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Canon XM1
Canon XL1
Sony VX 2000
Sony PD 150
Sony DSR 500

DV Cameras - a review of the Canon XM1, XL1, Sony VX2000, PD150, DSR 500 and JVC DV500.

by Christina Fox

Broadcasters are increasingly turning to miniDV cameras for low-cost production. Now, first generation three-chip camcorders, like Sony's small VX1000, are coming to the end of their life. There are also new, professional-looking, DV camcorders with all the features of larger format cameras - but at lower cost. Whether you want to upgrade from an earlier generation, or are moving down from Betacam, which DV camcorder should you consider.   

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Canon XM1

If you need a small lightweight camera, take a look at Canon's XM1. If size is more important than professional features this camera will not disappoint, weighing in at 1.25Kg (2lbs 12oz). The big selling point of this miniDV camera is the 20x zoom (4.2 – 84 mm) Fluorite lens. Coming from a lens manufacturer it is hardly surprising Canon has excelled at the front of the camera. It has three 1/4inch CCDs with 300,000 effective pixels.

This camera is great if you don't want to stand out. You could easily pass for a tourist in a crowd. But what makes it a good small camera can also frustrate more experienced users. Small viewfinders are tiring on the eyes and difficult to use for focusing. It has a flip out colour (180,000 pixel) LCD screen, but these are also not great for focusing. Tilting an LCD screen can also affect its brightness – so, not much help for exposure either.

That said, for the price (£1,400 ex VAT) this is a good budget camera with a great lens.

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Canon XL1

The Canon XL1 (£2,100) has been around for some time. So, there is plenty of information available on this camera – a quick search via Internet search engine Google.com shows many sites dedicated to the XL1.

When first launched it looked completely different to any other camera. Its good looks and ability to interchange lenses were, and still are, major selling points.

It has many good features. The 16x zoom (5.5-88mm) came with the camera I tested, but it is possible to get lenses from 24mm up to 2160mm (35mm camera equivalents). But these lenses still have the same frustrations as the non-interchangeable: focus rings with no end stops giving no distance calibration. A regular complaint about the XL1 is that Canon used servo-actuated focus and zoom rings (as do Sony's VX100, 2000 and PD150 – but then their major selling point isn't the lens). Some new users complain that the lens continues to change focus after the manual focus ring has been stopped. With practice and experience this focus lag can be minimised.

The camera's centre of gravity, with the 16x lens, lies directly above the tripod mounting. Unfortunately, the funky body shape means the shoulder pad is at the back of the camera, which makes going hand-held a nightmare – your right hand has to take the camera's full weight (2.86Kg - twice the VX1000). I'm pretty strong but even my arms ached after 10mins. Luckily the steady shot feature worked well (it had to). I'm a great fan of tripods – but there are times you have to go hand-held. A camera this heavy needs to be balanced on the shoulder, not held in front of the body. If you want to do a lot of hand-held work you'd be better of with a lighter camera or a stronger camera operator.

The Canon XL1 does have a loyal following, so Canon must be doing something right. The trouble is that since the XL1 was launched other cameras have come onto the market that go one step further for around the same price. If interchangeable lenses are important to you, the JVC GY-DV500 (see below) has them - and more.

With the VX2000, XM1 and XL1 using professional microphones (with XLR connectors) requires a BeachTek sound box (or similar) to take in audio from XLRs and squirt it through a mini-jack into the camera, so take this extra cost (and weight) into account.

If your budget is tight, see if you can squeeze a few hundred pounds more out of the bank manager. Because Sony's PD150 and JVC's GY-DV500 should be high on your wish list.

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Sony VX2000

Happy users of Sony's VX1000 (£1,500) might be tempted to upgrade to the VX 2000 (£1,900). They will hardly need to read the manual. All the switches are in the same place – it's an old friend with a facelift. The biggest change is the pop-out colour LCD screen. Anyone who struggled to see into the VX1000's viewfinder when it was high on a tripod will love the LCD, which rotates through 360 degrees. You can also stand in shot for your piece to camera and check where you are in the frame.

The VX2000 has larger chips than the XM1 with three 1/3inch CCDs with 380,000 effective pixels. Other improvements include Sony's Modular Transfer Function, which ensures the picture remains sharper to the edges of the image. For more control over zooming the VX2000 has both a manual zoom ring and a motor control zoom ring. Importantly the manual ring permits variable speed control when zooming. And you will get up to eight hours of operation with the optional NP-F960 InfoLithium battery.

