An interview with Doug Jensen
Doug Jensen is a 25-year veteran of the television and video production industry, with experience in all phases of production. He has worked extensively as a free-lance network cameraman and owns a video production company called Vortex Media. Vortex Media also manufactures production tools such as Warm Cards, Storm Jackets, MediaFiler 3.0, and VortexHD Stock Footage. Jensen has written, directed, and co-produced the HandsOnHD series of training videos for such cameras as the EX1, EX3, F350 and the Z1. As a member of Sony's I.C.E. Team (Independent Certified Expert), he has been called upon by Sony to teach HD work flow classes at NAB and provide camera demonstrations for the press and selected customers. He wrote, produced and presented Vortex Media's training DVD titled "Mastering the Sony PMW-EX1" and has just completed production on Vortex Media's three-hour training DVD titled "Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U and S270."
Jensen owns several cameras, including a Sony PMW-EX3, Sony PMW-EX1, Sony HVR-Z7U, Sony PDW-F350 XDCAM HD, Sony HVR-Z1U, and an Ikegami HL59 Betacam. His credits and clients include: NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, PBS, BBC, NHK, EBU, TNT, Discovery, ESPN, E!, A&E, HGTV, WGBH, Food Network, NASCAR Images, MLB Productions, Travel Channel, Discovery, History Channel, Sundance Channel, and NBA Entertainment.
B&H: What is the Sony HVR-Z7U?
The HVR-Z7U and its bigger shoulder-mount brother, the HVR-S270U, are the latest models in Sony's line of HDV camcorders. Both of them provide a very impressive evolution from previous Sony HDV cameras with many significant changes and improvements. I think Sony has obviously taken the feedback they got from owners of their earlier HDV camcorders and used that information to come up with a camera that better suits the needs of experienced professionals.
|The SONY HVR-Z7U
B&H: What are the differences between the Z7U and the S270?
On the inside they are basically the same camera. However, the S270 has a shoulder-mount design, it accepts longer-length tapes, it has HD-SDI output instead of HDMI, it uses different batteries, and it offers four channels of audio but other than that, the cameras are pretty much identical.
B&H: What has been your previous experience with HDV camcorders?
Before Vortex Media switched to XDCAM as our primary acquisition format in 2006, the Z1 was our workhorse camera from the first day we got it in early 2005. At that time we had a couple of high-end Ikegami Betacams and a 2/3" DVCAM camcorder that we could have continued to use for our own productions but we didn't want toThe images coming out of the Z1 simply looked better. And I'm not talking about comparing SD to HD because we didn't really make the jump to HD until a few months later. I've been telling people for years that with the right Picture Profile settings the Z1 shooting in SD mode looked better than our $50,000 Betacam. We were willing to put up with the quirky exposure controls, non-shoulder mount, non-removable lens and other shortcomings in order to get a better final image on screen. Other than the Z1, and now the Z7U, I haven't had any experience with Sony's other HDV camcorders such as the A1U and V1U.
B&H: So, how does the Z7U compare to the Z1?
If you're asking about picture quality, they are very close. I don't know precisely which one looks better because I've never taken the time to set the two cameras up side-by-side and have a shootout. Why not? Because that kind of comparison doesn't matter to me. The Z7U is the better camera in so many other ways that whether or not it offers slightly better picture quality doesn't matter very much. Although the Z1 uses three 1/3" CCD's and the Z7U uses three 1/3" CMOS sensors, any difference in picture quality is negligible to the casual viewer.
B&H: Then why would someone choose a Z7U over a Z1?
After having just finished a very detailed three-hour training DVD for the Z7U, I could probably make a list of a couple of dozen reasons why the Z7U is clearly the superior camera. The first three items on that list would be: 1) An interchangeable lens system; 2) native progressive shooting modes; and 3) tapeless recording on CompactFlash cards. If any one of those three features is important to someone shopping for a new camera, then the extra cost of stepping up to a Z7U is well worth it.
B&H: Can you tell us more about the tapeless recording system?
Every Z7U comes with an accessory called a HVR-MRC1 Memory Recording Unit (MRU). The MRU is one of the best things about the Z7U because it offers the option of recording HDV, DVCAM, or DV video onto standard CompactFlash memory cards while simultaneously recording to tape. You can even record HD on one and SD on the other if you want to. The MRU attaches directly to the back of the Z7U and thus eliminates the need for any cables or extra batteries of its own. Plus, the unit automatically synchronizes with the recording action of the camcorder so you can just turn it on and pretty much forget about it until you're done shooting.
