REVIEW - JVC GY-HM100 BY Tony Wilson, ACS, AUGUST 2009
As the saying goes 'size isn't everything', and there is no better example than this new JVC HM100 camera. Previously, if you were looking for a camera that was lightweight (1.4kg), with a compact profile, but that gave you professional picture and sound features (XLR mic inputs etc), the choices were few - in fact only one comes to mind, the Sony A1P. With the introduction of the 3-chip Progressive CCD JVC HM100 one could say the word 'handycam' has been re-defined.
Tape, what tape?
There are some striking differences between the two cameras, the main one being that the Sony recorded to DV tape and the JVC records to memory cards. It has two slots that take the small readily available and relatively inexpensive (compared to many memory card cameras) Class 6 SDHC cards. It can also record JPEG stills.
Recording at 35Mbps a 16GB card can hold about 50 minutes of full progressive or interlace 1920 x 1080 HD video or up to 1 hour 30 minutes at a lower HD (19Mbps) quality. There are now 32GB card available and eventually as we all know cards are continually increasing in size and becoming less expensive. When recording, after the first card becomes full, it automatically records across to the second card with no loss of information.
The HM100 captures in two file formats, the .MP4 (XDCAM-EX) format, or the Native (Quick time) Final Cut Pro format .MOV. If you edit using Final Cut Pro this is a big plus as you can attach the camera to your mac (via the supplied USB2 cable), and after just a few mouse clicks, bring the files into the FCP browser and without any transcoding or file conversion immediately start editing - no waiting for your tape to be imported in real time.
There was a slight downside to this as I discovered when I tried to disconnect the camera to shoot more tests - the files went 'off-line'! After some JVC help I found that I should have either imported them to the desktop first or imported them through the FCP Media Manager. When I did this (through the desktop before later being told about doing it through the Media Manager) my first test of about 10 minutes took about 3 minutes to download. I think this not inconsequential piece of information about how to download files could have been included in the Manual, which incidentally does not have an index! JVC and other camera manufactures need to take a leaf out of Sony's manuals (pun intended). There are few items I've gone to get information about on a Sony camera that hasn't featured in the index.
Memory cards or tape - decisions decisions!
As a documentary film maker sometimes away on long shoots I have certain reservations about memory card cameras which I should quickly add have nothing to do with the recording quality. These are that the cards need to be downloaded when full, to either a computer and/or hard-drive, and re-formatted for re-use. If you are just shooting a couple of cards a day and returning to your editing set-up at the end of each day this is not an issue, but if away for a long period (especially if power were an issue), then you would need to carry a few more cards (an easier option with SDHC cards), and be VERY sure your computer and hard-drives were in a VERY safe place when out shooting. As you know computers are attractive commodities to 'bad persons', and I've yet to be approached by such dodgy bad person in a pub with a 'Psst, wanna buy some cheap used DV tapes'!
Incidentally if you're shooting a funded project on a memory card camera I believe a requirement of the Completion Guarantors is that you have a back-up copy, AND that it is stored in a different location.
I have to say I found the overall picture quality to be excellent, due in no small part to the first-rate Fujinon f1.8 10-1 fixed lens. The wide end of the zoom (equivalent to 39mm on a 35mm camera) I found a little narrow, but note there is a wide-angle supplementary lens available - and if you intend shooting many interiors, you may need one. Watching rushes back via the supplied component cable on a good wide-screen CRT TV I was consistently impressed by the clean sharp pictures from the camera.
Earlier I mentioned two striking differences between the A1 and the HM100. Well the second is that all the main controls you need when using the camera in manual mode are conveniently placed on the camera body, unlike the Sony A1 where you often needed to drill down through a menu to access a frequently used feature (like adjusting a microphone level). Aside from the audio controls which I'll talk about in more detail later, these controls are - the ND Filter (Off or +1/10, about three stops), Iris (f1.8-f8), Focus, White Balance, and importantly an H/M/L Gain switch. Being able to control the Gain is a huge advantage over the A1 and some other cameras where you have no control over gain - it comes in automatically (unless the Iris is set to manual), and is usually the main reason for poor quality grainy pictures when shooting in low light.
At the rear of the camera are buttons to select the Iris, Shutter and +/- exposure compensation, and below them a click wheel to adjust the selected control. My preference would have been for this to be on the side of the camera near the lens - placed as it is you need to take your hand away from supporting the camera to make an adjustment. I also found the 'stepping' as I changed the iris settings rather noticeable, and would have much preferred a larger wheel or control for what in fact is the main camera exposure control.
Unlike some larger memory card cameras it is possible to use low shutter speeds, as low as 1/4th, an extremely useful feature in many low light shooting situations when movement is not an issue.
A nice touch too for those wishing to use the camera in Full Auto mode (heaven forbid - about time you did the workshop), is that you can with the +/- exposure compensation still have some control over the exposure. Admittedly you can do this on some other cameras, but usually only by going into the menu and setting it up to an Assign button.
Opening the crisp 2.8 inch LCD (same size/quality as the Canon AH-A1/G1) reveals the Cam/Media button for switching between camera and playback use, the User 3 button (two others on the lens), a Q.Review button to check the last few seconds of shot footage, a Display button to select between various camera data display options, and the main Menu button. When this is selected a toggle switch on the LCD is used to drill through the Menu, a simple but effective method of navigating through the various options, including many found on other professional cameras. For the more adventurous among you who like to experiment, among the 'creative picture options' you will find - Knee Setting/Colour matrix and Gamma Adjustment. I find I have enough on my plate just keeping things in focus and exposed correctly!
