Three Weeks with the JVC GY-DV500, or How I learned to Love this Small But Very Professional Camcorder...
By David Jon Devoucoux
The title says it all. After three weeks of six day weeks with long, hard setups, multiple locations per day and multiple scenes per location, all with a very small crew (4 primary and three secondary), I truly appreciate the effort JVC made to produce this camera with everything I needed to "get the shot".
First the Background:
In January of 2000, I was hired to DP and shoot a full-length digital feature movie (Title: Secret Messages - Written and produced by Ben Freedman) using the DV format. Our cameras were the JVC GY-DV500, the Panasonic EZ1, two Canon XL1's, and the Sony PD100 DVCAM. The script was full length with a tremendous range of location shots. Grip and lighting included a Berkey Colortran kit, a Lowell Pro kit, a 4 light Arri kit and two Lowell Rifa lights. The audio consisted of a Sennheiser shotgun, Audio Technica 815 shotgun, a Telex 400 wireless, Sony UHF wireless and an Electrosonics wireless. Further, we had a Sony ECM77 wired lav and a Tram wired lav. We used a Shure FP42 battery powered mixer for its mixing and limiting capability and had a Sony Minidisk recording all audio as a backup. For grip equipment, I brought along my trusty, ancient Miller wood sticks. In addition, we had a dolly with track and a tripod mounted jib. Two Manfretto tripods were for second camera and backup use.
I'm not going to get into the specs of the camera, you can read those anywhere, rather I'll give you my opinions of each of its parts...and then how they all came together to produce a camcorder that works very well in a variety of shooting situations.
At the very front is the lens. Now the lens we had is the inexpensive Fujinon that is included with the "deal" if you buy it now....It's a basic lens. Fast enough for low light use, very smooth and quiet in operation at various temperatures but not very wide, not very long and no 2X extender for those "gee, i wish i could get that" shots. Comfortable to work either off of sticks or handheld. On the down side, the lens had a tendency to get a tad soft around the edges at full zoom. Considering it's a "free" lens, the quality was acceptable, though there is a big difference between it and the broadcast Fuji I own.
The viewfinder is nice. Full functioned with a variable zebra, different Zone markings for framing (I like number 2), two channels of audio metering, filter settings, etc. You can turn on/off the front tally (back stays on all the time - nice), and the brightness and contrast controls are large and well marked. And this is my only complaint with the viewfinder. The brightness and contrast controls are almost too big! It's very easy to accidentally move them. For example, while rotating the viewfinder eyepiece out of the way for carrying. I like to setup my B&W viewfinder image so I can truly see the lighting and contrasts as I shoot. Once I've set it up properly, its a cinch to manually set the iris on various shots as I've learned to "trust" the viewfinder with my Ikegami. With the JVC, if the brightness and contrast knobs got moved, which they did many times, I would be lost for a moment till I realized what had happened. For example. Its very easy to see if the exposure is to hot on a person's skin during a scene as you tend to lose detail on their forehead or nose. This is easily seen with the viewfinder properly set up, and not if its too bright or to contrasty. Minor issue I know, but it took a while for me to get used to not trusting the viewfinder without checking it for every scene. Moreover, since I always run manual iris, usually a half to a full stop down from auto, it was bothersome till I got used to it. And yes, you can set the zebra to show skin detail and exposure, but not being familiar with its accuracy, I left that off and set zebra for 95%.
The camera came with the JVC battery mount on the back. I requested and got the Anton Bauer mount. A very inexpensive addition which took about 10 minutes to install. Our only problem was the 2-wire connector for the viewfinder battery indicator was hidden behind the right hand camera panel and tied there, for safekeeping no doubt. Once that was released and routed through the back panel, installation was a snap. I went with the Anton Bauer back for four reasons.
1: I wanted long run times with fast, on location, charging capability.
2: I wanted the viewfinder power indicator, which is adjustable in-camera for various voltages.
3: I wanted a slight rear heavy bias for the camera on the tripod, dolly and jib.
4: I already own Anton "bricks" and have come to truly rely on them when on location.
Run times with the Logic Series bricks averaged 3-4 hours. I never used AC and I never used more than 3 batteries in one day. How did I do this? Glad you asked! Since we were shooting a full length digital feature movie, we were going to have a lot of time during lighting and blocking that we weren't shooting but I needed the camera on to visually check my progress. The camera has a standby/save switch that came in very handy. In "save" mode, the deck shuts down and leaves the camera on with an E to E picture and full operation of any camera functions. This enabled me to setup the picture to match scene by scene, or create a new scene with a film look or just about any look the director or I wanted. So the camera would be turned on at the start of the day and would only get turned off if we had a long wait at a location. Otherwise, I left it on. This saved battery power but allowed me to see the shot at any time during setup.
