High Tech - High Def – High Five!
That's so last century
It's funny how fast technology sometimes appears to move... while often dragging its heels. Often it simply takes time for what is affordable to catch up with what is possible. All the current publicity makes it seem like HD is new, but it's actually been knocking around since the '80s! Back then HD displays cost more than £1000 per inch and programmes were recorded using reel to reel tapes on huge £250,000 machines. Now times have changed and the latest MPEG-4 technology means that HD can be squeezed down phone lines, and tiny camcorders can fit hours of sparkling HD onto memory cards. I think it was worth the wait!
The big names in HD camcorders are the Japanese trio Canon, Sony and Panasonic. All have a history of tape based HD but are now well into their stride with a range of models which use memory cards. The format used, AVCHD, was new tech last year but now it's proven and refined. This season's models add higher quality modes, which may use cards faster, but really narrow the gap between home movies and pro TV.
I opted for the Canon Legria HF-200 HD Camcorder, partly because as an underwater fiend I was attracted by the dive housing which is available for it, but also because this range has had rave reviews ever since it surfaced. The Canon HF200 is one of a pair of identical twins. Its snooty brother the HF-20 has both 32GB of internal memory and a slot for SD cards, the HF-200 just has a slot. These cards have to be the SDHC variety to ensure they are fast enough to store video.
Although there's scope to play games with the shape of tiny camcorders I'm not sure there's been a successful alternative to the palmcorder layout which has been dominant since cameras became too small to sit on shoulders about 20 years ago. The Canon HF200 is a conventional palmcorder in almost all respects, although it does lack an eye level viewfinder. The widescreen LCD flips out on the left and the small hand grip has an adjustable strap to keep it stable as you shift your fingers and thumb across the controls. With no moving parts the response of all the controls is pretty much instant.
The HF200 is about as small as is comfortable. The right hand grip hides the HDMI and USB ports under a cover. The mode dial which selects photo, video or dual shot sits in the crook of your hand. Your thumb falls on the record button and fingers find a zoom control on top. As the HF200 can take stills there's a shutter button on top just behind the zoom control. On the left there's a flip out widescreen LCD, which conceals most of the other available controls, headphone socket and card slot. The back is blank - there's no viewfinder but you'll find two covers concealing microphone, component video and charging connections. The front is quite busy, the lens has a motorized shutter and a 37mm filters thread, there's a small flash and LED video light as well as the window for the auto focus system. Underneath there's just a standard tripod mount. The finish is gunmetal and piano black, I did order the all-black version, but it turns out that colour scheme is the preserve of the HF20 only.
I was quickly struck by how few controls there actually were. There is so much you can do that almost all of it has to be via menus. This keeps the camera very clean - easy to pick up and use straight away. This is certainly one of the simplest camcorders I've ever used, I don't think it should take anyone more than 5 seconds to work out the basics! It could easily be a first camcorder yet when you dig around it's a very fully featured little beast. There's no full manual mode but it has aperture and shutter priority modes as well as a selection of scene settings. In truth, full manual doesn't make as much sense for video as stills. When you have to take 25 or 50 pictures a second your options are necessarily limited.
In shutter priority, speeds between 1/6th - 1/2000th second are available. At the low end those are longer than a single frame, to collect more light, so motion will be blurred over several. At the top end you will be able to freeze action to see if your golf swing really does need professional help.
Aperture priority gives access to settings between f1.8 – f8.0 (the maximum aperture increases as you zoom in). The sensors in camcorders are minuscule so that won't give you much control over depth of field – you need something like one of the new Micro Four-Thirds models for that.
With a shortage of controls you are limited to adjusting one parameter at a time. That's no problem for most shooting but as you can't simply change from one dial to another you do have pause to zip through the menus to select another creative control. This is a bit cumbersome but shooting video always requires planning to get watchable results.
The 2.7" screen is good, though not spectacularly bright, being widescreen does make it a low ribbon of picture, but it is sharp and conveys detail well. It's not so good at showing contrast but this effectively warns you of blown highlights – and the recorded pictures have much more dynamic range.
There are plenty of video rates to choose from, all HD and the top two Full HD (1920x1080). There are no standard definition options but why would there be... life is HD (and some). The low resolution modes are still 1440x1080, the same as HDV. Few people could separate the modes purely on resolution, the most marked difference if you hop from one quality setting to another is the way the movement is handled. Considered as a series of stills you can guess that with finite space your pictures must be compressed. With a series of pictures you can use previous ones as the basis for others, in effect you just describe the difference rather than the whole picture. This is the underlying principle of digital TV and works brilliantly when pictures change relatively slowly. Once the action hots up each frame is quite different and compression starts to show... familiar if you are used to watching football or swirling wildlife in documentaries on digital TV. Stick to high rates if you can.
The top recording rate is 24 Mbit/second, 3 Megabyte/second, just 125 kilobytes per frame. It's just amazing that it works. At the lowest rate (5 Mbit/s) each 2 megapixel frame is squished into just 25 kilobytes! Just a few years ago this kind of processing wasn't possible in real-time; it is spectacular that now you can have it in the palm of your hand. Having worked with some of the people responsible for MPEG-4 I can tell you that they are brain boxes of monumental proportions.
Cards are still dear enough that you'll want to regularly download then edit your masterpieces. Memory cards are cheaper than film per still but not as cost effective as tapes for video. A large (1 TB+) hard disk is a must, drive space is about a quarter of the cost of tape per gigabyte. One very neat feature of AVCHD is that video from the camera can be burnt straight to plain DVDs to be played on a Blu-ray player. High bit rate AVCHD video will fill a DVD pretty fast but it's another cost effective way to back things up. A double layer disk will hold 45 minutes of top quality and 3.5 hours of lowest quality video.