For anyone who is still shooting on tape, the MRU makes a good stepping stone into the world of a tapeless work flow because you can still record on tape at the same time. Except for the occasional use of my Z1, I've been shooting 99% tapeless for about two and half years and I absolutely love it. You couldn't pay me to go back to shooting on tape. Everyone will be going tapeless sometime in the future. Maybe not this year or next year, but soon so you might as well get your feet wet now.
There are many advantages to keep in mind when going tapeless with the Z7U: Every time you press the record button you are creating a new, stand-alone video clip. Ingesting footage from a CompactFlash card to your hard drive is about 4 times faster than capturing in real-time from a tape. There are no more hassles with broken time code or batch capture errors. There is no chance of edge damage, dropouts, or other physical problems. You never have to waste time laying down bars and tone. And you'll never spend money buying tape again unless you want to record on tape simultaneously.
B&H: How does the Z7's CompactFlash system compare to the EX1 and EX3's SxS cards?
I don't think anyone who has used both systems would say that the MRU is as sophisticated, or as easy to use as the SxS memory cards used on the EX camcorders. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the CF recording because it works great; it's just that I've gotten spoiled by using XDCAM. However, when you factor in the ability to record simultaneously to videotape, and the much lower cost of the CompactFlash memory cards, then you can see the relative merits of the Z7U.
With Final Cut Pro, I just select the clips I want to import with the "Log and Transfer" function and they ingest at about 4x real time. In other words, 60 minutes of footage takes about 15 minutes to import. Apple has some work to do on this part of the work flow, and I'm looking forward to getting a software update whenever it is ready. Occasionally I had clips that didn't want to import directly into FCP, but I was able to transfer them using a free program called "MPEG Streamclip" instead. I have never lost any footage on a CF card so I consider it 100% reliable so far.
B&H: Do you have to use special CompactFlash cards? How much time can you get on a card?
Any ordinary CF card that is at least 133x and has 2GB capacity will work. While I was putting the Z7U through its paces for Vortex Media's training DVD, we tried several cards with different capacities, made by several brands, and they all worked well. A 16GB CompactFlash card holds about 75 minutes of footage. That's 25% more than you can get on 60-minute HDV tape.
What I've been doing is recording HDV on both the CF card and tape at the same time. Then I've been ingesting and editing with clips from the CF card and putting the tape on the shelf as one of my two permanent archives and backups.
B&H: You mentioned the Z7U has progressive shooting modes. How does that differ from previous HDV camcorders?
Like other cameras in Sony's HDV and XDCAM product lines, the Z7U offers quite a few options for recording modes. It can be switched between HDV, DVCAM, and DV recording modes thus providing full flexibility to shoot either Standard-Definition or High-Definition video, depending on your production needs. In the SD modes you can even choose between 4 x 3 or 16 x 9. One thing the Z7U can't do is any PAL modes.
As far as I know, the Z7U and S270 are Sony's first HDV camcorders to offer native progressive recording modes so you can capture true 1080P. You can choose either 24P or 30P. Previously, Sony's HDV cameras had what's called "Progressive Scan" modes which were really just disguised interlaced modes. Now you can shoot HDV with true progressive. The Z7U still offers the "scan" modes if someone needs to remain backwards-compatible with other gear or work flows.
At Vortex Media, we own an M25U HDV deck that cannot play back the native progressive modes, so I'd have to use the camcorder itself if I wanted to capture footage from tape. Fortunately, this is a non-issue for me because I'm doing all my footage ingesting from the CF cards instead.
B&H: What can you tell us about the interchangeable lens system?
One of the reasons many people will probably choose the Z7U over other HDV camcorders is that it has a removable lens. But fortunately, the 12x Zeiss lens that comes with the camera isn't too bad, so replacing the lens should be viewed solely as an "option" because it certainly isn't mandatory for shooting excellent video. The stock lens is very sharp, fast, and has a decent zoom range on it. For many people, it will suit their needs just fine.
A nice thing about the Z7U and S270 is that that they have a standard 1/3" bayonet mount and there are plenty of existing options available from manufacturers such as Fujinon and Canon available right now. Fujinon was kind enough to lend me a 13 x 3.5 wide-angle lens that we demonstrate in the training DVD and it really made a difference in the "feel" of the whole camcorder. Even though the stock Zeiss lens is pretty good, there's just no substitute for having a real, honest-to-goodness broadcast lens that feels just like all the other Fujinon lenses I've been shooting with for nearly 30 years.
