Shoot Review — Sony HVR-Z1

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The HVR-Z1, sold by Sony's Broadcast & Professional Systems division, is fundamentally the same as the HDR-FX1, sold by the consumer division. However, Sony lists some 40 firmware-enabled features provided by the $5,946 HVR-Z1. Obviously, I am not going to list these features one by one. (You can find them at http://news.sel.sony.com/pressrelease/5331.) Rather, based on my experience testing the camera, I'm going to point out about a dozen features that provide solutions to shooting problems. I will also detail a handful of features that I did not find to be particularly helpful. (See my article “High-Resolution DV” in last month's Video Systems for a broader overview of Sony's HDV camcorders.)

The HVR-Z1 camcorder shares a form factor and a shooting format (1080i HDV) with the consumer-oriented HDR-FX1 but adds many important professional features, such as peaking and audio input level trimming.

Aside from its XLR connectors, the primary feature that distinguishes the Z1 from the FX1 is that it enables you to select between Region 50 and Region 60 modes. Region 50 mode provides PAL DV/DVCAM, 1080i50, and CineFrame 25. Region 60 mode provides NTSC DV/DVCAM, 1080i60, and CineFrame 24 and CineFrame 30.

In addition to a pair of XLRs, the Z1 offers +48V Phantom power, and menu settings that enable you to individually “trim” input level from +12dB to -18dB. This feature allows you, for example, to match any mic to the Z1. The advantages of this are twofold. First, it should prevent input overload prior to the gain control. It also means the manual gain control or automatic gain control will be working at the optimum level. I found the Z1's audio limiter both unobtrusive and very effective — especially when shooting on the streets of New York.

The Z1 allows you to enable peaking and to define its color to white, yellow, or red. However, I did not find this feature to be very useful. For example, imagine you need to focus on two characters. One is holding a knife, and the other is not. When focused, the sharp-edged knife will be outlined nicely in red. However, the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears of the other person will show no red outlines. Moreover, the special magnification mode cannot be used while shooting. Therefore, I relied on auto-focus (AF) and One-Push AF (while in Manual mode). Perhaps because of high image resolution, the AF is amazingly accurate.

A 14-bit A/D accomplishes the conversion of the three signals from the CCDs, and the digital data are then processed by a 14-bit DXP. Both these features and a smarter-than-average auto-exposure (AE) system seem 100-percent effective in preventing highlights from being blown out. I really loved being able to trust both the Z1 and FX1 to record video without the possibility of ugly white areas.

The Z1 includes a Black Stretch mode (see the red curve in Diagram 1, p. 24) that alters the normal video gamma (blue curve) to provide slightly greater mid-tone shadow detail. I think you'll likely want to keep Black Stretch enabled because though the Z1 and FX1 do not overexpose video, they do seem to underexpose. Although you can engage Stretch along with either of the two Cinematone gamma settings, I could not see any change.

The Cinematone settings are gamma functions that decrease mid-tone scene brightness. Cinematone 2 (pink) is the same as provided by the FX1, while the Cinematone 1 setting provides a gamma curve (light blue) that crushes the mid-tones slightly less than does Cinematone 2. I found both Cinematone modes drove shadow details to black, thus unnecessarily decreasing latitude — latitude that was already at least three stops short of what I really needed. Therefore I would be unlikely to use either Cinematone mode in the field.

Of the menu-settable modes, the AE Speed option set to Slow is my absolute favorite. The AE is spot-on, and its only real problem is if something were to cause a momentary fluctuation in the light falling on the lens. By setting the response to Slow, I could move my hand across the lens and not cause any change in overall image brightness. Of course, a real scene illumination change will be handled very gracefully.

Generally, I obtained the best-quality images with the aperture neither fully opened nor fully closed. You can add gain or illumination to keep the iris larger than, say, f/3.6. By setting the Iris Limit menu, you can keep the aperture from closing below f/4, f/6.8, or f/11.

Diagram 1: Z1 Gamma Modes

Of course, you can engage one of the two ND filters to prevent the lens from stopping down. However, the only way to see which ND filter is — or should be — enabled is to note the very, very tiny “1” or “2” subscript following the tiny “ND” symbol. I would prefer to see the setting (1/6 or 1/32) simply displayed.

Because shooting in Region 60 mode in a region 50 country — and vice versa — yields a 10Hz beat flicker from artificial light, the solution is to remember to use 1/60 or 1/100 shutter speed as appropriate. Sony, since the days of Hi8 Handycam, has offered a Flicker Filter that attenuates the 10Hz beat.

If you are like me, you often switch back and forth between looking at the LCD screen and the viewfinder. The Z1 offers you the option of keeping both on. You can also switch the Z1 viewfinder between monochrome and color.

Overall, the optics and electronics of the Z1 are first-rate. However, I did not find the same to be true of the control ergonomics. When you switch from Auto to Manual mode you might expect that you could then make adjustments easily and quickly. This is not the case. To set gain, you must remember first to press the Gain button. Now you use the three-position toggle switch to make the setting. Need to quickly set color balance? Press the White Balance button, set the toggle switch to A or B, and then press and hold the WHT BAL button — a three-step procedure. In fact, if the camcorder were in Hold or Auto mode, it's a four-step process. The shutter speed was another stumbling block. Most of the time, we want a shutter-speed appropriate to the frame rate we are using. However, unless you remember to press the Shutter Speed button, the shutter speed is free to roam.

A menu setting lets you adjust the Preset Exterior color temperature to 3500 degrees Kelvin less and greater than 5800 degrees Kelvin, in steps of 500. When shooting indoors, I found the Manual White Balance to be the most accurate, but not very pleasing. The Preset Interior warmed up skin tones nicely, but the side effect was that other colors were less accurate. None of this is surprising to me because I've always found Sony's colorimetry to be more toward a 9300 degree than a 5600 degree Kelvin standard. This yields a cool image with what seems to be a low yellow component that prevents rich browns.

I tried various values of the camera's Color Level and Sharpness controls. I could not really increase saturation to the level I am used to seeing with some HDCAM video. Lowering Sharpness below the default “12” seemed only to soften the picture — a testament to the fact that the default value yields a picture free from edge enhancement.

With the HVR-Z1 I shot both DV and HDV of the same fine detailed scene — a restaurant menu board. Using HDV, you could almost read the available food items. In DV, you could not read anything. Other than less resolution and greater luminance noise from the DV/DVCAM, there was no difference between the DV video and the HDV video.

If you plan to shoot HDV and use the camcorder's built-in downconverter to DV, I strongly recommend the Z1. Not only does it have a 4:3 “protect” area on the viewfinder and LCD, when you downconvert to DV the camcorder outputs “center-cut” video. If you have shot 4:3-protected HDV video, you will get perfect SD video from the Z1.

Both the HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1 deliver what DV shooters need in our new HD world. However, if you are going to need to handle a wide range of professional shooting assignments, the HVR-Z1 is the obvious choice if you are shooting 1080i.

BOTTOM LINE

Company: Sony
Park Ridge, N.J.; (201) 930-6000
www.sony.com/professional

Product: HVR-Z1 camcorder

Assets: 1080i HDV offers a resolution upgrade over DV, built-in downconversion to DV, first-rate camcorder optics and electronics.

Caveats: Adjusting camera settings in Manual mode generally takes several steps.

Demographic: DV shooters transitioning to HD.
Price: $5,946

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