Sony’s announcement of a new Handycam – a model name normally associated with low-quality home movies – may not sound like big news. But it’s huge. Forget the “Handycam” name; the NEX-VG10 will be a $2,000 camcorder that uses interchangeable 35mm (more or less) lenses, and records on the professional AVCHD format. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Act 1, Scene 1 in “The Death of DSLR Video.”
1) HD-enabled DSLR cameras are a transitional form. In evolutionary terms, they are the Homo Erectus that precedes Homo Sapiens. Or, to paraphrase Lightnin’ Hopkins, “they got the shape all right, but they can’t carry no heavy load.” The image quality is stunning, but the form factor, audio capability and technical issues are major hassles. It was only a matter of time before the major electronics manufacturers took the giant image sensors that make DSLR video so awesome and combined them with existing decades of research into what makes a video camera easy to use.
2) The AVCHD codec is a “real” codec. The files will import directly into editing software without the need for the transcoding or monkey-wrenching required by the H264 Quicktime files generated by DSLRs. This one factor alone is highly significant in terms of time and hard drive savings. Panasonic has announced that their pro-level AG-AF100 4/3″ camcorder will use the same format. Interestingly, Sony’s “APS HD” sensor is 23.4 X 15.6mm, which makes it significantly larger than Panasonic’s 18×13.5 mm “Four Thirds” sensor.
3) Both the Panasonic and Sony cameras have high-quality on-board audio recording capability, overcoming one of the primary work-arounds associated with DSLR video.
4) Both manufacturers have indicated that their cameras will not be subject to the rolling shutter and image issues (moiré and aliasing) that plague DSLR video.
5) Both cameras should offer HD video outputs, meaning that purists can record the signal on an external device in an uncompressed format, bypassing the AVCHD codec altogether.
Is this the end of the road for the ground-breaking DSLR cameras that brought 35mm video to the masses? Not quite. Or, more precisely, not yet. Neither the Sony nor the Panasonic is perfect. Sony’s handycam was announced at 1/3 the price, and with a larger sensor and earlier ship date (this September, vs. “the end of 2010”) than the Panasonic, while the Panny promises variable frame rates (24p, 25p, 300, 50i, 60i) and the Sony only offers 60i. But the game has only just begun. It’s only a matter of time before we get it all: giant sensor, variable frame rates, pro audio, pro codec, and jello-free footage with limited moiré and aliasing.
It’s been less than two years since Canon fired the first shot in the 35mm video revolution by releasing the 5D Mark II. Prior to November of 2008, a 2/3 inch image sensor was considered robust. Now, even the huge (albeit awkwardly named) 4/3 inch chip seems small by comparison to the full-frame 35mm and APS-C sized sensors we’ve quickly become accustomed to. The explosive rate of growth of the technology, and the skyrocketing quality-to-price ratio, has been unlike anything the industry has ever seen.
My prediction is this: Sony’s handycam will soon be followed by a pro-level 35mm camcorder, and consumer feedback will continue to push the technology forward. With any luck, Panasonic, Canon and Sony will compete ruthlessly with each other to deliver the highest-quality products at the lowest prices. In two more years, DSLR video will be used primarily for projects like student films and photojournalism (Canon’s original intention for the 5D2, which was developed at the request of the Associated Press), while 35mm camcorders will dominate the microbudget filmmaking, corporate/commercial and event video industries.
As I mentioned above, I see this as Act 1, Scene 1. Both of these camcorders have smaller sensors than DSLRs, and the filmmaking community has invested a lot of energy and money into DSLR video, so I don’t see a “game-changer” yet. But I’m looking forward to seeing it once the curtain goes back up.