Quite a few of you raised an eyebrow when we topped our gift guide with the Canon HV20, an affordable (as little as us$700) HDV camcorder. Like the New England Patriots (that’s American football for the rest of the world), the Canon HV20 appears to be largely unbeaten as the best-available visualist-friendly camera. It’s small, it’s light, it’s cheap, it does HDV, ’nuff said. It’s also eminently upgrade-friendly, with indie producers adding 35mm lenses and nifty accessories. And even those of you with larger, more powerful cameras occasionally want something you can toss in a backpack or use as a backup.

But that got me wondering — is the HV20 really One Camera to Rule Them All?

I have a couple of candidates I think could be interesting.


The big rival as far as HDV appears to be Sony. The HDR-HC7, for instance, has more sophisticated manual controls than the HV20, and I like Sony’s night-shot mode for extreme infrared applications. It’s also a little heftier than the Canon, in a good way — it’s a camera I find comfortable to hold. cnet even likes the Sony better than the HV20. (camcorderinfo.com begs to differ; see their link below) Like many things in life, it looks even cooler in Japanese.

Unfortunately, "manual control" on a consumer-level Sony means navigating the horrible touch screen interface, and worse yet the HDR-HC7 introduces a bizarre new manual focus multi-function control. (Translation: some strange add-on bit of plastic that’s utterly useless for controlling anything.) All that said, I do like Sony’s cameras, despite their quirks.

Here’s the problem: the HDR-HC7 is running a street of over $1100, while the HV20 is well below $800. Is the Sony $300 better than the Canon? (Heck, is the Sony better than the Canon, period?) Tough to justify, I think.


Another reason I wish I’d been born in Japan: look, infants there are actually born with their own CCDs!

The HV20 has some other advantages going for it, as well. Shooting quality looks great, and the Canon takes non-Canon accessories, whereas Sony is stuck with a proprietary accessory shoe. In fact, the general hackability of the Canon is a big part of its appeal. Search "HV20" and you’ll find all kinds of tips for squeezing more capabilities out of this popular camcorder. But the HV20, value-priced as it may be, can’t compete on features, manual controls, and low-light performance with even the compact consumer standard-definition cameras of the last generation. Too bad those models have all been axed so Sony and Canon could declare the "dawn of the HD era."

The other alternative: skip HDV altogether. I love HD resolution, and HDV is far better than AVCHD for video quality. But HDV is still not the easiest format to edit, and it’s even worse for live use. (VJing with HDV? Ermm… no, even though I have heard our own vade has started using ProRes live.) Then there’s sound quality, which is compressed by default — meaning you may want to carry around a mobile recorder anyway. (Compressed audio is fine for output, but it knocks out the ability to do much post-processing, like noise reduction.)


Here’s an idea: MPEG4. Cameras like the Sony Cybershot DSC-M1 (above) shoot natively in MPEG4. Shoot, then drop immediately into a VJ set — now that has some appeal. MPEG4 also works nicely for uploading to online services like our favorite, Vimeo.

And then there’s standard def. Panasonic’s SDR-H200, for instance, has a street price even lower than the HV20 (under US$600), records to hard drive and SD card, has a 3-chip sensor, and most importantly, shoots well in the dark — the Achilles’ heel of all these tempting, affordable HD cams. No tapes means you can transfer straight through USB. The bad news: MPEG2 compression, which looks crap. My dream camera would feature really high-quality standard definition capture, basic manual controls and accessory options in a small form factor (no need for bulkier, higher-end models), but would use MPEG4 on a hard drive. Apparently, camera manufacturers don’t believe this is what we want.

In fact, what I come back to is that the ideal rig would include an HV20 for HD footage on the go (or something bigger, like Jaymis’ preferred Sony HVR-V1P). Then add a used standard def camera for everything else — particularly low-light shooting, which is critical to visualists and interactive artists for documentation purposes.

So, having thusly muddied the waters does anyone have any smart thoughts? (Hey, I’m more useful on music gear — and music gear makers are generally more useful, not being massive Asian electronics companies. Then again, if music gear worked like video gear, a Korg OASYS would cost $499 by now.)

I’m particularly interested to know what good standard def cameras are floating around used/refurb. What do you use for documentation / capturing footage / general video destruction? And is it better to just embrace the HD, get the HV20, and, you know, find some more light? (May have to change my vampire-like daily life, huh?)

Shootouts Elsewhere

camcorder.info’s massive year-end review. In short, they like the HV20.

camcorder.info Great HD Shoot-out

Head to head: Canon HV20 v Sony HDR-HC7

And here’s the basic score:

Better form factor
More manual controls
Night vision mode and slow motion mode

Better video quality
24p support
More usable automatic modes
Compatible with non-OEM accessories

So, uh, yeah, that kind of means the Canon wins, huh?

