Using Sony's DCR-VX1000
by Steve Sakellarios

Scenario One: I'm following the director around in a mad rush. We've broken down the equipment from a hasty interview with the head of a car dealership, and we're late for another one across town. Suddenly he says, "Oh, by the way, get a close-up of that Cadillac insignia, will you?" We're talking a 1-1/2 diameter insignia on the hood of a showroom car...

Scenario Two: I've had lots of time to set up this shoot of a professional speaker. Lighting is perfect, audio is clean. I start with my establishing wide shot and I have to zoom in tight...then I realize, I forgot to pre-focus--I may be able to end up focused without hunting too much, and I may not...

Scenario Three: I'm shooting for a documentary on Civil War re-enacters. They're very particular about realism--I have to dress the part, move along with them, and hide my VX-1000 in a cotton satchel when I'm not shooting. There's no way they would have allowed a betacam.

Scenario Four: Shooting on this same documentary, I get a shot of an officer on horseback. The director says wistfully, "I wonder what that will look like in slow motion?"

Sony's DCR-VX1000 can handle these and other difficult situations with ease. In this article, I'll fork over some of the juicy tidbits I've discovered using this camera for the past couple years, plus tips I've picked up from other owners.

I'll start with the scenarios listed above. The VX-1000 has a still-capture mode that will either capture and hold a still image indefinitely (this is a sort of "preview mode", but it can be used to lay any length of a still image onto another tape deck); or it will capture seven seconds onto its own mini-dv tape. Basically, this means you will never need a tripod again when capturing a still image, unless you want to use one for old-times' sake! I was able to capture a crisp rendition of the 1-inch diameter logo mentioned above, hand-held, in a few seconds.

 

 

 

A still image captured with the VX-1000  The VX-1000 has automatic focus--I don't trust it. Automatic focus belongs on still cameras where it started, because by definition, video cameras "hunt" on-line. However, this camera also has a miniscule button on the lower-left of the lens barrel. This button (if you can find it while you're shooting!) will give you a one-at a-time autofocus that's very accurate. The trick I've learned is to keep your finger poised over this button as you're zooming in, and press it *periodically*. You'll get almost perfect focus throughout your zoom range even if you were out of focus drastically when you began the zoom.   Click here to see a video sequence

 

 

 

 

Click here to see a zoom video sequence

Smooth Zoom Sequence

The VX-1000 captures a perfect still frame at any point in the video, and it also provides slo-mo playback. The slow-motion effect on this video clip of the horseman came straight out of the camera. In fast-moving scenes, increasing the shutter-speed keeps the playback smoother.

Slo-motion video sequence A friend and fellow-producer who lives in my neighborhood took his family to Europe. He traded me his beta-sp UVW-100 for my VX-1000 for the week. When he got back, he was thrilled--he'd been allowed into all *sorts* of official places with that camera, since he looked like "Joe Tourist"--but he had three-chip, broadcast-quality footage.

Tips and features I've run across.

Manual Audio Control: The VX-1000 has an excellent on-camera stereo microphone. I have heard people complain about it picking up camera noise, but haven't noticed a problem with it myself. It records in 12-bit audio--to my ear, it's one of the best-sounding mics I have, and at close range, I'd be hard-pressed to beat it. It's not directional, however. The audio-in jack is stereo mini. With a stereo Y-adapter from Radio Shack (model# 274-375), you can record onto separate audio tracks. There is a digital, single-channel level display on the back of the camera, with a peak indicator. I have not always been pleased with the audio-limiter on this camera, although it's a drastic improvement from my old Panasonic AG-450, in that it doesn't "search" or gain-up in quiet intervals.

Cautions:

Exposure/Viewfinder: The VX-1000 features zebra stripes in the viewfinder. The LCD color monitor, while wonderful to remind you if you've forgotten to white balance, isn't as sharp as a traditional black and white monitor, nor is it as representative of the actual exposure. It takes some trial-and-error.

White Balance: I'm not satisfied with the automatic white balance in my camera, so I go exclusively manual, even if I have to get someone to stand with his back to me so I can get a reading off his T-shirt! The manual white balance, however, is very reliable and accurate.

Low Light Capability: The low light capability is reasonably good but nothing to rave about. Set the gain manually, and you'll get a clean, non-grainy image up to 6db.

