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Taking Sony's HDV Camera to the Outer Limits of Performance

COW Library : HDV Format : Jim Harvey : Taking Sony's HDV Camera to the Outer Limits of Performance
Taking Sony's HDV Camera to the Outer Limits of Performance
A CreativeCOW Field Report

Jim Harvey builds the Ultimate Sony HVR-Z1U

Jim Harvey Jim Harvey
JHV Digital
New York, USA

©Copyright 2005 Jim Harvey and All Rights Reserved
Article Focus:
Sony has made a big splash in the video world with the release of their HDV camcorder the HVR-Z1U. By itself, it is capable of images that will amaze even the most jaded video professional. But as with all things, there's always room for improvement. By not having a microphone or wide angle supplied, you can choose better components that will enhance the performance of an already incredible camera. In this article, contributing editor Jim Harvey walks CreativeCOW members through what they need to build the Ultimate Z1U set up.

Sony's HDV camera HVR-Z1U

Taking Sony's HDV camera to the outer limits of performance.

Sony has made a big splash in the video world with the release of their HDV camcorder the HVR-Z1U. By itself, it is capable of images that will amaze even the most jaded video professional. But as with all things, there's always room for improvement. Sony's list price of $5995.00 (street price about a thousand less) necessitated the omission of a few items that might have been available had it been a higher priced ticket.

Notably, the Z1U comes with dual XLR inputs but no microphone other than the built-in onboard. Owners of PD-150/170 cameras scratched their heads wondering what Sony was thinking. Additionally, Sony chose to make a wide angle lens an option rather than including it with the camera package ala PD170's. At first blush, this might seem like a dumb move on Sony's part (okay, maybe not dumb, but certainly cheap), but ultimately, it may be a blessing in disguise.

By not having a microphone or wide angle supplied, you can choose better components that will enhance the performance of an already incredible camera. You're not locked in to the Sony glass or audio, which is a good thing. The beauty of the modular approach is that you can assemble your accessories in such a way as to maximize your investment while keeping your costs at a reasonable level. We're going to show you how to do just that.

While the camera is ready to make mind blowing images out of the box, we can trick it out to the point that one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the Z1U images and those from cameras costing 10 to 20 times as much. Think I'm all soft in the head? Read on my friends as we construct the Ultimate Z1U.

Support your local camera

Before we add any accessories we have to give ourselves a stable platform from which to create our fabulous images. While we may from time to time do the handheld shuffle, our most demanding images are going to need the support of a tripod. Not just any tripod mind you, we want the best stability and the smoothest fluid head that we can find. We also don't want to spend a fortune to get our rock solid mount.

Rushing to our rescue is MILLER with their DS10 fluid head and Solo Carbon Fiber legs. This setup is right out of your dreams. Silky smooth pans and tilts, a variable counterbalance system that allow you to set the head for the exact balance required regardless of what you hang off the camera, be it Matte Boxes, Onboard lights, Microphones or other accessories, the Miller DS10 will handle it all without a whimper.

Miller's DS10 Head and Solo Tripod
Fig. 1: Miller's DS10 Head coupled with their Solo Tripod is a rock solid performer.

This is one of, if not THE coolest tripods that I've ever worked with. It reminds me of my beloved old Gitzo, only at about a 3rd of the weight. You can see from the photos, that not only can we get up and above the crowd, we can also dispense with the need for a Hi-Hat for our low shots. This tripod system gets down!

Fig. 2: Low or High, the Miller SOLO has you covered

Miller has tricked this head out so that even the most picky of us can be satisfied that we have the stability that we need with an ease of use that makes it all just come together wonderfully.

A 75MM bowl is beefy enough to handle any DV camera that you might be using. (If you are shooting with a full size DV camera the DS10 / DS20 will most likely be the way you want to go). For our HDV Sony, the DS10 / DS20 is more than adequate to support all of our kit.

The legs are carbon fiber with locking rings and a very clever leg lock system. (See illustration). Setup is a breeze and the whole setup weighs in at less than 10 lbs. Just looking at the DS10 / DS20 gives you the confidence that this is a robust unit that isn't playing any games. No posers here. This is the real deal.

