JVC GZ-HD7 Field Report

For the past several weeks, I’ve used the JVC HD Everio (GZ-HD7) to record the experiences of the Xtreme Team in the Czech Republic. On previous teams, I had used either the Canon GL-1 or a Panasonic DVX-100A to cover the team. Here are some brief thoughts on my experience with this camera.

On paper, this looks like a keen little unit. It packs a lot of technology into a small package (this is important for something that one has to carry continuously for weeks at a time and was a primary consideration when I chose a camera). However, in practice (for what I was using it for) there were many shortcomings. First, this was a decisive moment sort of trip; unfortunately the camera is basically a little computer with a lens and, like a computer, it takes some time to boot up prior to operation. There were many instances where the shot was gone by the time the camera was operational. (I could not just leave the camera on all the time either, it seemed to eat batteries as well.) Secondly, it’s basically an auto-everything unit; however, the auto-exposure wasn’t very intelligent. There were a lot of associated ills to this. The auto white balance was confused by mixed lighting and the WB presets never seemed to quite be on target. Also, the dynamic range was atrocious; highlights were consistently blown out and shadow detail was almost non-existent. It also has very poor low-light performance. So, it’s no good in daylight because of the dynamic range issues and it’s no good in low indoor light (worse than most “consumer” DV cameras made in recent years). Again, in the particular situation I was using it for (which was fast changing documentary style shooting), it was poorly suited.

Basically, it needs controlled lighting or overcast days for good imagery. In some situations it would have been helpful to use manual exposure; I can tell where the exposure should be set for a scene. However, telling the camera where that exposure should be is another matter. To change either the shutter speed or aperture requires a couple presses of awkwardly placed buttons and a dial on the back of the camera (one has to take the camera away from one’s eye or make a separate motion that moves the camera away from a position of filming to make changes). Again, there were many times when I was trying to adjust exposure and the shot was lost.

Another feature that looks good on paper is the ability to shoot stills. This would be a great boon if it were not for the fact that the exposure is almost always wrong and the pictures look worse than images from a mobile phone (I honestly don’t think there was one image from the camera that I would consider usable). After a few days of trying this, I went home and picked up my five year old Sony camera (far far superior images and control over the process of making them).

There is no headphone output which…is somewhat inexplicable.

The optical image stabilisation seems to have no effect whatsoever; this is very important on a camera with almost no mass (it’s physically impossible to hold the camera steady). I did have a camera bracket that helped somewhat. But, still, there are many shots that are unusable because of shake. I’m not sure how critical I can really be here. We keep asking for smaller and lighter. However, the trade-of there is shaky images. I have used other small cameras though that have rather good stabilisation.

Then we come to the big issue that I should have anticipated from the start. I used the external DVD burner to backup files from the camera. This, on the surface, looks like a tidy little system for archiving footage in the field for later editing. No more tedious capturing of footage in post. Everything is already stored as distinct data files for the computer to access. However, my computer can’t access them; or, rather, I can open the files in QuickTime, but Final Cut doesn’t know what to do with them. For some reason, JVC decided to use some proprietary file format rather than a standardised one. So, in order to edit them, I have to re-encode them into another video format. This takes about five minutes for every one minute of video, which, of course, rather negates the time I would have saved capturing footage. There is also some related issue with the interlaced video; it seems especially interlaced. It’s as if someone thought that interlacing might be a really artistic way of interpreting motion and cranked the thing up a couple notches.

A word of advice: Do things simply and well. I should have chosen a not really the coolest latest thing on the scene camera that would have fit the task without fuss. (In that respect, I think the Panasonic DVX cameras are just about the best DV cameras ever made; yes, they are bigger and heavier. However, the image quality is actually better and they get the shot. The most important thing is actually getting the image onto tape. I’d rather have the shot on tape with a few less pixels to count that miss it with the coolest camera around.)

This points to a larger concern with how devoted we are to the latest and greatest gadget (photographers are especially prone to this malady). My film camera that was designed 50 years ago may not have all the neat features of something just off the shelf, but I know how to use it intuitively and can make pictures with it. Features and pixels are irrelevant if the photo is missed or poorly made because the “interface” gets in the way.