In the Field: JVC GY-HM700U

jvc-1.gifI just spent a few weeks with the JVC GY-HM700U, JVC's new shouldermount camcorder (Figure 1, right), and found myself very sorry to see it go. Its strengths include very crisp, noise-free images in a range of lighting conditions; a high-quality, easy-to-edit HD acquisition format stored on inexpensive SDHC media; a large, high-resolution LCD and viewfinder; wonderful overall usability; an SxS storage option for Sony XDCAM EX wannabes; and detachable lenses. The main caveats include the overall kit price and the lack of auto-focus and image stabilization. The HM700U comes in multiple packages that juggle different lenses plus the KA-MR100G SxS memory recorder (more on that soon). I reviewed the GY-HM700UXT, which includes a 14x Canon lens and the SxS memory recorder and retails for $7,495 (at B&H). You can also get the camcorder with a Fujinon 17x lens, purchase it with or without the SxS recorder, buy the body and Canon lens, or purchase just the camcorder body if you already have compatible lenses. Note that several previous reviewers have looked at both the Canon and Fujinon lenses, and preferred the Canon.

Be careful when pricing these packages, because some necessary options aren't included, at least in the bundles from B&H. For example, the camcorder comes with an Anton/Bauer Gold Battery Mount, but no Dionic-90 Lithium-Ion Battery, which costs $399. You'll probably also need a tripod plate for another $269, though according to JVC, the Sony VCT-140 tripod plate should work with the HM700U. Finally, if you purchase a unit with the SxS recorder, a media card isn't included, so you'll need a few of those as well.

Overview

As mentioned, the HM700U is a shouldermount unit that weighs about 11 pounds with battery and SxS recorder. If you're shooting from the shoulder, you'll appreciate the new liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS) viewfinder with an 852x480 resolution, which has the highest resolution that I've seen. JVC didn't skimp on the 4.3" LCD panel, which has a resolution of 800x480 and performs stunningly indoors, though viewing in sunlight could have been better. It reverses and folds neatly into the camcorder body for simple tripod-based operation, which is nice.

The camcorder uses detachable lenses, with a standard 1/3" lens bayonet mount compatible with a range of lenses from multiple manufacturers, as well as JVC's HZ-CA13U PL mount for 16mm prime lenses. As with lenses added via 35mm adapters, prime lenses flip the image, which the HM700U can flip back via a control in the menu. One consequence of this lens strategy is the lack of auto-focus, which is mitigated by a useful focus assist feature that I'll discuss later. Other noteworthy deficits are the lack of image stabilization, timecode support, or genlock, though I'm guessing the latter two won't be missed by most event shooters.

Recording Options
Main storage on the camcorder body itself is provided by two SDHC slots using Class 6 cards that can capture up to about 100 minutes each (using 32GB cards) at the maximum capture data rate, and spill over seamlessly from one card to another during shooting. The camcorder captures into MPEG-2 format using two licensed wrappers: a QuickTime MOV format licensed from Apple that imports directly into Final Cut Pro (and Adobe Premiere Pro for Mac for that matter), and a Sony XDCAM EX MP4 format that imported into Premiere Pro on Windows, which I presume will import into any Windows program that supports the XDCAM EX format.

Note that initial versions of the camcorder required that you purchase the KA-MR100G SxS recorder to encode into MP4 format, but starting around January 2010, JVC updated the firmware so that the camcorder could record into both formats without the SxS recorder. That update is available as a free download on the JVC website. Just to close the loop on your storage options, you can record to the SDHC cards and SxS media simultaneously, but the SxS media can't record MOV.

In both modes, the HM700U records all relevant HD formats and frame rates, including 720p24/25/30/50/60, 1080i50/60, and 1080p24/25/30 at data rates of 19, 25, and 35 Megabits per second (Mbps). If you're shooting for speed up or slow motion, you can set the recorded frame rate and all exposure options manually. Alternatively, you can choose the variable shutter option, where you choose the record format (24p, 25p, or 30p) and then the shooting frame rate (10-60 fps). In this mode, when you shoot, the HM700U will automatically calculate the shutter speed necessary to produce the most appropriate motion-blur.

