Pros: A highly capable, smartly designed pro camera that can cover a remarkable range of applications.
Cons: A few hardware design nits.
When the JVC ProHD line of cameras débuted around 2005, it heralded new and a broad range of video capabilities and set a standard for camcorders in its price range that still reverberates in the market today. The JVC GY-HD110u is a significant player in that line and one that remains relevant.
The 110 continues to appear in catalogs as of this posting. However, by the time 2009 rolls into 2010 the model will disappear from new inventory. This review will reveal that now may be a great opportunity for wise shooters such as event videographers and indie filmmakers to grab them up when suppliers drop prices and want to move them out.
What is the JVC GY-HD110u
The 110 is a shoulder-mounted, High Definition (high def), HDV format, video camcorder for professional applications. It is a 3-CCD sensor design and uses interchangeable lenses.
When the ProHD line and particularly the 110 was introduced, not only were the cameras considered by Electronic News Gathering, ENG, shooters, broadcast studios and event videographers but with the ability to shoot 24 frames per second, fps, natively, and with finely customizable color “looks,” cinematographers were intrigued. Indeed this was the first production video camera that turned moviemaker’s heads in the direction of digital cinema. With their relatively small size, light weight, smart and comprehensive feature set, affordability and workflow efficiency, the cameras were drawing the attention of directors of (movie) photography who were not just curious but were shooting feature “films” with them.
Today, the practice of using relatively cheap digital cameras in movies is a foregone conclusion with its movie production roots in the likes of “Bumping off Burt”, “Gabriel”, and “An Inconvenient Truth” all shot on JVC’s Pro HD cameras.
The National Podcasting System covers corporate events as well as business video production. It is built on an ENG model where mobility, durability, speed and high production value are key. One day the camera might be on an expo floor covering the latest bio-feedback technology and the next day it might be outdoors shooting a training video where the client is looking for a “film” look. The camera is normally traveling to clients’ sites where it may be setup anywhere on a tripod in a large auditorium or on the shoulder of an operator in a cramped electronic laboratory. In all cases the client and our staff are looking for fantastic images and, usually, very quickly.
How we chose the JVC GY-HD110u
My company decided on the 110 after using what some may consider a more “advanced” camera, namely the Panasonic HVX-200. The Panasonic is a great little camera that introduced solid-state media, a flash memory card called P2, to serve as the capture medium. With a tape drive in the camera as well, the HVX 200 provided redundancy that seemed just the ticket to mitigate risk of losing material. However, at the time we bought the camera, P2 cards were numbingly expensive. Even at half the price today, many still believe the cards too rich for their budgets. A critical fact was there were no card readers available for the P2 so we had to download files directly from the Panasonic which took the camera out of commission during those times and, in essence, negated the flash memory advantage. Finally, our shooters who typically have years if not decades of shooting experience were not comfortable with the workflow. Indeed, after years of handling film and tape, substantially sized media, they were not always sure which media was which and the possibility of loading already full cards existed in the heat of battle. Anyone who uses flash memory in production – stills, video, audio – has faced this challenge. We bit the bullet and sold off the Panasonic but not before analyzing our options. (Today, the HVX 200 remains a solid contender and one not to be overlooked by video professionals.)
Our production workflow heavily depended on getting the shot. In many cases, we had no chance of getting a second chance. Just as all media fails – tape has fade outs and flash has corrupted files – the single medium camera is a risk and one that we found could be quashed if we had a camera that recorded onto two media. In the meantime, a company called Focus Enhancements was working with JVC to develop a hard drive that could not only stream high def video in real time but wrap the files in a format that was directly readable and useable by non-linear edit software, in our case, Final Cut Pro. The drive is known as the Direct To Edit or DTE. While Focus was developing generic drives that could work with a range of cameras, its teaming with JVC resulted in a model that works specifically with the 110 to integrate seamlessly. We already knew of JVC’s capabilities and with the added benefit of attaching a DTE, our decision was practically made for us.
A tour of the JVC GY-HD110u
The first impression in seeing the 110, even for seasoned pros, is that it is substantial, serious, and ready to rock. For the client, showing up with one says he or she is about to get what they pay for. Sure, form isn’t substance but perception is reality and in the world of commercial videography, the 110 gains instant credibility. Fortunately, the JVC delivers what its look promises.
The JVC is large enough to include all the most used controls as real switches, knobs, and dials. This is vital for efficient use. Allowing operators to select, adjust, and check settings directly beats a trip through the menus anytime. JVC’s Panasonic heritage in control layout is plain to see in the 110 and that’s a good thing.
Starting at the business end, the included Fujinon lens has separate focus, iris, and zoom rings. The zoom rocker arm is hefty and nicely positioned. The lens hood is actually useful for its intended purpose rather than being the ornament as seen on other cameras. On the side of the body itself are the smartly arranged sound monitor control, viewfinder brightness control, peaking contour control, and one of the focus assist activator buttons, user custom buttons, and a foam covered monitor speaker. The neutral density selector, shutter speed and menu access button are arranged together with the video gain, white balance, and audio level controls are below. At the bottom is the power switch toggle and one of the VTR select switches.