But is it worth upgrading to a VX2000? It is a good "first" camera. Like the VX1000 it is easy to use and it doesn't take long to train someone to use all its features in manual. On a tight budget this camera will be tempting.

More experienced users will soon feel constrained. The VX2000 (and XM1) still has all the drawbacks the VX1000 had – i.e. the inability to set timecode, non-changeable lens, one mini-jack microphone connector. While it is still a good camera for the price, for a little more money, you can get much more.

Both the VX 2000 and XM1 are top-of-the-range domestic cameras. They have a place in broadcasting, to blend into the crowd when a Pro camera would make you stand out. If this is your kind of work, consider buying one of these cameras. If not - hire them and spend a little more on a camera built with the broadcaster in mind.

Experienced users will want more professional features. Do you need the flexibility of changeable lenses, is it important to be able to set timecode, is the format you record on to important? There isn't one camera that fits all requirements and all pockets….

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Sony PD150

If you want small, then the PD-150 (£2,000) may be exactly what you're looking for. But first, a warning. An Internet search will show that there was some discontent amongst its initial buyers.

There were reports of a sound problem – when the audio mode was set to manual (i.e. Automatic Gain Control turned off) and sound level turned down, it was possible to hear a hiss with headphones or during play back.

Sony did supply a "Manual Audio S/N Upgrade Kit" to early adopters but at a cost of $150. To add insult to injury the upgrade was not covered under warranty. I was told on the Sony stand at IBC that this problem had now been sorted. I tried the HISS TEST on the review camera and couldn't hear any. But, if you buy this camera check it has the fix.

Hiss aside – where the PD 150 scores above the VX2000 and both Canon cameras is its built-in XLR inputs, with phantom powering for the microphones. Added to its all-round good picture quality (for the price), this is a very desirable camera for low cost documentary production and newsgathering. It is also switchable between miniDV and the more robust DVCAM tape format.

The only niggle I have against it is that once again the Zebra stripes have been set at the wrong level. I was taught (like most cameramen) to set Zebras between 90 and 95%. So why do Sony fix them at 70% and 100%?

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If you are on a tight budget but don't want to cut corners on quality then the JVC GY-DV500 is a great camera at a low price. (£2,400 including standard 14x Fujinon lens - up to £3,400 with 18x Canon lens). It has virtually all the features you'd expect to find in models costing far more.

It looks professional. Any experienced camera operator could pick it up and use it straight away. It has three half-inch CCDs with 440,000 effective pixels, XLR connectors with phantom powering, and the ability to select between record-run and free-run timecode.

Less experienced users should feel happy with it too. The Full Auto Shooting feature (FAS) automatically adjusts the iris, shutter, and white balance just like a pro-sumer camera. It also records onto standard miniDV cassettes, which should save money.

If you want to manually adjust the shutter, it has five fixed shutter speeds to choose from (between 120 and 2000Hz) which is more than adequate for most "effects" shots (why do pro-sumer camera offer such high shutter speeds? What would you use a shutter speed of 10,000Hz for?). More importantly, unlike its pro-sumer rivals, it also has a variable range of shutter speeds from 50.1 – 2067.8Hz. This variable range (selected via the menus) is invaluable for eliminating computer screen flicker.

There are a host of other menu settings. I liked the choice of four settings for Zebra patterning. plus you can apply any gain value from minus 3dB to +18db, as well as auto gain, to any of the programmable gain switch positions.

The DV 500 uses a standard half-inch bayonet mount with a standard 12-pin connector cable, so most standard half-inch lenses will work with the camera. According to JVC's spec sheet there are two Fujinon lens (14x 7.3mm and 19x 6.6mm) and two Canon lens (14x 7.3 and 18x 6.7mm) available for the camera. The standard lens Fujinon 14x lens is adequate but has aberration problems at its widest angle. If you have the money buy a better lens.

Build quality looks good for the price. I didn't get a chance to test one to destruction, but I suspect it would put up with the rough and tumble of daily use better than most cameras of this price. Being a full sized camera, it weighs 5Kg. This may seem heavy compared to the cameras mentioned so far – but it balances well on the shoulder, the extra weight giving it stability when hand-held. Ensure you budget for a beefier tripod to support the weight.

