The JVC JY-VS200 DV Camcorder
you see it, now you don’t: an automatic lens cover protects the modest lens
lurking in the huge lens barrel.
(move the mouse cursor over the picture to see the lens cover closed)
The camera itself is emblazoned with JVC’s “ProfessionalDV” logo, right above the silver, shimmering Progressive Scan badge. As JVC seems to be positioning this as an entry-level digital cinema camera, I was quite excited when DV Central’s own Alexei Gerulaitis offered me the chance of an extended hands-on evaluation.
Cut to the chase: did JVC pull off a major coup? Sadly, no. Stenciling “ProfessionalDV” on the side does not make a professional-level camera; aside from the progressive-scan capability this camera offers little of interest to the serious user. But that harsh statement does disservice to the JY-VS200. Its control philosophy and plentitude of in-camera effects clearly mark it as a consumer-oriented camera.
If you ignore the “professional” hype surrounding the “indie cam” you’re left with a nice single-chipper with a big flip-out screen, some interesting capabilities, and a sub-$2000 price tag.
The camera has a compact black body with an impressively large lens barrel. A knurled manual focusing ring encircles the front of the lens. A thin silver ring encircles the rear of the lens, and a few controls are also picked out in silver. Twin microphones nestle under the lens – right where I use my hand to stabilize the camera!
The camera has an understated elegance and a businesslike appearance. Its fully-loaded weight of 1.7 lbs (740g) imparts a pleasing feeling of solidity. Indeed, this is one of the most solid, substantial-feeling bits of JVC gear I’ve used; with the exception of a single control everything about this camera feels robust and rugged.
A large, 3.5” LCD flip-out screen occupies the left side of the body. At the lower front corner, directly below the screen pivot, is the menu switch, of which much more will be said later. Opening the screen reveals five buttons and four membrane switches, plus a 4-pin 1394 port. The five buttons do double duty; in playback they provide the usual transport controls plus a “memory play” for accessing the solid-state SD / MultiMedia card for still storage. In recording, the buttons turn backlight compensation on and off, allow exposure overrides, turn on or off a selected special effect or programmed exposure setting, and trigger a predetermined fade or wipe. The membrane switches allow blank search, index search, and printing capability.
The right side is shaped to fit in your hand and contains the playback speaker. At the front are a microphone socket with protective rubber plug, and the three-position shooting mode switch (again, more on this later). A small door at the bottom center covers the slot for the SD / MultiMedia card on which stills can be stored.
On the top are the zoom control (doubling as the volume control when playing back tapes), the manual/auto focus button, and the snapshot button. The zoom lever falls naturally under your index finger while shooting; the focus and snapshot buttons are far enough behind the zoom lever to be safe from accidental pressing yet close enough to be reachable when needed. Towards the front is a hot shoe with electrical contacts for a JVC flash unit.
At the rear is the usual multimode rotary switch with
central trigger, positioned beneath your thumb. After depressing a small blue
locking button, you can rotate it clockwise to put the camera in playback, one
step counterclockwise for full-auto shooting, or two clicks to enable manual
controls. The rotary switch on the camera I tested was stiff and hard to turn,
yet wobbled alarmingly. Unlike all the other controls, this one felt cheap and
Below it, behind a plastic flip-down cover, one finds a headphone jack, a 4-conductor mini coax jack for the usual video and audio snake cable used with most tinycams, and a JVC-specific printer port (!). The battery or AC adapter mounts vertically just below the viewfinder. The viewfinder itself pulls out one inch and can then be tilted upwards 45 degrees.
Like many modern tinycams, tapes load in through the bottom. Sliding a bottom-mounted switch opens the right side of the camera, and the tape loading drawer extends downwards. You can’t change tapes while the camera is on a tripod; for that matter, a large tripod head or mounting plate will prevent you from changing batteries, too, as the battery release is on the underside and the batteries slide down to release.
The rectangular lens shade clamps to a 55mm adapter ring threaded into the 52mm filter threads of the lens; this shade is a German unit clearly intended for general-purpose use and fitted to the camera only through the use of the rather odd adapter. The ring is not threaded for filters, so it must be removed when filters are used, in which case you’ll have to make other arrangements for a lens hood.