The 3.5” color monitor opens to reveal the monitor brightness control, audio channel selector switches, and time code selectors.
On the other side are the power and input and output ports including the said Fire Wire and BNC type component and composite video outputs. The miniDV tape cassette door divides the ports from the audio input control group above both of the XLR input sockets.
On the top are the playback control group, cassette ejection slider switch, and various monitor control switches. Atop the handle is another focus assist and record button.
Significant features and what they mean to us
Shoulder mountable – The JVC 110 is a substantial camera. While being nicely slim and able to shimmy into places where a bigger camera can’t, it’s always preferable for operators to have the most stable method of hand holding a camera when tripod mounting is not practical. A shoulder and two hands beat only two hands or even one hand in the case of other camera designs. The result is steadier hold and a clearer picture.
Interchangeable lenses – No lens does it all. A range of lenses from a variety of makers allows greater versatility of focal lengths and coverage. Also, the bayonet mount provides for mounting 35mm lens adaptors for even greater potential for achieving a film look or a specialized focal length.
Various native frame rates – Some makers claim various frame rates but they are achieved by converting a fixed native shooting rate. This results in dropped or added frames and not the smooth and easily edited native frame rate. While not noticeable by most, this phenomenon is easily noticed by professionals and, more importantly, by critical clients. The JVC 110 records natively at 24fps, 25fps, and 30fps. It also outputs at 60fps but doesn’t record at that rate.
Focus Assist – JVC’s focus assist is in the form of “peaking.” That is, when activated, the viewfinder and LED monitor changes to a mono-chrome display and the plane of focus is indicated by edges that show in a user-defined color. Using the assist is easier than explaining it. Nearly all other makers have emulated JVC’s method.
Firewire output – The IEEE 1394 video output is 60p and can be sent to monitors or for broadcast use and recorded as such.
Setting Selection Memory – Users can record a number of setting selections to an SD card for recall. Also, those settings can be transferred via the card to other 110 cameras for consistent settings as would be used in a multi camera shoot.
In the field
As mentioned, the camera is used indoors and outside. When we are able, it is locked down on a tripod. When needed, operators handhold the unit. Our typical setup on the camera includes an Anton Bauer power adapter on which is mounted a power supply / battery mount. If we use a battery, it is normally the Dionic 90. We also mount a DTE drive either behind the battery or to the side using an Anton Bauer bracket. While the DTE can be self-powered using its own battery, we normally draw power from the Dionic using a PowerTap cable to the adaptor. This gives us the advantage of monitoring remaining battery life for the entire system on the Dionic display.
Operators including myself, like using the separate lens control rings. We can adjust focus, aperture and focal length by feel. This is always preferred over the method of controlling those vital adjustments with only one or two rings and perhaps a separate thumbwheel as is the case on other cameras. Each ring has a distinct “touch” to them and are all appropriately dampened to provide even and variable control when needed. The zoom rocker control is large enough to manage smooth servo controlled zoom at desired speeds with a little practice.
When shoulder mounted, the unit feels comfortable even with the battery and DTE cantilevered off the back. In fact, some prefer the extra weight on the back to balance the camera. However, the unit is back heavy on a tripod. Whether on the shoulder or on a tripod (in our case, a top end Sachtler head and sticks) the controls are accessible and easy to manage. In “run and gun” situations, I was able to grab shots as if with a point and shoot consumer camera. In one case, one of our operators was in an electric power lineman’s bucket high above the ground. He was able to pull off his coverage without needing to worry about his lofty position.
The viewfinder can be tilted up nearly 90 degrees for low camera angle shots. Thankfully, the viewfinder can be telescoped outwards a great distance for those of us who are left eyed. Diopter can be adjusted. Its large and soft eyecup is comfortable and effective even on the brightest of days. In contrast to many of the smaller yet more expensive cameras in the range, the 3.5-inch monitor is large, bright and contrasty enough to determine focus and see the image without squinting. It even serves as a field-expedient monitor for the client when there is no time to set up a real monitor. Again, serving the client in real time is the name of the game when money is on the line.
In multi camera shoots, it is speedy and reassuring to know controls are consistent by using the SD card to transfer desired settings to each unit. And as cameras in this range continue to shrink one has to consider where controls are going. The short answer is: Into the menu. The JVC 110 strikes a smart balance between small size and appropriate number and location of hardware rather than software based controls.
After the shoot we use the DTE as our primary video capture source and download files directly to our edit system as well as a copy to an archive hard drive. Additionally, we simply label the miniDV tape and store it as another archive copy. With some workflow discipline, it’s a straightforward and simple process.
One cannot judge a camcorder without considering its place in the entire production workflow. The camera is but one component, albeit a critical component, in a system made up of hardware, software, and most importantly, people. In this sense, the consistent and highly performing camera impresses me.
