Three DV Cameras in Comparison:
Canon XL1, Sony VX1000, Sony TRV9
a report by Karl Kroeber
I have been working with video for over four years, mostly in documentary work relating to restoration projects in Yosemite National Park. Along the way, I have produced, shot and directed four projects and half a dozen short marketing pieces for environmental non-profits. I also was the project manager for a documentary about Yosemite's Glacier Point Restoration which recently won a Silver Award in the External Communications category in the International Television Association's 1998 Golden Vision Awards.
My interest in DV sprang from a desire to free myself from having to work with rented gear and having to edit under time/budget constraints in commercial settings. I now have my own acquisition equipment and NLE.
I have shot a good deal of Beta SP and Hi-8 over the last four years and I work with another graphics guy/photographer who has shot extensively in Yosemite with a VX1000 over the last two years. I own an XL1. So I have access to and have used a variety of sources which I have intercut in my productions.
Why test the three cameras? I work a good deal in public spaces shooting candid shots, so I sometimes need a small and unobtrusive camera. The XL1, by handycam standards, is neither light nor inconspicuous. So I was very interested in the TRV9 as complement to (not a replacement for) the XL1 and also considered using the VX1000 for this purpose, although it is not as conveniently sized as the TRV9 nor does it have the LCD screen.
So, given that my primary requirement is excellent image quality, I set out to compare the three cameras according to my own subjective impressions (caveat: this is not a technical/lab type test):
Procedure: I created five-second clips of five subjects with each format under a variety of lighting conditions and edited them into a running (alternating) sequence so I could compare the images in motion. I also extracted stills for anaysis.
Commonalities: All three cameras produce sharp, clear images. They all interface seamlessly with my NLE firewire deck control. None of them dropped any frames or produced any corrupt footage. All have great audio capability, limited by varied quality of onboard/outboard mics or line sources.
XL1: Good detail in all light conditions. Medium contrast accentuates smoothness of overall image.
VX1000: High contrast accentuates detail.
TRV9: High contrast w/good detail.
XL1: The color is lush and deep, slightly biased toward the red side. Red adds to impression of warmth and softness.
VX1000: Also good deep colors but biased slightly toward blue. Blue adds to impression of coolness and sharpness.
TRV9: Slightly washed out color and also slightly blue biased.
XL1: Exposure (in auto or manual) is the most even of the group. Minimal harsh contrast in the image with good detail even in dark shadows.
VX 1000: Well exposed images but some loss of detail in shadows.
TRV9: slightly overexposed in all auto modes. Contributes to washed out look. This may be due in part to the single chip, but I suspect that it is primarily due to an engineering decision in the exposure parameters as the color and exposure bias is also applied to incoming analog material recorded into the TRV9.
Image Summary: I think the term "character" may be useful here. All are pretty sharp
under close analysis, but the color and exposure biases of each creates an impression of difference where little actually exists. The "warmth" of the XL1 leads to a subjective impression of "softness" whereas the "coolness" of the VX1000 and TRV9 steers us toward an impression of "sharpness". The bias of each camera is controllable with filtering: use of an 80B blue filter in daylight brings the Canon back into the normal range; use of an 812 warming filter normalizes the Sony's.
Field Mechanics: The Usability Factor.
Here we find very broad and real differences.
The XL1 is a semi-pro camera equipped to effectively handle a full range of real-time (individual knobs and buttons for each function) adjustments. In effect, it is best understood as a fully controllable manual camera with optional auto functions. It is relatively heavy, somewhat awkward and quite eyecatching. This camera could not have been any smaller and still have made room for all the manual controls that it offers. The manual zoom ring is touchy and takes some getting used to while the zoom rocker is quite good. The manual focus works well, especially with the Push Autofocus. The autofocus is slow and tends to hunt too much for my taste especially at long telephoto settings and in low light. The optical stabilization is very effective except at maximum zoom while panning, where it tends to hang up and then overcompensate making for swoopy pans. The Auto Exposure overide is a useful feature which allows for exposure compensation while in an auto mode. Low light performance is very good. The image gets warmer as the light decreases but there is very little graininess except in *very* low light. The XL1 Bottom line: Excellent imaging, very good in low light. A very useful set of compromises/features for the shooter that primarily needs direct control of the camera.
The VX1000 is a convenient, fully automatic semi-pro camera with a full slate of menu-controllable (few individual knobs and buttons) manual settings. The VX1000 is small enough to be unobtrusive yet it has most of the manual functions that one would want, although you may have to hunt through menus to find and control the various functions. Autofocus is quick, manual focus works well and the zoom rocker is pretty good. Stabilization is excellent. The VX1000 Bottom line: Excellent imaging, relatively small, user friendly package for the shooter that primarily wants to use auto modes with the occasional relative tweak.
The TRV9 is a consumer camera designed to be a flexible and portable fully auto unit. The picture, with the exception of slightly reduced color saturation and a slightly washed out look is very close to the VX1000 in quality and character. The auto exposure tends to overexpose and the manual exposure controls come in large increments which makes smooth compensation impractical. Very limited manual control for critical functions especially where audio is concerned. The stabilization and autofocus are very good at all focal lengths. The screen is very good, but still not useful in bright sun. The regular viewfinder needs a better eyecup as too much outside light gets in and bleaches ot the viewfinder image (they include an add-on eyepiece, but it doesn't help enough).
The XL1 is fully manually controllable (knobs and switches) on four simultaneous tracks of 12 bit audio. VU meters, selectable monitoring and multiple input choices. The VX1000 is manually addressable (again, menu-driven, not knobs and switches) in two tracks and the TRV9 has no manual audio control capability.
The XL1 and the VX1000 intercut very well with BetaSp. Very hard if not impossible to tell apart except for the unique warmth of the XL1 in low light. The washed out quality of the TRV9 usually makes it possible to pick it out, but not always.
Summary: different cameras for different purposes.
The Canon XL1... bright and warm, great picture, excels in manual functions, audio control and low light.
The Sony TRV9... sharp but a little pale, is very compact, has the fold-out screen, analogue in and produces a very good image; it is the true handycam of DV. Vastly superior to my TRV81 Hi-8.
The Sony VX1000... crisp and cool, is still the most flexible of the group: great picture, good (if hard to access) manual controls and a size, weight and appearance that still allows for easy handling and inconspicuous shooting.
Hope this is of some use.
-- Karl Kroeber
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Written by Karl Kroeber
Thrown together by Chris Hurd