At the left side of the LCD adjacent to the menu toggle switch (which doubles as a zoom control) are two other buttons, a second Start/Stop recording button, and an Index button. This is used in Media (playback) Mode to display thumbnails of the first frame of each shot you did, after which you use the menu toggle switch to quickly move to the one you want to play back.
On the left side of the body is a Full Auto button, to switch between operating the camera in auto or manual, an AF/MF (auto/manual) focus control, a Gain switch (L/M/H), and a familiar three position White Balance switch. Incidentally to operate the white balance in auto you need to set it in the menu to one of the three WB positions (like a P2 camera). When using Preset, a dedicated white balance button underneath the lens at the front switches between daylight (K5,600) and tungsten (K3,200), this same button is used for setting a manual white balance too. To the right of the White.Bal and Gain switches is an A/B button to select between the two card slots (which are below the LCD). Above these controls are the other User 1 and User 2 buttons and to the left the ND Filter.
One control I missed (that I have and use frequently on my Sony Z7) was the +/- WB 'trim' control, a quick way (when set to the Daylight preset) to fine-tune the picture 'warmer' or 'cooler'. In the menu of the HM 100 there are White Paint (red) and White Paint (Blue) controls (+ or - 15 for each), but I have to admit I found them totally confusing and not very user friendly. At the expense of making myself look a bit like an amateur I have to admit my first option with white balance is to use auto (about 80% of the time), second is to use the WB trim I spoke of above and if neither of those work I'll do a manual white-balance. In my defence I should add that I specialise in verite style observational shooting and in many scenarios if I stopped to do a white balance I would have missed action I was supposed to be capturing! Many video cameras these days have excellent Auto white-balance control and the HM100 is no exception. I shot tests in both daylight and at dusk (interiors and exteriors) using auto WB and the results were fine.
A stand-out control on the HM100 (not because it does anything amazing but because for some reason it's set in its own separate silver panel!) is a switch to choose between using the main lens focusing ring to control either the focus or the zoom. I chose to leave it set to the focus position as I'm used to using the zoom rocker control near the right hand handgrip. The focus ring itself has a nice 'chunky' rubber grip and is quite smooth in operation.
Low Light shooting
I was not able to do direct comparisons with the Sony A1 in low light situations but have seen enough footage from that camera since it came out more than 12 years ago to have a pretty clear memory of what they were like - in a word 'grainy'! The HM100 footage in low light was significantly better, especially at the higher Gain settings, and again I was more than impressed with the picture sharpness.
Like a few earlier Sony cameras (A1p and PDX10) the sound module is a separate section that can be unscrewed from the main camera body and completely removed. It consists of the camera handle which has a hot-shoe suitable for a radio mic receiver, the main audio control unit and a removable shotgun microphone (supplied). There are two XLR inputs, and audio is recorded as two channels of uncompressed LCPM 16 bit audio at 48 kHz. Each XLR mic input has a Line/Mic/+48v option and each channel can be set individually to record in auto or manual. It is worth mentioning that some cameras (costing more than this one) do not have all of these choices, but have to operate in some cases with either both channels recording in auto or both in manual, and on another, without the option to have one input set to line and one to mic. On the HM100 (like a 'works burger') - you get the lot!
JVC have even simplified what we at the CameraClass call the 'bugger switch'. This is the audio switch that can direct the sound from one input to both channels, not always (in fact NEVER) a good idea when using two microphones! On the HM100 the switch is marked CH2 Input and you can switch it to either Input 1 or Input 2. In plain English this means that if you are just using one mic you can record it to both channels (perhaps setting one channel to manual but leaving the other on automatic). To do this you put the mic in Input 2 where its signal will go (as normal) to Channel 2, but with the CH2 Input switch set to Input 1 its signal will ALSO go to Channel 1. All clear - good! On the main camera body can be found the headphone socket, and unusually there is also an additional mini-jack mic input. I would presume this would only be active if you had disconnected the main sound module.
External viewing or capture options include HDMI, Component (supplied) and A/V (supplied), plus USB 2.0 (supplied) for downloading to your editing system. Using the HDMI or Component cables you can down convert from HD to SD.
Despite its size the GY-HM100 is a professional camera in every sense of the word, with well set out user friendly controls and exceptionally clean sharp pictures, produced in no small part from its outstanding Fujinon lens. The audio controls are the equal if not better than many larger cameras and the option to separate the sound module (and just use the internal mic) gives the camera a more 'amateur' profile, a boon not just in 'unfriendly' news/doco shooting situations but in cramped shooting environments too. One slight reservation, probably because I'm used to using far heavier cameras, is that I had difficulty holding the camera steady - it really is VERY light.
The option to shoot in the Apple QuickTime .MOV format and (if editing in Final Cut Pro) start cutting almost immediately would be a huge bonus in many situations. I was most pleasantly surprised at the results from this camera - as we say in Oz, 'a little beauty', and particularly for those who find the size and weight of most professional camcorders awkward and unwieldy, the HM100 could be an ideal solution.