The Fujinon lens is a 16x zoom and fairly fast at f/1.4 with a practical focal length range. Along with its 3 CCD sensors and image processor, they produce a sharp and pleasing image that stands up well to editing. Color is accurate and gradation is nicely expressed in final cuts. Clients and our staff are pleased at the overall image.
The ProHD line of JVC cameras including the 110, perhaps more than any other in the price range, have an extreme, almost overwhelming, amount of control on color, gamma, contrast, and other factors that determine the “look” of the shoot. This would be most welcome by moviemakers interested in achieving a desired image or emulating a film stock.
Audio capability and performance is super. Users can mix and match up to four inputs (at 24k sample rate) if needed and send to two channels. Typical use, however, is two inputs at 48k via the XLR connectors that can supply phantom power. Input can be automatically gained or manually controlled. While we never use the included foam-covered shotgun mike on the camera, we have used it for backup audio capture on a boom and found its performance more than acceptable. Audio levels can be monitored on a multi-segmented bar in the viewfinder and on the LED screen.
A gripe that some have publicly expressed is that the sensors have 720 rather than 1080 resolution. These statements are usually made by gizmo geeks who judge technology by numbers rather than by those who actually use and, more significantly, are paid for their work. In reality, for the uses in which the videos are displayed such as on-line and on high def monitors, the output from the JVC will easily stand up to any from cameras costing three times as much. Considering the transcoding, output compression and, perhaps further compression by the client system or Web, video imagery is NOT solely or even significantly determined by sensor resolution as much as some would suspect. Considering the number of broadcast studios, production houses, freelance operators, and moviemakers who have a wide choice of gear, they would not select less than optimal cameras and many have chosen the 110.
Also, the trend moving away from miniDV HDV has many believing that the format is less than capable in terms of image and convenience. The real reason for the trend is that manufacturers are saving cost in deleting the tape drive mechanism. Granted, advanced formats and solid media can produce marginally superior images but at costs starting at twice the price of the 110. Again, one must consider the final presentation medium and when one does, in many cases the cost isn’t worth even the slight increase, if only imagined, in image quality. Many require the latest, high-end computers just to ingest, not to mention edit. While some may consider the real-time ingestion of HDV to be slow, some “advanced” media require three to four times as much time even when the files are on solid state. Again, it’s all about workflow and how much time you can tolerate. Many new formats also produce huge file sizes that are bulky and require substantial investment in archiving and storage media. In most cases HDV provides its own archiving method: label it, throw it in a box.
The JVC 110 is simply a camera that deserves its lustrous reputation.
An ENG business model puts demands of all types on the JVC camera. At the same time, the camera is expected to perform flawlessly. After three years, our JVC GY-HD110u cameras have had but one non-critical failure when one of the audio input circuits of one of the cameras stopped working. The JVC approved repair facility in southern California was able to replace and turnaround the unit quickly and at a reasonable price. A well-known but probably overblown issue posted on the Internet regarding this model concerns the “split screen” image during shoots with the camera set at high gain. We have tested our cameras set at their highest gain and have not been able to duplicate the “problem.” Furthermore, in practice, we never boost the gain as we shoot under controlled and sufficient lighting.
As mentioned, by using two capture media, in the over three years of shooting with the JVC cameras, we have never lost a moment’s worth of video capture.
Things to really like about the JVC GY-HD110u
While no camera can do everything, this camera can do most of the types of shoots of any camera in its price range that owners and clients are expecting. The ability to shoot for the Internet, ENG, business and commercial, personal, and broadcast is right there. Going beyond and shooting for movies is also a big reason for the camera’s popularity. I especially like that the versatility of the camera and the myriads of control on nearly all aspects of the final “look” make this unit desirable. The number of controls and the layout are things I miss when I use smaller cameras whose controls are hidden in menus.
Things to not like about the JVC GY-HD110u
Considering it’s nearly five years since the camera was introduced, I’m not going to bemoan the lack of an HDMI output port. Even some of today’s recent cameras at higher prices lack one. While the camera body is built around a die cast metal frame, some of the structure depends on flimsy plastic. The viewfinder is especially vulnerable and could stand more beef. A smaller nit and a nit common to nearly all video cameras in this range (and even those costing tens of thousands of dollars) is the exposure of the audio level controls to accidental adjustment. I understand that covering the controls make them less than accessible and that including more aggressive detents make level control jerky but there’s gotta be a better way. Don’t camera makers notice that nearly every video camera out there has a strip of gaffer’s tape over the dials? Finally, I think all shoulder mounted cameras should have a way to accommodate a camera’s tripod mounting position for center-of-gravity adjustment or come with a separate mounting slide.
The JVC GY-HD110u is a camera worth considering now even as is was when it came into the market years ago and for all the same reasons. Capability, form factor, handling, a huge and useful feature set, performance and, now, the dropping prices make the camera worth buying.