Camera Corner:
A Review of the Sony
VX2000 and PD-150

by Steve Smith

It’s been five years since Sony introduced its first mini digital camcorder? the VX-1000. The product was rather sophisticated, given its small size. There were three CCD’s to pickup the image rather than the usual single chip. You could switch between auto and manual audio, focus, iris and shutter. The 1000 even had built-in color
bars. Exactly who Sony thought would use this camera has never been clear to me. Priced at nearly $4,000, the VX-1000 had limited appeal to amateur consumers. But news quickly spread among professionals that this mini-DV format camcorder was a hot ticket?  that you could shoot near Betacam quality pictures for a fraction of the cost and none of the hassle. Tens of thousands have been sold since.

Curiously, within months of the 1000's introduction, people were already touting the arrival of the VX-2000 ? a mythical creature with none of the shortcomings of the first model. It would be a long wait before Sony finally released version two. Now the VX-2000 is here - and, Sony saw fit to make a “professional” version: the PD-100, with a few detail and features enhancements.  

The Sony DSRPD-150

The Sony DCR - VX2000

The first thing you notice about the new cameras is how much they resemble the original. Sony retained the basic body shape (a good thing, for I always felt it handled well). When you lay the 2000 and 150 alongside a VX-1000 you’ll notice the new models are slightly longer on the lens end. If you’re used to using the 1000, the operation of the 2000/150 will seem pretty familiar. But there are many more buttons to push and menu options to choose. The 1000 and the 2000 are the same weight: 3.1 pounds; the 150 is 3.3. The VX-2000 is nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than its predecessor (expect to pay under $3,000). The feature-laden PD-150 costs
about the same as the 1000.  

Both cameras are at least a full stop faster than the original - a very nice improvement. Indeed, in tests I made under low-light conditions, I was amazed at how good the image looked. Even at high gain levels (up to +18db) the picture noise is minimal - much cleaner than the VX-1000.

Sony smartly retained some of the 1000's best features, like Custom Presets for audio and video level controls, shutter speeds down to 1/4 second, and Interval (time lapse) recording. Alas, the new models do not incorporate one of my favorite things - the viewfinder focus aid.
Up in the top left corner of the 1000's viewfinder there was a marker with two triangles and a circle. As you manually focused, one of the triangles would light up as you approached the focus point. When you hit that point the circle lit up. I found I relied on this aid all the time to ensure the camera was accurately focused. Sony has now taken it away.  

The 2000/150 have a Progressive Scan mode that lets you take relatively high-resolution still images. There is a slot for standard Sony Memory Sticks, and both cameras come supplied with one 4MB stick. They both also include picture software: PictureGear Lite 4.1. Be sure you do not accidentally move the on/off switch to Progressive Scan when shooting moving video - your picture will look terrible.

Color bars are easier to get at now - just click through the menu. As before, they are SMPTE full field bars.

The new cameras have a 2.5 inch LCD swing-out viewfinder on the left side. The cassette door has been moved to the other side (a la the Canon GL1). The color viewfinder on the VX-2000 appears to be the same as the one in the 1000.

The LCD monitor is a nice feature. Many people like to use it as their primary viewfinder. I find it hard to focus accurately on the LCD, and it also requires I wear reading glasses, which means the foreground is sharp and the background is blurry - a big disadvantage when the background is 100% of your composition.  Behind the door is an array of control buttons, similar to the layout on the GL1. 

The lens is now a 12x aspherical, and it is appreciably sharper than the original. The front diameter has been enlarged from 52mm to 58mm. Sony has added a manual zoom ring, just behind the manual focus ring. Frankly, I found the hand zoom of little value and the risk of grabbing the wrong ring at the wrong time high.  Sony’s 0.7x Wide Angle Converter is a nice piece of glass. It weighs a ton and I could not see any image degradation, even wide open (though there is a bit of barrel distortion, which is to be expected). There is a tele-adapter too, but I did not have one for review. Sony has added a second neutral density filter, switchable as on the VX-1000. 
Neither the VX2000 nor the PD150 packages come with a stand-alone battery charger. Sony intends for you to charge the NP-series lithiums in the camera. This is a pain if you have more than one battery. I recommend you spend the extra $125 (or so) for an external charger.
Cassette loading is, frankly, a pain in the neck. You must remove your hand from the handgrip/strap or else the door will not open. If you have small hands, the tightened strap alone will get in the way and prevent the door from fully opening. To close the thing you have to push it, then slide an awkwardly-placed switch to lock the

The 2000's on-board stereo microphone is an improvement over the original. It’s not any more directional, but the sound is crisper. The 150 has no on-camera mike.