Recording time (32 GB)
LP (5 Mbps) 12 hours 15 minutes
SP (7 Mbps) 9 hours 35 minutes
XP+ (12 Mbps) 5 hours 45 minutes
FXP (17 Mbps) 4 hours 10 minutes - Full HD
MXP (24 Mbps) 2 hours 55 minutes - Full HD
The battery is tiny, sliding into place very neatly to form the cute backside of the camera. This allows larger batteries to extend from the back, as long as you don't mind the HF200 emulating Jennifer Lopez. The battery lasts for about an hour and a half of constant recording which handily allows you to fill a 16 GB card. You're definitely going to need a spare battery or two for a day out, extra SDHC cards will come in handy too!
The barrel of the 15x lens extends back from a 37mm filter thread to form the upper body of the Canon HF200 camcorder. The optics probably don't occupy more than a third of the length but there's a very effective optical stabiliser packed in which is a must at the far end of the 39.5mm to 592.5mm lens. Impressively the maximum aperture increases only from f1.8 to 3.2 over that range. You can ladle on an extra 4-20x digital zoom when you need to, but just as with stills cameras it just crops into the sensor so don't expect miracles! How good would you expect 150k pixels to look on the end of a 12,000mm lens?
The camera can be used as a pure stills device or allow you to snap beside video. It's not going to kick your stills camera into touch but it's OK. 3 megapixels are nothing to write home about now but the lens makes it versatile. For photos the Canon HF200 has a conventional flash, which won't fire during simultaneous shooting. It's small, effective, but very close to the centre line of the lens so prone to causing red eye. At very close range it tends to overexpose macro subjects, the LED light works better. Macro performance is quite impressive. At its widest setting the lens can focus down to 1cm from the glass... a good trick but impossible to light! This distance extends slightly until the lens' mid position where the minimum distance starts to increase quickly from around 5cm to approximately a metre at full zoom. It's possible to film confident insects (like wasps) in the garden without extras but for full zoom macro a close up lens is required – to help with nervous subjects, like butterflies. Home movies of mini beasts look amazing on a large screen and are a great way to put the wind up nervous relatives. While the long end of the zoom lens is a spectacular 592.5mm equivalent – pretty much a birdwatching lens – the wide end is an ordinary 39.5mm. It's not wide by any means but it's very easy to screw on a wide angle adaptor and get a view closer to 20mm.
The image stabiliser is the good type, optical, which makes sure the whole sensor is used rather than a digital one which crops the edges off the picture. It works well to remove jitters but can't of course remove big wobbles and loss of attention. At nearly 600mm a light tripod is definitely a big help if you want watchable bird table action. If you aim to make a habit of long zoom documentaries buying one with a smooth panning 'fluid head' will reduce the risk of nausea in your audience.
Careful camcorder users tried not to play tapes too much as it ate into the head life of machines. With no moving parts that's not an issue with the Canon HF200 HD Camcorder. There's a good selection of outputs for all normal tellies;
- Composite: (old school) a three ended AV cable with yellow, black and white phono plugs. Composite can only ever be standard definition – and not good SD in any case – avoid!
- Component: Another three ended cable, each of the red, green and blue phono plugs carries a video signal, you have to use the composite cable's audio. Very good on a decent telly A godsend for pre-HDMI (or DVI) flat screens.
- HDMI (mini connector) which packs HD pictures and digital sound down one, admittedly thick, cable.
In the frame
The pictures are great by any measure, immaculate by home standards. MPEG-4 (that's what AVCHD is) used for the UK's HDTV services and one of the standards which Blu-Ray can carry. My laptop struggled to play back AVCHD sequences, in edit applications or just as media files. The legion of unnecessary crud on my PC doesn't help but it's typical. It was the same at the outset of DV and DVD, soon PC playback will be better. PCs aren't a natural home for video, for best results play off the camera or Blu Ray.
In low light grainy noise appears, as it does on all little camcorders. The pictures under domestic lighting aren't bad but you don't get to enjoy 'HD' until you are outdoors or strongly lit. In sunlight the pictures are strikingly bright, sharp and realistic, they really shake off the plastic feel of standard definition video and invite you into the scenes. The monumental amount of compression makes fast movement vulnerable to artefacts with AVCHD but this is nothing new. Film is hopeless at fast movement and directors just shoot around this 'feature', so can you. A smoother, calmer style is easier to watch on a big screen too. Take it easy and get the best out of your new toy. Another way to play to the strengths of HD and look sophisticated is to use the largest aperture possible and isolate your subjects from the background whenever you can – soft backgrounds compress better. With small cameras distance your subject from scenery to enhance the effect.
What a lovely little camcorder! The fit and finish are very enticing and it is so easy to use that the sparkling quality of the output is a real surprise. This is a camcorder refined to a pinnacle of ease. As a mid range camera it sits above very basic and arguably HD devices but below the more ambitious prosumer units. The Canon HF200 camcorder bridges the gap very well; as easy to use as a basic unit (and much better thought out) whilst the results are within an ace of of the league above. The lens is excellent and the compression processor tremendously impressive. The only area it falls behind some of the best is the compromise control through its menus and the single joystick for adjustment. If you know what you are doing this need not limit your ambitions, if you plan your shooting you can be ready to get the effect you want.
Build quality 8/10 - Not as tough as it looks, but very smart
Performance 9.5/10 - Nice lens, some of the best quality AVCHD
Handling 8/10 - Very easy to shoot, but only one control at a time
Overall A pleasure to use with excellent results