Praise for the PD150: The Unappreciated Middle Child
by Dan Ballmer, Spring 2002
The Sony PD150 has the same lens element and CCD's as the consumer model VX2000 and the professional model DSR250, and therefore takes a near-identical picture. The VX2000 has an incredible picture but lacks XLR inputs, DVCAM ability, and a B&W viewfinder. It also suffers from the widely publicized "audio hiss" problem that will be discussed later. The expensive (even possibly over-priced) DSR250 has, of course, the professional features which the VX2000 lacks. It is also a much larger shoulder-mounted camera which makes it less manueverable. The price of batteries and the charger for the DSR250, as well as the expense of the full sized DVCAM tapes, makes this model cost-prohibitive for many hobbyists in the DV field.
The PD150 strikes a perfect balance between these two cameras offering all the professional features of the DSR250 (minus the capability to use full-size DVCAM tapes; the PD150 uses Mini-DVCAM or Mini-DV cassettes to record in DVCAM mode), while keeping the compact size and mobility of the VX2000. It's the best of both worlds. While no camcorder could ever be perfect, I believe the PD150 comes the closest to perfection within its price range.
Compared to the Canon XL1
The PD150 has been compared and contrasted with the Canon XL1 numerous times on numerous occasions. Everyone has their opinions on which camera is better and why. As with all pieces of equipment the 'best' choice often depends on the task you're trying to accomplish. Both the PD150 and XL1 are able to shoot professional level video, and in the hands of a professional both can create phenominal pictures. Having said that, I will explain why the PD150 became my personal choice.
Picture Resolution - Playback tests conducted at DV.com showed the XL1 was able to reproduce 460 lines of horizontal resolution. The PD150 played back 500 lines of resolution. That puts the playback resolution of the PD150 8% higher than that of the XL1. Numbers for the XL1s were not available. Some may argue that 8% resolution makes no difference in the overall picture quality. I'm not enough of a technophile to argue this point so I decided to check footage shot with
I used the XL1 to shoot a variety of concerts and orchestras put on by local schools. The lighting of these converts changed with each performance forcing the camera to handle both low light situations and areas of high exposure. The DSR-250, VX2000, and PD150 were put to similar tests; in some cases the XL1 was shooting simultaneously with the Sony counterpart. To my eye the Sony footage handled both low-light and overexposure more gracefully than the Canon. On concerts that required footage from the XL1 and a Sony model to be spliced together the difference was readily apparent. When fully zoomed out the Sony retained a fairly sharp image while the Canon tended to 'blob' the people into rough shapes. With both cameras zoomed in on faces, the performance of the camera images were roughly comparable. I should point out that I was using the original lens that came with the XL1 on these shoots for the most part, though some footage was taken with the Canon 3x wide angle lens.
Audio inputs - The PD150 comes out of the box with two XLR inputs. This is useful in my line of videography work where often I am forced to connect to a sound engineer's mixing board, or when I'm using professional shotgun or wireless mics. The Canon XL1 comes with a 1/8" mini-plug audio input as well as a two pairs of stereo RCA inputs. These connections aren't really useful for any of the microphones I personally work with. XLR adapters can be added to the XL1 for an additional cost, but my preference was not to pay extra for them.
Viewfinder - The PD150 comes equipped with a 500 line B&W LCD viewfinder. It also is equipped with a flip out color LCD screen. The B&W viewfinder is useful for achieving critical focus while the color LCD allows me to check color balance and 'shoot from the hip' easily. The XL1 comes with a color viewfinders that is often more difficult for me to achieve focus with. Both a B&W viewfinder and a LCD screen may be purchased and added to the XL1.
DVCAM Capability - DVCAM will allow you to lock a frame of audio with a frame of video. The PD150 can do it, the XL1 cannot. Is this an *important* feature? Not especially. But if you're paying the same price for either camcorder why not get this additional feature?
Note: The strength of the Canon XL1 (in this author's opinion) lies in its modularity. While the XL1 lacks many of the pro features the PD150 has straight out of the box, many of these features may be added for additional costs. The XL1 has an interchangeable lens system that makes it popular with a variety of film/video people. However, I would submit that the added
cost of XLR inputs, a B&W viewfinder, and additional lenses would upset the price balance currently shared between the PD150 and the XL1. At such a point, the comparison would no longer be between two similarly priced cameras.
Film Maker's Friend
The PD150 is an excellent camera choice for the independent film maker. Two movies shot with the PD150 won awards at the highly respected Sundance Film Festival of 2002. They were Personal Velocity, by Rebecca Miller, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (Ellen Kuras, the Director of Photography for this movie, also won the Best Cinematography Award), and Gary Winick's Tadpole won the Best Direction Award at Sundance.
Add to those accomplishments David Lynch, Director of Dune, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive shot a Playstation2 spot with the PD150.
Manic, a movie starring Don Cheadle and slated for release in 2003, was shot with a PD150. Australian director David No is also using a PD150 in his productions. The widespread use of the PD150 in professional movie making is a testament to its abilities. With its relatively low price, multitude of professional features, and amazing picture, I feel comfortable calling the PD150 a true filmmaker's friend.
Upon its initial release, many Sony users were terrified to find that the PD150 (and VX2000) had an audible audio hiss problem. The problem manifested itself when the camera was taken out of Audio Gain Control (AGC) and placed in manual audio mode. For a time, Sony denied the hiss problem existed, but eventually relented under mounting consumer pressure. The PD150's owners were
offered a fix, and all PD150's created after serial #1003300 (approx.) were shipped free of this problem. Unfortunately Sony considers the VX2000 a 'consumer' model camera and therefore refused to fix the audio hiss problem on this model.
The PD150 is an all around excellent value for its price. It is unfortunate that the early audio hiss problem and peoples tendency to go with the cheaper VX2000 model have deprived so many folks of the opportunity to use this camera. If you ever have a chance to pick up a PD150 and shoot some footage with it I encourage you to do so. The footage can be truly mesmerising to watch. Until something better comes along I'll be inseparable from my PD150.
Dan Ballmer is a professional videographer and a fledgling independent movie maker. His company, Beyond Imagination Video, was founded in March of 2002. Before his self employment, he shot video for Superior Productions of Marquette, Michigan, winner of multiple Telly and WEVA awards. His projects in videography have allowed him to work with a wide variety of cameras including the TRV900, DSR250, XL1, VX2000, and PD150. His experience is mainly in the field of wedding and event videography, though he has shot TV commercials, cable-access broadcasts, and independent film. He does not wear an aluminum foil hat, nor does Sony own the rights to his soul.
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Written by Dan Ballmer
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