Sony's midlevel Digital8 camcorder, the DCR-TRV520, packs one heck of a cinematic punch.
I used the DCR-TRV520 to shoot video for a review of film editing hardware and software for PCs. While the hardware presented more than a few troubles, the camcorder performed flawlessly, creating clear, crisp, colorful video that looked far better than any analog video I had seen.
That's because the Digital8 Handycam records clean digital signals, combining sound and picture into a seamless work of absolute quality. Mini-DV camcorders can do the same thing, but Sony developed Digital8 so that analog camera owners would be able to play their old tapes - something that Mini-DV machines can't do.
Digital8 camcorders record on the same Hi8 and regular 8 mm tapes used by your old camcorder. And while a Digital8 camcorder won't make a film shot with an analog camera look like it was shot in a digital format, transferring analog footage to the high-quality Digital8 format will extend the life of your videos.
The only real trade-off is that while Mini-DV tapes tell you how long you can shoot on the package, a Digital8 camcorder creates 30 minutes of video on a 60-minute tape.
The DCR-TRV520, which retails for about $1,000, comes with a host of nifty features. But that doesn't mean that turning on the camera leads to drawn-out sessions with the instruction booklet or fumbling around to figure out which button to push. You can flip it on and start shooting in much the same way that you do with your analog camera.
Like most camcorders, this one comes with a high-level optical zoom and a super-high-level digital zoom. The optical zoom on this camcorder is 25X and the digital 450X. Digital zoom works well for far-off distances with a tripod, but clarity drops dramatically from the optical-zoom levels.
You can view the video on a 3 1/2 -inch LCD that swivels, so if you stand in front of the camera and film yourself, you can watch (as well as control the camera with a remote). The size of the screen comes in handy when you want to view the video you've just shot. Closing the swivel screen and using the in-camera view saves battery juice, though.
To help those of you who aren't rock steady - especially with a 2-pound camcorder in your hands - Sony uses a picture stabilization system called SteadyShot to compensate for camera shake.
The DCR-TRV520 records in digital stereo sound so that when played back on my hi-fi television at home, we could hear birds chirping on the right and water rushing along a stream on the left. Not only that, the camera picked up the chatter of fishermen on the stream 10 feet away - no small feat given the rushing water.
The camcorder's neatest trick comes after dark with the NightShot infrared system. I took the camcorder to a spot away from streetlights and got really good shots of my car in near darkness. Then, I went into the only room without windows in my home - the bathroom - and performed a total-darkness film test in Super NightShot mode, which Sony claims makes subjects 16 times brighter than those in NightShot mode. The images reminded me of night-vision scenes in the movies.
That's not the camcorder's only special effect, however. It can superimpose simple titles such as "Vacation" or "Wedding," zoom in on a specific image or record in old movie-style, which features a sepia-tone image in wide-screen. My favorite effects were the series of fades that made transitions between scenes look more professional. They include fading up from black or fading from black-and-white to color.
The DCR-TRV520 takes pictures as well, although if you can afford a separate digital camera, buy one. The 640-by-480-pixel photographs, saved to a 4-megabyte Sony memory stick that comes with the camera or to videotape, had decent detail and solid colors on my television screen, but we didn't try to print any pictures using a photo printer.
If you want to see your pictures on computer, the DCR-TRV520 comes with PictureGear 4.1 Lite and a PC serial cable to connect to your computer.
Sony claims you can film up to 12 hours with one of its optional Stamina batteries, but the battery that comes with the DCR-TRV520 provides a lot less shooting time. Without the display screen on, it will shoot for 94 minutes on battery power; with it open, shooting time drops to 67 minutes. You have the option when you're near an electrical outlet to simply plug the camera in and shoot all day.
Connecting the DCR-TRV520 to a VHS videocassette recorder took little effort. The camera comes with a composite jack that splits into RCA-style jacks. Sony has a built-in S-video receptacle as well. Or, if you want to import digital video into your computer for an editing session, the camcorder has an IEEE 1394 Firewire port (called i.Link by Sony) that will allow you to connect via a cable to an IEEE 1394 adapter card.
Such cards, which allow for easy importation of digital video signals, can be added on to a PC running the latest editions of Windows or can be found in the iMac and other Macintosh computers.
The DCR-TRV520 makes great memories.