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Zoe LANC Zoom Controller

Wayne Orr reviews the Zoe LANC zoom controller
A Creative COW "Real World" Product Review


Wayne Orr reviews the Zoe LANC zoom controller

Wayne Orr Wayne Orr
Wayne Orr Digital Productions
Los Angeles, California USA
http://www.digitalprods.com

Article and photos © 2002, Wayne Orr
This edition © 2002 Wayne Orr and CreativeCOW.net. All rights are reserved.


Article Focus:
Creative COW leader and Emmy winning Cameraman, Wayne Orr takes a look at the ZOE-DV Lanc zoom controller. Find out why this is exciting news for owners of the popular prosumer cameras.


A brief disclaimer.
Not long ago, someone who's opinions I respect, wrote a review of the new Panasonic DVX100, in which he went to great lengths to report that he felt, based on his side-by-side comparisons with the Sony PD150, that the DV100 was the superior camera. As a satisfied owner of a PD150, I felt that annoying sense of betrayal when someone knocks on your baby. I also noted the new camera has no track record, versus the PD150's record for reliability for over two years. The point being, that side-by-side comparisons have their limitations, and in reviewing a product, perhaps it is best to stick with comments pertaining to that product, and encourage the reader to make his own comparisons.

All of which leads to my review of the ZOE-DV Lanc zoom controller, which follows. Originally I thought of actually staging a shoot out, having various controllers available for a number of professional camera operators to try out. In a renewed sense of fairness, I have abandoned this idea, since it would yield only some initial reactions, and long term use might give a different impression. Anyway, I just thought you ought to know.

What is a zoom controller?
It is a device that allows the operator to remotely control various functions of the camera from a location some distance from the camera body. That distance can be a few inches, in the case of a controller attached to a shoulder brace, or, it can be over a few meters, to operate a camera at the end of a jib arm with the addition of an extension cable. It could also be attached to a Steadicam-type device. But most likely, the controller will be attached to a pan handle, so as the operator manipulates the camera movement, he will be able to control other functions with his hand firmly on the pan handle. This is the way most professional camera operators, shooting various forms of video, operate their cameras. (The one exception being news shooters, where having your arm extended with a pan handle can be a liability in a crowded press conference.)

What does it control?
Each of the devices has the ability to control various functions based on the manufacturer's design and his opinion of what is important. But the one function they all have, and what they are graded on, is their ability to control the zoom lens. Will the unit allow the operator to make smooth changes of focal lengths throughout the range of the lens, while changing speeds at his command? This is the primary purpose of the controller; everything else is icing on the cake.

A number of years ago, in an amazing spirit of co-operation, the major electronics groups adopted what is called the LANC (pronounced: lan-see) protocol, which allows the same control commands to work in different manufacturers cameras. This opened up a whole cottage industry of companies making lens controllers which would work on Canon and Sony cameras, and any other camera that adhered to the LANC protocol. This is very handy for the consumer, who can sink a few hundred dollars into a controller, and switch cameras in a couple years without throwing away his investment. As with anything else in a free market system, LANC controllers vary in quality and price, and for the most part, you get what you pay for.

So what's the big deal about controllers?
While mini dv cameras are truly amazing in their technology and the quality of the pictures they produce, there are a couple areas where these less expensive prosumer cameras tend to frustrate anyone who has spent time with big-ticket, professional cameras. One such area is the electronic zoom control on these small cameras, which is more than a little annoying when compared to the expensive, servo driven lenses from Fujinon, Canon, and other manufacturers of high-end gear. The pro lenses provide a zoom control that allows you to ramp up the speed from zero to max, and then slow down to zero in a smooth, precise move. The less expensive dvcameras come with fixed lenses that have a range of speeds that consists of preprogrammed, digital command, step increments, rather than the smooth linear curve from zero to fast. The PD150/VX2000 supposedly has six zoom speeds, the slowest of which is not very slow, and so we tend to get that annoying hiccup when we try to finesse a slow-start zoom using the camera’s built-in zoom control. Think of it as a car accelerator; you start at zero and by applying gradual foot pressure you slowly begin moving forward, and you gain speed as you press harder on the pedal. If your car was a Sony, you would be standing still, and when you press the pedal, you would immediately jump forward at twenty miles an hour. Yipes. You may have noticed this effect on your dv camera: no matter how lightly you press on the camera's zoom control, you see this little hiccup at the beginning of the move.

So the LANC controller will eliminate the hiccup?
The bad news is no, not entirely. I have seen no controller at any price that will totally remove the little jump from the beginning of a very slow zoom. The problem is not with the controllers, but rather, with the system of step commands. Until the manufacturers change the lens design, we will probably have to live with the hiccup. But better controllers will help to reduce the problem to a level that is more tolerable.

Enter the ZOE-DV Lanc control unit from Bebob Engineering of Germany.
In my search for a better zoom controller, I heard rumblings about a device manufactured in Germany that was purported to be close to professional level quality, and not surprising since the parent company manufactures professional equipment for television and motion pictures. (www.bebob.de) I was able to acquire a ZOE for testing, and the best thing I can say is; I'm buying it. This is simply the best zoom control available to dv camera owners, in my opinion. And owners of the new Panasonic DVX100 standby; Bebob is creating a Zoe for your non-LANC camera, which I assume will be just as well designed as the LANC version.

