Road Test: New Mini-DV Cameras

Every year when the new consumer camcorders hit the market, a few of them are designed not only for home movies, but also for the independent filmmaker. This year we tried out two of these cameras by putting them in the hands of three filmmakers, each of whom represents a different type of filmmaker the cameras were designed to attract. Mary Sampson is currently working on her first feature, Wave, after shooting with video cameras for public access television in Los Angeles. Laura Bennet is an NYU film school graduate working in commercial production while exploring her own independent projects. And Bryant Falk is an experienced videographer who owns Abacus Sound, a recording studio in New York City. The filmmakers rated each camera in a wide range of categories as well as offered their comments on camera performance.

The Canon GL2 is the company’s further refining of their GL1 mini-DV 3-CCD camcorder. It offers a fluoride lens that lives up to Canon’s reputation for high quality optics plus a batch of other features. The camera is light on price and weight. It tips the scales at about two and half pounds and it lists for $2,999 but has been spotted online for $1,899.

Comments on the Canon GL2

Falk: I would buy this camera for its image quality, light weight, and portability. A serious indie filmmaker may find it a bit frustrating when trying to dig up manual settings or use the viewfinder for an extended period of time.

Bennett: I felt this camera was too light. It had a flimsy, unsteady image when hand-held.

Sampson: All of the controls seem small and misplaced, but the manual controls are no worse than any of the other ones.

Falk: The auto feature on many of these cameras is steadily improving. This one is no exception. I found the auto functions at this level very acceptable.

Bennett: The zoom on this camera was smooth, but very slow, and its pace could not be varied. When zooming, the image dissolved back and forth between a grainy mush and a perfectly acceptable image.

Sampson: The shutter speed option works well. Except for the buttons being small, it’s easy to set and to adjust.

Bennett: In the dark cavern of my apartment, it seemed very capable of catching every dust bunny in the place!

Panasonic’s AG-DVX100, commonly known as the Panasonic 24p, is the first mini-DV 3-CCD camcorder to introduce a feature that mimics the look and feel of film’s twenty-four frames per second. The company’s CineSwitch technology allows makers to choose between 480i/60 (NTSC), cinema-style 480p/24fps, and 480p/30fps image capture. While the list price is around $3,800, this camera was so eagerly anticipated that when it hit the American market it could be found on the web for close to $4,800.

Comments on the Panasonic AG-DVX100

Falk: This camera is like a Ferrari inside the body of a Ford Fairmont. Get a new cabinetmaker to build you a housing worthy of the design that went into this baby. That, and an interchangeable lens, and you’ll own this market. The feature set is amazing, from the XLR input to the extra large viewfinder. Also, the camera is designed for filmmakers. The slow zoom feature and memory recall system all focus on accommodating that guy, or girl, shooting the next indie success story. The 24p feature is pretty nice too.

Sampson: The manual controls are pretty small and located close together. It’s hard to use more than one of them at a time. But they do respond well and are intelligently placed on the camera.

Falk: I gave the zoom a negative rating because of the flimsy nature of the zoom ring. When reaching for it you actually can jiggle the zoom. This can be very frustrating when you want to push in ever so slightly.

Bennett: The auto iris worked well, but the best feature was that I could switch it off any time I wanted to. I was not happy with the auto focus even on objects in the dead center of the lens. Things looked sharper when I focused manually.

Falk: The more I used the 24p feature, the more I fell in love with it. When first looking at it through the viewfinder it leaves a digital taste. But once I loaded the material onto my Final Cut Pro system, I was pleasantly surprised.

Canon GL2
Price: $2,999
Weight: 2 lbs. 7 1/2 oz.

Features: Manual audio level control; 20x zoom lens with digital zoom, F/1.6-2.9, 20x power zoom, 4.2-84 mm; L-series fluorite lens; 1.7 megapixel still images (1488 x 1128); 3 CCD 1/4’’ Pixel Shift, 410,000 pixels (380,000 effective pixels); USB terminal; IEEE 1394 in/out terminal; Multimedia card/SD memory card compatibility; 2.5 in. measured diagonally (6.4 cm), 200,000 pixel LCD screen;
dimensions: 4-5/8 x 5-3/8 x 12 in. (118 x 136 x 306 mm)

Accessories included: Lens adapters and filters; audio accessories; power source; video light and flash; carrying case; digital videocassette; cables

Ratings By Sampson (S), Bennett (B), & Falk (F) for Canon GL2:

Balance S (o) B (o) F(+)
Weight S(+) B (–) F(+)
Button control S(–) B(–) F(+)
Manual controls S(o) B(–) F(–)
Auto settings S(+) B(o) F(+)
Zoom S(o) B(–) F(+)
Monitor panel S(–) B(o) F(–)
Lens S(o) B(–) F(+)
Shutter speed S(o) B(o) F(+)
Low light performance S(+)B(–) F(+)
Overall camera S(o) B(–) F(+)

Mary Sampson: “If the Canon GL2 were sturdier, and had better button control, it would be a great buy. The price is good, and if you are looking for good quality footage that still looks like video, this may be the best value out there.”

Panasonic AG-DVX100
Price: $3,795 Weight: 4.2 lbs.

Features: 1/3’’ progressive-scan 410,000 pixel 3-CCD imager; more than 500 lines of horizontal resolution; low light performance of 3 lux (at 18dB); high sensitivity of f 11 at 2000 lux; wide-angle zoom lens (4.5mm to 45mm with a 56-degree viewing angle); Servo/manual zoom; Auto/manual focus with 72mm filter size; Auto/Manual iris; 16-bit/48kHz digital audio with two-channel; built-in XLR inputs; Phantom power supply (48V); manual audio volume controls; Flip-out, 270-degree, 3.5’’ LCD panel

Accessories included: 1.6Ah battery; AC adapter/charger; microphone holder; remote control; shoulder strap; lens cap; cleaning tape

Ratings By Sampson (S), Bennett (B), & Falk (F) for Panasonic AG-DVX 100:

Balance S(+) B(+) F(+)
Weight S(+) B(+) F(+)
Button control S(o) B(+) F(–)
Manual controls S(+) B(+) F(+)
Auto settings S(+) B(o) F(+)
Zoom S(o) B(o) F(–)
Monitor Panel S(+) B(+) F(+)
Lens S(+) B(+) F(+)
Shutter speed S(+) B(o) F(o)
Low light performance S(+) B(+) F(+)
24p feature S(+) B(o) F(+)
Overall camera S(+) B(+) F(+)

Laura Bennett: “I believe the Panasonic AG-DVX100 can create images of subtlety and beauty. Its image has a painterly quality. Its controls are intuitive and simple to use. I think that if you had the Cannon GL2 and got to know it well, you could do creative work with it, but you would have to accept its limitations and hopefully find a creative use for them.”