Pop the battery off and you can snap on the “jack box,” a small adapter with external power, S-video, USB for transfer of stills, and a JLIP editing control port. The jack box is cabled to the AC adapter / battery charger for AC power. The charger charges until the camera’s cable is plugged in.
The LCD shows one of the camera’s menus. The jack box provides S-video and USB connectivity as well as AC power.
The VS200 is a menu-driven camera. The menu switch is a nubbed rocker; rock up or down to select an item, press in to set it. Operation is precise and tactile feedback is good, making the control easy to use. Rocking the control without first pressing it changes the brightness of the LCD or the viewfinder. If you open the LCD screen out and leave it vertical, it blocks the switch, but it’s soon second nature to tilt it slightly to ensure access to the rocker.
The first item on the menu is fader/wipe selection. The VS200 offers sixteen different fader/wipe effects, and eight picture effects like sepia, “classic film,” and the like. Despite the professional label on the camera it’s clearly aimed at the home-movie crowd. The next menu, Program AE, has a variety of custom autoexposure modes, the eight picture effects, and shutter speeds of 1/60 and 1/100. These are the only ways to fix the shutter speed, which otherwise floats as the camera sees fit.
The menus allow selection of white balance between auto, manual, sunny, cloudy, and incandescent. The camera can be set to record at SP or LP speed, 48 kHz / 16 bit or 32 kHz / 12 bit sound. The zoom can be limited to optical (10x), 40x, or 300x. Auto gain (for picture) can be switched on or off, or even set so that the shutter will slow to 1/30 in dark scenes.
The camera can be set to normal interlace recording, progressive scan, or “dual,” interlaced but with the digital still camera enabled on the “snapshot” button. In dual mode, you can grab 640x480 stills to the SD card while tape is rolling. Wide mode allows selection of 4:3, letterbox, or 16:9 anamorphic recording. I found that letterbox (described below) was often unavailable after I’d been in progressive scan, and only seemed to come back after power was removed from the camera.
Stills can be recorded at 640x480 (VGA), 1024x768 (XGA), or 1600x1200 (UXGA). In the menus, one sets up UXGA mode to be auto, “double,” or “enlarge.” As the manual explains it, “double” uses a double-exposed pixel-shift technique (as the VS2000 is a one-chip camera, it probably resamples the captured image using staggered dual-scan readout techniques), while “enlarge” uses the DVE to blow up the native image. “Auto” chooses between modes as the camera sees fit. Note that the imager itself is not UXGA; it’s more like a Megapixel in size,based on inferences in the manual and the roughly doubled image area (around 1.4x linear increase) seen when switching from video mode to stills mode.
The VS200 uses a 1/4” CCD with an unspecified number of pixels. When you consider that only a subset of those pixels is used for video, that’s a pretty small imager. The entire imager is only used for stills and for 0.7x wide angle in progressive scan (see below). In video mode the “extra” CCD area allows for digital image stabilization (DIS) by “panning and scanning” the active area of the CCD to counter camera shake. This form of DIS does not blow up or crop the image as EIS does in some Panasonic cameras, so there’s no resolution loss. Compared to my five-year-old JVC GR-DV1u, the VS200’s DIS is much improved. There is no disturbance at the bottom of the frame; the image tends to be stable even in the absence of contrasty cues; and stabilization is better overall. While it’s not up to the quality of the optical SteadyShot on the high-end Sonys and Canons, it’s not bad.
The lens is a 10:1, 3.8-38mm opening to f1.8. Despite the hefty size of the lens barrel and the 52mm filter threads, the actual lens itself spans only about 20mm. However, that “dead area” around the real lens includes room for one of my favorite JVC features: an automatic lens cover. When the camera is switched on, the cover snaps out of the way, snapping back into place when the camera is turned off. Good design!
Practically speaking the lens is on the long and narrow end of the pack; it’s somewhat tighter at full wide than a Sony PD150 or VX1000. There’s a digital zoom up to 300x, which in my tests pretty much filled the screen with a single leaf on a tree perhaps 200 feet away. The leaf was mighty blurry at that size, and without a tripod it would have been impossible to frame it at all. Definitely one of those “size matters” features, though of little practical application except as a special effect.