A few cameras now offer ways of electronically tagging your shots. JVC's Super Scene Finder lets you mark and log scenes as you shoot. Thoughtfully these markers are recorded directly onto the miniDV tape so you don't need to use the more expensive memory chip tapes.

Of course you need an editing system that can read the markers. We transferred all our material onto Apple G4s running Final Cut Pro and didn't bother with this feature.

I have two problems with the camera. In particular, its handling of white balance. When you perform a white balance it just confirms with a "White OK" message – this would be fine if there was a colour viewfinder or LCD screen but there isn't. If you only have a monochrome viewfinder, you must get an indication of colour temperature to give you some level of confidence that the white balance is correct – saying it is OK is not enough.

My second gripe – it isn't 16:9 switchable. But, JVC has listened to customers and come up with the GY-DV700 which is 16:9/4:3 switchable for under £6,000 (ex VAT). New at IBC, this camera uses three 2/3inch CCDs with 570,000 effective pixels in PAL recording onto miniDV tapes. The lens mount has increased to a 2/3inch bayonet fitting.

With so many formats being adopted by the main broadcasters – miniDV can be attractive because you can be sure your tapes will play on any DV-format deck. But beware – these cameras record sound on the FM tracks, which are combined with the pictures. There is no longitudinal sound track. So, 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 and more time consuming. In quick turn-around situations this has disadvantages. Of course, for non-linear editing you'll have to digitise your rushes first anyway – so, it isn't a problem.

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Sony DSR500

If you have a big budget and want it all, the Sony DSR500 (£7,000 excluding lens) is a true professional's camera: three 2/3inch power HAD CCDs give 800TV lines of resolution in 16:9 mode and 850 lines in 4:3. Unlike the pro-sumer cameras that offer 16:9/4:3 switchability, the JVC GY-DV700 and the Sony DSR 500 offer true widescreen. They won't reduce image quality when switched. If you intend doing a lot of widescreen work, a 2inch viewfinder will be easier on the eye, if harder on the pocket.

The DSR-500 can record onto standard and mini DVCAM cassettes. If you rummage around in the extensive menus you can set it to give you a 1kHz reference tone every time you select colour bars. While in the menus you can also set the viewfinder to display two types of zebra patterning. Zebra 1 is the common diagonal stripes which can be set between 70 and 90%, while Zebra 2 displays a subtle polka dot pattern at 100% and above. As with the JVC you can also select between fixed and variable shutter speeds.

Like the DV-500, it can also record shot markers, although with Sony's ClipLink system the information is stored in the cassette's solid-state memory, and these tapes are more expensive.

The DSR 500 (camcorder only) weighs 3.6Kg and is extremely well built. It also seems that Sony has put a great deal of effort into image processing and image quality – teamed with the ability to have a great deal of control over the image. This means there are a lot of menu functions. If you don't know what they are, just leave them in their default settings, but they allow you spend many happy hours tweaking the camera so it works just the way you want it to.

On the downside the power consumption is high, 24Watts compared to the DV500's 18W (and the DV700's 20W).

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The Sony VX2000

The Sony PD150

Canon XL1



Sony DSR 500


DVCAM (and DV)




1/3inch    3CCDs - 380,000 pixels

1/3inch    3CCDs - 400,000 effective pixels

1/3inch    3CCDs - 300,000 effective pixels

1/2inch    3CCD - 440,000 pixels

1/2inch    3CCD -

980 horizontal x 582 vertical pixels

12:1 zoom lens

12:1 zoom lens

16:1 standard zoom lens -interchangeable lens

14:1 or 18:1 zoom lens

interchangeable lens

One audio input channel

(domestic mini Jack)

Two audio input channels

(professional XLR)

Two audio input channels

(domestic mini Jack)

Two audio input channels

(professional XLR)

Two audio input channels

(professional XLR)

IEEE 1394 (Firewire)

IEEE 1394 (Firewire)


IEEE 1394 (Firewire)

IEEE 1394 (Firewire)

1.4Kg weight

1.5Kg weight

1.85Kg weight

5Kg (camera and standard lens)

3.6Kg (camcorder only)

About £1,900

About £2,000

About £2,100

from £2,400 - £4,000 depending upon the lens chosen

About £7000 excluding lens

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© 2000 - 2010 This article (in some shape or form) was origanally printed in Content Creation Europe. As with all our other articles if we have new information to add, we will.


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Christina Fox