down interviews. Radio mics are also a useful bit of kit, but you may have problems finding somewhere to clip the receiver. And, of course, there is no microphone phantom powering, I assume at this price it’s not possible.

During the Hi-8 courses I warned participants that I wouldn’t show them all the functions on the camera, just the useful ones. Unfortunately, the list of useless gimmicky features now is hardly any shorter. Can anyone explain why we need shutter speeds of 10,000 times per second; or 20-times digital zooming and a wide angle converter which degrade picture quality unnecessarily? Although, the later does make a good paperweight

One option I could really live without is the power save function. Both cameras will switch themselves off after about 5 mins, or just before you’re about to do something important (such as focusing or white balancing). The EZ-1 also switches itself off when you tilt down. I know this is to save the battery of the hapless amateur who walks around with the camera slung over his shoulder, lens pointing at the sand between his toes. But, for the rest of us it is irritating if you want to rehearse the odd tilt down. In Panasonic’s defence you can easily switch off this feature, but why offer it when the camera will switch itself off after five minutes anyway.

There are a lot of buttons on these cameras (many essential). But they are too easy to nudge. Panasonic has gone some way to address this problem by having a panel that folds into the body of the camera, while the Sony has a HOLD function which locks the white balance, shutter, iris, gain and sound level settings. Unfortunately, you can’t lock them individually.

I do like the neutral density filters, a simple switch on the Sony and a proper screw-on glass filter with the Panasonic. Also useful is the clear skylight filter that comes with the EZ-1 to protect the lens; every camera should have one. Surprisingly usable are the slow shutter speeds the Sony offers. With 1/25, 1/12, 1/6 and 1/3 of a second you can produce slow motion effects that look like you’ve spent great wads of money in post production. A must for music video wanabee directors.

Once you’ve gathered your material, it’s time to settle down in the edit suite. As part of the BBC pilot we have installed DVCPro edit machines in some of our edit suites. The idea was to either transfer straight onto disk in a non-linear digital edit suite and stay digital as long as possible, or take our digitally recorded tape and place it into the DVCPro edit machine and edit onto Beta ready for transmission. In practice, editing DV to Beta doesn’t work, and we end up transferring the rushes to Beta and editing analogue to analogue. This is because the camera records sound on the FM tracks, combined with the pictures, and there is no longitudinal sound track. As editors jog or shuttle through the tape they can see the pictures, but can’t hear the sound tracks, which can make editing difficult. Obviously, in a news operation having to transfer our rushes in real time onto Beta or disk is bad news. However, this solution also got us through another problem with time code...

Once you put a new cassette into the camera, it sets the time code to zero. If, after recording some pictures, you review them and park the heads on blank tape, just start recording and watch the time code - it reverts to zero again. Any given tape may have several shots with the same time code, which makes logging a nightmare. There seems to be two ways of solving this problem First, before shooting "black and burst" the tape, which means putting it in the camera and recording an hour of continuous time code and the inside of the lens cap. Or, before editing, transfer your rushes and strip off the original time code and replace it with a continuous one from the edit machine.

Of course transferring your rushes onto Beta rather negates the advantages of recording digitally in the first place. However, the reality for most broadcasters is a sort of digital limbo. They can acquire some material digitally, if the Avid suite is available they can edit it digitally (using different compression ratios and algorithms), but transmission will still be in old fashioned analogue for some time.

The BBC’s DV pilot is an opportunity to test new ways of working and to test the cameras. It’s too early to say whether the cameras will be robust enough for the rough handling they’ll get on the road. However, in Journalist Training four of our VX1000s have needed repairs within about 30 days of use. Our pessimistic view is that we’ll get about 100 days training out of them before they start to fall apart.

All these problems would be addressed by spending more money on DVCPro or Sony’s DVCAM cameras in the first place. It doesn’t cost much more to move up to the DVCAM range. The DSR 200 is slightly bigger (but not much so) than the VX1000E, has XLR connectors and solves most other problems for about (pounds)4,000. The rival Panasonic AJ-D200 costs about (pounds)1,000 more, and they are working on a DVCPro version of the EZ-1. However, the professional formats not only cost more money, but the very attractions of consumer DV are its universality (both DVCPro and DVCAM machines can read it), its low cost and small size. If the pictures are good enough for broadcast use, then all we need are cameras that can match it.

Christina Fox has worked for the BBC for 13 years as a camerawoman, technical instructor and training manager. She is now leaving the BBC with an MBA (and some trepidation) to become a freelance trainer and consultant.

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