  • my favorite live documentation camera is the Panasonic DVC-30. I've used the DVX-100's a lot too, and those are great for more cinematic, well-lit and controlled situations.
    But the DVC-30 is really good in low light conditions, which most live performances are, and can attain some pretty crazy saturation of colors if you are going for that sort of look. It's fairly tweakable and has those handy programmable buttons that let you set favorites from a list of commands like zoom in and auto focus. I wish there were more options for the programmable buttons, but overall, this is my top pick for SD miniDV cameras!

  • Well, I tested Pro Res, and it aint no Motion/PhotoJpeg – its basically lossless visually (the jpeg codecs you can see the compression), but the bit rate and CPU usage is a bit too high for my taste. So im still using mJpeg @ 90~

    Some folks really like Apples Intermediate Codec, but I think they are smoking crack. Of course, I have done no testing to back that up. Perhaps I should dust off that old codec battle post i have laying around.

    About the HV20s low light and manual control, there is a wonderful hack to give you a much wider exposure control:


  • there's also a manual focus ring. http://www.amazon.com/Sony-DCRTRV310-Handycam-Dig

  • Intermediate? That's crazy talk, I agree.

    Hey, I left out one very important feature of the Sony vs. the Canon: the Sony does the cool slow-motion mode its higher-end brethren do. No hack for that on the Canon, as far as I know.

  • vizzie + David: thanks for the tips!

    Oh, and while the Sony has a slow-motion mode, the Canon shoots better quality footage and shoots 24p AND costs $400-500 less. Hmmm… not much of a contest. HV20, and with the money I save, I can get a really nice DV / standard def cam, as mentioned here. 😉

  • my first comment disappeared somehow.

    i like the 1998-ish sony dcr-trv310. it's a digital8 firewire camera with real 16:9, a nice big lense, b&w viewfinder (and color LCD), manual aperture and shutter (i believe), manual focus ring, for $300 on ebay.

    i used it for an interactive piece that uses infrared. this camera worked the best of the cameras i tried, in nightshot mode with an IR-pass filter.

  • Oh, yeah; I've done IR camera stuff too with a newer camera (HC36), but I know the older cameras do work better. Will start watching for that one.

  • I picked up an HV20 a several weeks ago on a whim (found an open box one at Sears for under $500) and am loving it. I've been shooting in HDV for quite a while now (on Sony HDR-HC1 cameras) and I wasn't expecting much from the Canon, but was intrigued by the 24P capability.

    Long story short, the HV20 rocks in terms of image quality. It's really a wonderful little camera and something of a godsend for those of us who have wanted to shoot 24P stuff at low cost.

    It does have more of a consumer than prosumer feel to it, in comparison to a camera like the HDR-HC1. It's probably not a big deal to CDM readers, but the on-camera audio is an area of weakness. The on cam mic picks up a lot of handling noise and motor whir. (To be more precise, I've always been impressed by the performance of the Sony HDR-HC1 on-cam mic which, probably because of the more solid/metalic body of the HDR-HC1, doesn't pick up that sort of noise.)

    Anyway, if you're a "serious" cine-style shooter, you're probably capturing your audio another way. Or, if you're a visualist, you might just be tossing the audio track anyway… so this is probably not a big issue. (And it's not that the audio is *bad*, it's just what you'd expect from a consumer camcorder. Specifically, releasing the zoom rocker always results in a little "thunk" on the audio when you're using the HV20's on-cam mic.)

    Anyway, I've been extremely pleased with my purchase and the HV20 has become my regular use camera. When I don't need 24P and want better audio without having to hassle with external mics, etc., I'll still use my HDR-HC1 cams, but this is a rockin' cam for the price…


  • Even though I've upgraded to the Canon XL-H1, my XL-1 still sees use for SD work. The H1 is a superior SD camera, but the XL-1 is a bit easier to use (there are a bewildering array of options on the H1) and it's a bit smaller. I've always been a fan of these big cameras because of their big glass. They let in a LOT of light, a lot of image – that's way better than relying on a lot of digital jiggery-pokery that compensates in a smaller camera. My preference is to get it right the first time.

    Having said that, I've never had as much fun with a camera as when I bought a super-cheapie miniDV camera. I was suddenly using all of the crazy cheesy modes and having a blast. For this reason I'll likely pick up the Canon HV20, especially as I can use it as a playback deck for the stuff I shoot with it's big brother. It'll be nice top have a camera that can fit in a backpack too!

    I've also been very pleased with the Flip Video Ultra (as mentioned in the Christmas round-up a few weeks ago). The quality is good, and the portability can't be beat… but I'd really rather have a few more features like a focus ring and a nice zoom.

    Hmm. I wonder if my blathering here is even vaguely useful…