Sony says the AGC circuit in the VX-2000 is new and much better than that of the 1000. Manual audio is available, but there is a problem with it which we’ll get into in a bit. If you want to use professional microphones on the 2000 you’ll need an after-market XLR adapter, like the Beachtek DXA-4.

Like the VX-1000, the 2000 records non-settable Drop Frame SMPTE time code. The new camera has a two-position Zebra pattern. You can set it for 70% or 100% (stick to the latter, because it means you will not inadvertently overexpose your image - a deadly, irrevocable sin). 

If the VX-2000 is an interesting camera, the PD-150 is a fascinating camera. 

Sony has taken the basic VX-2000 and added some significant features, like a black-and-white viewfinder, settable time code, a built-in XLR audio adapter, switchable 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio, switchable miniDV or DVCam recording and switchable 12 bit or 16 bit audio recording.

When I used the VX-1000 I liked to turn down the color in the viewfinder. It just made it easier to focus. The “high-resolution” black-and-white finder on the PD-150 is even better, and makes focusing almost a snap. It’s a nice addition.

Time code can now be set by the user. And you can choose between Drop Frame (DF) and Non-Drop Frame (NDF). Non seems the most preferred by broadcast/cable clients. You can also choose between Record Run and Free Run modes. The adjustments are accessible through the extensive menu system.

The XLR adapter appears to be a two-input version of the unit used on the Sony PD-100 camcorder. The 150 comes with a short shotgun microphone and clamp-on foam windscreen. The quality of the audio is better than the 2000's on-camera mike, though it is not stereo. On the whole, you’d be better off spending the money for a good directional unit like the Sennheiser ME-66. The camera’s mike clamp, however, will not hold either a thin tube like the Sennheiser MKH-416 or the thicker ME-66 tightly. This problem is easily solved by wrapping a couple of layers of gaffers tape around the mike.

The adapter controls include Mike and Line input switches for each input (with a third position to kick in a mike attenuator for hot situations). Each input also has available 48v phantom powering for professional mikes. Actual audio setting is done with a wheel on the back of the camera. There is a tiny VU meter on the back too, but the best way to check your levels is with the super-imposed meter on the viewfinder screens. The super shows two sets of bars: one for setting the audio level, the other for monitoring the actual recording level. Other audio functions are available through the menu.

Sadly, both cameras share an identical audio problem. In manual audio there is a discernible, bothersome hiss, even with the input pots turned down. The hiss disappears in AGC. I’m afraid that manual is practically useless.

Sony has this to say about that: "The Sony DCR-VX2000/E camcorder features a newly developed AGC audio level control circuit, optimized to handle the large Dynamic Range of Digital Audio. Design emphasis was given to the task of achieving a significant improvement in Signal to Noise ratio, and to greatly enhance camera audio recording quality. 

Manual Audio level adjustment does not utilize the new AGC circuit. Manual Audio control is primarily provided for extremely loud and limiting sound environments. The conventional Manual Audio Level is comparable to Signal to Noise ratio values commonly found in Sony's comparable consumer digital camcorders. A difference in Signal to Noise Ratio levels between Manual and AGC modes of operation is normal and expected in DCR-VX2000/E. 

Evaluation of Audio Signal to Noise should not be performed using earphone/headphone output. The earphone/headphone amplifier circuit has been equalized to emphasize high frequencies and is intended to be of "monitoring" quality. Furthermore, the earphone/headphone audio may not accurately represent record level audio since the earphone/headphone level can be varied using the volume +/-  buttons near the LCD screen. Audio Signal to Noise evaluation should more properly be performed by playing back recorded tapes on a studio VTR."

This is not a satisfactory explanation. I’m happy the new cameras have improved AGC, but the VX-1000 was never hissy in manual audio, so why should the 2000/150 suffer this problem - Canon has amply demonstrated a rapid responsiveness to problems that cropped up with the XL1. They were listening to their customers.  Sony seems to have taken the opposite point of view - they are not going to fix the problem. At this point, if you want clean audio on the 2000/150 you’ll have to use the auto. It’s a decent circuit, almost as good as the one on the GL1, but what a disappointment for this long-awaited product to have such a flaw.

On the whole, the VX-2000 and the PD-150 are very fine cameras indeed. I much prefer the 150, though I’d replace the mike in a flash. Both cameras are eminently affordable. You might choose one over the other simply for the paint job: the 2000 is a consumery silver; the 150 a professional dark gray. These are two welcome additions to the DV arena.

In the past few months we've looked at a variety of accessories for miniDV camcorders. Now that we've pretty much filled up our gadget bags, how about we add one more tool that will not even fit into the bag. I'm talking about the mother of all support products: the tripod.

