Sony HVR-Z7U Review
March, 2008 by Mitch Anderson
Sony HVR-Z7U For the last 3 years I have been using the first Sony HDV camera, the Z1U, with great results. We took it in over 21 countries for the filming of a documentary and it preformed just great. However my Z1U, as much as I loved it, was growing old, so I went for the next generation, the Z7U, that I just got a couple days ago.
The first thing to notice as I unpacked it is that is noticeably heavier. I knew that from the spec sheet, but I thought I wouldn’t notice the 0.6 pound difference. Anyway, the newness of the camera and the fact that is a lot shorter than its predecessor got me excited enough to get over it. I also noticed and liked the new frontal design where the far reaching built in microphone of the Z1U is missing. This allows for bringing the camera much closer to the airplane or car window for instance, something I will value as a documentarian.
Natural-touch lens operationThe removable lens hood is easily removable by the push of a button, opposed to the screw system of the Z1U, a nice little touch, to be valued when you’re strapped for time.
The main advantage that I went for on this camera is the removable lens. So first thing I did I removed the Vario Sonnar 12x lens that comes with it. The process was easy and intuitive. Upon my first field test, I got to like this lens a lot better than the built in Z1U. It seems that the new model achieves a much better shallow dept of field, the nirvana of any professional. I also really liked the "Digital Extender" function, built in this lens, that brings the subject 1.5x closer when you’re zoomed in to the max. First I thought in might be a cheapo "blow up the pixels" trick, but while watching the footage on a 50inch HD monitor, I could not tell any quality drop while using the "Extender".
The focus ring is large and handy and must be pushed forward for "Auto focus". This is handy as you shoot, but it is guaranteed to move the shot if you’re on a tripod shooting. I remember that the centrally located AF button of the Z1U could be moved without any jerk while shooting. The other disappointment is that there is no Autofocus push button, unless you go trough a convoluted programming procedure from the book.
The zoom is handy and smooth, and what I liked the most is that the servo zoom is a lot smoother than the older one. More than that, the servo zoom on the handle bar can be programmed to various speeds and once it reaches the upper or lower limit it will ease to a stop. Totally cool and professional.
The iris is located as third ring on the lens. I liked that too, and there is an Auto Iris button, but I like doing my own exposure.
Three ND filtersThere are 3 ND filters as opposed to two and they work like a charm. I was able to shoot a sunset reflection on the water without closing the iris at all or being overexposed…
There are 3 gain levels and they are programmable as a new feature. I dindt change the DB levels but I used them all and could not see any image graining even on the "H" setting. I wish that was the case with the Z1U. So, yes, the low light performance of the new Z7U is net better, a Godsend for a documentarian that can’t always control the lighting.
The white balance seems to be the same, not much to do there, same with the menus, and status check. The picture profile has a number of sophistication’s such as "black gain" and color depth that were a bit above my comprehension without further reading.
The display and the outputs
3.2-inch (viewable area, measured diagnally) type XtraFine™ LCDThe first major disappointment was the smaller LCD screen. More than that the colors on it were pale and while is it worked well in the sun, it was still simply too small. I got in trouble a lot in the past by not seeing where the focus was, so I was hoping on a larger display. Sony says that is superior since it has more pixels, but I’d preferred it bigger.
The VCR functions are the same, and the HDV tape is in the back facing the cameraman, not upwards. This is great if you’re changing tapes in the rain or a sandstorm like it happened once while I was in Egypt.
The most valuable new output is the HDMI of course. I connected it directly to my plasma TV and it looks just great. I also liked the full size firewire connector.
The recording time on a 16-GB CF card in HDV, DVCAM and DV format is approximately 72 minutes - attached on the HVR-Z7UThe new Sony Compact Flash recorder unit is small and it fits in the back, over the battery compartment so you’ll need to remove it first if you want to change the battery. That is OK I guess. The unit is small and luckily it takes the wide available CF card. Thank you Sony for not requiring us to buy your overpriced Sony Stick and other non-compatible "Sony Only" kind of cards. And thank you for having a dual kind of output storage. I am a "tape" faithful for storage and backup purposes, but it is nice to have the CF option. I have not tried it yet.
The biggest disappointment happened when I tried to playback on the new camera tapes recorded by the old Z1U. As soon as I put them in, the Z7U ejected them out. They were recorded in the "1080I 60FPS" a format fully compatible with the Z7U. This is highly troublesome since I have hundreds of tapes filmed on 5 continents that I might have to re-digitize one day should my hard disks crash. What am I to do, buy an $3000 VTR?
A one-touch clip-type microphone holder makes it easy to remove the microphone for quick storage.
The included microphone is nice and sensitive, but I rarely record more than the ambient sound on the built in mic. There are 2 XLR inputs, nothing new there. I like that the mic is easily detachable and can save space while packing the camera. Also with an XLR extension cord it can be used for interviews on a table mount if you’re lacking a lapel microphone… This couldn’t be done with the old model.
The camera also has the capability to take still pics even while shooting. It has an SD Ram slot and a button can be assigned for picture taking. I never cared much for this feature since you can extract just as good pictures from the HD Video files.
The new HVR-Z7U is a pretty good piece of equipment for the $6000 USD price tag. Despite a couple of shortcomings I don’t regret getting it. I really hope Sony will come up with longer lens soon that would make the main new feature "interchangeable lens" so much more valuable. So far Sony offers just some one wide lens for this unit. That’s disappointing, great cinema and nature shots require long lens and none are available specifically for this camera. Sony offers some options that require adapters and reduced functionality for use of their still camera lenses with the Z7U, but I am skeptical about using such non specific products.
2008 © Mitch Anderson.
Mitch Anderson is the producer of the film "The World Without US" . This feature-length documentary debates the implications and consequences of US military involvement in the world today. Future scenarios in the absence of the US intervention are well debated and substantiated by experts and ordinary citizens whose lives have been affected by the American presence in different regions. World renowned author Niall Ferguson PHD brings his insights along side James Lilley (Former US Ambassador to China) and many others. For more information and trailers please see http://www.theworldwithoutus.com