Digital Zoom: The VX-1000 has a 10x zoom factor, and then it goes into digital zoom mode which extends it to 20x. The image quality, which is after all a big part of the camera's appeal, deteriorates rapidly as you enter the digital zoom "domain". I find that I can "pooch" into it just a bit, and then I have to stop.

Head Clog: There's a tendency for these cameras to develop head clog, and create what people are calling "drop-outs"--I think that's much too wimpy a term for the huge blocky distortions or total blackouts that occur when the heads clog up. The consensus seems to be that this is caused by switching brands of tape, from Sony to any other brand and back again. I have no evidence to back this up, other than if I stick with Panasonic or JVC brands, avoid Sony tapes, I'm okay. I believe I could get the same results by using exclusively Sony tapes, but, they're more expensive. Just to be safe, I've been cleaning the heads every few shoots.

Artifacts: While the image from these cameras is very crisp for such a little box, there is some artifacting--hopefully this will be solved in future generations.

Time Code: There's a tendency for the time code to break and start over from zero when you stop and then start recording again, especially if you review previous footage often. This makes makes logging tapes a nuisance.

Pedestal Setting: The VX-1000's black level is set to the Japanese standard of zero ire, instead of the 7.5 ire we are accustomed to seeing. This creates a somewhat contrastier look, and I think contributes to unfavorable comparisons with beta-sp despite its 500 lines of resolution. This can be adjusted in post-production.

More Neat Stuff

Color Bars: While it's nowhere in the manual, the camera can be "tricked" into producing color bars. Most users have learned the trick by now, but when the news first came out, I found myself demonstrating it to a Sony representative who hadn't heard of it! Briefly, the procedure is as follows: In "camera" mode and in "lock" position, hold down the *top* record button and the photo button simultaneously. While holding them, move the lever from "lock" to "standby", pause briefly, and then let off of both buttons. These bars can be recorded. Moving back to lock position will cancel them.

Batteries: The 4-hour lithium batteries (which don't really last four hours, but then, what batteries live up to their time specs?) are light as a feather and have no "memory" when recharging. I carry four spares and hardly feel it.

Tapes: The one-hour tapes are tiny and can be reused without fear of dropouts, in my experience (head clog, mentioned above, is a separate problem).

Stabilization: The "Steady Shot" stabilization feature in this camera allows you shoot amazingly steady hand-held, and because it's an optical and not a digital system, it doesn't degrade the image quality.

Neutral Density Filter: This filter gives you a greater range of exposure control.

Best general setting: Although the VX-1000 has several shooting modes, I use the all-manual configuration exclusively:

1) Hold/Automatic lever set in mid-position for manual shooting.

2) Toggling the AE-Program button on the left-back of the camera until neither shutter speed, night-shooting (a moon icon), nor AE symbols appear, I then press the "Exposure" button on the left side of the camera. This displays in the viewfinder a vertical thermometer bar, the exposure setting, and the gain setting. As I roll the wheel just behind the Exposure button, the aperture decreases or increases. When it increases to the point that the iris is "open", it then goes into gain by increments of 3db and displays this in the viewfinder accordingly. In this mode you have total aperture and gain control.

3
) Manual white balance. Just below the white balance mode button on the back of the camera, is the tiny button that you hold to actually *set* the white balance. A symbol with a block above two adjacent triangles represents white-balance, and you will see this blink in the viewfinder as the camera is white-balancing. If you don't see this symbol in the viewfinder, toggle the white balance mode button until it appears.

4)
Manual audio control. While in the configuration described above, press the "Rec Level" button on the back of the camera. The audio record level is now manually adjustable with the wheel marked "control" on the left side of the camera all the way towards the rear. You shouldn't lose any other controls when in manual audio record, in this configuration.

Conclusion: If you shoot in reasonably good light, are careful to zoom in and focus critically, white balance carefully in every new light situation, and use the all-manual settings described above, you can approach beta-sp quality with this tiny, portable, light-weight, unobtrusive camera.

And by the way, did I mention it's cool-looking?

 

Steve Sakellarios
Gold Thread Video Productions
www.goldthread.com


Need more Information? Here are some links to check out:

1) Hy-Berg Video Productions
    
2)
Video University (Hal Landen)