Sony DSR-200

Washington, DC , October 29, 1997 

I think it is important for to preface this review with where I come from on it. 

Several years ago, I was introduced to the concept of Video journalism by Michael Rosenblum as he was assembling the first team for Video News International. 

You can read all about that in the Platypus Papers, here on this web site. 

When we were first introduced to the concept of television news gathering as still photojournalists, the camera that Michael felt was the state of the art that we were going to be using was the Sony EVW300. 

This camera was a high 8 version of a standard ENG camera. Just a bit smaller than a Betacam, it had all the professional broadcast features, such as a broadcast zoom, multiple PCM audio channels, accessed through XLR connectors, manual aperture and focus controls, and a color bars generator. 

It was a shoulder mounted camera that meant business. Its black and white high contrast viewfinder allowed you to snap focus with ease. 

This is the camera that I learned on. Once I got used to the weight of it on my shoulder, I found it responded quickly to my every command. 

However, early on, as the funding started to arrive for VNI, the VX3 handycam came on the scene. 

Where the EVW300 was a bargain at $7,500 plus lens, the VX3 came in at an even more affordable $3,500. The VX3 was never intended to be a professional video camera. The only thing its modular design had going for it was that it was a three chip camera. At the time, it was the only inexpensive tool that could deliver anything close to a broadcast quality signal. 

It was not shoulder-mounted, but gave you a "steady shot" feature so that if you were very careful, you could hold the camera steady enough to do your shot. 

When equipped with a Senheisser MK66 mic, this camera became the first real "VJ Cam," and was used on news fronts around the world. I wound up giving mine to the Freedoms Forum Newseum, where it is on display next to Peter Arnett's microphone from the Gulf War. 

Eventually, the VX3 gave way to the VX1000 digital Handycam, which can be bought today for the same $3,500. Like the VX3, the VX1000 has become the workhorse for VJs. 

It is a terrific camera for the price. It's mini DV picture is for all effects and purposes is  indistinguishable on a studio scope from the $60,000 Betacam picture. I have been happily using this camera since it was introduced two years ago. 

However, once you experienced the feel of a professional ENG camera, whether it's the EVW300 or a Betacam, you realize that these small cameras are makeshift solutions...useful in some situations, but not for everyday serious television. 

In late 1995, Sony brought out the EVW100. It was a bargain-basement priced betacam, which could be picked up for $12,500 including lens. 

The amazing thing about the 100 is that its recorder was essentially the same as the much higher priced Beta 300. 

I bought one of these, and once everybody in town knew I had the Betacam, I could go back to using my VX1000 without everybody in regular television news sneering at me. 

The reason I left the Betacam sitting on the shelf was that I didn't have the expensive playback and recorder equipment available to edit my own material. The prices of the simplest playback decks ranged in the $30,000 area. 

But I still lusted for the feel of the ENG. 

As the industry began to move to digital (which, believe me, is still a long way off here in the nation's capitol), new cameras began to appear. At the NAB show two years ago, I held early versions of the digital ENG cameras that have finally begun to appear on the market. 

One of these cameras looked like a VX1000 with a thyroid condition. 

It appeared as if they had plucked off the center-mounted color viewfinder and replaced it with a broadcast-type black and white side mounted viewfinder, then turned it into a shoulder mounted camera. 

At the time, I thought that might be a great idea. 

Well, now this camera has appeared, and it is taking the low-end professional market by storm. 

The DSR-200, which sells for only $5,600, complete with case and optional heavy duty battery module is a professional camera for documentary or multimedia use. 

When I first showed this camera to my colleagues in the networks at Martha's Vineyard during the President's vacation, they just couldn't believe it. They kept hoisting the camera over the heads, "pumping iron" with it with big grins on their faces. 

The reason is that the camera weighs about eight pounds, as opposed to nearly three times that weight for a Betacam with an Anton Bauer battery pack. 

Yet it delivers a picture with the punch to rival even its highest priced big brother. 

In addition, it can do a lot of things the Betacam can't. 

For example, it has shutter speeds that range from 1/8th, up to 1/10,000th of a second. 

What this means is that you can do a lot of very creative shooting , especially at the lower shutter speeds, where you can blur movement..great for sports or music videos. 

It has a "photo" button, like the Optura or the VX1000 that allows you to capture still images at high shutter speeds. This is useful in multimedia applications, but what is more important, in day-to-day camera work as a way to quickly capture still life images from architecture to photo copies without having to set the camera up on a tripod and counting off a ten second roll. 

The shoulder mount allows for individual configuration so that the camera rests easily. 

Control switches are easily accessed, and allow the user to switch back and forth between full automatic and manual operation. 

The full automatic mode is awesome. Its auto focus is fast and accurate. The auto tracking white balance responds quickly. 

I found that in two months of field tests, that other than for interviews, I would rarely take the camera off automatic mode, and it never let me down. 

The two XLR inputs allow professional connections for auxiliary audio inputs, without touching the built in mic, which is a wonder in itself. 

The mic is a one-point electret condenser microphone which had selectable directional pickup ranging from 0 degrees to 120. I found that it was better than my Sennheiser. 

There is a built-in audio monitor that is right at your ear when the camera is mounted on your shoulder. 

There is full selectable audio-gain on all channels, with 12 and 16 bit stereo sound. 

One of the most brilliant features is the optional battery pack. Sony came up with the idea of a housing that would hold three high power Lithium Ion batteries (slightly bigger than the VX1000 batteries), and they would power the camera in sequential order, with a power indicator light on each battery. In two months, I have never run out of battery power. Just in case, you can carry a few spare batteries from your VX1000 in a pocket, and just pop them in. 

The camera comes with a three-battery charger, so you can refresh the power overnight on a big shoot. 

The lens is a sharp, built in-10x zoom (f=5.9 to 59mm). I add a wide angle adapter to it, because as a still photographer I am more used to wider vistas. 

Sony opted for a built in optic, in order to be able to use their "steady shot" system. 

The power zoom is touch sensitive, which means that it can either crawl or crash. 

The PCM channels allow audio dubbing, and the camera has an edit-search function. 

The camera uses Sony's DVCAM tape, which is a professional standard with a 15 pitch (as opposed to the VX1000 10 pitch), and is a robust tape for linear or nonlinear editing. 

Which brings us to the problem: 

As broadcast approaches the point in the next year when all the major markets must switch from analog to digital, there is a huge battle being waged for the industry standards. 

Panasonic has advocated the DVCPRO system. The broadcast cameras run in the $17,500 price range (as opposed to the 40-60k Beta range). They use their own version of tape which also runs at a 15 pitch, but is incompatible with DVCAM. Their studio playback equipment will accommodate mini DV, DVCPRO and DVCAM formats. Panasonic also has their own entry in the low cost range, the DVCPROAJ-D200. 

However, Panasonic was much faster off the blocks in the broadcast race, starting with the 1996 Olympics. They have offered market-share building deals to the industry, with top notch professional service. As a result, both NBC and CBS have spent tens of millions of dollars in contracts for their cameras. 

Sony, on the other hand, with its traditional stronghold in broadcasting with Beta, decided to drag their corporate feet, and held back their professional division from pitching their wares. 

Unhappily, it makes one remember the VHS-Beta wars of the seventies...and we all know how  that turned out. 

However, Sony and Panasonic are adults, so they have to figure it out for themselves. 

The only thing I can tell you for sure is that the DSR-200 is a truly great camera for Platypai or documentary television makers. 


Reviews by Dirck Halstead of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST are solely the opinion of the author, and do not reflect the opinions of Hewlett Packard. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages. 

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