by Steven Trent Smith
Here we have the cat’s meow. In three decades of shooting video I have
never come across a camera I like as much as Sony’s new DV format,
high-definition HVR-Z1U. Okay, I waxed eloquently about Panasonic’s
SDX-900 and DVX-100, and I still believe they are impressive
camcorders. The SDX-900 remains my first choice of “Big” cameras. But
for a variety of reasons, the Z1 takes things to a whole new level.
This machine records in three formats: standard definition miniDV,
DVCam, and high def HDV 1080i. There has already been grousing about
Sony’s decision to use interlace instead of progressive scan.
But the company has long been an advocate of the former. The Z1
employs the basic HDV format, agreed upon by many manufacturers in
Japan. The only other entry in the HDV race, thus far, is JVC’s 720p
camcorder. But Panasonic is not far behind. Word is that they’ll be
introducing the AG-HVX200 at NAB later this month, which will record
on a P2 card in either 720p or 1080i.
While the DVCam format records at 28.218mm a second, both the DV and
HDV record at 18.812mm. So, a sixty minute tape really is sixty
minutes. I almost forgot to mention that the Z1 records either NTSC or
The HVR-Z1U uses newly developed 1/3-inch CCD’s that have a pixel
count of an astonishing one million, three times the resolution of the
chips in the PD-170. And for the first time in DV (and this is the
really cool thing), the CCD’s are true 16:9 widescreen.
From lens cap to eyecup the Z1 is fourteen inches long, and weighs in
at four and one-half pounds. That makes it a couple of inches shorter
than Sony’s poplar PD-170, and over a pound heavier. With a power
consumption of eight watts, the Z1 eats batteries at twice the pace of
the PD, but you still have lots of tape time. Sony has moved the tape
compartment back to the left side of the camera (where it was on the
pioneering VX-1000), and moved the LCD monitor to the front, on top of
the handle. The battery compartment remains at the rear, but is deep
enough now to hold the largest batteries without having them interfere
with the viewfinder. The lens cap is integral to the hood – a sort of
shutter-like aperture you can open with the flick of a lever.
Speaking of the lens, Sony worked a deal with Carl Zeiss to design a
Vario-Sonnar T* 12x zoom. This is equivalent to 32.5 – 390mm on a 35mm
camera. The front diameter of the lens has been increased to 72mm.
More about its performance later in the review.
Now let’s take a closer look at the HVR-Z1U.
The left side of the camcorder has a lot more buttons than we’ve seen
on earlier Sony offerings. Along the base is an array that includes
Iris, Gain, White Balance and Shutter buttons, letting you switch
between On/Off or Auto/Manual. An adjacent Auto Lock switch can Hold
the settings for you.
Taking a cue from Big cameras, Sony has added a three-position White
Balance switch that lets you store two settings (A and B) or use the
Z1’s indoor or outdoor Preset. The outdoor mode defaults to 5800K, but
you can adjust it up or down in seven steps of 500K. To take a manual
white balance, you need to press either A or B and hit the one-push
switch just above.
There is also a three-position switch for Gain control: Low (0dB) ,
Medium (+9dB) and High (+18dB). Using the menus you can change these
default settings to suit your needs.
At the front of the base, just below the lens, is the Iris dial. When
set to manual, you turn this to set your F-stop (1.6 to 11), which
you’ll see in the viewfinder. The annoying stepping-effect so common
in the earlier Sony DV’s appears to be gone.
The neutral density control is just above, and works like that on the
VX and PD cameras. There are two filters (1/6 and 1/32) and Off. The
camera will tell you when it thinks it needs ND by flashing a message
on the screen.
The Zoom control switch lets you go from motorized zoom to manual
Sony has thoughtfully provided a lever on the zoom ring.
The Focus switch has three positions: Auto, Manual and Infinity. The
Auto mode is more positive than ever, meaning that the noisome
“seeking” is pretty much gone.
Infinity shifts the focus to – you guessed it – infinity. And just
below this switch is Push Auto, which when depressed will focus the
lens on whatever you’re aiming at. On top of the camera is an Expanded
Focus button. This digitally doubles the picture for five seconds to
help you focus better. But it didn’t help me one bit. There is a
primitive focus read-out in the viewfinder. But instead of the
double-digits used by Panasonic, you see the distance in meters. This
is not all helpful when you need to do an accurate, repeatable pull
focus from one subject to another. At least I think you see distance
values. There is nothing in the manual about this, and I’m writing
without the Z1 in front of me. C’est la vie.
