Sony HVR-Z1U: First impressions

I've been traveling a lot lately. More on this later. But to get the posts started up again, here's a quickie summary of my first impressions of the Sony HVR-Z1U, which I did some shooting with last week (documentary footage of homing pigeons).

Remember, these are first impressions. I had about three hours to prep on it without a manual, and then I spent about four hours shooting with it. I would have liked to prep with a manual, but Sony doesn't have a manual posted on its resource site. I'm open to hearing defenses of the camera, but don't blame me for knocking it when Sony doesn't even share documentation with potential users of its cameras. I searched for more than a couple of hours on Sony sites and discussion boards for a manual, to no avail. But one is online, apparently. Good to know. See comments section for more on this.

Frame modes:

Cineframe: This is the "fake 24p" mode. It looks ok on a small screen, but the same images projected ranged from fair to embarrassingly unusable, depending on the amount of motion. I would avoid this mode. I've since talked with some other filmmakers that have used this camera -- their first impressions matched mine.

30: This is a simulation of 30 progressive frames. As far as the look, like true 30p, it kind of splits the difference between the "video" look of 60i and the cineframe mode -- not too "filmy" not too "video-y". It has that HD "smear" that everyone discusses. There are ways to get rid of this (jacking up the shutter speed), but if you're in low light situations (I wasn't) I imagine this might be a problem. Some people have told me, also, that looking at this stuff on an HD monitor solves some of the smear problem. Can't testify to that (yet), but the fact remains that people will be watching things on standard def TVs for some time to come. For what it's worth, I chose to shoot in this mode, and in broad daylight I got pleasing results.

60i: This is probably, on first glance, everyone's least favorite mode since it has the "video" look that most filmmakers (or "make-video-look-like-film-filmmakers") despise. In truth, this is the mode that I trusted the most. It says it's 60i, and that's what it really is. It's like a PD-150, but in HD resolution, which is to say that, for what it is, it's great.

Menus: Definitely passable. At times they're intuitive, at times not.

Sound quality: Good quality when recording from XLR. The downside is that you must choose between using either the XLR or on the board mic, which is dumb. Why can't you split one and one? Also, I didn't like the XLR inputs being on the right side of the camera. It makes more sense when they're centered so that the sound person can be on either side of the camera without getting into a tangle with cords.

Colors: Really terrific. This is where I saw the biggest positive difference between HDV and DV.

Focus: As many a person has pointed out, HD focus is critical since you're dealing with more resolution. Unfortunately, your viewfinder isn't really as helpful as when shooting SD because it's so hard to judge focus this critical on a tiny flip out viewscreen. You really want to judge focus on an external monitor. This fact makes an HD or HDV camcorder more suited to shooting in situations that are controllable (e.g., narrative and documentary interviews) instead of uncontrollable ones (e.g., observational documentary and improvised narrative).

Conclusions: This brings me to the central dilemma of this camera: This camera's best mode is 60i, which most people associate with documentary. Yet, unless you're shooting in broad daylight where you have nearly unlimited depth of field (as I was), focus could be tough -- I would not want to be shooting run-and-gun in low-light with this thing. Alternately, a monitor's no problem in a controlled environment like a narrative shoot, but I probably wouldn't use the cineframe mode, no matter what. So I don't know when I would choose to use this camera over some other ones out on the market right now.

All of this should be taken with a grain of salt. As I said, I was working without a manual, and these are first impressions. But I blame Sony for some of this as they don't have a manual of the Z1U online and I think that's pretty inexcusable. If you want people to use a sophisticated piece of technology to the best advantage, you have to help them know what it can do.

ADDENDUM: See Nick's comments below -- Sony does have a manual online. Don't know when this was posted (I was looking for it on March 3 or so).