JVC GY-HM100 Review
A Pocket Battleship Semi-Pro Camcorder
JVC GY-HM100 – Overview
The JVC GY HM100 is currently the smallest and lightest "semi-pro" quality camcorder avalable. It is selling for about US $3,500. Announced in January, 2009 the HM100 became available in most markets in May. Hardly bigger than the larger consumer camcorders with built-in hard drives, it weighs just over 3lbs. From a size perspective, it needs to be noted that the carry-handle with attached shotgun mike and mixing panel is completely removable (as will be discussed shortly), making the HM100 a very low profile camera. Early reports are that this camera is quickly becoming appealing to pros needing the smallest and least conspicuous camera possible for discreet location work and for use as a "B" cam.
But, in addition to that constituency I believe that JVC has targeted the HM 100 at users who are relative newcomers to video making, yet who want near-broadcast-quality images combined with ease of use at an affordable price.
Features and Foibles
Of particular note is that this is the first video camera to shoot directly to Apple's QuickTime movie format (.MOV). JVC has licensed the format from Apple and has also licensed the Sony XDCAM EX codec from Sony. Thus, shooting XDCAM EX wrapped in a .MOV envelope, all one needs to do is drag files off the card directly onto the Final Cut time line. No transcoding, no rendering, no format conversion. This is a first, and JVC is to be loudly applauded for it.
Parenthetically, JVC used to be part of the Panasonic family of companies, but separated to become completely independent last year. This type of cross-licensing activity clearly shows that JVC intends on now marching to the beat of its own drummer rather than that of its previous corporate parent.
If you are not a Mac user editing with Final Cut Pro (that doesn't make you a bad person) then you can choose to shoot to the MP4 codec for editing on any Mac or Windows PC with other non-linear editing software, such as Adobe Premiere or Sony's Vegas. These editing packages will see the JVC's files as XDCAM EX, just as if they'd come from a Sony EX1 or EX3 camera. How cool is that!?
A power operated zoom is something that differentiates real video cameras from video DSLRs. But, the one on the HM 100 lacks the finesse and variable speed capabilities that more expensive (and even some less expensive) cameras offer. If one is very precise with pressure on the zoom rocker a slow speed zoom is possible, but it's very hard to regulate with any precision.
JVC either needs to produce the ability to program the zoom speed, or failing that, provide a less finicky zoom rocker.
The HM 100 has what is likely the industry's poorest filter mount design. The camera has two threads; a 46mm thread on the lens itself and a 72mm thread in the provided removable self-capping lens shade. The first and smaller one is for lens attachments and the second and larger one for filters.
The problem lies in the fact that both threads are so thinly pitched that any attached filter or accessory lens just hangs on by the skin of its teeth, so to speak, and in the case of the plastic shade the threads are simply plastic and thus very susceptible to cross threading.
The 46mm thread on the lens, in addition to being thin is also restrictive in terms of what devices (such as WA adaptors) can be used, because the physical surround is quite small. Large diameter lenses just won't fit. For example, the 16X9 Inc. brand 0.7 WA attachment, which claims to be specifically designed for the HM 100, comes with an adaptor that is too wide for the lens itself, and therefore doesn't attach. Obviously the company designed it without actually having a production camera to test it on. Bad business practice, and as far as the filter threads on the JVC HM 100 go, bad design as well. (16X9 Inc. – Can I have my money back please!)
Inexplicably the HM 100 does not have a histogram. I can't figure out any explanation for this oversight, and it's a pretty glaring one for anyone interested in precise control of exposure. It could be that JVC doesn't want to cannibalize sales of their more expensive models, but it's hard then to imagine why they have incorporated some pro-level features and yet not others so basic as this one. Not a show-stopper, but a real disappointment.
The HM100 uses three ¼-inch progressive scan CCDs. These are as small as semi-pro cameras have, and are what contribute to the camera's small size, light weight and moderate price. As will be seen, image quality is very high, but only at decent light levels. In low light where CMOS sensors have an edge, and in comparison to 1/3" and 1/2" sensor equipped cameras, the JVC simply can't compete. Also the small sensors mean very deep depth of field, not something that indy film makers are partial to, though documentary producers may find it to their linking.
The JVC has an 3.7mm to 37mm f/1.8 lens, equivalent in full frame 35mm terms to a 38mm – 380mm. This is a bit shy on the wide angle side and some users are going to find it a must to purchase an accessory WA adaptor.
There is a zoom control rocker in the usual place on the top of the camera where ones fingers rest when hand holding, and another via a joystick on the LCD. As discussed above, my gripe is that the zoom control has no finesse. One can do very slow zooms, but it takes extreme finger control, and is not repeatable with any degree of accuracy.
There is a single manual control ring on the lens, which can be switched to be either a manual zoom or focus control, but not both at the same time.
The HM 100 has built-in stereo mikes which can be used without the removable grip and audio assembly. This assembly has a cardiod mike and also dual mike inputs with professional grade XLR connectors and a full range of manual audio level and mixing controls.
Audio is of very high quality, with a 48 kHz /bit rate in 16 bit mode. Nicely done.
