Revenge of The Camcorder
I have a soft spot for JVC. They are a brand not that well known outside of the video community, where they have a reputation for designing novel and sometimes quirky cameras. My affection for the company also comes from the fact that back in the 1970's I was their first Canadian Marketing manager for video products. This was even before I had a similar role at Panasonic. The story is that because I had worked as a still photographer in the TV and movie industry I was perceived as understanding video. Ha! What I knew technically about video at the time wouldn't take up more space than a U-Matic cassette, which is what we were using at the time.
But there's no better way to learn something than to have to sell it, teach and write about it, so I became JVC's product evangelist in Canada. This was some years ago, though it explains why I always have an eye out for what JVC is up to in the world of video cameras. Back in 2009 I used a JVC HM-100 camcorder and was very pleased with its versatility and image quality. I was particularly impressed that it could shoot .MOV files which could be dropping straight onto the editing timeline in Final Cut Pro without transcoding. As we'll see, the PX100 continues this ability, as well as providing high bit rate AVCHD and other available codecs.
Video DSLRs and CSCs Vs. Camcorders
In this era of large sensor DSLRs and Compact System Cameras (CSCs) that can shoot high quality video why do people still buy camcorders? Isn't the goal of shallow depth of field cinema-like video what everyone is looking for? Well, actually no, it isn't. While many fancy themselves as Indy film makers, which requires shooting gradable 24P with shallow depth of field, there are many pros, semi-pros and amateurs who need traditional small sensor camcorders for any number of reasons. These include deep depth of field (for news and actuality), electronic zoom lenses, and a myriad of other features that DSLRs don't offer. I think that not quite dead yet, is the operative phrase for camcorders.
Changing The Paradigm
I'm always impressed when a mainstream manufacturer thinks outside the box and produces a product in a well established category that flaunts the standard design conceits of the industry. The JVC PX100 is such a camcorder. The PX100 looks like the bastard child of a CSC and a camcorder, the long snout of one and the horizontal boxyness of the other.
That is not to say that it is unattractive. But it very much is a case of form-following-function.
The PX100 sells for about $995 in the US, though it can be seen on sale for about $100 less from time to time. As shown above it has a detachable electronic finder, which appears to be standard in Europe and elsewhere, but this is not the case in North America. This will cost you between another $150 and $225.
Otherwise the camera comes well equipped, with supplied neck strap, lens shade, lens hood, articulated rear LCD and a folding screen shade.
Ergonomically this uniquely designed camera is a charm. It is light, has a well formed palm strap and the various shooting controls such as shutter release, zoom lever, playback button and other controls fall nicely to hand, as the saying goes. I would venture to say that rather than coming up with a unique body style just for the sake of doing so, JVC has actually rethought how people operate small and light weight camcorders and has done justice to their handling needs.
Something that will catch your eye immediately is that there's a top-mounted PASM dial, just as one would find on a stills camera. Any of these modes, plus some others which are available, may be used to shoot video. There are controls for shutter speed and aperture which are easily accessed via a uniquely design wheel and button on a protruding module found on the left side. It takes a bit of familiarization, but once you get how it works, it works a treat.
Access to an AF / MF button is available on the main body just forward of the exposure controls, and just behind them is the so-called Time-Control, which I will have more to write about in a moment.
Otherwise there are few external controls. The battery and memory card are located behind a door which is inside the articulated LCD compartment. This is a great location because both can be accessed without removing either the tripod plate or the camera itself from the tripod.
There is a cold shoe for mounting an outboard microphone, and of course built-in stereo mics as well. An external mic jack, headphone jack and power socket are beneath rubberized covers on the cameras left flank. On the right there's an HDMI jack. Sadly, there in no LANC control.
JVC appears to be aiming this camera at sportsman, coaches and trainers. It has the ability to shoot slow motion at speeds up to 600 FPS. Wow, pretty fantastic you say. Well, actually not. The faster the frame rate the lower the resolution, and so while a coach may be pleased watching a tiny low-res image when evaluating an athlete's mechanics, the rest of us will play with it once or twice, filming our dog running in the backyard, and that'll be the last time we even look at it. If JVC's advertising hype for slow-mo has you pumped, get over it. For anything other than viewing golf swings it's a bust.
But that same Speed Control dial rotates in the other direction, and this will be a great interest to many film makers. The camera can shoot at 1FPS, 2FPS, 5FPS, and even slower, allowing playback times of 1 hour = 60 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 30 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 12 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 6 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 3 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 1.5 seconds of playback, 1 hour = 0.75 seconds of playback. That's quite a range. Flowers blossoming, anyone?