The cassette door is on the left side. And just in back of it are two
audio level controls, which we’ll get to further along.
There are six additional buttons on this side – three aligned
vertically and three horizontally. Called the Assign buttons, they
constitute one of the neatest features of the Z1. Using the menus you
can choose between fifteen different, valuable functions to assign to
these buttons. The most useful of the choices are Color Bars (full
SMPTE bars, for a change), Steadyshot (much improved over earlier
versions), Viewfinder Marker (to delineate your safe area), and Hyper
Gain (+36dB gain with lots of noise, but a still useable picture).
Let’s go check out the right side.
The major feature is the handgrip and zoom control. The usual On/Off
switch is in its usual place. There are a pair of XLR connectors
toward the front, each with a switch for phantom powering microphones.
Under a flap live three more connectors: S Video, Analogue Component
Output and Audio/Video In/Out. A special cable, included with the
camera, plugs into the Component connector to output a Y/PB/PR signal
for monitoring high def. On the top back of the grip you’ll find the
Lanc and Headset jacks. There is a connector block toward the rear,
which is where you output HDV and DV via Firewire.
The rear of the HVR-Z1U has a bunch of controls, the most familiar of
which are the Menu button and Sel/Push Exec (Sony-talk for the dial
that lets you scroll down the menus and select items). The most
interesting of the buttons are Picture Profile and P-Menu. As you’ll
see, these allow you to set and access recording modes and values.
There’s also a Zebra/Peaking switch.
The top of the camcorder is chock-a-block full of stuff. There’s the
usual adjustable angle viewfinder. Instead of being just B&W, like on
the PD-170, it’s full color and very sharp. With the menus you can
adjust the color or remove it entirely. The usual handle-mounted
Start/Stop and Zoom buttons are there, but with an extra switch to let
you set the zoom speed from High to Low to Off.
Then we get to the piece de resistance – the LCD screen.
This 3.5” high resolution screen sits on the top front of the camera.
A nifty swivel lets you pull it out and pivot it to suit your viewing
needs. It can store LCD down or LCD up. And when the LCD faces up,
both it and the viewfinder are on simultaneously. The screen hides a
whole bunch more buttons, like volume control, time code settings,
playback controls, and a master reset switch. There is also a standard
microphone clamp on top.
That about covers the physical layout of the Z1U. Let’s dig a little
deeper, starting with the lens.
The Vario-Sonnar T* is an impressive piece of glass. Sony is so proud
of it, they have three paragraphs describing how wonderful it is on
page 128 of the manual. And it is wonderful; by far crisper than
anything Sony has ever put on a miniDV camera. The images are sharp as
a tack, and the lens has a bit more contrast than I’ve seen before.
The company offers a special wide-angle adaptor, which was not
available when I was checking out the camera.
As I noted earlier, the Picture Profile feature is pretty cool. You
can choose between any of six profile memories. They come from the
factory set up thusly:
PP1 – Standard HDV mode.
PP2 – Standard DVCam format.
PP3 – And I quote, “Appropriate setting to record people.” Huh?
PP4 – Film mode.
PP5 – “Appropriate setting to record sunset.”
PP6 – B&W.
That’s how the Z1 arrives. But you have direct control over myriad
parameters that you can load into a custom profile. Among these are
Color Level, Color Phase (hue), Sharpness, White Balance Shift, and
Years ago Ikegami, at the urging of ABC, developed a circuit
officially known as “Skin Tone Detail,” but better known on West 66th
Street as the “Barbara Walters Mode.” What this lets you do is
suppress facial wrinkles without affecting any other part of the
picture, using flesh tones. This is a feature now common on Big
cameras, but new to the little guys.
Your profile can also employ Cinema-Tone, which alters the gamma to
produce more film-like images. Cine-Frame lets you choose between
24fps, 25fps and 30fps recording. Or as Sony puts it, “Pictures are
recorded with a cinema-like atmosphere.” To my eye, the 24fps setting
looked very jerky when played back on a monitor (in this case, a 42”
Sony Professional Plasma display). The 30fps mode, however, looked
terrific. If you don’t need to transfer to film, by all means shoot at
30fps to get a smooth, good-looking cine effect.