In Full Auto mode white balance is automatic, but when the camera is switched to Full Manual mode there are three WB positions available which can be pre-set to daylight or tungsten or fully automatic. There is also a white balance button on the front of the body which can program the current white balance of a scene to any of the three switch positions.
The camera has two SDHC cards slots, able to each take a card up to 32GB in size (the current maximum). Class 6 cards are required because of the camera's high data rates. I use Sandisk 16GM Extreme III cards (one hour of recording) because they are currently at the sweet spot in terms of pricing and performance. (Around $100 after rebate).
The user can switch which card is being recorded to at any time with the press of a button, or the camera can automatically switch to the second card when the first one is full, potentially providing up to 4 hours of continuous recording.
The Lithium Ion battery is 2190 mAh and provides about 90 minutes of use. The camera can be powered by AC and the battery can be charged in the camera as well as in the provided external charger. Since JVC provides both a separate battery charger and an AC adapter / charger, two batteries can be changed a once, a welcome bonus.
I was a bit disappointed that the provided charger has a cord rather than a fold out plug, become the latter is preferable for low-bulk, light weight travel.
EVF and LCD
The camera's EVF has a huge eyepiece with great eye relief (great for shooting with glasses) but the screen itself is fairly coarse compared to the better screens from Sony, Panasonic and others, and even JVC's larger cameras.
The articulated LCD is similarly not the finest and brightest available, but it's adequate.
The LCD is fully articulated, and able to rotate 180 degrees forward, making filming oneself feasible since the image automatically rotates 180 degrees when in that orientation. The clip below was shot with the HM100 using the camera's cardiod mike, and is excerpted from a 30 minute review of the new Arca Swiss Rm3d technical camera which will appear on these pages later in July.
The electronic viewfinder both extends and tilts, and can be set to always on, or able to be automatically activated, depending on whether the LCD is open or closed. It also turns on automatically when the eyepiece is extended. All-in-all, a well thought-out design.
The edge of the LCD has a Record button, a zoom joystick, and an Index button, which calls up thumbnails of video clips in Playback mode. The joystick then also serves as a navigation device.
The Menu button is located on the camera body underneath the fold-out LCD, but I would have much preferred it if it had been on the LCD rim. Its placement means that one is constantly fumbling for it, back and forth between it and the controls on the LCD.
Once again I have to ask, as I have so many times over the years with various still cameras, why don't manufacturers provide prototypes of their designs to competent users so that glaring interface problems are revealed before production starts? It's a mystery.
There are three USER buttons, two on the top left of the lens housing and one inside the fold-out LCD panel. Each can be programmed to almost any function that one wishes.
The manual controls for exposure compensation, shutter and aperture are on the rear of the camera and are controlled by a single wheel. This works, but the controls are a bit fiddly. My sense is that the camera was designed primarily to operate in Auto mode, and that therefore less attention was paid to haptics that might have been. I sympathize with the designers though, as the HM100 is small enough so as to present a challenge when it comes to size and location of controls.
There is a Snapshot button for taking stills, which are simply 1920X1280, and therefore not terribly useful. These can be shot while filming without interrupting the video, to a maximum of three frames per video clip.
The camera can also shoot stills when in a special stills mode – but at this resolution why would you want to?
If you're shooting in a Progressive mode it's easier to simply do a frame capture in your editing software.
LANC – Not
The camera is small, which makes the controls necessarily small. But a real oversight for a camera aimed as this one is at the semi-pro market is the lack of a LANC adaptor socket. This is an industry standard that allows for remote focus and zoom control. A kind-of jury-rig control can be arranged with a TOSLINK optical cable, but this is less than a satisfactory solution.
This camera uses 3 CCD sensors and therefore does not suffer from a rolling shutter; so-called Jellocam, the effect that one sees with CMOS based video cameras, where there is a temporal difference between the time that the top of the frame is shot as compared to the bottom of each frame. Thus, if the subject moves horizontally during a shot, or the cameras does similarly, the subject will appear to bend. This is one advantage of a CCD based camcorder over a DSLR / Video camera.
But, as with all CCDs, when gain is boosted, especially at +18db, there is objectionable vertical streaking (smear) on bright lights in the frame.
The HM 100 can not undercrank or overcrank. These are old film terms for running the camera at speeds faster and slower than normal, thus producing slow motion or fast motion. These effects can still be produced in your non-linear editor, such as Final Cut Pro, but the lack of variable speeds when shooting is something that I miss having.
JVC may be protecting its other new camcorder, the GY-HM700, the HM100's big brother, which can shoot at variable frame rates.
I would also have liked to see an intervalometer for doing single frame and intermittent frame shooting, something desirable for animation. I've become used to this on the Sony EX-1 and greatly miss this feature on the HM100.
Below are a couple of examples accelerated in Final Cut by 4000%. These don't take long to generate, but the original footage can be hundreds of megabytes.
720 vs 1080, 24 vs 30 vs 60, and i vs P
One of the religious discussions that video folks like to thrash about over is the use of 1080 vs 720 and interlaced (i) versus Progressive (P). The HM 100 is capable of shooting all of these formats and speeds, and so potential and new users are sure to ask which is best.
