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by Roger Richards

A few years ago, filmmakers and videojournalists seeking a low-cost camcorder were usually limited to shooting in the Hi-8 format. For editing purposes this footage was often transferred to Beta SP, resulting in a loss of image quality as the analog process does when dubbed to successive generations.

Then along came DV.

Originally developed by JVC, the miniDV format surprised everyone with the great results that could be obtained. These days, miniDV is the format of choice for those seeking to bring their film or video projects to life without the huge costs associated with film.

In this article, I focus on nine of the best 3-CCD professional and 'prosumer', or semi-professional, camcorders now on the market. While the crop of 1-CCD camcorders, such as Canon's Elura  and Optura  and Sony's PC-100 and TRV series, produce images of outstanding clarity in good lighting conditions, by far the best way to go for optimum quality when using the miniDV format is by using a 3-CCD camcorder.

The difference in image quality between a 'prosumer' camera equipped with 3-CCD's and a single CCD amateur version can be considerable. The one-chippers process an image through a single RGB (red-green-blue) CCD; the 3 chippers have a CCD dedicated to each of these spectrum colors, resulting in greater sharpness and color fidelity. In addition, the higher-end units come with more controls over exposure and audio, absolutely essential features. The prices here are approximate of actual street costs.

Introduced in December 1997, the Canon XL-1 (miniDV, $3750+-) has become the premier camcorder of choice for independent digital filmmakers. I purchased one in late 1998 and have been extremely satisfied with it. The main reason I got the XL-1 instead of my other possible choice, the Sony VX-1000, was the XL-1's Frame Movie Mode. This setting allows one to record at a rate of 30 frames per second, capturing a full high-resolution frame of video instead of the standard interlaced 60 fields per second in the Sony and other camcorders. The resulting image is the closest appromixation of the 'filmlook' that one can achieve without actually transferring to film. In addition, the XL-1's standard 16X lens produces a razor-sharp picture, and with a warm image tone. The camera offers the ability to fully control focus, gain, exposure and 4-channel audio recording. The XL-1 audio capabilities are more often found only on a camera costing thousands of dollars more. With a full line of Canon factory accessories, including a 3X wideangle lens and XLR audio connections on a shoulder mount (MA-100), as well as scores of other accessories made by other manufacturers such as Century Optics and Lightwave Systems, the XL-1 can be configured for any kind of shooting. Click here to read about the Canon XL-1S. The Canon GL-1 (miniDV, $2150+-), often referred to as the XL-1's baby brother, also offers excellent quality and when equipped with accessories such as the Canon WD-58 wide angle adapter ($170) and the BeachTek DXA-4P XLR audio connector ($170, allows the use of grounded pro microphones), becomes a formidable camera for unobtrusive documentary or 'guerrilla' filmmaking. The GL-1 features manual control of focus, gain, exposure and white balance, but has no manual override of the audio, which is still quite good. Click here to read about the
Canon GL-2.
CANON XL-1: three 1/3" CCD's; 5.5-88mm F1.6 16X interchangeable lens; image stabilizer; 3 digital audio recording modes (16-bit and 12-bit); slow-speed shutter 1/30 to 1/8 second; 16x9 widescreen recording mode; color viewfinder (optional black and white pro viewfinder available); photo mode; IEE1394 Firewire output terminal.
CANON GL-1: three 1/4" CCD's; 20X Fluorite zoom lens; optical image stabilizer; 16-bit and 12-bit audio recording; 2.5" color LCD monitor and color viewfinder; 16x9 widescreen recording mode; photo mode; IEE1394 Firewire terminal.

The VX1000 (miniDV, $2500+-) hit the market in 1995 and was an immediate success. This camcorder went on to become a tool of legendary status for both feature and documentary filmmakers, proving itself in some of the toughest conditions, from under the ocean to the Himalayas, bringing back a crisp, cool image each time. The VX1000 has been used by scores of budget-conscious filmmakers, and recently director Spike Lee used a battery of 25 of them to shoot his latest film, 'Bamboozled', for the aesthetic look provided by DV. The VX1000 combines a robust construction with full manual control of exposure, focus, white balance, gain and audio. The feel and look of the camera was so effective and popular that when the Canon GL-1 came on the market one could not help but be surprised at how similar they were in appearance. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.
SONY DCR-VX1000: three 1/3" CCD's; 6.1-61mm/f1.6 10X zoom lens; optical image stabilizer; color viewfinder; PCM stereo sound 12-bit recording; photo mode; IEE1394 Firewire terminal.