The menu settings for the camera section were very easy to navigate and understand. I could change virtually any feature in a matter of seconds, or completely setup the camera for a different look in less than 5 minutes. Detail and gamma were two of my favorite choices for image manipulation. Both horizontal and vertical detail can be adjusted over a very wide range as well as the detail frequency and the balance between them. Gamma changes were equally versatile. Black stretch and compress is located on a switch on the side of the camera and produces a very "film like" grey scale under a wide range of lighting contrasts.
I never used the full "auto" function the camera provides, as I needed to match scenes and didn't have enough hours on the camera to trust it. But the manual says in full auto mode, all you have to do is point it and focus. Everything else; auto-tracking white balance, auto exposure, auto gain and auto shutter, is controlled by the on-board processing circuits. I have no reason to doubt it. As it was, the only time I got into trouble was when I screwed up. Isn't that the way it should be?
The camera white balanced under almost every condition. The only time I had a "no good" from the white balance circuit was in an overlight situation. Closing the iris solved that problem. Hint: Put the lens in "auto" just before white balancing and you will minimize this issue (which is what you should do anyway!). The filter wheel has three positions: indoor (3200K)/outdoor (5600K) and outdoor with ND filter. The white balance switch also has the normal "preset" function which works well when in a run and gun situation as long as your lighting situation is close to the proper color temperature for indoor/outdoor. Don't use it under fluorescence or at sunrise/sunsets. Mixing different lighting was another non-issue. I've learned a lot of tricks shooting with the Ikegami and applied many of them during this shoot. One of the most important is tricking the camera into a proper white balance when you have a variety of different color temperature lighting at a location. With a small crew and limited time and budget, we couldn't turn off, flag off or color gell every window, bad light or the sun. So we'd do the best we could, then angle the white card to favor the color temp we wanted. Bingo! Instant proper white balance regardless of filter setting or light level. OK, sometimes there was a slightly small "weird looking" corner of a wall in the background, but overall, the scene looked real and the actors skin tones were right on target.
The audio side of the camera worked very well. Two XLR connectors at the rear of the camera and one in the front gave me all the versatility I needed for field recording in a two-channel system. The XLR's in the rear are adjustable from mike level to line and have switchable +48volts for phantom power separately available. On the side panel there are two sets of switches for auto/manual gain and your choice of assigning the front XLR or the rear XLR's to either or both channels. There is the dual channel meter as well along with two master gain controls. We were using a Shure mixer for almost all our setups so my audio set up was very basic. Audio sent me 1K tone at 0 db and I set my audio levels to -10db on my meters, line level, using the rear XLR's. I set the levels at the camera for -10db as the metering seems to be very "peaky", IE, very sensitive to peak readings and telling me the audio is "over" when we were only hitting -30db at the Shure with the limiter on and under normal two person dialogue situations. With this setting, the only time I heard digital distortion was twice, the first time 50 feet from a Citation II private jet as it taxied by and the second time when the boom person was too close to an actor who came out of a room screaming at the top of his lungs. In addition to the controls and functions I've mentioned there is also a warning tone level adjustment for the earphone jack and the built in speaker as well as the actual volume control for monitoring both tracks. By the way, the earphone jack is a mini jack at the rear of the unit. I felt its placement was perfect. The cable never got in the way for my headphones. My only complaint here is that the jack is a mono jack. You can listen to left channel, right channel or mixed, but only out of one ear. I don't understand why the camera operator can't be given a choice for a stereo feed of both channels to both ears or a mono feed of either or both channels to one or both ears. With the ear bud earphones getting better everyday, using both ears for monitoring is becoming a norm rather than an exception.
The record deck half of the camcorder performed almost perfectly. The tape transport is very responsive to all operations but two. When loading a new tape, it was sometimes necessary to turn the camera off then back on and eject the new tape then reload it to get the time code to reset back to zero. On the other side of the same coin, there were times when, after being off for a time, the deck wouldn't find it's position (normally backspaced) or time code, so I'd have to hit the review button on the lens. Then the transport would backup 5 or so seconds and roll to the end of the last scene and re-cue itself with the proper time code. This to me was another minor issue, as I'd rather have to do this than find myself recording over the ending of the previous scene. Hint: always run 5 seconds of bars at the end of any really good take. Two reasons: 1: So you won't record over a scene and 2: Makes it easy to see the great takes while fast forwarding during a logging session!