When we talk about a tripod for this moving picture business we are talking about two distinct products: the three-legged tripod itself, and the head to which you mount the camcorder. 

Let's start with the head.

To ensure silky-smooth pans and tilts you'll want to use a "fluid-head." As the moniker implies, the head has fluid in it to help dampen the bumps and ensure that smoooooth movement. Many years ago, there was a young engineer by the name of Chad O'Connor. His hobby was making movies of railroads. But, he was frustrated by the jerky pans the "friction-heads" of the day gave him. Why not, he wondered, inject a little viscous hydraulic fluid into the internal workings to make the head work more smoothly. After quite a bit of puttering around, O'Connor came up with the world's first fluid-head. One day, while filming trains at the Glendale railroad station, he noticed a man watching him intently. Eventually, the man approached him and began to ask rather detailed questions about O'Connor's tripod head. The engineer was reluctant to divulge any details to the stranger, but then the man began to talk about how his "cameramen in the field could use a head like this--I'd like to order a few." O'Connor thought the man cheeky and a bit nuts until he introduced himself as Walt Disney. O'Connor made heads for Disney. And that is how fluid-heads were born.

These tools tend to be expensive. However, the recent explosion in digital camcorders has seen the introduction of some new, reasonably-priced fluid-head tripods.

The one that has caught our attention at Videosmith is the 501 from Manfrotto (sold in the U.S. by Bogen). This is a sleek-looking head with many features of far more expensive units. It will hold cameras weighing up to 13 lbs., yet weighs only 3.5 lbs. itself.  It comes with a sliding quick release plate, with both 3/8-16 and 1/4-20 screws, and a locating pin to prevent twisting. The pan handle can be attached to either the left or right side of the head. There are tilt and pan friction knobs for drag adjustment. And, of course, locks for both directions. The performance of the 501 is quite nice--smooth both horizontally and vertically. 

The Manfrotto 501 is available with two different tripods. The 3211V is a simple telescoping leg support with an adjustable center column. The tripod collapses to just 25", but rises to either 54" or 68" with the column up. The 501 and 3211 combination weighs just under 10 lbs. This rig is a good choice for fast moving situations. The only drawback is the lack of a ball-leveling system (although you can add one).

The second tripod option is the 3283B. This is a much heavier-duty unit, with multi-stage legs, a built-in spreader and a ball-leveling base. If nothing else, the 3283B looks more professional. The legs will support up to 33 lbs. (though remember, the 501 head's capacity is just 13 lbs.). 

Okay. So, how much ya gonna have to pay for this stuff? That's the big and pleasant surprise. 

The 501/3211V combination retails for a whopping $394. Videosmith sells it for less than $335. That's complete--it even comes with a carrying bag! Best bang for the buck I've seen in a long time.

But, let's say you need the sturdier tripod (or want to look even more professional). The 501 with the 3283B runs the bill up to $694 (msrp). That's still pretty doggone affordable. 

If money is no object, you could fork out $2280 for the Rolls Royce of tripods--the Gitzo Fluide Head with super-light, super-strong carbon fiber legs. It's beautifully-made equipment, but I'm not sure the difference is worth it for general day-in/day-out shooting.

I'm impressed with the Manfrotto 501. It is an exceptional value and well worth checking out.

To celebrate this Russia-oriented issue, here's my Russian Tripod Story.

In 1985 we were in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) shooting for CBS News. The center of my spreader for my Sachtler tripod broke apart, which meant the legs would not stop spreading--very inconvenient when you have a 35lb. camera sitting on top. I appealed for help to our Soviet TV minder, a melancholy Russian given to quoting Pushkin. I showed Alexi the broken piece. He turned it over in his hands, then turned to me with a glowing smile, "This no problem. I can fix. I have special super glue."

The next day, Alexi returned with his "super glue." It was not quite what I expected. Instead of a tube of rocket-science-ultra-fantastic-awesome adhesive, he handed me a can of foul smelling goop that looked as if it had been around since the days of Peter the Great. Not wanting him to lose face (and willing to try anything to get my tripod back in operation) I slopped some of his super glue onto the broken pieces and let them cure overnight. Less than optimistic, I tried the rig the next morning. The joint held for about fifteen seconds then separated, permanently. He was crestfallen. But then reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small skein of twine and with another glowing smile said, "Try this." I took the twine and wrapped it around the ends of the tripod legs to make an ersatz spreader. It worked pretty well, and to my surprise, sufficed for the rest of the month we were in the USSR. 

I still have the ill-repaired spreader center, with lumps of Alexi's goop clinging to it. And I always carry a spare center, just in case...

Read more about the PD-150  on Sony's website, or visit the Videosmith website to  inquire about purchasing digital video cameras.

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