Pros: Much better resolution and color saturation than the typical consumer camcorder
Cons: Records in DVCAM format only
The Sony DSR-PD100 was one of the first really small three-CCD camcorders that put professional features into a consumer-sized package. It first came out as the DSR-PD100 and quickly received a minor upgrade to the DSR-PD100A. This particular model was targeted at low-end professional users, such as event videographers, TV news stringers, and corporate and government video departments.
Although the DSR-PD100 and DSR-PD100A have been off the market for more than a year (Sonys current small three-CCD camcorder is the DSR-PDX10), the PD100 is available used on E-Bay and from many other sources. It is a pretty good camcorder, especially for the well-under $2,000 price tag that it now fetches. There is a consumer version with a different part number that is very similar the biggest differences are that the PD100 came standard with a 0.7x wide-angle adapter and a professional XLR microphone connection adapter. The consumer unit is DV format only, while the PD100 plays back in both the consumer DV and professional DVCAM (25 Mbps) formats, and records only in DVCAM. This is an important consideration, because a 60-minute DV videotape will record for only 40 minutes at the faster DVCAM speed of the PD100.
There is no image quality difference between the DVCAM and DV formats, but DVCAM uses wider tracks and is considered more rugged, thus its professional status.
The DSR-PD100 is a curious amalgam of both the consumer and professional worlds, and packs a large number of features into its tiny case. The unit uses 1/4-inch 380,000 pixel CCDs for a resolution of 500 lines. There are two viewfinders: a small eyepiece color LCD viewfinder and a foldout 3.5-inch LCD monitor. The foldout monitor is very crisp and quite versatile, and it gives the PD100 a lot of shooting flexibility. It also works well as a playback monitor to check your shots.
Neither viewfinder is up to the resolution of the camera, so manual focusing is a bit of a gamble. Automation is available for many camera functions, including iris, focus, white balance and gain. An image stabilizer dramatically reduces the amount of shake in handheld shots.
In addition to the 0.7x wide-angle adapter and XLR mic adapter, the PD100 came with a memory stick and PC card adapter, various connection cables, power supply and a handheld remote control. Unfortunately, it did not come with a carrying case.
The NP-F330 lithium-ion battery that comes with the PD100 is small and lightweight, and can operate the unit for about 60 minutes. There are several options available, including batteries that can stretch operating time up to seven hours. A small LCD readout on the side of the camcorder shows the approximate operating time remaining in the battery.
The camera can double as a still image camera, and stills (in JPEG format) can be conveniently grabbed from videotape playback as well. The resolution of still images is 640 x 480 good for casual use and Web publishing, but much lower resolution than a decent digital camera. The provided 4 MB memory stick holds dozens of images (depending on the JPEG compression used) and the PC card adapter made for fast image transfers into my laptop.
For such a tiny package, there is remarkable connection versatility. There is a single miniphone connector that is used to input and output composite video and stereo audio. A single S-Video connector is used for both input and output of Y/C signals. And an i.LINK (FireWire) connector handles digital I/O with control capability. If that is not enough, there is also a LANC connector for hardwired control and an external power input.
The PD100 supports both 16:9 and 4:3 recording, and either format can be selected using an on-screen menu. The camcorder also supports DVCAM cassette memory and timecode both drop frame and non-drop frame are supported. A switchable zebra pattern is available to tell you when you are exceeding preset brightness levels.
True to its consumer heritage, the PD100 is exceptionally easy to use for general recording simply make sure everything is set to auto and start shooting. The two viewfinders make nearly any style of shooting possible but only one viewfinder works at a time. This never proved to be a problem, however.
The PD100 makes excellent pictures from what appears to be a consumer camera, making the unit a good sleeper for shoots where a more professional-looking camera would attract too much attention. Nobody knew I was carrying anything more than a tourist camcorder.
The 12:1 optical zoom worked smoothly, but the touch of the servo-zoom rocker was a little difficult to control. The camera also features a digital zoom, which I did not use. I find that this form of image amplification adds too much noise and pixelation to the picture.
The PD100 has a nifty built-in stop action animation feature. I put together several brief animations of people moving impossibly around the floor, sticks magically creating patterns, and alphabet blocks climbing over each other to spell words and dance on tabletops.
The foldout LCD monitor can be rotated 180 degrees, inverting the image in the process. This lets someone standing in front of the camera see him or herself properly oriented in the image and framing is a simple matter of adjusting the tripod and standing in the right place. Using this technique, its a snap for one person to do a creditable TV news-style standup report. Since the PD100 accepts professional XLR microphones, the camcorder is a fine choice for stringers working for big city news organizations. It is easy for one person to put together a professional-looking and -sounding news story.
I shot video of the demolition of a huge privately owned observation tower at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Penn. The demolition of the tower, a somewhat controversial event ordered by the government, attracted a big crowd eager to observe the organized chaos of a large-scale demolition.
With the image stabilization switched on and foldout LCD monitor rotated for easy viewing, I held the camcorder over my head and got outstanding shots from above the crowd of onlookers. The pictures and sound from the demolition were excellent. The camera faithfully captured the rainbow of colors in the crowds clothing, the orange flash of the Civil War cannons used during a demonstration and rich green grass of the fields. I did not notice any stairstepping or other CCD artifacts.
As with most camcorders with small imaging chips, the PD100 is not at its best in low light. Its not bad at low light and is probably as good as most typical consumer camcorders just dont expect that this will bring colors and contrast out of the shadows. It wont.
I edited my raw video on a computer editing system with FireWire capability and the PD100 worked perfectly. It was easy to batch transfer scenes into the computer, and controlling the camcorder was fast and precise. When my edited version was done, I laid back the edited video to the PD100 under control of the editing system. Very sweet.
The manual recommends that the image stabilization be switched off when using a tripod but I didnt see any image artifacts from the stabilization. And having it on made a big difference in handheld shots.
The lens on the PD100 is not removable. This is too bad, as the lens is probably the cameras weak point. Although it is possible to turn off the automatic focusing features of the PD100, I dont recommend it except for special applications such as close-up animation. There are two reasons why. One, the LCD viewfinders cant resolve the exact point when the lens is optimally focused. This leaves you guessing as to whether the focus is right.
And second, the focus ring takes a lot of rotation and is not linear in its operation. I found that it was much easier (and made better pictures) if I left the auto focus on. If you must use manual focus, there is a helpful one-touch button for a single automatic focus. This worked well and eliminated the occasional "hunting" that curses all auto focus systems.
The automatic white balance worked well in a mixed light environment, but manually white balancing could usually improve things under homogeneous lighting. There is one scene memory for storing white balance data.
I made extensive use of the still image features of the PD100. While limited to 640 x 480 resolution, such stills look good as Web images. They might also work for getting approvals during a complex shoot, as the JPEGs only consume about 30 KB and are easily e-mailed. 640 x 480 is not high enough for most magazine publication at the magazine where I work, we require a minimum of 1,000 x 1,000 resolution to print clear images.
The DSR-PD100 is a terrific camcorder for a consumer who wants something better than a typical consumer model. It records professional-quality images without drawing the crowds that pro gear usually attracts. It is also good for event, corporate, cable TV and government applications, although the opposite side of human nature may show itself here. Event or corporate clients may expect to see a more professional-looking camera to justify your fees! Hopefully, most of them will believe your explanation that the PD-100 is a wolf in sheeps clothing a professional camera disguised in a consumer package.
Note: This review is based on the review I wrote that was published in the Aug 9, 2000, issue of TV Technology and my original review also appears on the TV Technology Web site. I received this camera from Sony as a loaner to conduct this review.