Pro 3D Handheld Camcorders Comparison

It amazes me how far consumer technology can evolve in just a two year period. In 2010 Panasonic officially announced the AG-3DA1 stereoscopic 3D camcorder, the first of its kind. I was fortunate enough to gain early access to the prototype and use it in a few productions. Its stereoscopic use was of course limited by its interaxial separation and zoom range, but it was the first time a stereoscopic camera operator didn’t have to worry about geometric or colorimetric alignment on set. In early 2011 the consumer divisions of Sony and JVC quickly released inexpensive handheld stereoscopic 3D camcorders the HDR-TD10 and GS-TD1, respectively. The professional product divisions of both companies eventually modified those consumer models with 24p support and XLR inputs and released the Sony HXR-NX3D1 and JVC GY-HMZ1U.

Professional 3D Camcorders

Late in 2011 Panasonic’s surprised everyone by announcing the HDC-Z10000 stereoscopic camcorder, which was already capable of 24p acquisition and included XLR mic inputs. I finally received a Z10000 for review last week so I decided it was time to compare notes with the Panasonic 3DA1, Sony NX3D1 and JVC HMZ1. My minimum criteria for qualifying these four cameras as “pro” is that they are capable of acquiring 1080p24 and can accept XLR microphone input. The 3DA1 is a little more “pro” than the others by virtue of being the only one with HD-SDI left and right output BNC connectors, and therefore might be considered to be in a higher class with shoulder mount broadcast camcorders. I will eventually do a separate review of the current “shoulder mount” professional stereoscopic camcorders like Sony’s PMW-TD300 and Panasonic’s AG-3DP1, and compare them to the 3DA1 as well.

Image Quality

All four models use approximately 1/4″ CMOS sensors, and all four models suffer from the typical “rolling shutter” artifacts that are common in CMOS camcorders. However, the picture quality of the Sony NX3D1 and Panasonic Z10000 outshine the others in terms of lens sharpness, clarity and colour reproduction. The 3DA1 is the weakest performer in low light, but the HMZ1 performed surprisingly well in low-light. I suspect the HMZ1’s F1.2 fast lenses have something to do with that. It is important not to have any analog noise in your 3D content so avoiding the use of gain is essential. It is also worth noting that even though all four cameras use AVCHD (H.264) for recording, the 3DA1 uses the highest bit rate per eye, with the HMZ1 being second best. I wish I had had all four models for review at exactly the same time so I could have performed quantitative tests, but you will have to take my word for it.

Zoom Lenses & Interaxial Separation

When you are working in 3D the widest field of view and manageable interaxial will always be the best for capturing 3D depth. The 3DA1 has the weakest combination of focal length range and wide interaxial of 60mm. Even at its widest focal length, the depth bracket of your scene should be limited to between 6 feet (approx 2 m) and infinity. Early on in my original tests I created a little calculator app for the iPhone just to help me plan around this limitation with the 3DA1. I’m happy to say that Panasonic have redeemed themselves with the Z10000. Its combination of a very wide lens and smaller interaxial (42mm) allow for versatile shooting with a wide range of depth brackets. However, its the Sony NX3D1 that comes in first place with a similar zoom range combined with an even smaller interaxial (31mm.) The HMZ1 also has a small interaxial separation (34mm) but I wish the lenses were wider.

Handheld Stability, Size and Ergonomics
When shooting stereoscopic 3D it is best to use a tripod whenever possible and avoid fast pans or movements. When shooting handhold it is equally important to minimize shake either through use of image stabilization or a steady hand. The 3DA1 lacks optical or digital stabilization, but its relatively large mass helps absorbs most hand shake from the operator. The lightest 3D camcorder is the HMZ1, but its digital stabilizer works surprising well, even easing into and out of fast pans. The NX3D1 and Z10000 both sport optical stabilizers that seem to also work very well. Of course, I’m almost always exclusively shooting on the wide end of the zoom so the stabilization is less important to me than simple ergonomics.
For incognito shooting or just walking around all day holding a camera I prefer the HMZ1. The handle attachment fits well in the hand and can be detached if you don’t need the XLR inputs or boom mic. The NX3D1 uses a similar consumer style form factor. The Panasonic models have a much more “prosumer” form factor and both include electronic viewfinders that can be used when the LCD screen is closed. This is very advantageous when shooting outside under the bright sun.
The Z10000 seems to be much better balanced than the 3DA1, and its medium size and weight make it stand out as the best choice for field production.

Controls
Both the HMZ1 and NX3D rely heavily on their flip out touch screen LCD. I don’t personally like to rely on touch screen functions because the LCD screen can be difficult to see in bright sunlight, it usually requires more presses to find the correct function, and it simply doesn’t work while wearing gloves.

The NX3D1 has the least amount of manual control in 3D mode, especially in 1080p24. Many important functions like white balance and exposure are simply disabled. This makes the camera feel very “consumer-ish” but the automatic exposure and white balance seem to work reliably. The NX3D1 does however have an excellent auto-stereoscopic mode for its high resolution LCD screen.