There are also optional adapters available for mounting ½" lenses, 2/3" lenses, and even SLR lenses to the camera. Of course, a side effect with any lens that isn't built for a 1/3" sensor will be an apparent focal length magnification factor. My ½" Fujinon HSs18 x 5.5 increases the focal length by 1.3x which is great for sports and wildlife.
One thing to keep in mind for anyone who likes to use autofocus and/or SteadyShot only the stock lens and the optional wide-angle Zeiss lens are likely to offer those features.
B&H: You said earlier that there at least a couple dozen reasons the Z7U is better than other HDV camcorders. What are some of the others you haven't mentioned yet?
For one thing, the lens isn't servo-driven like the lens on the Z1, so you are in direct physical control of the focus, zoom, and iris adjustments. The Z7U's iris ring is located right on the barrel of the lens where it ought to be, and you can adjust the iris "live" without any of the stepping effects you see on the Z1. In fact, all of the exposure controls are now easier to change manually. The Z1 always seemed like a camera that was designed for running on automatic control, and switching to manual was a hassle. It's not that way on the Z7U. In auto-exposure mode you can even customize the metering pattern.
Light sensitivity is very much improved on the Z7U, probably because of the CMOS sensors. Like I said, I haven't done any side-by-side testing of the Z1 and Z7U, but my general impression is that the Z7U is perhaps 4-5 stops faster. That is a huge difference! I've been shooting everything with the Z7U, even in some nighttime locations, at -3db gain.
You can now use both zebra and peaking simultaneously. There's a new bubble indicator shown on the viewfinder to let you know if the camera isn't level. There are a couple of histogram options available, plus a brand new feature for follow-focus called Focus Marking. There's an HDMI output connector (the S270 has HD-SDI) which makes HD monitoring easier. The LCD panel has four times as many pixels as the Z1, and the regular viewfinder is greatly improved. The small servo zoom control on top of the handle has a variable speed option. One thing that hasn't changed is the batteries. Any battery that works on the Z1 will also fit the Z7U.
B&H: Can the Z7U do time-lapse, slow-motion, or slow shutter like the EX1?
Yes and no. The Z7U can do slow-shutter effects with exposures down to Ό second, but it doesn't do slow-motion and time-lapse quite like the EX cameras.
The Z7U has a mode that Sony calls "interval recording," and that's a good term for it. The slowest interval between captures is 30 seconds, and 15 frames per capture is the shortest duration. Those limitations just don't allow you to get high-end smooth flowing time-lapse effects as can be done with the EX1 and EX3.
The camera doesn't have true under/over cranking like the XDCAM camcorders. What it has is a mode called "Smooth Slow Recording" that captures 240 fields per second for a few seconds into an internal buffer, and then lays the effect down to tape. The effect is incredibly smooth and can slow things down to Ό speed or less. However, it only works in brief bursts, and the resolution of the picture is diminished a little.
Even though both of these special-effects modes have some limitations, they are still useful tools to have in your bag of tricks.
B&H: How does the Z7U change your work flow?
I've already had a tapeless work flow with XDCAM for two and half years so the Z7U's CompactFlash recording hasn't changed it very much. Once you go tapeless, there's no looking back. HDV footage can be easily integrated into any HD post-production work flow. Once you get the footage from the card and into your computer, it's just like any other footage. Whatever works for you now will work for you with the Z7U. Even if you're still editing SD productions, the Z7U fits in fine. I've been shooting 100% HD footage for almost three years, and yet 90% of my post-production work is still done on SD timelines. It's no big deal working with HD clips. In fact, I'll miss the days of SD editing when it comes to an end because of the advantages I get with scan/pan effects and cropping HD footage in an SD sequence. My advice is to shoot everything in HD now, whether you need it or not today, so you future-proof your footage!
B&H: It seems the closest competitor to the Z7U is the EX1. Why would someone choose one over the other?
There are so many factors to consider when evaluating which camera to buy that I would never presume to recommend one camera over another. Everybody's needs are different. That's why Sony has dozens of HD camcorders ranging in price from a couple thousand dollars up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an F35. However, with that said, if you want to keep shooting on tape while transitioning to a tapeless work flow, if you want to be able to change lenses, if you still need to shoot SD sometimes, if you need to stay compatible with an existing HDV workflow, or if you want a camera that is more comfortable for hand-held shooting, then the Z7U might make the best choice.
Jensen's training DVD, "Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U and S270," is available at the B&H SuperStore.
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