The shooting mode switch on the lens barrel does two things: it selects between normal video shooting and digital stills shooting at either XGA (1024x768) or UXGA (1600x1200) resolution, and it simultaneously selects the appropriate optical low-pass filter for the chosen mode. The OLP filter is a critical determinant of image quality, as it trades off resolution and aliasing; on dual-mode cameras like this less filtering is desirable in stills mode than in video mode. Sure enough, switching to XGA or UXGA stills mode shows a noticeable increase in sharpness in the finder; the sharpness difference is subtle but noticeable in the stills shot in this mode.
The VS200 uses a true progressive-scan capable CCD. In proscan mode, the camera captures a full 30 frames per second with each frame complete unto itself. Vertical resolution increases from around 400 lines to about 450 TV lines. One option in proscan mode is a “wide angle” mode allowing a zoom out to 0.7x compared to the “normal” wide angle. The DVE used for the digital zoom runs in compression rather than expansion, allowing the image of the full CCD (not just the area normally used for video) to be squeezed down into the video raster. It’s like getting a wide-angle adapter for free, although it only works in 4:3, progressive-scan mode.
JVC provides two widescreen modes. One is a “letterbox” mode placing black bands on the top and bottom of the 4:3 image with flags set in the DV data (and replayed in the vertical interval on analog output) so that 16:9 sets automatically enlarge the image. The other is the usual 16:9 mode resulting in a screen-filling (on 4:3 TVs) anamorphic image. The VS200 is a 4:3 native camera, so 16:9 is faked by digitally enlarging the central 360 scanlines to fill the 480-line raster (NTSC) with some resolution loss incurred. The good news is that JVC has done a very clean job of the blowup; the 16:9 in this camera is more usable than the 16:9 in the Sony DSR-PD150.
The camera can be run in full-auto mode, or in manual-override mode. Note that in full-auto you can’t even bring up the menus much less change them. Full-auto means what it says: only the backlight compensation button and the zoom are usable.
In manual mode, you can toggle between autofocus and manual focus with the top-mounted focus button. Focusing manually is quick and easy, and recommended in low light, where the autofocus is easily confused.
The camera normally autoexposes images. You can lock the shutter by setting a 1/60 or 1/100 Program AE effect, and enabling it with the PROG.AE switch. You can override the exposure by pressing the EXPOSURE button and then using the menu rocker to set an override of up to +/- 6 (6 what? The manual doesn’t say, but each number appears to be about 1/3 of a stop). Pressing and holding the menu rocker for two seconds locks the current exposure. There are no f-stop readouts nor gain readouts to be found.
The zoom control works well but lacks enough gradation and slow speed to do a smoothly ramped on-camera zoom.
There is a volume readout in the finder and on the LCD, but no manual control of the recording gain. The built-in mikes are adequate but lacking in bass pickup; the sound is a bit on the tinny side.
The VS200’s colorbars are somewhat unusual. In the darkest wedges you can see the chroma desaturation discussed in the text.
The camera resolves a solid 475 TV lines / picture height with little obvious aliasing. The optical low-pass filter in the camera is superb and the images are smooth and naturalistic as a result. The resolution wedges on the test chart merge smoothly into an undifferentiated gray mass as the resolution limits are exceeded, unlike (for example) the PD150 where aliasing and artifacts are the rule all the way to the 800-line limit of my test chart. In practical terms this means the VS200 can shoot images including fine vertical detail without excessive fear of unnatural aliasing or moiré. 475 lines may not sound like much, but considering the tiny chip used at the heart of this camera it’s really fairly impressive.
The “checkerboarding” artifact can be seen on the vertical wedges of the resolution test chart.
Color fringing and moiré, the banes of single-chip cameras, are minimal – you’ll still get some green and magenta fringing on fine detail such as text, but this camera is very good for a one-chipper.
One odd artifact I’ve not seen in other cameras became apparent on the resolution-chart tests. It’s as if a faint checkerboard pattern were lightly superimposed over the image, and only visible in the vicinity of contrasty, sharp vertical edges. In the real world, the only time it’s noticeable is on the occasional straight, sharp-edged detail, which acquires a slight “toothiness”. It’s a subtle thing and not visible in most naturalistic imagery, but when it does show up it can be distracting.