Miller Solo with DS10 / DS20 Head: Suggested List $1299.00

I Can't Hear You!

Sennheiser Evolution Series
Fig. 3: Sennheiser Evolution Series Wireless mics deliver excellent audio at affordable prices.

Your video is only as good as your audio (at least that's what the audio guys say). Sure if you shoot great video and lousy audio you can always do the Audio Dub in post with a soundtrack from somewhere else. But that won't fly if you're doing an interview or the sound is directly connected to what's happening on screen. The onboard mic will get audio onto the tape, but it clearly won't be the kind of audio that you'd want your mother to hear. An XLR mic is going to be your salvation. Whether you mount it in the onboard camera holder or hang it on a boom pole, a high quality External Mic is going to make your audio sound the way you want it to.

Our pick for your XLR Mic is the Sennheiser ME66/K6. The mic has the ability to take advantage of the Phantom power that the Z1U delivers. Its performance is legendary and professional audio guys swear by it (not at it). Equally at home on the end of a boom pole this mic is just a solid choice for your audio needs. For a significantly smaller amount of money, the Beyerdynamic MCE 86II delivers very nice audio for about half the price of the Sennheiser. You need to listen to each and make your decision based on your ears (or the ears of someone you trust like your sound person).

Sennheiser ME66/K6 $450.00

Look MA! No Wires!

For wireless audio we can fairly well rely on the excellence of Lectrosonics which will set you back a decent amount of lunch money. There are, however, some other alternatives that will deliver excellent audio at a more affordable price. My personal favorite is the Sennheiser Evolution series of wireless. Here are the EW100's that I use from Professional Sound Inc. in New York. These Sennheisers are extremely versatile and allow you to scan for available frequencies. They have a range that has to be seen/heard to be believed and they have never failed me on a job. Transmitter and Receiver with a Lav and a mike unit for a handheld will run you right around $500.00. For the audio that this system delivers, it's well worth the investment. If you don't need the handheld transmitter, you can get the bodypack units with lave for around $350.00, which is a great deal, anyway you look at it.

Sennheiser wireless audio systems
Fig. 4: The Evolution Wireless system offers flexibility in a compact package

We're looking to build the ultimate Z1U, which does not necessarily mean the most expensive Z1U. Another nice alternative is the compact AIRLINE series of wireless mics from Samson. The AIRLINE series weighs in at just under 4ozs. and transmits extremely clean audio. They claim a range of 35 feet, but I've successfully used them outdoors line of sight to over 150'. While they aren't in the same league as the Senn's or Lectro's, at under $400.00 with a handheld module, they are a real bargain.

Samson Airline Wireless system
Fig. 5: Samson Airline Wireless system is a capable no frills unit.

Now that we have all this great audio capability, we need a way to monitor it. Coming back with audio that's too hot, clipped or distorted isn't an option for us. A good set of headphones is a must. If we're using a soundman, the audio is their department, but again, most people are wearing two hats when they shoot. So for our article, we're going to need the phones. Sony gets the nod here with a great pair of phones MDR-V700. These are full size phones with great noise rejection.

Sony's MDR-V700 Headphones

Can you see me?

.7X Wide-angle Lens from 16x9
Fig. 7: .7X Wide-angle Lens from 16x9 Inc. gives 30% wider coverage than the stock Sony Lens.

The Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar lens that Sony has stuck to the front of the Z1U is an awesome piece of glass for its niche. It's a tad too short on the wide side, but that's why they put threads on the front of it. All of the hand held cameras have some type of add-on wide-angle lens. Some cameras come with one, while others need to have a wide angle purchased. The Z1U falls into the latter category, which is a good thing for you, the new owner.

The Stock Sony Wide Angle lens is only a .8X, which is barely perceptible when you screw it on the front of the Camera. It's hard to justify the added expense for so little gain. However, a company by the name of 16x9 Inc. has introduced a wide-angle lens for the Z1U that will deliver .7X with crystal clarity that also gives you the ability to zoom through. That's a 30% increase in area with no image degradation. They have cleverly made the rear 72mm screw in so that it will attach directly to the front of the Z1U while the front of the lens also has threads so that you can attach filters, stone guards etc. With the proper adapter, you can also use this wide angle with the Chrosziel Matte box.