When you first get your ZOE, you are taken by its amazingly small size: the unit is not much bigger than a couple rolls of 35mm film for that still camera you never use anymore. The ZOE consists of two main parts: the control unit housing, which is made of a weather resistant, 3mm polycarbonate, and the “pendulum rocker” zoom knob. The ZOE weighs only six ounces, and the small size makes this a great unit for attaching to a shoulder brace, or a Steadicam. The easy on/off mounting clamp quickly attached it to the pan handle of my Bogen 501 pan head, and I set out to see if the zoom control lived up to its advance billing. The black zoom knob is ergonomically designed, with a curved-out area where your thumb rests while awaiting the go command from your brain. This zoom knob is very similar to a number of professional control devices; you twist the pressure sensitive rocker switch to begin zooming, and the harder you twist the faster the lens zooms. I tried slow zooms, fast zooms, and different ramping speeds in between. The ZOE performed perfectly, with one hitch: at the beginning of a very slow zoom, I could still see the little hiccup, although it was less apparent than with other controllers. I contacted the head of Bebob in Germany, Pierre Bodard, and asked him about the hiccup, and he said, yes, it is there and, no, he does not believe any device will ever eliminate it entirely. But please put this in perspective; we are talking about a very slow zoom, the type of which you will probably wish to do only on a rare occasion, and when done in concert with a pan or dolly move, would be virtually invisible. Remember that the problem is not with the controller, but rather with the design of the lenses on these cameras. And we have to make allowances for a camera that costs less than five thousand dollars.

I tried various tests with the ZOE, and asked a couple of other operators to try it out briefly, and their initial reactions were very favorable. But I was hoping for a real world situation where the ZOE would have to show its stuff without me thinking about what I was doing with the unit. The perfect test came when I used the ZOE on a music concert. I shot a Motown style review for ninety minutes, doing plenty of zooming on lead singers, and the group, and I can say the ZOE performed fabulously in this situation. The zoom control was very intuitive, and had a feel similar to the many professional controllers I have used over the years. It was the final selling point for me. But, will it work for you? That’s a question only you can answer, and will partly depend on how much cash you are willing to part with to own a ZOE.

What else does the ZOE control?
Looking at the control unit, the first button on the left is labeled on/off, and sure enough, it allows you to power down the camera to conserve battery power (and discourage others from playing with the camera while you are attending to other duties). Your main power switch on your camera must be on for this switch to work, and when you power up from the controller, the led will blink green for three seconds, indicating a camera reset. The led will hold the green light while the power is on.

The second button is record, and allows the operator to start and stop recording using the ZOE, and the handy led glows red while the camera is recording. I can hear the wheels turning in the heads of numerous jib operators who are thinking, “Then I can tell if my camera is recording without booming down to check the record light in the camera!” Absolutely.

The final button is labeled focus, and here is where the engineers at Bebob went out on a limb. When you press the focus button, you switch the function of the zoom knob from zoom to focus, and the led will blink yellow to indicate you are in focus mode on the controller. (You must be in manual focus on the camera for this to take effect.) So, instead of a separate focus control, you have one knob controlling both functions. Obviously, there are times when you would want to zoom and focus at the same time, and you would use the ZOE as I did on the music show; controlling the zoom with the ZOE, and manually barrel focusing the lens, which is what I have been doing for years with pro cameras. However, I can hear those jib operators saying, “But how do I zoom and focus in the middle of a boom down?” A legitimate concern, and perhaps the ZOE is not for you, which would be a shame because this is the device I would want to use with a jib because of the smooth zoom control. But wait, there’s more. If you are in zoom mode, and you press and hold the focus button for three seconds, it changes the direction of the zoom! So, while I want to zoom in when I twist clockwise, you may want to zoom out. We can both be happy. The same is true when you are in focus mode: press and hold for three seconds reverses the direction of focus.

And that's it. So what's missing? Some controllers offer a selection of speed pre-sets. Zoom at #1 speed, and you are going as slow as the controller will allow, while going at #7 will be much faster. But remember the auto analogy; if you set the controller at "7" and step on the gas, you will instantly be going 70 mph and come to an instant stop. No ramping effect. So, how valuable are speed pre-sets? I'm sure there are some shooters who use them, but frankly, they used to be offered in professional controllers, but today they are pretty much non-existant, as hardly anyone ever used them. They are not available on the ZOE, and I don’t believe the vast majority of dv camera owners will miss them. A few of the units will let you control the vcr functions so you can control playback. Nice, but not need to have. Ditto with display. This feature turns on some additional information in your viewfinder/lcd. And there are others, but none that I would lose any sleep over. ZOE engineers wanted to keep the package small, and trimmed the controller down to what they considered the absolute essentials, and I have no serious quarrel with their choices.

Is there anything about the ZOE that I don't like? That would be the price.The distributor in the United States is going to be 16x9Inc, and they have indicated a list price of about $410.00. It is an import item and duty must be paid, but four hundred dollars is a tough nut, and I hope that they will find a way to trim that list price. ZOE is a well-built piece of gear, and it comes with a two-year manufacturer’s warranty.


I give the Zoe, 4.5 Cows out of 5. My only complaint is I feel the price is too high.

A PDF on the ZOE is available for download here
For additional information contact www.16x9inc.com


---Wayne Orr



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