There's a lot to like about the PX100 such as easy access to the SD card and battery, without having to remove the camera from the tripod. Folding sun shade on the EVF. Decent manual exposure controls. Well placed hot shoe for external mic. And the zoom lever has relatively easy to control zoom speed. The fast f/1.2 lens at the wide end is also welcome.
Image quality is very good though the files may appear a bit softer than some may prefer. A bit of sharpening in Post may be needed with some files, more so than with some competitive cameras. The camera shoots standard AVCHD but also H264 in either a .MOV or MP4 wrapper. Unlike AVCHD which is a display format, and which needs transcoding for proper editing these .MOV and .MP4 files can be dropped straight onto a timeline without transcoding. These are at 40Mbps, or more accurately 36Mbps with 4Mbps reserved for high quality 2 channel LCPM digital audio.
SIDEBAR: Why do most camera makers foist AVCHD off on us? Have you ever tried to find the playable file in the incomprehensible forest that is the directory structure of AVCHD? Just about everyone using a camera like this will edit the files, and having them in AVCHD (as they are with most camera makers) is a total pain, and an unneeded pain.
Maybe some people shoot events and then copy them from the camera to Blu-Ray disks without any editing, but I can't imagine anyone actually do this. I really can't. So hello Canon, Panasonic and others. It's time to bag AVCHD. I does no one any good, and oh by the way, have you notice that Blackmagic is about to eat your collective lunches with direct Prores 422 HQ and raw recording in the $1000 Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera? The jig is almost up. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.
In the meantime JVC is to be congratulated for including these H264 files in .MOV or .MP4 wrappers and also for providing such a high frame rate.
There's also a lot not to like about the PX100. The optional EVF (in North America) is lousy, with poor quality and a distant eye point. EVFs have gotten very good these days. JVC just cheaped out on this one.
The touch screen is also resistive, where you have to press or tap hard. What's with that? This is 2013. I'm surprised JVC could even source such a lousy touch screen these days.
More and more companies are guilty (including JVC) of not including chargers with their cameras. Charging is done with the battery in the body. This is lame. One can't recharge when the camera is in use. Given that one can buy chargers on eBay for less than $10 it isn't a big deal, but shouldn't be necessary. Whoever in product planning who makes these decisions at camera companies is obviously not someone who has ever actually used the product themselves.
Finally, while it's understandable that JVC decided to focus this product on sports trainers and soccer moms, it is capable of so much more. If only JCV would focus some of its considerable technical expertise on developing products that would appeal to a broader market of videomakers we would all benefit.
Quite a few important controls are found via the touch screen and menus. These include most importantly White Balance and Stabilization (which works well). JVC needs to hire a designer who is also a cinematographer to create a menu structure that makes sense and offers rapid access to soft controls.
There is focus peaking, but no focus magnification. How much would that have cost to add?
The camera is able to shoot stills, but they are nothing to write home about. I wouldn't bother. There is also Wi-Fi, which I tried, but was told that my Samsung Galaxy IIIs (the world's most popular phone) wasn't supported. Somehow I doubt it, but I didn't bother. Things like this should just work, and since I'm not really interested in WiFi in a video camera I didn't bother further, I'm sure though that with some effort it could be made to work. The manual says it should. Bah humbug.
Hints for Mixing 60P with 24P Footage
Many of us are shooting video with HD DSLRs and CSCs using 24P. The purpose of shooting at 24P is, of course, to achieve a cinematic "film" look through a combination of the motion blur of a 180 degree shutter (1/48th sec), the cadence of 24 FPS and the shallow depth of field of a large(ish) sensor. But some cameras now, such as the PX100 can't shoot 24P. So how do we mix this footage together?
Here's the trick. Edit all of your footage on a 24P timeline, the 24P as well as the 60P. If you drop the 60P onto a timeline set for 24P it will look fine, and you have the bonus of being able to slow it by 60% to achieve good looking slow motion sequences. Your call. (In Final Cut X just select the 60P clip on the timeline and choose Conform).
Of course this won't make the 60P footage look like 24P in terms of motion blur. To achieve this you might want to try a plug in called ReelSmart Motion Blur. It works in most NLEs and can do a very convincing job of adding a 24P look to 60 P footage.
One other thing to keep in mind if you're going to be doing any of this is to shoot your 60P footage with a 180 degree shutter, which means 1/125 sec if you're going to use the clips for slow motion on a 24P timeline. If you're going to use it straight you might want to experiment with a 360 degree shutter, which means shooting with a shutter speed of 1/60th second for a bit more motion blur with 60P on a 24P timeline.
The Bottom Line
Anyone looking for a small, light weight traditional camcorder with a fast zoom lens, very decent image quality, unique control interface and decent handing should look closely at the JVC PX100. As a traditional camcorder it has a lot to offer. For anyone needing this type of product as this price point the PX100 is worth checking out.