16X9 .7X wide angle Lens $707.00 (Street Price around $650.00)

Wide angle vs. Standard lens
Fig.8: The 16x9 Wide Angle shows 30% more area than the standard lens.

The Hoover Dam is an amazing piece of human engineering. What better place to test another marvelous piece of Human Engineering the Sony Z1U. Everything at Hoover dam is immense. Hard to get it all in with the standard Zeiss Lens. However, by using the wide-angle lens from 16x9, I managed to capture a sense of just how enormous the whole facility really is.

Eyaah! My Eyes!

Bebob's Lux light
Fig. 9: Bebob's Lux light is a lightweight onboard light source with a lot of nice features.

HDV is light demanding. You need good light to bring out all the potential of this new format. While we'd all like to have a full professional light kit at our disposal, for the most part, “Run and Gunners” don't usually have that luxury. A capable on-camera light is something that needs to be addressed. While there are old school standards out there, a camera as advanced and ground breaking as the Z1U really deserves something a little more 21st century.

The Bebob Lux is our choice for onboard lumens. It's light, sturdy, and can be powered with an external battery so that you don't eat up your camera's power supply. (Switronix Inc. makes a great NP1 adapter) Drop a 20W bulb into it and some good diffusion with a set of barndoors and you have a very usable light setup that will help to bring out the beauty of the HDV image. Keep the light on wide rather than spot to avoid that “Nightly News Head Burn” look. You want your subject to appear natural and pleasingly lit rather than looking as if they are under investigation. The Lux is very light, being made from a composite material and doesn't add any significant weight to the camera. It can also be used directly with the COCO system (see below) for a completely modular solution to your lighting needs.

Onboard lighting has always been a sore spot for me. I dislike using on-boards for the simple reason that they are either too much or too little. While using the Lux, I found it added just the right amount of light for those situations where ambient wasn't enough. It was light enough that I never noticed it, and it's built in dichroic filters made matching light a snap.

The Heart of the System

Chrosziel's Matte box

Fig. 10: Chrosziel's Matte box enables you to control your light while also allowing
the use of wide-angle lenses.

To make those beautiful HDV images we've mentioned that you need light. Now at the other end of the scale, you can have too much light, light in the wrong place, or stray light that will conspire to ruin your footage or make it look like it came from a cheapo camera. That's almost a mortal sin with a camera this good. If you can't control your light, you're just spinning your wheels and you'll deliver mediocre footage that will make you question your purchase. As we all know, there is nothing worse than thinking you've made a horrible mistake.

Again, we look to 16X9 Inc. for help. They are the supplier for Chrosziel products, manufacturers of possibly the finest matte boxes and sunshades on the planet. Chrosziel stepped up to the plate with a mattebox design specifically for the Z1U. By taking advantage of the flexibility of this mattebox, you will be able to completely control the light that the camera sees. If you control the light, you control the image and that after all is what great looking video is all about. 16x9's Chrosziel Mattebox controls the light entering and striking the lens more efficiently than the stock lens hood.

The French Flag (the light shield above the lens) can be adjusted in order to block out stray or unwanted light. Adding Side wings completes the mattebox and gives the operator total control over the light striking the CCD. It also allows the use of professional quality filters. One filter stage rotates allowing the use of special effect filters and the second filter stage is stationary for use with conventional filters or grads. The mattebox also comes with a true 16x9 mask that again controls perfectly, the light that is allowed into the lens. With a Mattebox, you determine how the image is created, not chance or mother nature.

No filtration
Shooting with no filtration.

Shooting with a 4x4 Coral filter
Shooting with a 4x4 Coral filter

No filter
No filter

Altering the mood
Altering the mood

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a larger variety of 4x4 / 4 x 5.6 filters to shoot some comparisons. Using the matte box makes filter changes a simple matter of pulling out one holder and inserting the next one. Corals, Grads, Neutral Density, (great for reducing light and altering your depth of field) No unscrewing filters and juggling around. The ease with which you can add filtration when you're using a matte box is another strong reason to add one to your kit.


