Canon HV20 Review

05/04/2008 23:34

There's independent films and videos of all budgets, in Hollywood independent can mean under $20 million, but to most of us it means credit cards. To the indie filmmaker, who's budget is in the range of zero to a few thousand, finding the right camera can be a lengthy and complicated search. I recently settled on the Canon HV20 as my compact camera of choice. There's a few reasons for this, but the main one by far is 24p recording, and there are very few under $2,000 24p cameras out there. More and more are coming on the scene every day, but the Canon HV20 and now the nearly identical HV30 are still my all around top picks. Now, the 24p doesn't mean that it automatically looks like film, but with the right lighting and especially a 35mm lens adaptor, you come pretty close. There's lots of great examples on Youtube of what you can do with an HV20 in the right hands.

After 24p, the next major feature is the HDV codec and tape based system. In a world moving quickly towards solid state and hard disk recording, it's still a camera that depends on miniDV tapes. This has a few pros and cons:

TAPES (pros):
- They are cheap, widely available
- Easy to store, light to carry, have along shelf life
- Make for a great, cheap archive of everything you ever shot
TAPES (cons):
- Capturing tapes is in real time
- Easy to get timecode breaks
- Takes longer to start recording than solid state
- Finding a specific shot on a specific tape can take a while
- Soon to be outdated
- Susceptible to extreme weather conditions
Personally, I can't wait to be done with tapes once and for all, but for right now it's a solution that works well enough to live with.
Next, the HDV codec, this is mostly a pain. True, it does offer slightly better quality than the file based AVCHD codec, but with some of the new cameras being released, this will soon be irrelevant. Being an MPEG2 Intraframe codec, it presents a lot of problems in post. Everything takes longer, no matter how amazing your system is, rendering, outputting to tape and graphics work, just take longer. And if you're doing any considerable color correction or grading, be prepared to lose quality very quickly or convert all your footage to a better codec first. A lot of filmmakers convert their HDV footage to a more workable codec, like Apple's ProRes422, before editing. If your project is short, and/or destined for the web, this might be too much trouble and you might as well stick with HDV.
Now that we have those pesky techy details out of the way, lets tackle the camera itself. For these days, it's a rather large and bulky looking camera (soooo pre-2006), the design is probably one of the worst I've seen in a long time. But, we're not getting a camera to make a fashion statement either. What the HV20 does offer, is a good number of manual functions and features that are useful to the indie filmmaker.
There's a manual focus dial, not quite the focus ring around the lens that we would hope for, but at least it's a dedicated focus dial with a dedicated manual focus button. The focusing system has Canon's "Instant Auto Focus" feature, which for the most part actually works very nicely. This is one camera where leaving it on auto focus isn't all that bad. It avoids the typical auto focus "hunting" that plagues other cameras, and when it does go out of focus, the re-focusing looks more like you actually did it rather than an automatic function. So for documentary and reality productions, you can probably leave it on auto most of the time.
Other manual functions include audio levels and exposure. It's great that they're available, but it's too bad that they share the same goofy joystick controller. A strange twist is that the audio level setting stays if you turn the camera off, but the exposure setting always resets to automatic when the camera is turned off. White balance is available through the regular menu, so it takes a few steps to get to.
Other features worth noting:
- A camera light that is just too blue to be useful when mixed with tungsten light
- A top facing microphone that is pitiful for anything other than the camera operator's breathing
- HDMI out port, a great way to bypass tape and the HDV codec
- A standard accessory shoe mount (but with a cover that is not attached to the camera)
- 3.1 Megapixel stills
- Good battery life
- Great stabilizer
- HDV and DV recording modes
- Poorly constructed tape housing door, although no problems yet, it feels like it's going to break off eventually
All in all, this is a great little camcorder. Perfect for no budget to very low budget filmmakers, and web video producers. The quality is great, 24p look is very nice, good collection of manual features and all for under $1,000. The camera is definitely Capital j. approved!

Posted By: Jedrzej Jonasz



Here's an example of a web show I shot on the HV20, edited in Final Cut as an HDV project and compressed to a flash movie.




This is a sample of the HV20 with a RedRock M2 35mm adaptor. This was created by CarbonFilms and posted on Revver:


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