A whole new world opens up to you when you go into the Menu settings.
You can, for example, do color correction in the camera. While I’d
prefer to do that in editing, there may be times when you want to
tweak the color in the field. There are two separate modes. Color
Revision and Color Extract. You can select a color to fiddle with. For
example, you can decide that you want all but a particular range of
reds to record in black and white. Or you could change a blue sky to
pink or green. Using the phase, range and saturation adjustments you
can pick the color you want to isolate, and even change it. What will
they think of next?
Through the menus you can access all sorts of things. Steadyshot isn’t
just on or off. You can also increase the effect by clicking on Hard,
decrease it with Soft, or, when you’re using a wide angle converter,
select a Steadyshot specifically for that purpose.
The Marker lets you choose between 16:9 and 4:3 frame lines, as well
as TV safe. You can choose to set the Zebra anywhere from 70 to 100
IRE, in five unit increments. You can even decide whether you want
your Setup level (i.e., Black) at 0% or 7.5%. Yoicks. It appears that
Sony has done away with the Time-Lapse feature on the Z1, instead
adding Frame Record, which can do stop-motion recording (animation).
The audio setup menu will be familiar to anyone used to working with a
PD-150/170 or even the DVX-100. There are mainly just a bunch more
choices than before. You can set monitoring to be both channels 1 and
2, or listen to just one in your headsets. You have access to the
audio limiter, which I tend to leave on. One nice feature is that you
can separate the AGC, so that it’s only on one channel. You can select
your microphones, noise reduction, wind noise reduction and
sensitivity.In the XLR section of the audio menu you’re able to trim
the input levels of either channel, and even add wind reduction for
external mics. When this mode is selected a little wind sock appears
in the viewfinder. Cute.
The next menu is for the LCD screen and viewfinder. There are controls
to adjust the color levels of both viewing devices. Plus you can set
the backlight level on the screen and brightness of the finder.
The In/Out menu is new and it’s important, for here you select your
recording format between the three options: HDV1080i, DV or DVCam. If
you record in 4:3 you can set the way the picture will be displayed
both in the finders and on a monitor.
The HVR-Z1U has a sophisticated downconverter built in to it. Using
this set of menus you can choose to output in HDV or DV. And you can
also select whether the converted signal goes out as 16:9, squeezed,
letterboxed or edge cropped.
The time code functions, as well as user bit settings, are all fully
accessible in the menu, as are various items like setting the clock,
turning on or off the red recording lights, and even the rotation
direction of the Iris knob. One handy feature here lets you set the
zoom display in numbers (0-99), like on the Panasonic DVX-100. Alas,
there is no such choice for focus.
So, in a nutshell, that’s all the stuff in the Z1. But how does it all
work? Pretty niftily, I would say.
The camera handles like most other DV types, though it’s a bit
heavier. I did find the handgrip on the Z1 to be less comfortable than
on my PD-150. I tend to shoot using the viewfinder rather than the
LCD. Normally both are not on simultaneously, but if you fold the LCD
back into its storage position, with the screen facing outward it
displays a picture at the same time the finder is on. That was a
useful feature for me. The 16:9 finder is sharp. There’s lots of room
for icons, which can clutter the image if you’re not careful.
With practice you can learn to “feel out” the array of buttons down
the left side of the camera, so that flipping on Gain or flipping in
ND becomes second nature. The same goes for accessing the menu button
and dial at the back of the camera. Switching the Picture Profile is
quite easy, though in practice you’ll probably only do it once, at the
beginning of a project. For my tests I shot at a variety of frame
rates in both 1080 high def and 480 standard def, which I set up in
the PP’s beforehand. I like Sony’s placement of the VTR controls under
the LCD. They’re a lot handier now than when they were hidden by the
Shooting with the Z1 is a pleasure. It seems to handle more like a big
camera, in the sense that you can respond more quickly to fast moving
situations than with other DV’s. This may sound strange, but I felt
that using this camera was more intuitive.
Minimum illumination for the Z1 is 3 lux, whereas on the PD-170 it’s 1
lux (the PD-150 was 2 lux). Given all the other great features, this
didn’t strike me as a serious shortcoming. You can always go to +36
Hyper Gain if you have to get a picture under horrible conditions, but
it’s awfully noisy.