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Allen Campbell September 7th, 2010 01:19 PM

Private Investigator Needs Lowlight Help
Hi Folks, My 1st post,

Most of you are pro's or avid enthusiasts. I shoot for a different purpose as in exposing the truth so to speak.
In my line of work we often find conditions less than ideal for shooting video. Mostly by street, porch, low ambient shade, or near sundown lighting.

Can you help me choose a rig that will out perform my Panasonic PV GS500?

Color or noise levels are not as important as in being able to identify the subjects.

I currently use a MiniDV Panasonic PV-GS500 (3 CCD) in what they call MagicPix mode when its a dark scene. There is also a 0 Lux MagicPix mode that wants the LCD turned towards the subject.(not applicable for remaining stealth)
MagicPix is barely getting the job done if at all, if I move its chaos, and if the subject moves faster than a walk its not good either.

The MagicPix mode has done OK even shooting through a Minivan's factory privacy glass that is equal to somewhere near 35% or less window film.

Perhaps you guys can point me at a pro-sumer rig that will be moderately to substantially more forgiving. I am a semipro photographer using a Canon 50D DSLR so I can learn to make gain adjustments and such, or learn to not have to use an auto mode.

My preferences are:

A $2000.00 starting point, new or used, the lesser the better.
Good low light performance, at least a noticeable difference than the GS500 under the same conditions.
MiniDV media preferred.
20x optical zoom a huge plus with a minimum of 12x.
HD is NOT a must, SD is fine would like 16:9 but......
Audio (not required) will be muted by inserting a mic plug without the mic into the remote mic jack.
Time & Date stamp needs to be visible during playback.

I am looking at the Sony HDR-FX7 3CMOS HDV 1080i Camcorder @ 2K new. What is the Lux rating on this rig. I see a 4 Lux rating but is that with the gain @ 0 ? Panasonic has the spec listed on the PV GS500 as a 5 Lux.

And before someone starts, and I'm not thin skinned, yes a PI is not the most popular until he is needed and then cost or social status is no object in obtaining the truth. :-)


Don Bloom September 7th, 2010 02:08 PM

honestly if it were me and I could use SD instead of HDV or such I would drop for a used PD170 or VX2100. They are fairly small and have been considered the king of low light. 1/3 inch chips very adjust in either auto or manual mode and produce a great image even by todays standards.
Of course it is SD and a lot of people say not to buy an older SD camera today but IMO you get the best tool for the job and it really sounds like the PD170 might be it.

Dave Blackhurst September 7th, 2010 02:10 PM

OK, the FX7 is out, do a little read and you'll find the low light performance is not that great - otherwise a great camera, but also not that discreet size wise - I'll presume you liked the zoom range, and that made it a logical choice. One of my favorite cams I've owned, along with the Japan only predecessor to your GS500, the GS100K!

I'm going to suggest the Sony XR500V, which is "last years model" (you can still find some new unopened stock) of the Sonys with the Exmor "R" sensor which does very good in low lux mode, plus has IR nightshot. The XR550V is the current version, but the lens range leans toward the "wide" end, and while the digital zoom isn't bad, you still lose a bit on the long end, and I've noticed it seems to be more vulnerable to "lens ramping" (meaning that as you zoom in, the aperature closes, and your low light performance drops off). I find it more noticeable on the CX550V than my XR500V's.

I'm leaning towards the XR500 also for the fact that it has a viewfinder so you don't have the LCD illumination while you're framing the shot. Both the XR550 and the CX550 also have a viewfinder IF you can live with the lens range or add a tele adapter - the 550's also have a better image stabilization system than the 500 by a hair, which could make the difference when shooting handheld or with a support of some sort which I'd presume you use to help with longer range surveilance.

The size is right, close to your GS, they are black and very stealthy esp in viewfinder mode, and perform very well if you turn on the low lux mode (which you have to deliberately do, as the setting doesn't stick overnight, but will hold for a few hours of the camera being off... no idea why it does this, it just does). Long life batteries are easily available, as are most other accessories you might find handy. If you shop slightly used on eBay, you're looking at sub $1K if you're patient, "retail" is of course higher, but legit dealers would probably "street" you under $1k if you buy a pair (see below).

Only "sticking point" is that cameras under the $2K price point are now going to be either Hard Drive or solid state flash ram to either internal memory or a memory card/stick - that's where the market has gone. If you shoot HD (AVCHD format), it takes some computer horsepower to play back and edit the footage. You can record in an SD mode with these cams, and it will look quite good.