The HMZ1 offers full manual control over all the important functions like shutter speed, white balance and iris, regardless of shooting mode.

The 3DA1 uses physical buttons and switches for all of its major functions. This works well in most situations, but my only complaint is that the control for convergence is shared with the iris. An additional switch is used to toggle the function. It is inevitable that you will unexpectedly nudge the wrong one at some point during your shot. I do it all the time.

The Z10000 combines physical controls with touch screen functions. This combo seems to work well in most situations, but I wish that the 3D display mode had its own dedicated button.

The Panasonic models both have three user-assignable function buttons that come in very handy.

Audio
All of these 3D camcorders include two XLR inputs with straightforward controls. However, the HMZ1 XLR inputs cannot provide +48V phantom power to mics, therefore requiring external phantom power. The XLR inputs on the HMZ1 and NX3D1 reside on removable handles.

Compatibility
As I mentioned before, all four of these 3D cameras use AVCHD to record their files. The 3DA1 records separate left and right files to separate SDHC cards. This makes the 3DA1 files compatible with virtually any NLE on Mac or Windows that supports the ingest of AVCHD files. I typically just ingest 3DA1 left and right files into Final Cut Pro X and then use the built built in “synchronize” function to combine them into a compound clip (see the Stereo3D Toolbox tutorial for details).

Unfortunately it isn’t so easy on the Mac with the NX3D1, Z10000 or HMZ1. The HMZ1 is capable of recording into a completely backwards compatible side by side format AVCHD file, but typically most users will use the MVC recording mode, which records the left and right video signals into a single file. The NX3D1, Z10000 and HMZ1 all use slightly different flavours of MVC but they all present the same problem when it comes time to edit. The only NLEs that work with this format are Sony Vegas and Edius on Windows. To make matters worse, there are really no good solutions for converting the files into QuickTime for the Mac. JVC bundles a Mac demuxing utility, but it is very slow at converting the files. Even Cineform’s MVC transcoding products only work on Windows.

So what’s the solution for us Mac users?  My solution for ingesting footage from the NX3D1, Z10000 or HMZ1 is to use either Blackmagic-Design’s Decklink Extreme 3D or UltraStudio 3D with the camcorder’s HDMI output. Blackmagic bundles an app with its capture devices called Media Express, which can capture 3D frame-packed HDMI or discreet SDI directly into QuickTime. The only strange limitation I have found with all of these camcorders is that 1080p24 3D is output as 1080i60 with a 2:3 pulldown. A minor inconvenience requiring pulldown removal with an app like Cinema Tools after capture. I found that I also had to use 1080i60 3D capture mode with all of these cameras even when monitoring with our Stereo3D CAT app.

Overall Impressions
If I had to choose among these camcorders for a production I would probably select the Z10000 as my ‘A’ camera and a few of the HMZ1 as the workhorse ‘B’ cams for alternate angles, odd camera positions and tight spaces. Did I mention the HMZ1 can shoot timelapse? (see DVInfo’s Shooter’s Guide to Stereoscopic 3D for details)

The Z10000 represents to me the best value, but I would still like to see a future version with BNC connectors for left/right HD-SDI output, and the ability to record separate left and right files to the two SDHC slots.

Discuss in our Stereoscopic Production Forum.

Comparison Chart

Green cells indicate best in that category.

