Is That All There Is?
The Zoe-DVL lens controller, with a new coiled cable, right angle connector, and 'MSR' control
Bebob Engineering, manufacturers of professional camera accessories, recently introduced their latest prosumer zoom control unit, the Zoe-DVL, for Canon and Sony cameras that use the LANC protocol. A sister model is available for the Panasonic DVX100A, the Zoe-DVX, which offers similar control of the zoom function, but minus focus control due to Panasonic's unique lens control method, rather than LANC. For the purposes of this review, I'll discuss the Zoe LANC version, but I encourage Panasonic DVX owners to investigate the Zoe-DVX when they are in the market for a quality controller.
The good news for the many Zoe owners out there is: no need to fret that this new version will outmode your investment. There is no I gotta have it in the new Zoe that will make you groan with envy, like you do when you see pictures of the new Sony HDV FX1, versus your PD150. And by the way, fear not; when you do get around to buying that FX1, your Zoe controller will work great with your new camera, as they continue to use the LANC protocol.
Cosmetically, the Zoe-DVL is a more rounded version of its predecessor. The case is made from injection-molded polycarbonate, which means you can just about drive three-penny nails with it. Don't confuse this sleek case with plastic.
Bebob Engineering is one of those odd companies that actually listen to customer comments, and so they have changed the design of the three buttons that control the various functions. Gone are the skin covered buttons that made an annoying little click sound, which some users claimed got recorded to tape, to their consternation in post.
The earlier buttons have been replaced by three new buttons that have a different shape; the two outer buttons are concave in design, while the most important center record button is convex, so the shooter can tell by feel exactly which button controls record start/stop. No need to take your eye away from the viewfinder to be certain you are not going to inadvertently power down the camera when you really want to start recording. Like everything on the Zoe, the buttons are small, but they only require a light touch to activate.
Although the skin covering has been eliminated, I have been assured that the new Zoe is still resistant to high humidity, so you can continue shooting in the rain, short of a Florida hurricane. Note that controllers from some manufacturers come with a warning to avoid usage in high humidity situations, which could result in damage to your camera and void their warranty. Not so with the Zoe, which comes with a generous two-year warranty.
Actually, you can do quite a bit, if you put your mind to it, as did the engineers at Bebob. In order to keep the package small, they chose a limited number of functions to include with the Zoe, and they did a fine job of selecting the most useful.
The far left button is the power on/off button, and works after you have turned on the main power at the camera. This is a great battery saving device, especially when you have your camera twenty feet in the air, locked off at the end of a jib. When the Zoe first powers up, the corresponding green light flashes momentarily, while the Zoe does its calibrating thing. Please do not move the rocker while the green light is flashing. Once you have the solid light, you are good to go. If, during shooting, the green light should begin to blink, you have a low battery, and you should change out as soon as possible. Pretty nifty. Especially when the camera is at the end of that jib and you can't see the warning light in the viewfinder.
The center position is the record button, and a dramatic red light confirms you are indeed recording. When the red light blinks, you are nearing the tape end, or, you forgot to put a tape in the camera. Thanks for reminding me, Zoe.
If you turn the main power/vtr switch on the camera to photo, then pressing the record button on your Zoe will take a still photo. This is particularly useful if you are using your camera to do some long lens photography, and you want to eliminate camera shake. Set up your shot, locking your pan head, and remove the Zoe from the pan handle. There will be no chance of camera shake when you press the record button.
The third button is the focus control, with its yellow light. Here is where things get a bit complicated. LANC can only allow one function to be active at a time, so you cannot control zoom and focus at the same time. The focus button allows you to switch between zoom control, and focus control. When you turn on the camera, the Zoe comes up in zoom mode, and there is no yellow light. This means the camera is in manual focus mode, and you would focus using the lens barrel. Press the button once, the yellow light blinks on and off, and you are in focus mode. Twisting the rocker will now activate focus, rather than zoom control. Bear in mind that there is only one speed for focus, and this is a limitation of LANC, not Zoe. Personally, I never use this focus mode, as I find it difficult to stop the control when you see the shot come into focus.
Click the focus button once more and you return to zoom control. Sony and Canon cameras work this way, but there are some additional features available for Sony cameras only. In Manual Focus mode, double click the focus button, and the Sony camera switches to Auto Focus mode. Another double click, and you return to Manual Focus.
But here is the really sweet trick, available only on the Sony cameras: One long push on the focus button, and the camera takes advantage of the Push Auto function on the camera. In other words, press and hold the focus button momentarily, and the camera will focus on the subject. This happens faster than I can describe it.
There is one more trick the focus button can perform, and it will be of particular interest to the lefties in the audience: when you turn the power on to the Zoe, if you press the focus button while the unit is booting up, it will reverse the direction of the zoom control. Twist left to zoom in, twist right to zoom out.
Only use the zoom control to change lens size. Zooms are for amateurs. No film director ever zooms his shots. Hogwash. The zoom lens is just another tool in the shooter's kit, to be used with discretion to the service of the project.
The ultimate test of the zoom controller is how well it allows the operator to do smooth, controlled zooms for those times when you want an on camera lens move. The Zoe is still at the head of the class in this area, and has added a new twist to their already excellent unit: MaximumSpeedReduction. (MSR)
There is a small wheel built into the Zoe-DVL on the right side of the controller, which can limit the maximum speed of the zoom: the MSR control. This is a great advantage when you want to do slow zooms, because you still have the full range of motion of the rocker to use for your zoom, but you can rest assured you will not exceed a certain preset speed. Be aware that the trap in ad lib shooting is you sometimes need the fast speed to zap into an unfolding moment that will never be repeated, and if you have your speed limited too much, you will be cursing under your breath as you urge the lens to zoom faster. Also know that the MSR is not a speed control device found on much more expensive professional lenses, but a speed limiter.
The MSR function is certainly the best new feature of the Zoe-DVL, and the one that may give some owners of older models a slight twinge of jealousy. You will also find the new model has a greater rotation of the rocker than prior models, which again, is nice to have, but not to lose sleep over. The zoom control rocker has a new profile, that is supposedly more ergonomic, and who am I to disagree?
The cable that attaches to the camera's LANC port is now coiled, and extends to 90cm. (35in). Frankly, I am not wild about the coiled cable, but I guess there are those who will find this a giant step forward, but, I am impressed with the right-angle connector at the end of the cable. This will allow the LANC plug to have a tighter profile, and be less prone to abuse than the older, straight pin connector. A very good idea, and a very robust plug.
Another worthwhile improvement was to increase the spread of the clamp to permit attaching the Zoe to a pan handle or tube up to 34mm in diameter. A great thing about the small size of the Zoe is that it is right at home where other control units cannot go, such as your Steadicam-type device, or a shoulder brace, or a monopod, or a jib, or even the handle of your PD150. Amazingly, the Zoe-DVL weighs a mere 4 ounces.
There are many, many commands available through LANC, and some of them are to be found on other control units. Does this mean the Zoe is somehow inferior? Not at all. You buy a zoom controller to control the zoom lens. This is what the Zoe does remarkably well, and its compact size allows much more versatility than larger, more option-packed competitors. Professional lens controllers do about three functions, including zoom and record, so the Zoe is right there with the pros.
By the way, Bebob makes Zoe pro controllers for Canon, Fujinon and Angeuieux lenses, at about half the price of those from the lens manufacturers, and they work great.
Click here for Wayne's review of the ZOE III Professional.