Sony HVR-Z1U: First Impressions
Sony HVR-Z1U: First Impressions

A Creative COW First Impressions Report

Sony HVR-Z1U: First Impressions

Jim Harvey Jim Harvey
JHV Digital
New York, USA

©Copyright 2005 Jim Harvey and All Rights Reserved
Article Focus: contributing editor Jim Harvey just made the leap to HDV by acquiring one of SONY’s new HDV Cameras the HVR-Z1U. He was torn between the FX1 and the Z1 wondering if the added features would be worth the money. In this article, Jim gives us his first impressions of the Sony HVR-Z1U. (As of 2010, this model is replaced with the HVR-Z5U)

I just made the leap to HDV by acquiring one of SONY’s new HDV Cameras the HVR-Z1U. I was torn between the FX1 and the Z1 wondering if the added features would be worth the money. My good friend had just purchased the FX1 and looking at the video that it produced was a large part of the decision to make the switch. But the longer I thought about it, the more I felt that I wanted and needed the additional features that the Z1 brought to the table. The Peaking feature on the FX1 was marginal while the Z1 had three choices (red, yellow, white). Knowing that my eyes aren't as sharp as they were oh let's say 30 years ago, I felt that the additional contrast of a colored peaking feature would serve me well. Mind you I was used to the peaking feature on my JVC 116 viewfinder, which would give you retina burn if you cranked it up to max. The Z1’s peaking feature isn't nearly as dramatic as the 116’s was, but it serves its purpose quite nicely. It does get a little anemic if you don't have a decent edge, or if you're zoomed in, but on the whole, it works well enough to let you stay on manual with a high degree of confidence. The downside to this is that the Peaking function shares the same switch as the Zebra Function so you have to choose which you want to use at any particular time. The switch is conveniently located at the rear of the camera so it isn't like you have to jump through any hoops to change over.

Some of the other features that I wanted was the ability to shoot multiple formats, particularly DVCAM. The FX1 will shoot HDV and DV, but not DVCAM. Having a PD-170 made the decision for me. I always liked the viewfinder in the PD-170 (high contrast B&W just like the “grown up” cameras. The FX1 only offered Color and although it is one of the nicest color viewfinders I've ever looked through, I didn't like the fact hat I couldn't keep the LCD open and have the viewfinder operating at the same time. The Z1U offered Color, B&W and the ability to operate both simultaneously. Oddly enough, I've been keeping the color viewfinder on instead of the B&W so maybe I'm getting a little dotty in my old age. It's just that the viewfinder is so sharp and clear that it's a real treat to look through it. If I need critical focus, I can simply switch it to B&W and satisfy the “professional” in me.

The Z1U has a number of wonderful features that I am just beginning to explore. You can use the 6 preset buttons to store various functions such as Color Bars (2 types), Markers, Review, WB Levels, Backlight, ALLSCAN, Index marker and 8 additional functions. The only problem that I have at this point is remembering what button does what. Storing the preset functions is easy thanks to a non-convoluted menu system that is extremely easy to call up.

Sony’s HDV Camera

The layout of the camera is very well thought out in my opinion. Some people have said that the ergonomics are awkward, but I have not found that to be the case. It seems that SONY has taken a full compliment of features that are normally found on a full size professional camera and incorporated them into a unit slightly larger than a PD-170. I particularly liked the use of toggle switches for Gain and White Balance. Located in the position that one would expect them to be (the left side of the camera within easy reach of fingers).

Before I go too far in my admiration of this camera, I have to get this nagging complaint off my chest. The Z1U is shipped without an external microphone. While the onboard mic does a very good job of recording audio, not supplying the camera with a microphone at least the quality of that which is included with a PD-170 is ludicrous. It just makes SONY look cheap. Yes, you can get the mic from SONY for nearly $400.00, but for that kind of money, I'd opt for a Sennheiser or similar and add the extra couple of dollars to make the deal. Please don't tell me that it costs SONY $300.00 to manufacture that microphone. It SHOULD be included in the package. At LEAST offer an incentive. If you can give back $300.00 to a new PD-170 user, you should give a perk to those who are riding the HDV wave with your machine.

The rear of the Z1U has easily accessible buttons for most of the cameras functions.

HOW does it shoot?

All the bells and whistles in the world won't make up for a camera with a weak picture. No need to worry, however, as the pictures that come out of this camera are stunning. Even in SD the quality is very apparent. When viewed on an HD monitor they are outright startling. The clip below isn't even a straight from the camera grab. Rather, it is taken from the Cineform intermediate that I imported into Vegas 5.0 (I'm anxiously awaiting Vegas 6 so that I can see how the HDV workflow has been improved). I'll report back on that as soon as I have worked with it. The quality of even the downrezzed footage is easily capable of surviving a 100% blow up. If you want to pan & zoom into the frame, the footage will hold up quite well.

Why does everyone shoot Ducks & geese when they get a new camera?

A Train Derailment is a much better subject

A 500% blow up shows how clean the video really is.

The Z1U has a number of Picture Profiles (6) that can be used to alter the look of the video. You can use them at their factory default, or you can customize them just as you would save scene files in a larger camera. The image can be enhanced and altered in any number of ways to either match and existing camera, or get that particular look that you have in mind. There is an amazing amount of latitude in the image. The camera does tend to underexpose a bit and shadow detail can get away from you if you're not paying attention. They camera does allow for black stretch which should probably be left as your default setting. The Cinematone and Cineframe features are interesting. Cinematone bumps up the blues in Cinematone 1 and the pinks and reds in Cinematone 2. The Cineframe function gives a pseudo 24p (it is NOT 24p) and 30p (again, NOT the real deal). I found the Cineframe 24 to be far too juddery to be of any real use. The Cineframe 30 lent a somewhat pleasing look to certain shooting situations. The point is that you have a great deal of choice with this camera.

In Conclusion

This is by no means a complete or even comprehensive review, more my initial impression of a camera that I've only had my hands on for less than a week. I will say this in closing. There has been a lot of banter about this camera’s low light capability. It certainly isn't a PD-170 in that arena, but unless you plan to shoot coal miners at night with no lighting, the Z1U will deliver a very acceptable picture in less than optimal conditions. Hey, if you want to shoot at night, use lights! I suppose that a wedding videographer might run into a dark church or temple and have some problems, but I think that for the majority of people who will take up this camera, it will deliver far more than they bargained for.

As I learn more about the Z1U, I'll be sure to pass that information on to all of you.

If I had to rate this right now, I'd give it a strong 4. Neglecting to include an external mic is easily a 1 cow deduction. For the money, you can be shooting HDV NOW. The format will get better and better cameras will come along, but this camera will carry you through the transition quite nicely. The pictures have to be seen to be fully appreciated. If you light your job properly, they are simply astounding.

4 cows.

©Copyright 2005 Jim Harvey | Creative Cow
All Rights Reserved

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