Panasonic HDC-Z10000 Panasonic AG-3DA1 Sony HXR-NX3D1 JVC GY-HMZ1U
Sensor 1/4.1” 3MOS 1/4.1” 3MOS 1/4” “Exmor R” CMOS 1/4.1”, back illuminated CMOS
3D Lens Focal Length 10X (32mm-320mm as 35mm equivalent) 5.6X (47-264mm as 35mm equivalent) 10X (34.4-344mm as 35mm equivalent) 5X (42mm-210mm as 35mm equivalent)
Widest Aperture F1.5-F2.7 F1.8-F2.4 F1.8-F3.4 F1.2-F2.8
Fixed Interaxial 42mm 60mm 31mm 34mm
Muxed Recording Option None None None AVCHD Side by Side @ 17Mbps 60i only
Discreet Recording Format MVC @ 26.3Mbps AVCHD @ 21Mbps for each eye MVC @ 28Mbps MVC @ 34Mbps
3D Resolution & Frame Rates 1080p24, 1080p30 or 25p, 1080i60 or 50i 1080p24, 1080i50 or 60, 720p50 or 60 1080p24, 1080i50 or 60 1080p24, 1080i60
Discreet Output HDMI1.4a Frame packing 2 X HD-SDI & HDMI1.4a Frame packing mini HDMI 1.4a Frame Packing mini HDMI 1.4a Frame Packing
Muxed Output None None HDMI Side by Side (60i only) HDMI Side by Side (60i only)
Sound Recording Dolby 5.1 & Linear PCM (2ch) Linear PCM (2ch) Linear PCM (2ch) AAC 2channel
Image Stabilizer Power Optical None Optical Digital
Weight 3.53lbs 5.3 lbs 2.5 lbs 2.2 lbs
LCD 3.5” 16×9 Autostereoscopic or viewfinder 3.2” 16×9 superimpose for convergence 3.5” 16×9 Autostereoscopic 3.5” 16×9 Autostereoscopic
Dimensions 145 x 195 x 350mm 158×187×474mm 124×165×160mm 134x153x234mm
Strengths
  • Dedicated convergence dial, iris ring, zoom ring and focus ring
  • logical placement of buttons
  • backup recording to two cards simultaneously
  • widest lens in this class, which allows for fairly versatile stereoscopic shooting in many scenarios
  • ships with boom mic
  • power IOS seemed to work well
  • Panasonic’s cinema response curves
  • the ability to record to separate SD cards for separate AVCHD files
  • dual HD-SDI outputs
  • full manual control as expected on a pro camera
  • 720p60 included for greater compatibility and overcrank slow-motion
  • Panasonic’s cinema response curves
  • ships with boom mic
  • front can be easily removed and filters applied directly to lenses
  • Direct Backup to USB HD
  • excellent quality 3D LCD screen
  • phantom power +48V support for XLR inputs
  • capable of side by side output to HDMI but only in 60i
  • good built in optical stabilizer
  • ships with boom mic
  • Timelapse Recording in 3D with ability to manually set shutter as long as 1/2 second
  • full manual control of WB, Shutter, Iris, etc
  • excellent low-light ability with fastest lens in class (F1.2)
  • ability to mux to side by side AVCHD files and out HDMI, but only in 60i
  • MVC Demuxing software bundled with camera which allows compatibility with most NLE systems and Mac OS X or PC
  • ‘smart’ automatic convergence system that maintains watchable positive parallax
Weaknesses
  • No ND filter or easy way to attach filters
  • convergence dial ratio is very high, meaning lots of rolling the dial for very little effect
  • cannot use both card slots to record discreet left and right files like the 3DA1
  • touch screen is the only way to change the 3D display modes.
  • no HD-SDI output
  • MVC recording only and is not currently supported by any demuxing software on Mac OS X
  • HDMI1.4a 3D output will only work with 24p in 60i with a pulldown.
  • no dedicated shutter speed button
  • 60mm interaxial is very limiting for most applications
  • cannot output to HD-SDI and HDMI simultaneously
  • cannot output in muxed side by side format to HDMI
  • no built-in ND filtering
  • no built-in stabilizer
  • lens is not as wide angle as the others
  • separate AVCHD recordings per eye sometimes create compression artifact disparities
  • HDMI1.4a 3D output will only work with 24p in 60i with a pulldown.
  • MVC recording only and the bundled demuxing software is not currently supported on Mac OS X
  • no reasonable ability to fully manually control all aspects of white balance or exposure
  • no built in ND
  • Sony MVC files currently not supported by Mac
  • HDMI1.4a 3D output will only work with 24p in 60i with a pulldown.
  • no +48V phantom power ability for microphone, unbalanced input only
  • AAC audio recording only
  • no built-in ND filters
  • requires mic level microphone (doesn’t ship with compatible boom mic)
  • built-in digital stabilizer seems to cause a “shimmer” on high contrast areas of the image
  • HDMI1.4a 3D output will only work with 24p in 60i with a pulldown.
SRP when released $3500 USD $21,000 USD $3,400 USD $2,000 USD
Release Date Winter 2012 Fall 2010 Summer 2011 Fall 2011

 
About the Author
Tim Dashwood is the founder of Dashwood Cinema Solutions, a stereoscopic research, development & consultancy division of his Toronto-based production company Stereo3D Unlimited. Dashwood is an accomplished director/cinematographer & stereographer. His diverse range of credits include music videos, commercials, feature films and 3D productions for 3net, DirectTV, Discovery Channel and the National Film Board of Canada. He also consults on and previsualizes fight/stunt action scenes for productions such as Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Pacific Rim.

Dashwood is the inventor of the award-winning Stereo3D Toolbox plugin suite and Stereo3D CAT calibration and analysis system. He has been a Wrangler here at DV Info Net since 2005.

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About The Author

Tim Dashwood

Tim Dashwood is the founder of Dashwood Cinema Solutions, a stereoscopic research, development and consultancy division of his Toronto-based production company Stereo3D Unlimited. Dashwood is an accomplished director, cinematographer and stereographer and a member of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. His diverse range of credits include music videos, commercials, feature films and 3D productions for Fashion Week, CMT, Discovery Channel and the National Film Board of Canada. He also consults on and previsualizes fight/stunt action scenes for productions such as Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Pacific Rim. Dashwood is the creator of the award winning Stereo3D Toolbox plugin suite and Stereo3D CAT calibration and analysis system.

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