Here's my take on the topic. This is not gospel, just my opinion.
The JCV HM100's native mode is 1080P30. to quote JVC,
"JVC's digital signal processor (DSP) processes all images as full 1920x1080 progressive signals, providing the maximum image information to work with regardless of the actual recording mode that is used".
This means that regardless of how you have set the camera, from 1080i / 60, to 720P / 60, to 1080P / 24, (or 50 if you're in Europe) the camera is actually capturing 1920 X 1080 progressive at 30 frames per second.
Just as in stills photography, I believe that starting with the maximum information possible (as recommended to me by videographer Chris Sanderson – a 30 year industry veteran) is the best approach. Then, depending on one's intended final output needs, the edited and graded video can be output appropriately.
So – start with the most data possible, which in the case of this camera is 1080P / 30.
As for the argument of 24P vs 30P, I'll simply say that I regard 24P as a bit of an anachronism, based more on the technical needs of the motion picture industry in the mid-1920's than any compelling esthetic advantage. My guess is that if they could have, and film stock cost wasn't an issue, the industry would likely have adopted a speed somewhat faster than 24 FPS. In any event, the visual difference between 24 and 30FPS is almost invisible.
On the other hand, if your intention is to go to motion picture film as your release medium (and how many of you really have that as a realistic goal) then shooting 24P does make sense because converting 30P to 24 frames per second doesn't work very well.
Also, if it's your intention to shoot by mixing footage between a true video camera such as the JVC HM 100 and a video stills camera such as the Panasonic GH1, then 24 FPS also makes sense because that's the maximum progressive mode speed that these cameras can shoot, and mixing same frame rate footage will be best.
A Question of Exposure
How the HM100 handles exposure requires some getting used to. The camera has two primary modes; Full Auto and Partial to Full Manual. In full auto mode, everything is automatic. The only override available is a separate switch for Auto Focus / Manual Focus, but there is also a manual-only ND filter with one ND position, for shooting in bright light at larger apertures.
Oh yes – there is an exposure compensation control on the rear of the camera that overrides auto exposure, but without an on-screen histogram using it is not as affective as one might wish.
Switching to fully manual exposure mode is accomplished with a button on the left side of the camera, but be aware that pressing it once does not change modes, it simply shows you the current status. You have to press it a second time to actually switch modes, which is confirmed on the EVF or LCD.
Once in Manual mode you then have the ability to override shutter speed, white balance, aperture and gain. There are three gain positions, each user settable, up to + 18 DB. There is also a fourth gain control called LowLux which can be programmed into one of the three configurable USER buttons which boost sensitivity even further, though at the cost of considerable noise. (Incidentally LowLux can be activated even in Full Auto mode).
Image quality with the HM 100 is very high. Even though it uses three small 1/4" CCDs, at normal gain and even +9DB images are very clean. Because this is a CCD camera, there is no jello effect on rapid panning and subject movement, such as experienced with most CMOS based still / video cameras.
Without the use of scopes and other test instruments it isn't possible to give an objective report on image quality, but from a purely subjective point of view, to my eye image quality is quite close to that of the Sony EX-1s that we use in our video productions, and which are broadcast certified by a number of networks.
The EX-1 is clearly superior in terms of image quality in low light because of its much larger imaging chips. But, at any light level above decent room lighting the HM100 holds its own. At brighter light levels quality is exceptional, as can be seen in the clip linked below, which is shown at about one third its native size for reasons of bandwidth conservation.
The Bottom Line
Obviously the use of 3 CCDs, a very high (35 MBPS) bit rate, and a pro-grade CODEC contribute to image quality comparable to if not better than any of the consumer grade camcorders. This comes at a higher price, of course, but only slightly increased bulk and weight.
On the other hand the JVC HM 100 is quite a bit smaller and lighter than a camera such as the Sony EX1, though not as full featured, nor as expensive. Using inexpensive SD cards it provides huge cost savings over cameras that use SxS or P2 cards.
In other words, it's a middle child – mid-priced, mid-featured and mid-sized. As such it will likely suit the needs of many amateurs as well as advanced video producers. It's not a do-everything product, but on balance provides great image quality, a decent feature set, reasonable price, and small size and low weight.
For someone wanting to become involved in low-end indie and creative video production the JVC HM 100 is a great place to start. One might be tempted to just work with a video-capable DSLR, but as illustrated in my tutorial ComboCams vs Camcorders, these currently have a great many limitations when used by themselves for serious video production.
While many film makers buy 35mm lens Depth of Field Adaptors, such as the Letus35 Mini to get film-like DOF, another alternative would be to purchase a camera such as the Panasonic GH1. This allows shooting 1080P which can then be mixed with JVC HM 100 footage when needed. At a cost of $1,500 it is priced the same as purchasing a Letus, but provides a separate camera with zoom lens as well (and stills capability).
The JVC HM 100 (this link is to the manufacturer's web page) isn't quite a home run, but then there is nothing in its size and price range that offers better image quality and versatility. It's currently (mid-2009) my preferred camcorder and the one that I use for my personal projects.
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