JVC equipped the camcorder with three 1/3" CCDs with a 1280x720 pixel count zoomed to 1080p resolution via a technology called "triplex offset" pixel-shifting. I'm not a big fan of any kind of interpolation technology, but I compared the output resolution with my Canon XH A1, which does capture in full-resolution 1080i, and found them virtually identical. This is good, because the XH A1 has produced the best results that I've seen to date.

Connectivity-wise, the HM700U has dual XLR adapters with phantom power on the right side of the camcorder. There's a speaker attached on the handle for listening in while shooting from the shoulder, or you can remove the speaker plug and substitute in your own headphones. Other connectors provide component and HD/SD-SDI output (via BNC connectors) along with stereo audio output (via RCA connectors). There's also
a FireWire connector that you can configure for either DV or HDV for compatible hard disk controllers, with a USB port for retrieving clips if you don't have a card reader.

Shooting Controls
As you would expect, the camcorder shoots in fully automatic mode, or you can configure all relevant parameters manually, with lots of useful on-screen guides, though I found some lacking as well. For example, I adored the dual zebra patterns with the ability to set upper and lower (Top and Bottom) limits for both (Figure 2, below). Having two lets you avoid blowing out your whites while getting good contrast on the face, and the limits let you verify that your faces are between 70 and 80 IRE, not just over 70.

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There's also a spot meter function that displays small boxes at the brightest and darkest areas in the frame and shows you the values, which is great feedback to have. For example, if you're running in manual mode and see max IRE is running in the 40% range, you know you have a problem. Fortunately, in these instances, help is one click away via an auto-iris button down near the zoom controller. AE levels are also convenient to access and use, even if your head is stuck in the viewfinder, courtesy of an iPod-like circle controller with a center push-button that does double duty as the menu controller.

Would I have preferred a waveform monitor for exposure control, which the HM700U doesn't have? Probably, especially since the LCD is large enough to make it truly useful, but between the spot meters and dual zebras, you should have enough to get the job done.

In lieu of auto-focus, the HM700U offers a focus assist mode that converts the frame to grayscale and displays a configurable color (red by default) on edges in the focused area, like a peaking control but better. This should be fine in many shooting scenarios-electronic news gathering, documentary and movie production, and low-motion event work-though potentially intimidating for shooting a large wedding or other event with lots of motion coming at you from all directions. I shot several test scenarios with lots of near and far motion and found focus assist mode very helpful, with the colors a constant reminder that I was in or out of focus (Figure 3, below).

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One minor frustration was that the colors only seemed to appear on very hard edges such as corners, branches, balance bars, and the like, so if I was shooting a ballerina or other object without hard edges, the focus assist feedback was limited. Of course, if you've already started working with 35mm lens adapters, you're used to shooting without auto-focus, and with its image flipping capability and variable speed capabilities, the HM700U is an excellent camera for this kind of work.

Overall usability is another strength. For example, the camcorder is nicely set up for tripod and shoulder use, featuring a record button on the left side of the camera body, in addition to the record button on the forward grip. Speaking of zoom, you can manipulate zoom manually on the lens, or use the highly responsive zoom rocker. I love my Canon XH A1, but the zoom rocker is abysmal, with very little control over zoom speed, which forces me to constantly adjust the zoom speed via a handy dial controller. With the HM700U, there's no need; you can control speed easily and consistently with the zoom rocker.

My Testing
I had the HM700U for about 3 weeks, unfortunately receiving it a day after a four-performance Nutcracker shoot. To test the unit, I had to cobble together some testing that included the resolution testing described above, some small real-world shoots, and some faux shoots to test various capabilities.

My first project was a tutorial for a not-to-be-named client where I demonstrated how to insert the power supply and USB cable into a consumer camcorder. Scintillating stuff. Lighting was relatively primitive-I was willing to break out the floods, but I wanted to gauge the quality achieved with a strategically placed fluorescent bulb first.