Since you are already a Panasonc user, you could look at their current offerings, the 700 series low light samples I've seen have been fairly good, although I believe the Sony does a tad better and just slightly less noisy in low light. Still, I''ve seen TM700s for a little over $800 - you could buy two cameras, rig a mount so you could shoot both cameras, set the one on the fixed mount a bit wide, and get a tight shot with the one you're holding so you've got backup and scene setting (with creative editing, you'd have a killer presentation with both a wide shot and the close-ups, be like your own TV show!), and still not spend your entire budget!

If you go with a non-tape camera, you may need to set aside some budget for a new computer, but most any current machine should be up to playback at least. For editing, you'll need a fairly well spec'd quad core.

Those suggestions should get you started, and I'm sure you'll get a couple others. Low light performance is a tough nut to crack, I'm sure the DSLR fans will pipe in, and it "might" be an option, but the short record times of the current cameras would be a tricky thing when I'm sure you want continuous footage (Sony just announced a new "SLT" syle cam with 29 minute record limit).

In my mind, one advantage of HDD and flash memory is you could set them and let them run without worrying about running out of tape or hitting a recording limit... making your job easier

Dave Blackhurst September 7th, 2010 02:20 PM


Originally Posted by Don Bloom (Post 1566909)
honestly if it were me and I could use SD instead of HDV or such I would drop for a used PD170 or VX2100. They are fairly small and have been considered the king of low light. 1/3 inch chips very adjust in either auto or manual mode and produce a great image even by todays standards.
Of course it is SD and a lot of people say not to buy an older SD camera today but IMO you get the best tool for the job and it really sounds like the PD170 might be it.

I'd agree, up to the point where having an extremely sharp clear picture (being able to see a face without ANY waffling or question about who it is) would tilt me towards the HD side of the equation... once I saw how much better an HD picture looked, I wasn't able to go back.

My kids faces and those of their friends on a big stage are ALL clear and recognizable with all the adorable expressions.. SD just can't do that as well. I have been rendering/burning HD versions even though I don't have a BR yet, simply because they look SO much better.

IMO it'd be unwise to not take advantage of the latest technology, especially when you're being paid - I'm guessing that the better, clearer and more detailed the "evidence" the more valuable the service! The "content" is still "king", but here the quality of the footage might count too.

Perrone Ford September 7th, 2010 02:34 PM

The PD170 or DVX100 would be my top choices in your price range. Yes, HD cameras can get you there, especially something like a Canon 5D. But your budget precludes it. The primary factors that are undoable given budget are:

1. HD
2. Low light performance

You can get HD without the low light performance in your budget You can get SD with the low light performance in your budget. But you won't get both.

Something like the 550D with a fast fixed tele would be great. But I don't know what a 12x or 20x zoom works out to be in 35mm terms. And good lenses like a 300mm 2.8 would blow you budget on their own. Even used.

Allen Campbell September 7th, 2010 03:54 PM

WoW! Thanks Guys,

OK, because in GA if a video goes to court it has to be on the media it was recorded on to be admissible. Therefore it can be held in evidence for up to 5 years. A HDD camera will not look good sitting there. Memory cards are not cheap enough for me yet because I would have to store them for that long to make sure the client did not need it in court later or if he declined to buy it or the stick (It gets tricky). So I want to try and stay with MiniDV @ $2.25 a tape.

Then the list narrowed to two the with Panasonic falling off because of price and 10x optics over better priced 12x cams.
This left the PD170 and VX2100 standing there with the PD170 loosing to where I would purchase it from.

So with the VX2100 being available from a vendor I trust B&H, I am leaning towards it. I have used B&H for years and for the extra cost and possible extended warranties and such I am looking at the VX2100.

My question is now how much better will the VX2100 be over the Panasonic PV-GS500? I take it with the manual controls of the VX2100 it should be substantial. And for the digital zoom, how much of that will work before it starts to go south?
You are the experienced minds here. I have never had a pro-sumer cam in my hands. B&H will give me a trial period. What do you think? Go for it?

David Stoneburner September 7th, 2010 04:13 PM

Panasonic used to have a 3 chip DV camera that had a great separate attachment for night vision type recording. It's not in production anymore. The AG-DVC30 had a super night vision attachment that was sold separately. Might be worth investigating.

