A few weeks ago we purchased a Canon HV20 camcorder. As a camera, it lacks certain basic features, but its power and price tag make it a very tempting purchase for the independent filmmaker and video producer alike. For our projects, the HV20 will primarily be used as a DV and HDV tape deck for capturing footage acquired on other cameras, but its small size makes it convenient to carry around, and it can be handy to have a secondary camera on most shoots.
As you can see, it’s quite tiny. This means it can fit into almost any bag, but also that it’s virtually impossible to hold still. It weighs just over a pound and is less than six inches long, so it has no inertia to speak of. The integral optical stabilization may remove the majority of the shakes, but there’s still plenty of jitter left over, especially banking rotation.
The tiny size also means an itty-bitty lens. It’s a pretty good lens, with 10x optical zoom and a 50° wide angle view, but a dust speck looks like a blimp through the viewfinder. The built-in automatic lens cap is neat, but I would suggest getting a 43mm UV or polarizing filter for extra protection, and an after-market lens hood is a must.
A single 0.37” progressive CMOS chip feeds 1920×1800 images to the same DIGIC DV II processor that handles the data for the XL H1 and other HD Canon cameras. It can record 24p and 60i, but strangely does not shoot 30p or 30f footage. However, the tape deck can play most HDV formats, including all Canon versions, and the Firewire, HDMI, component and composite outs make it an ideal playback machine.
Unfortunately, it limits the shooter to largely automatic settings by linking aperture, shutter speed, gain, and neutral density filters to one control labeled “exposure.” Some control can be gained by switching to AV or TV modes, giving control to either iris or shutter speed, but the only way to manage them both is lock the “exposure” at a certain setting that will give you constant results.
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In my opinion, the greatest weakness is the lack of any manual gain control. Gain is evil. It’s often been said that video noise is just another area of artistic expression, but as long as video is being compressed, any increased signal noise means decreased video quality. The HDV codec throws enough data away when it compresses a pristine image; giving it the added detail of dancing high-gain noise only degrades the final output further. I hope that in the future Canon will offer a firmware update giving us the option to disable gain completely.
Canon has included a shooting mode called Cinemode. Unlike other camcorders’ film look options, which ramp up the contrast and saturation for a gritty Hollywood look, Canon’s Cinemode gives the camera a flatter gamma curve, preserving more detail within highlights and shadows, and eliminating harsh digital sharpening. Unfortunately, it also eliminates a lot of low-contrast detail, which softens the image once it gets mangled by HDV.
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None of the shooting modes are perfect, so users will need to decide which options to use for which projects. All the images on this page were shot using Cinemode, captured using Cineform, deinterlaced, aspect ratio corrected, but have no color correction. I knew that some softening would result, but because we were shooting quickly in shade and direct sunlight I felt that the flatter gamma curve was a priority. If we hadn’t been so pressed by the actual cattle work, I would have remembered to shoot a few shots in AV and TV modes for comparison.
Fortunately, white balance is manual, and with a little experimentation and a fair amount of jumping through hoops, the various aspects of exposure are ultimately controllable. This is a pleasant surprise because the HV20 is a toy camera with great strengths, not a pro camera with great weaknesses. Most of the camera’s faults come from the unavoidable limitations of its price point and form factor.
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For example, I love that the tape door opens from the top, meaning I can change tapes without removing the camera from a tripod plate. However, the battery is removed by sliding it down, which means I can’t change batteries without removing the tripod plate. The included battery gave us only 55 minutes of real-world use, and an extended battery makes it difficult to use the ridiculously tiny, uncupped viewfinder. This requires constant use of the LCD panel, which drains the battery faster, and so on.
Many of the camera’s faults can be bypassed by using a 35mm adapters and manual lenses, filters, mounting plates, handles, XLR adapters, external battery packs, and HD recorders, all of which will give the control, size, and weight required for real work, but that still doesn’t make it a pro camera.
It is, however, a lot of bang for not much buck. It’s also a clear reminder of the fact that consumer gear is starting to share a lot of components and formats with prosumer gear. This is an interesting time in the development of digital video technology.