Right off the bat, the GY-HD250U is a breath of fresh air in the small digital-camcorder arena. The JVC designers have adopted many professional camcorder functions and incorporated them into this camera — what JVC calls “compact shoulder form” — while seamlessly integrating the common benefits of a small digital prosumer camera.
Upon picking up the camera, I noted that the gain switches, white-balance settings and power switch were exactly where I would expect to find them on a full-sized professional camera, easily accessible to the left hand and controlled through the same switches and buttons with which I am accustomed. This was wonderful to see. The 250 is designed for field operation as well as the studio — no fumbling for buttons at the back or top of the camera while shooting handheld. Everything you need on the fly is immediately and comfortably accessible to either hand in natural shooting positions.
The camera has a 1/3" bayonet mount and can accept many available professional ENG lenses; adapters are available to accept 1/2" and 2/3" lens mounts. An additional benefit to this, beyond the flexibility of choosing the best lens for your application and price range, is that the iris control is actually a physical iris in the individual lenses, not an electronic dial or switch on the camera body.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is also a 250,000-pixel 3.5" color TFT LCD flip-out screen. This is not something you’d expect to find on a professional camera, but in the world of small-camera digital video such screens are invaluable. I was excited to see this low-end feature integrated into a high-end camera.
Other great features of the 250 are a padded speaker on the left side that enables the operator to casually monitor sound while shooting. It’s comfortably placed and quite functional. The “compact shoulder form” is exactly what the term implies: a camera that sits very comfortably on your shoulder and weighs a mere 10 pounds with viewfinder, microphone, Fujinon 16x lens, and Anton-Bauer Dionic90 battery. An additional feature is the viewfinder extension (with an adjustable range of over 2.5"!) that allows you to shoot from right or left eye, offering incredible flexibility. The physical design of the camera is the best of both worlds, prosumer and professional.
Digging deeper, I found the menu control to be a bit clumsy. To access the camera’s main menu, you must press the menu button and the shutter control wheel. This is frustrating, and I can’t imagine any benefit that would outweigh the inconvenience of struggling to get to the menus, which I was rarely able to easily do with my left hand while holding the camera. Even when I put the camera down, turned it around and used my right hand, it often took two or three tries to get into the menu; I often went into the first page of the menu — one step too far — because I had inadvertently pressed the button too many times. I wanted to easily access the camera’s menu on the fly, but I was never really able to do that because of the two-button requirement.
The GY-HD250U is a 1/3" 3-CCD native 16:9 HDV camera. The imager is 4.864mm x 2.739mm, giving it a diagonal of 5.5mm (for a lens equivalent of 2.3x to 16mm). I tested two Fujinon lenses with it, the Th16x5.5BRMU (5.5mm to 88mm, provided by Birns & Sawyer in Hollywood) — one of the standard lenses offered in available JVC packages — and the HTS18x4.2BRM (4.2mm to 76mm, provided by JVC). Both lenses had a considerable amount of breathing but had very clean, medium-contrast images. With ENG lenses, the right-hand grip is on the lens, including the zoom rocker, VTR start/stop button, and other controls (depending on the lens). This makes the camera very easy to hold, and with the handgrip at the front of the camera, the balance is distributed more evenly.
JVC also manufactures its own film-lens adapter, the HZ-CA13U, which connects to the 1?3" bayonet mount and can accept any PL cine lens. This is not like many other adapters on the market; rather, it is more of a standard extension tube with only a single element to help refocus the cine lens’ image directly onto the camera’s imager. Such a simple adapter has exponentially fewer elements than even the standard ENG lens, and as a result, is actually a full 2 stops faster than standard lenses.
With the Fujinon lenses, I tested the camera’s ISO and found a result between 200 and 320 in 24p mode and 500 in 30p mode. With the Cine Adapter, I was surprised to find the ISO to be 1000 to 1250 in 24p mode. The camera is designed to work seamlessly with this kind of adapter; it has a menu function for flipping the viewfinder image so you can operate without requiring additional optical elements to flip the viewing and recorded image.
Focusing mainly on narrative cinematography as opposed to newsgathering or event videography, I tested the camera primarily in 24p mode with Cine Gamma turned on. I put the camera through a series of technical tests, examining the ISO, latitude and color reproduction, and then put it through its paces in a full day of shooting on a seven-minute short film shot in a practical location with very minimal lighting.
Through the generous assistance of Bill Meurer and Steven Tobenkin of Birns & Sawyer, I was able to test the camera and the HA-CA13U adapter with a full complement of 16mm Zeiss Superspeed lenses, in addition to several of the accessories Birns & Sawyer manufactures specifically for the JVC 250.