The long-awaited Sony VX2000 (miniDV, $3000+-) and Sony PD150 (miniDV, DVCAM, $4000+-) camcorders were introduced in early 2000 and the initial reaction was disappointment. Touted by Sony as the replacements for the venerable VX1000, which had been losing ground to the newcomer Canon XL-1, these new Sonys had initial buyers complaining about the terrible audio quality (since fixed) and some others about the lack of a true 30 fps progressive scan mode as on the XL-1 (the Sonys have 15fps progressive scan, suitable only for capturing high-resolution stills and not for recording video). Still, these cameras offer a number of new features over the VX1000, including 16x9 widescreen recording, a 2.5 " LCD screen, analog recording inputs and improved image quality. The VX2000 and the PD150 are virtually twins, except that (a)the VX2000 is silver colored, the PD150 dark grey, (b)the PD150 records on both miniDV and DVCAM format cassettes, and (c)the PD150 comes with professional XLR connections for professional microphones and the VX2000 does not. SONY DCR-VX2000: three 1/3" CCD's; 12x zoom lens with optical image stabilizer; still image mode with Memory Stick digital media; full manual control of exposure, gain, focus, white balance and audio; 2.5" color LCD screen and color viewfinder; IEE1394 terminal; analog recording inputs.
SONY DSR-PD150: same as VX2000 except for black and white pro viewfinder, professional audio functions (XLR connections) and DVCAM format recording (40 minutes). ADDITIONAL NOTE: I bought a PD150 in February 2002 and found it to be a robust, reliable and overall excellent camcorder. While it has many more pro-level features than other compact 3-CCD camcorders like the Canon GL-2, the Canon still has the edge in audio quality. I am amazed that Sony did not bring the PD150's audio circuitry up to at least equal with the Canon. Still, the PD150 has become one of the mainstay camcorders for professional videojournalists. Much of the footage from the US war in Iraq was shot with PD150 cameras, due to its rugged construction and pro DVCAM format.


The Sony TRV900 (miniDV, $2300+-) and Sony PD100 (DVCAM, $2600+-) camcorders were released in late 1998. At that time, the Sony VX1000 was still the top-of-the-line model and the new cameras were meant to bridge the gap, offering excellent quality at a slightly lower price. They were successful, as these two units have become very popular among independent filmmakers (TRV900) and even some TV broadcast pros (PD100). Essentially the same camera in terms of design and image quality, they differ mainly in color (TRV900-silver, PD100-dark gray) and in that the TRV900 uses miniDV tapes and the PD100 records on 40 minute DVCAM tapes. Both come with a very large 3.5" color LCD monitor screen, about 1" bigger than most other camera screens in this line. One big complaint of many users is that to access the extensive camera/vcr menus and manual audio controls it is first necessary to open the side LCD screen, a pain when working quickly. Another is that when used in automatic audio mode, the AGC tends to pump up the audio level in quiet areas more noticeably than other DV cameras, like for instance, the Canon GL-1, which has a smoother AGC. The zoom control on the lens, too, tends to be a bit fast and is not easy to control when one needs a smooth, slow crawl zoom. But despite these shortcomings, their compact design and outstanding picture sharpness make these cameras good choices for working in places where unobtrusiveness is a must.
SONY DCR-TRV900: three 1/4" CCD's; 12x optical zoom lens with image stabilization; full manual control of exposure, gain, focus, white balance and audio; zebra pattern generator for overexposure control; interval and frame recording for single frame and time lapse photography; memory mode allows capturing still images to a Memory Stick; analog recording capability; 3.5" color LCD screen; IEE1394 Firewire terminal.
SONY DSR-PD100: equipped with the same features as the TRV900, except that the PD100 is DVCAM recording format and comes with an accessory 0.7x wideangle adapter; a 4MB Memory Stick and memory Stick/PC Card adapter; and a XLR pro microphone audio adapter that attaches to the camera hot shoe.

JVC GY-DV500 ($5500+-)
This three 1/2" CCD camera was the first miniDV camcorder created specifically for professional news gathering purposes. Released in 1999, it has not attained the popularity of the Sony and Canon 3-CCD camcorders but is widely recognized as being a top-quality unit. Ruggedly constructed in a magnesium casing, it weighs only 11 pounds and comes with an array of features attractive to ENG pros. These include the ability to use standard 'C' mount bayonet broadcast lenses by Fuji and Canon; modes like Black Stretch/Black Compress for the accurate rendition of black areas in the picture; Lolux mode for increased sensitivity in low-light situations; balanced XLR audio inputs mounted on the camera; a Variable Scan function for allowing flicker-free capture of TV and computer images; and IEE1394 Firewire and RS-232 connections for post production systems.

PANASONIC AG-DVC10 (miniDV, $2200+-)
Latest on the market in late 2000, this compact camcorder was introduced to compete with the Canon GL-1 and Sony VX2000. It offers a feature shared only with the Canon XL-1, 4-channel recording in 12-bit stereo mode.
Specifications: three 1/4" CCD's; 12x optical zoom lens; manual focus and exposure control; IEE1394 Firewire connection; shoulder-mounted shooting design and extremely light weight at 6 pounds


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