The deck section of the camera has its own menu settings. My advice, don't go there. The only setting you might want to change is the time code setting. Since most DV gear is set for Drop frame (DF), you may want to check and see what your deck is set for. Ours came from the dealer set for NDF. Don't know why, but since the camera came in an opened box, I must assume the dealer people were playing around...So word to the wise, check all menu settings for the default settings before you use the camera for the first time. I checked all menu settings each day when I took the camera out of the case and always before a scene where I might have been away from the camera for a length of time.
Drop out and head clogs have been a major player in the DV forums for months now. We were prepared for our first head clog indication when it happened 4 tape head hours into the shoot. The warning indicators in the viewfinder, headphones and LCD panel all told me the problem was there. It took more time to open the new head-cleaning cassette than it did to clean the heads for 5 seconds, which solved the problem. JVC has acknowledged a sensor problem that is being corrected. Since our first encounter with the head clog, we haven't seen it since, and we have 22 one-hour tapes run through this camera for the movie. You can guess how many actual head and drum hours we've put on to accommodate 22 one hour long tapes. Hint: Think about how many takes there are in an average scene...and the waiting for makeup just before the roll, or waiting for boom, just before the roll...in other words, lots of time with the tape on the heads!
I was concerned about the size of the camera, being so small compared to my Betacam. I was pleasantly surprised to find it fill well and balanced the way I like it, slightly back heavy, with an Anton Bauer brick on the back. I like the back heavy balance as it's far easier to pull down on the camera using just the weight of my arm than push up all day long, which uses muscle power. Try it and see if you don't agree.
The camera controls were well placed and easy to find by feel alone once I got used to it. The lens was a bit closer than I'm used to, but this became comfortable as well and made it easier to brace my shooting elbow into my middle-aged waist! The viewfinder needs a fore and aft adjustment and a longer side reach for those who wear larger headphones or use their left eye, but was workable both on the shoulder and on a tripod. The diopter adjustment didn't seem to have enough range for me, and my eyesight isn't that far off of 20/20. I have the normal age-related loss of close up vision but I had to wear my glasses, as there wasn't enough range for me. I know I'm nitpicking, but in reality, what you're reading in this subjective review is all I found wrong with this camera.
Overall, the camera was easy to setup, carry and mount. On the tripod, dolly and jib, I encountered no problems whatsoever with the camera's size, weight or balance. My second unit camera operator, Jay Allen, kept grinning everytime he took the camera off the tripod to move to another shot....it wasn't as heavy as he's used too!
The bottom line. The JVC camera worked very well....period. Our locations involved exterior night scenes, bright day scenes under the Arizona sun, interiors from a typical bar to a home with large windows in two directions making lighting a constant problem and just about everything in between. Colors were rich and stable, very little cross-color bleeding or smearing, even under low light. The low light capability was a pleasant surprise! There were plenty of times I'd finish lighting a scene and look down at the lens aperture and see it sitting at F4 or a F2.8-F4 split. Nice feeling...
1: We shot with one 300-watt light barn-doored off and covered with softspun in a very large bar and the low-light capability was as good as you would expect for 1/2" chips. the colors of the colored "mood" light around the bar were vivid and accurate. the skin tone of the extras were right on. i didn't see one streak or smear in any of our strange lighting situations.
2: We shot an exterior scene in front of a small store with one fluorescent tube lighting up the store's sign. We placed a 300-watt Arri across the parking lot (75 feet away - it was imitating a street light) and shot the scene with 4 actors having an argument. As our hero ran away waving his gun...it was interesting to be able to see him run in and out of shadows and still see detail and color on his clothes.
No gain or boost was used on any of our shots. To give you an idea of what this means, the previously mentioned bar scene was also shot with the XL1. And even with 12db gain, the picture was deemed unusable. The JVC was pretty, again with no gain or boost used.
3: Another unusual scene was our hero running to an exterior phone booth...well, not really a phone booth, rather one of those cheap little phone stands that couldn't protect you from one raindrop much less a downpour, but I digress. I set out the battery powered lighting while the director blocked the shot. He came over to see how the scene was looking and said..."looks great...let's shoot it" The battery lights weren't even on. I turned them on and off for him....we laughingly agreed, and left them off and shot the scene. The tiny fluorescent lights in the phone "booth" were plenty for the gritty look we wanted. The rest of the parking lot was lit by streetlights.