Edge enhancement, a.k.a. aperture correction or “sharpness,” is set very high on the VS200. Indeed, to match the look of the VS200’s images I had to crank the PD150’s sharpness control to maximum. The result is an electronic-looking edging effect on sharp luma transitions, which cannot be removed in post. It’s one of those things that contributes to the “look” of video as opposed to film; while it increases apparent sharpness it adds an unmistakable “video” signature to the image. It also increases the visibility of the checkerboarding artifact noted above and whatever aliasing gets past the OLP filter. Unfortunately it is not adjustable on the VS200; you are stuck with what you get.
The VS200 is not a low-light camera, as one might expect with a Megapixel 1/4” CCD. Each pixel is so small it’s a wonder it collects any light at all. I have no firm numbers, but the camera needs a lot of light compared to the current crop of 3-chip cams.
The camera renders a contrasty image with perhaps a stop less latitude than the PD150 does. The limitation appears to be mostly in highlights; side-by-side tests exposing for comparable midtones shows similar shadow detail but earlier and harsher highlight clipping.
Vertical smear is a problem with the VS200. Bright lights show a distinct line, and overexposed areas, as in the side-by-side comparison images, cause a “wash” of overexposure up and down the rest of the frame. In fairness the VS200 is not alone in this aspect; many single-chippers and even a few three-chippers are similarly afflicted.
|These images from the VS200 and a Sony PD150 show the different contrast-handling capabilities of the cameras. The vertical smear in the JVC causes a “wash” of light down the front of the computer where it’s not blocked by the window frame.|
No, it’s not a fog bank, it’s the blue sky being overexposed.
The VS200 has a noticeable chroma clip on highlights; overexposure in skies results in a rapid bleaching to white at around 100-102 IRE, showing a distracting division between blue sky and white, clipped sky. The Sonys I normally use, by contrast, show overexposed skies as veering off into cyan around 100 IRE before desaturating to white at 110 IRE (I even pulled out some ten-year-old single-chip Hi8 camcorders just to make sure what I was seeing wasn’t an artifact of one chip vs. three). While the JVC avoids the hue errors of the Sonys, the resulting cure is often worse than the disease.
Similarly, dark areas below around 20 IRE are desaturated and chroma-free. Reds seem to disappear first with blues holding out the longest as picture level drops. Unlike most cameras, where color saturation decreases linearly as light level drops, the JVC appears to actively cut off chroma starting at around 25 IRE, leaving a monochrome image at 15 IRE and below (note that these numbers are with full black at 0 IRE on the waveform monitor). I think JVC does this to eliminate chroma noise in dark areas, and it’s very effective at that. In most well-lit scenes you’ll never even notice the desaturation of the shadows. But it is a bit odd to see monochrome images in low light, and being able to “paint” color back into the scene with a flashlight! It’s pretty cool as a special effect, but it can be distracting and unnatural.
The VS200 worked perfectly smoothly with both Final Cut Pro 2.0 and with Premiere 6.0 using Matrox DV device control. The mechanism cues very quickly for a camcorder and it responds promptly to transport commands. Both batch capture and edit to tape worked flawlessly.
As a still camera, the VS200 performs adequately given its constraints. Both VGA and XGA images were acceptable although the excess edge enhancement tends to degrade picture quality, especially at VGA size.
The UXGA images were a disappointment. Again, the VS200 does not have a UXGA-native imager, it resamples XGA images upwards to store as UXGA. Indeed, the UXGA images take up about 2.4x as much storage space as the XGA images do, just as one would expect from the 2.4x increase in pixel count, but the quality of the image is not much better than an XGA image of the same scene. In several cases my UXGA images were noticeably worse, showing distinct line-doubling artifacts. Overall, I’d keep the camera in XGA mode, saving storage space. I found that upsampling the XGA images in Photoshop usually gave me better results than letting the camera do it.
I plugged the VS200 into the USB port on my Mac, which already had the extensions needed to support a Sony digital still camera. The VS200 came up on the desktop with no further effort on my part and I was able to copy stills to and from the SD card in the camera. JVC provides both Mac and Windows USB drivers for the camera should you need them.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with the fades, wipes, and picture effects.
The camera comes with a wireless remote control enabling recording of video and stills and controlling the zoom. In playback, the remote can perform assemble editing using a second VCR, and activate digital zoom on the recorded picture. I didn’t test any of these capabilities.
The camera allows all manner of digital stills management, moving pix between tape and SD card, and printing using a JVC photo printer. These features were unexplored in my tests.
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