Don Bloom September 7th, 2010 04:28 PM

The VX series is the consumer version of the PD series which is the prosumer model. Besides the obvious differences of XLRs on the PD series the VX has many of it's manual settings in menus while the PD series has cute little buttons and switches. Not a big deal. I've used the VX series and have owned PDs for 10 years and still love 'em. The biggest shortfall of either is the 12X lense, I have always wished for something longer. 16 or 18 would have been nice but having said that, I've nevr really had a problem using the 12X. The digital zoom is something I've used only rarely and while it will get you a decent image (decent is a relative term) if it were at all possible I would try not to have to use it especially with the low light situations you might be faced with. IMO that is really the biggest drawback but hey, you might never need it. In any case as long as you could return the camera...Try it, You'll like it! (old commerical punch line)

Battle Vaughan September 7th, 2010 04:55 PM

There are add-on night vision (light-intensifier) devices for various cameras: AstroScope is one manufacturer, B&H Photo (bhphotovideo.com) is one vendor. Like all real light intensifiers, they get pricey, however.

Allen Campbell September 7th, 2010 05:43 PM


No, I'll not be buying the intensifiers. $$$ Whew $$$!

I guess I'll just have to do a side by side. I called B&H to double check the policies and ask if all the factory supplied hardware would be in the box and they said yes and a 15 day return period and 30 day warranty. A $120.00 2-year MAC warranty is available. So I'm meditating on it big time.

I'm going to read the manual 1st in an attempt to be some what ready to set it up. Any suggestions on a setup starting point for videoing folks under a medium street light would be great.

I guess I would start with a near wide open f/stop and start playing with the gain?

Thanks Guys

Dave Blackhurst September 7th, 2010 05:49 PM

The HD vs. low light argument used to be true, but the Exmor R chip does pretty well, and would be better than your GS500, not sure if it would beat the VX/PD, haven't ever seen the two compared, but in low lux mode my XR500 and CX550 can see better than I can when it gets dark... I do know that low light performance has improved a LOT, so what was once true is not so much anymore...

All the small cameras will record to removable memory cards... while not as cheap as tape, they might still be economical enough to pass along to the clients ( I'll guess the $2-3 tape expense is just tossed into your overall bill, while $20-35/hr. for HD recorded to cards would have to be billed separately?).

I don't know offhand what the legal implications are of flash media, I'd presume that the theory behind "original media" such as tape is the difficult if not impossible task of altering the "evidence". I'd see some advantage you being able to dub a copy of the file (before turning the memory card over to a client) and keep it in an archive - if there ever was a question of altered evidence the two files would cross authenticate, along with your expert testimony as to the source of the footage. I wouldn't be surprised if the laws involved haven't caught up with the technology shift, we're all just recovering from the shock!

8Gb cards are not overly expensive, if you record in high quality mode they are good for an hour of HD roughly. If you are recording in SD mode, you can probably record to much smaller (and cheaper) cards as long as they can be written to sufficiently fast. Memory of course is one of those things that's always getting cheaper...

Obviously you have to meet the evidenciary requirements, and that might very well mean a tape camera for now based on what you've stated. HD may take a while to catch on in the legal system <wink>.

Allan Black September 7th, 2010 06:02 PM

Allen .. this might be way off the ballpark, but take a look at these Flip cameras.

Flip Video Camcorders

There's a range, good specs and they're cheap and small. I was involved with the feds here way back and they would have loved these, exactly the opposite to busting into someones bedroom with a tripod.

I take your point about submitting the original media to court but not all of it goes there and an addon DV tape storage device might work.

Allen Campbell September 7th, 2010 06:20 PM


Flip camera eh? Well it's illegal for a PI to window peek in GA. Heh, I'm kind of glad. It keeps me from seeing things I would rather not and keeping my head upon my shoulders.

As for the media it will greatly simplify my life if I just stay with tape for now.

I forgot to ask anyone who has used the VX2100, can you tell me if I can keep the date and time stamp displayed while in playback. This is a must have!

Bill Davis September 7th, 2010 06:30 PM


You might consider the current crop of video-capable DSLRs.

Two factors that GREATLY influence light gathering is the speed of the lens used, and the size/sensitivity of the chip the light is falling on. In both areas, DSLRs are WAAY outperforming camcorders these days.

Something like a Canon 7d with a fast lens and the ISO bumped up, will likely do many times better than a camcorder in low light.

And in SD video mode, you can shoot for a LONG time on a single card - which you can clone for your own files, and submit the original card to the court if the need arrises.

Just a thought.

Allen Campbell September 7th, 2010 07:14 PM


You might consider the current crop of video-capable DSLRs.
It's a thought. I do have a 17-55 & 70-200 in f/2.8 and a 50 1.8 all canon glass. I also have a 300 f/4.

How does the 200mm equate to a 12x video lens?

The 7D is nice I had one for a while and opted to keep my 50D. There is a cheaper build in the 550D that has the same sensor and such. Hmmm? I wonder?

EDIT------- 12x = 420mm on a camera.

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