The first lesson I learned was that you can't be a hand model if you still bite your fingernails, especially when shooting in HD. Perhaps more to the point, the HM700U produced excellent quality images with very little noise in this scenario, despite the lighting. Shooting close up with the aperture wide open, the depth of field was excellent-as you can see in Figure 4 (below), the keyboard in the background and watch on my wrist are softly out of focus, almost as if I had planned it-I may just charge the client extra for these shots. The LCD was a dream in this scenario, eliminating the need for a separate monitor while I cycled through the various procedures.

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My next shoot was a night at ballet rehearsal, where I shot in 60p to test the camera's variable speed control. I shot mostly from the shoulder, which was awesome, and learned that with the HM700U,
a steady shoulder works better than the optical image stabilization found on most prosumer camcorders. When shooting below-the-waist shots holding the camera by the handle, I noticed that JVC had thoughtfully placed focus assist and record buttons on the handle, but the handle didn't sport a zoom controller, which would have been nice. Then again, handle-mounted zoom rockers are typically too small for much tactile control, and perhaps you're better off simply using the big zoom rocker on the grip, which is about 5" from the handle.

Lighting in this shoot was brutal-just the fluorescents available in the dance studio-yet the video was very crisp, with less noise than I would have expected (Figure 5, below). I did notice a bit of blockiness against a back wall with graduated lighting, which is again to be expected given the challenging lighting and the fact that shooting 60 discrete frames per second essentially cuts the per-frame data rate in half compared to shooting in 30p or 60i. After I slowed down the footage in both Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro, the smooth slow motion was stunning, easily superior to the results I could have achieved by shooting in 30p/60i and using either program's interpolation to create the extra frames.

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My final shoot involved my favorite backyard drama: I feed the dogs, the dogs eat and go lie down, the crows swoop down and start eating at the dog's food bowl, and the dogs attack (but never actually get to) the crows. Not to date myself, but I felt like Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom out there, freezing my buns off in this frozen tundra of a winter, and half-expecting Mutual of Omaha to show up to add their "brought to you by" spot at the beginning of my footage. Hey, who says small town living isn't exciting?

Beyond testing my ability to get the money shot (dogs attacking crows), here I focused on slow motion quality and assessing the HM700U's resistance to chromatic aberration, or fringes of color that appear along high contrast edges, typically at the extremes of the camcorder's optical zoom (Figure 6, below).

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One shot in particular-the crows in the trees-produced chromatic aberration as if on cue, but only at the extreme outer edges of the zoom, and most noticeably at the edges of the frame. To be fair, chromatic aberration is like a few extra pounds on a middle-aged videographer-if you look hard enough, you'll find it. Just be aware that it's a potential problem in those long-church-steeple-against-a-cloudy-gray-sky establishing shots, and don't shoot them at max zoom.

I also assessed depth of field in these outdoor shots, but unlike the really close-up indoor shots, the HM700U shared the same clay feet of my other 1/3" camcorders-the depth of field isn't that great. If you want great nonmacro distance depth of field, you'll have to buy a 35mm adapter and start working with some 35mm lenses.

While I'm in chatty mode, let me give a shout-out to editing in MPEG-2, especially over AVCHD. Even on relatively fast computers, like my eight-core HP Z800 or Mac Pro, editing AVCHD can be a drag, particularly if you're still running a 32-bit OS. On both these computers, importing and editing the HM700U clips was fast and easy. In my view, one of this camcorder's key strengths is the rare combination of SDHC storage and a high-quality MPEG-2 based storage format.

Put It On Your Short List
Otherwise, I'm totally ready to leave tape-based shooting in the rearview, as my aging HDV camcorders suffer more frequent dropouts. The HM700U sold me on the shouldermount form factor, and auto-focus and image stabilization seem a lot less essential than before I spent my time with the HM700U, especially given the size and clarity of the LCD and viewfinder.

Overall, the attractions of this camcorder are pretty clear in the ENG, documentary production, and broadcast markets. In the event world, if your bread and butter is linear recording to DVDs (as with concerts and ballets), you probably can get by with a less expensive, all-in-one camcorder. If you're starting to focus more on the art of the production and want to experiment with multiple lenses, variable-speed recording, and more storyboard-based productions, the JVC GY-HM700U should be on your short list.


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