Follow focus
Fig. 11: A follow focus will enable you to maintain the precise focus that HDV demands.

Shooting with a camera that has 4.5 times the resolution of anything in its class is a real eye opener. It can also be a real eyestrain if you don't get your focus right on the money. With Regular DV tiny focus aberrations can be tolerated with little consequence. Not so with HDV. If you're not right on the money, everyone is going to know about it. While the auto focus on the Z1U is one of the best in the business, most professional shooters opt for manual focus. The manual focus ring on the Z1U is a perpetual ring (it doesn't have stops, it just keeps rotating round and round). It's not a TRUE manual focus either. The ring is connected to a servo system that moves the elements.

I've found that while manual focusing this camera, I tend to occasionally bump the ring with a finger when hand holding. It's a problem that can be overcome by consciously being aware of where your hands are at all times. On a tripod, that's not too much of a problem. But to really get all the benefit of manual focus, you should be equipped with a professional follow focus or focus controller. Once again, 16X9 Inc. has the solution for you. Their focus control integrates perfectly with the Chrosziel Mattebox system. Mounted on the support rods that hold the Mattebox in place, the focus control is connected to the servo ring of the camera with a gear arrangement. There is just the right amount of resistance in the control knob to make your image focus more accurate.

Used in conjunction with the expanded focus button on the camera (pressing expanded focus enlarges the image 2X momentarily so that you can pull the exact focus that you need), you can be completely precise and always have perfectly focused shots. Another plus of using a focus control is the ability to mark focus points on the white plastic ring with a grease pencil. This is the way focusing is done on a film camera and it translates perfectly to the Z1U. Focus your first shot and mark the ring. Move to shot two, mark the ring again and so on. You can have several focus points marked on the ring at any time which gives you the latitude for multiple focus pulls. (Some DP's like to mark the ring in different colors so that no one gets confused, Red is shot 1, blue shot 2 black shot 3 etc.).

The Z1U has a built in “shot box” but it needs to be programmed and can only be used for one shot at a time. Using a Focus Controller allows more versatility and will prevent those unexpected bumps of the servo ring at the least opportune moment.

Fig.12: The Follow Focus is a “Must Have” for serious work with this camera.

Power to the People

Bebob's Coco attachment
Fig. 13: Bebob's Coco attachment moves the battery outboard and give the user two power taps.

An interesting accessory that is currently available is the Bebob Coco battery adapter and light package. The Coco mounts the regular Sony battery in an offset manner, which allows for the inclusion of a power tap to run a small onboard light (See the section on the Lux Light above). This is a nice system when coupled with the Bebob Lux onboard light.

There are some questions as to battery life with this setup as you are taking a 7.2V battery and bumping it to 12V. This naturally is going to effect runtimes and some people feel that this puts an undue strain on the battery itself. In my working with the unit, I did find that run times were diminished fairly dramatically. A FP960 battery will easily run the Z1U for over 4 hours. When used with the Coco, the run time was reduced to about 65 - 75 minutes depending on the battery type (960/970).

However, the convenience of having that extremely lightweight light onboard outweighs the disadvantage of diminished run times. Switronix also has a battery/light solution that will be available for the Z1U camera. Contact the manufacturer for more details (at the end of the article).

Special thanks to the following companies that provided the accessories used in this article

Miller Camera Support LLC (USA)
Fax: 973-857-8188
Miller Solo Tripod
Miller DS10 Fluid Head

16x9 Inc.
3403 West Pacific Avenue
Burbank, CA 91505
Tel: 818-972-2839
Jeff Giordano
Chrosziel Mattebox
Coco/Bebob units
16x9 .7x Wide Angle Lens

Professional Sound Inc.
311 West 43rd Street, Suite #1100
New York NY 10036.
Tel: 212.586.1033
Toll Free: 800.883.1033
Ross Gallup
Sennheiser Evolution Wireless system.

Switronix Batteries
265 Sunrise Highway, Suite 346
Rockville Centre, NY 11570
Jim Phillips
TEL: 516-750-9675
Toll Free: 1-800-613-7948
Switronix Battery Adapter and Power Supplies

©Copyright 2005 Jim Harvey | Creative Cow
All Rights Reserved

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