HD Camera Comparison: A different perspective

DV.com has recently posted Adam Wilt's coverage of a shoot-out between the big (at the moment) four prosumer HD camcorders: Canon XL H1, JVC GY-HD100U, Panasonic AG-HVX200 and the Sony HVR-Z1U. The test has been getting a lot of attention on the blogs I read and respect: FresHDV, HDforIndies, and DVGuru. The article in question is definitely worth a read, especially if you're in the market for a camera or interested in the advances in the latest prosumer video technology. Adam Wilt knows his stuff and is a superb writer on tech/video issues. Whenever I see an article by him, I read it. This one's no exception.

Having said all of this this, I'd like to offer a somewhat different (dissenting? contraraian?) perspective about this and other camera shoot-outs.

Point #1: Video is not film.

When I read discussion boards about video cameras I feel like there's an implicit subtext to why everyone reads about these shootouts -- in fact, it's often explicit:

    i) People want to find out which camera produces the most "film-like" image. ii) People want to find out which camera will produce the best images for film blow-up. iii) People want to find out which one they should purchase.

Here's the problem with (i): "Film-like" video can only go so far. As anyone who understands both technologies can tell you, there are several differences between video and film. The four biggest differences have, until recently, been:

a) resolution: Film has more resolution than video. b) motion rendering: Film runs at 24 fps. NTSC video has, until recently, always and only been 60 interlaced frames. c) aspect ratio: 35mm film, though actually 4:3, is traditionally projected at 1.85. Standard definition camcorders have 4:3 image sensors. d) acquisition: Film captures on unique individual frames, video with a CCD.

What excites people these days is that "B" and "C" aren't as much of an issue now with the advent of HD. Don't get me wrong, I think it's exciting too, largely because, like so many other people, I love the look of film. And, while video running at 24fps doesn't look exactly the same as film, it sure goes a long way towards getting rid of the "video look" that many filmmakers despise.

The thing is, "A" and "D" stubbornly remain.

35mm film has much more resolution than even the best HD cameras on the market. And it blows things like the camcorders recently tested out of the water. End of story. And of "indie" formats, Super-16's resolution is better, in fact, than video. In fact, as much as people complain about the costs of shooting film, shooting on a CineAlta or a Varicam can cost about the same as Super-16.

How the image is acquired, though, is the biggest factor. You can change everything else -- aspect ratio, FPS, even resolution -- to that of film, but video, by definition, will acquire images in a different way than film. The difference defines the formats. Every frame of film has a different makeup of silver halide crystals, which gives film its grain (as I've said before, think snowflakes). And it's the dance of that grain that makes film seem to have a "soul." Video's acquisition via a CCD works more like a scanner. No grain.

In sum, film is film. Video -- even the most uncompressed HD -- is video. That doesn't make video bad. Camcorders can produce amazing images when care is taken with the lighting. (Heck, the DVX100 produces amazing looking stuff, and it's not HD.) But it does make film and video different.

As for (ii) , the blow-up issue is, I think, a non-issue. In my opinion, the only -- and I repeat only -- reason to blow up a video to film these days is if you have a theatrical release secured. Film festivals are not a reason anymore. Period. Two of the last festivals in the US to hold out on screening work on video -- Sundance and the Ann Arbor Film Festival -- started screening work on high-quality video projectors years ago. (I would even argue that it is pointless for filmmakers to finish their 35mm and Super16 films on film unless they have theatrical distribution secured. But that's another story.) If you have made a film that is considered "good enough" or "commerical enough" for theatrical distribution, it will be blown up, no matter the camera (cf. The Blair Witch Project).

Finally, regarding (iii), I agree: Wanting to learn more about cameras because you're in the market for one is a legitimate and good reason to be interested in tests like these. Absolutely.


Point #2: Tests like this are always subjective.

Adam Wilt says it better than I ever could:

Camera comparisons are incredibly difficult to perform, to judge objectively, and to quantify. By their nature, they are open to errors of omission and commission, and to accusations of bias. At their best, they illuminate aspects of performance, but they can never completely encapsulate the entire scope of how a camera behaves and how it renders a scene, because there are simply too many variables to control.

(Note: This is why I like and trust Adam Wilt's writing.)

Now, I ask you: If what Adam Wilt says is true (I believe it is), why would you trust anything other than what you can ultimately see with your own eyes?

You wouldn't read Consumer Reports or Car and Driver and then purchase one car over another without test driving a few of them yourself would you? No. Now, you might read the review and say, "Well, I think I want a Prius or a Camry. But I definitely don't want a Hummer." But you still need to go test the cars yourself.

The analogy to camcorders may not be perfect, but c'mon: If you want to have an opinion about a video camera you have to see footage shot by the camera with your own eyes. That's all there is to it. And if you're in the market for a camera, you're going to have to do some shooting with any models you're considering if for no other reason than to check the ergonomics.

Camera tests are incredibly useful, but they're subjective. Tests are most useful if you do them yourself. Let the subjectivity be yours, not someone else's.

Point #3: In the end, remember: No one cares what camera you use.

I read those articles about camera shoot-outs closely just like anyone, but thinking about this stuff too much can divert my attention from the bigger picture. I know I'm probably not the only one. Let's take a step back. Consider:

Bennett Miller, Oscar-nominated director of Capote, shot his first movie (The Cruise) on Mini-DV. Craig Brewer, director of Hustle and Flow (two Sundance awards and two Oscar nominations) shot his first feature (The Poor and Hungry) on Digi8. Let me repeat that: Digi8. And beyond mainstream film, people like Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda have made outstanding stuff using a Fisher-Price pixelvision camera. Meanwhile these films were shot on 35mm film. To overstate the obvious: It's not about the camera.

The great Walker Evans knew the score. In a fine essay by Ken Rockwell, Evans is quoted as having once said:

    People always ask me what camera I use. It's not the camera, it's -- ........and he tapped his temple with his index finger.

Now that's something worth meditating on.