One of the first accessories that caught my eye was the handheld bracket. I have found that most handheld brackets aren’t comfortable — I’m generally happier just holding the lens rods — but this one was flexible enough to set the camera perfectly on my shoulder and center the weight naturally between my hands and shoulder. Working handheld, which is common with small digital cameras, is painful when all the weight is only on your arms all day long. The 250 has a very comfortable weight, and with the Birns & Sawyer handheld bracket I could move around all day long without discomfort. This is a wonderful accessory, especially with the Cine Adapter on the camera, because the adapter does not have a handgrip (like ENG lenses).
Testing the camera’s latitude, I found a very limited high end of about 2-21?2 stops of overexposure to loss of detail; with underexposure, I found 4-4 1/2 stops to loss of detail. As with all digital media, there is greater shadow sensitivity, but there is also a good deal of noise that comes with underexposure. Determining wherein the noise crossed the threshold of acceptability was no small feat. Unfortunately, due to extremely limited support for the JVC ProHD (or what should be called HDV Pro) format, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the footage through a full workflow. ProHD can only be played in JVC ProHD decks; Sony and Panasonic do not have decks that support the format. Of the 15 post facilities I consulted in Los Angeles, only one had support for JVC ProHD: Digital Film Tree. Unfortunately, their schedule was so packed that we were not able to book time to review my test footage in their workflow. Ramy Katric, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said Digital Film Tree generally advises clients to “transfer off of HDV as quickly as possible. When they come in with HDV footage, we’ll usually bump that up to HDCam SR right away and take it from there.”
The HDV format has always struck me as a rushed concept intended to get “high definition” into the hands of tech-savvy consumers. On paper, it is an extreme compromise, trying to force a 1280x720 image or, worse, a 1920x1080 image onto a tiny MiniDV tape. It utilizes the same language as DVDs — MPEG2 compression in GOPs, or Groups of Pictures — to achieve this data squeeze, taking what should be at least 100 megabytes per second (MB/s) and cramming it into 25 MB/s (19.7MB/s in the case of JVC ProHD HDV), exactly the same data rate as standard-definition (720x480) MiniDV. The difficulty I had trying to find a post workflow for my HDV footage confirmed my initial trepidation about the format, and some of the results I eventually saw left me more puzzled than satisfied.
Before I started testing, I understood that Final Cut Pro HD, an early supporter of the HDV format (even back to version 4), could work with JVC ProHD. Then I discovered that only Final Cut version 5.1.2 could work with the format, but not in 60p. (Avid claims it will offer support for ProHD in the future.) Unfortunately, I only had Final Cut 5.1.14, as did Blissium, a professional editorial house in Santa Monica that I was using at the time. I contacted three other professional editorial facilities that feature Final Cut Pro HD systems, and they, too, only had Final Cut 5.1.14. (While I was doing this test, Final Cut announced version 6 — FCP Studio 2 — but I did not have the opportunity to test this footage with it.)
The upgrade from 5.1.14 to 5.1.2 costs $700 (buying 5.1.2 new costs $1,300) and requires an operating-system upgrade from OSX to OSX Tiger. Apple, instead, generously provided me with a new Intel Core Duo 2 MacBook for this review, and JVC sent me the BR-HD50U ProHD deck. This deck integrated with the MacBook well via FireWire 400 (IEEE 1394), and I had no problems capturing, editing and working with multiple layers of ProHD footage. At the time of my test, I had JVC’s new DT-V24L1U 24" LCD HD monitor, and I used it throughout my testing.
The BR-HD50U deck has three options for HD output: analog HD component, FireWire 400 and HDMI. The camera has an HD-SDI output, so why doesn’t the deck? On the JVC 24" LCD, I was startled by the level of noise evident in underexposure. I viewed live footage from the camera as well as playback of recorded media from the camera, both via HD-SDI, and playback from the deck via the HD analog component output. Even at 2 stops under, the noise levels were beyond what I would consider acceptable. On playback, any noise I noted in live viewing turned into horribly aliased and blocky artifacts. But later, through the assistance of Birns & Sawyer, I reviewed the test footage using the BR-HD50U deck and a Sony BVM-D20F1U HD CRT and noticed very different results. Even as far as 41?2 stops underexposed (the point of loss of detail), the noise levels were quite acceptable, and I didn’t see any overly obtrusive aliasing or blocky artifacts. I cranked the brightness on the Sony monitor nearly to the top and saw little appreciable increase in noise or artifacting. The CRT review returned excellent results and demonstrated a camera latitude of about 71/2-8 stops. On the JVC 24" LCD, the results were much more disappointing,
5-5 1/2 stops. Unfortunately, I was not able to compare the CRT and LCD results side by side.