In daylight situations, I do have an opinion here for JVC. I think the auto iris settings on some of the newer cameras are set a bit to hot. Let's face it. The DV format, being digital like DVCAM and DVCPRO are still new formats and exhibit artifacts from exposure and other external situations. Now before you starting ranting on me let me re-phrase that. I don't blame the formats, you can't, it's just a recording format. But you can look at the cameras and see that many of the under $10K cameras just don't have the filtering of the higher priced spread. Everyone has at least 700 lines of resolution and at least 60db signal to noise ratio, so what separates the under $10K and those pushing $20K and on up? Well for one thing the filtering in the preamp circuits that eliminate the jaggies, the smears, keep the colors pure in extreme lighting, lower noise and allow so much more control over the picture quality. Now back to my point. The JVC at auto iris in bright sun looks a bit like its being overdriven. This is probably a simple factory adjustment, but that's the way we received the camera. For many not technically brought up, they may end up shooting like that and be disappointed. When I stopped the lens down a tad, the colors leaped out, the detail came back on the highlights and the picture looked very nice indeed. In bright sun, 1/2 to 3/4 of a stop was all it took to bring the JVC back to where I like it. Indoors, I would only use auto iris while I was setting up the lighting of a scene so I could watch my progress and allow the director and the boom operator to see what was happening at the same time. And since the camera's auto exposure is biased to favor the middle and lower middle of the picture, I would occasionally see loss of detail on highlights in the upper left/right quadrants of the scene. Since I always shoot with manual iris, this was a non-issue to me. And yes, there is an adjustment for the auto Iris to stop it down -3. But I have a tendency to forget those type of settings and you wouldn't want your iris down -3 in a low light situation! So, I ran the camera in its most basic state.
The camera body seems very durable and took 3 weeks of constantly being mounted on the jib, the two dolly's, the tripod, on sandbags, high and low, in cold or hot without one complaint. My only concern is for the two video out connectors on the side. After 3 weeks of very hard use and being jerked and pulled when someone steps on a cable while camera is moving to get a reversal (first time on the set!), the rear output jack "seemed" to be coming loose. I say "seemed", because I don't remember it being loose or tight at the beginning of our shoot. Now in all fairness, the connector wasn't shorting out or breaking up the picture...it just "felt" like it was beginning to get loose. I did enjoy having the two BNC video outputs as well as an S-Video out so I could feed multiple monitors when needed (like on the dolly or jib).
On the Down side:
I've already mentioned a few minor problems I ran across with the JVC GY-DV500. Let me add a few more. The camera does not allow progressive mode shooting. If that were available, I would have shot the movie completely in progressive mode for a more film like look. Another issue was the lack of 16:9 mode, but this didn't bother me. For one thing, without true 16:9 pixels, this feature is a waste of time and money. Sorry, but that's my feeling. Too much is lost in the conversion to make a worthwhile picture suitable in the HD future. Secondly, shooting a movie in 16:9 would also be problematic at best. It's far easier to convert upwards from 4:3 than try and down convert back to 4:3 for foreign markets and normal TV viewing. The 60 minute recording time may be an issue for event videographers, but for me...nope, nada, and no! In fact 60 minutes was about what we averaged per day of shooting....and that was a lot for a film!
The "i didn't try department":
I never used the scene files, the smooth transition feature, the full auto shooting mode and the super scene finder. The only one I wanted to try was the smooth transition feature. This is a nice idea, allowing you to change white balance or video level without a major jump in picture quality during the change. A real time smoothing circuit, if you will, but never got the chance. The camera also has a genlock input, Ieee1394, an RS232 port for computer control (all I didn't use) and a standard 1/2" lens mount for a variety of lenses, even broadcast lenses.
The Bottom Line:
This camera produces a picture more in line with camera's twice its price and then some. It falls perfectly in the class JVC no doubt wanted it to...between the Canon XL1 at almost the same price and the Sony DSR300 at considerably more money. Its operation, picture quality, versatility and feature set are a major leap for a manufacturer with its $5995 price point. Add to this, the camera's ability to mask bad pixels, the incredible setup choices, the ease of use and its light weight, even after a hard long day, you've got a killer combination. If JVC adds longer recording time to a new version of this camera (digital S?), watch out! Here comes market share!
I'm spoiled after three weeks of lightly lugging this camera around. It worked first time, every time from sunrise to long after sunset without a complaint. And that is just what I expect from a professional camera....nothing less. And that's what I got from the JVC GY-DV500.
Would I buy one? In a New York minute...yes. Just one problem...I already own an Ikegami Betacam and the Panasonic EZ1 DV camera. I doubt very much my loving wife will accept another camera into the family. "look honey...this camera followed me home from the movie...can i keep it?"
I don't think so....but for three weeks I was a very happy camera...uhh... camper!
For what its worth,
David Jon Devoucoux
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