The BR-HD50U has a composite SD output for instant down-conversion to SD, and at first I thought this was a welcome feature. But the result was less than satisfactory, with highly compromised black levels, extreme noise and artifacting, and total loss of detail in anything less than 2 stops underexposed; I found the down-conversions entirely unusable. On top of this, in addition to the fact that 14 of the 15 professional post companies I contacted do not work with JVC ProHD, the two major duplication facilities in Los Angeles that I typically use for down-conversions also do not work with the format.
With the Fujinon lenses, I found a great disparity between the aperture markings on the lens and the aperture readout in the camera’s display, as much as 3/4 of a stop at times. I elected to go by the readout in the display as a control for all testing with the ENG lenses, and T-stop markings for the cine lenses. (There is no stop readout in the display when using the Cine Adapter.)
The camera offers gain settings from 0 to +18dB, but I found +9dB to be too much noise for my taste. I also would have appreciated the option of -6dB, or even just -3dB, for higher-key situations. To nitpick, the gain switch seemed to be inverted, with high gain in the lower position and low gain in the higher position. I have seen this configuration on other cameras, and it always strikes me as counterintuitive. Because this switch is assignable, I merely inverted the settings so that high gain was at 0 and low gain was at +6.
I was relieved to find audio-level controls easily accessible to the left hand rather than hidden in the camera menus or at the back of the camera. This is a great touch that shows an understanding of how fieldwork really happens.
The VTR playback control buttons on the camera seem to go against every other element of design, because they are improperly placed and hardly practical. They hide under the earpiece monitor and are only labeled as cutout shapes on the small black buttons (black-on-black) — no easy markings and no light on the buttons. These controls need significant refinement in order to be more practical.
The camera has two XLR audio inputs and comes with a mono microphone with XLR plug. Unfortunately, the two XLR inputs are at the front right-hand side of the camera, which means you have obtrusive trailing cables when connected to an external sound mixer.
I was very pleased to see that the viewfinder has peaking adjustments, though I found the max peaking setting still quite low for focus assistance in dark locations. The viewfinder also has JVC’s Focus Assist, with color highlight selectable in red, green or blue. This was rarely useful, as it only seemed to work in areas of extreme contrast — areas where I could easily judge focus without it.
For my day of shooting, I was primarily working in handheld mode with the HZ-CA13U Cine Adapter and Zeiss Superspeed lenses. The camera was so light and comfortable that I rarely took it off my shoulder between takes. I did notice, especially on 25mm and longer lenses, a vignetting around the upper portion of the frame with the Cine Adapter. This suited the look I was going for, but other Cine Adapter users should test for this first. I did not have a sound mixer for my small shoot, so I was running primarily with the camera mike. I was a bit frustrated to note that the color bars aren’t SMPTE-standard, but rather ARIB Multi-Format HD color bars, which are less useful for simple field calibration. In addition, although the camera can generate internal 1kHz tone to go with the color bars, these are two separate menu selections quite far from one another. You can easily assign bars to a function button, but you must still go deep into the menus for tone.
The camera is designed to integrate with an OEM FireStore DR-HD100 DTE (direct-to-edit) drive. The two communicate so that the VTR start button on the camera simultaneously starts the FireStore DR-HD100 and the camera’s tape drive — a nice feature. However, the FireStore only connects via FireWire 400 and only records HDV footage; it does not record anything different from what is recorded to MiniDV tape. In fact, there is almost no way to get higher than, or better than, HDV footage from this camera. There is an HD-SDI output from the camera, and in studio configuration (with additional hardware) it can be used as a “live” 1080 4:2:2 camera, but only in 60p through an internal cross-conversion. I would like to have been able to connect my own deck or drive to the camera and record a non-MPEG2 HD image in 1080 or 720 in 24p. JVC has an optional mount for the back of the camera to hold the FireStore drive, but I found this configuration awkward, especially because the advantages the FireStore presents are limited. In fact, there is one: you don’t have to capture footage to a hard drive because it’s ready for instant access in an NLE program (which, of course, is able to work with JVC ProHD). That benefit was not worth the extra weight and technical complication.
The camera records HDV in 24p, 25p, 30p, 50p and 60p at 720 resolution in 4:2:0. Audio in HDV mode is MPEG1 Audio Layer II. In DV mode, the camera records 24p or 60i in 480-line resolution with 16-bit 48kHz PCM encoding.
JVC offers several packages. The GY-HD250U with Anton-Bauer battery configuration without lens sells for $11,085. With a Fujinon 16x lens, it is $12,085. The Fujinon 18x lens sells for $10,800 by itself, and the HZ-CA13U Cine Adapter is $4,395.
All in all, the GY-HD250U’s physical design is excellent, comfortable and ergonomically sound. The camera’s biggest disadvantage is its exclusive and inflexible format: ProHD HDV. The addition of an uncompressed 720p output would improve it considerably.
by Jay Holben