So, some of you may have already seen my short write up about my recent trial of the JVC HM650. Well I have now spent some more time with the camera and gone through the rushes in more depth. I have to say I am impressed.
Who’s it for? First of all lets consider where this camera sits in the wide world of cameras and who it is aimed at. It’s not designed to compete with the currently highly fashionable large sensor cameras. It’s not a camera aimed at high end productions. The JVC HM650 is aimed fair and square at journalists, news agencies and low budget documentary production. It’s priced to sell and sell it will as it does offer very good value for the money.
The HM650 really is a very clever camera, packed full of features that make it a great choice for news shooters. It has multiple codec and recording options, great for when you need to pool or share media. It has WiFi and 3G/4G connectivity via a USB host port where you can add wireless dongle. Brilliant for uploading material via ftp or (via a future firmware update) streaming your footage live. It has a 23x zoom lens, so it offers both a wide angle field of view for press conferences, color shots and GV’s as well as a long telephoto range for capturing those distant stories behind the police lines or security barriers.
3x 1/3″ 1920×1080 Sensors.
The HM650 has 3x 1920×1080 cmos sensors that perform very well. The images from the camera are nicely rounded. Remembering that this is a 1/3″ camera and considering it’s price point, the pictures are very nice. My test shoot on the Watercress Line, a preserved steam railway, took place on a beautifully sunny winters day. Days like this are challenging for any camera. Brilliantly bright blue sky but with deep, dark shadows thanks to the low sun. Throw in dark, sooty trains and any camera will have a tough time.
In addition when the sky is as blue as this in winter colours can look bleak and lack interest. The HM650 did a very capable job in these tough conditions. Colour reproduction was very accurate, maybe tending towards pink in the highlights a little bit, but never the less pleasing to view. Dynamic range is good for a 1/3″ camera. You don’t have the massive dynamic range that some of the new big sensor camera offer, but I didn’t feel that I was being excessively restricted in what I could shoot by a lack of dynamic range. At a guess I would estimate around 9 to 10 stops. Being a CMOS sensor the camera does have a small amount of skew and suffers from the usual rolling shutter issues. However, the engineers at JVC have realised that a camera like this is going to encounter a lot of flash photography. So they have added in camera flash band reduction which can be turned on and off in the menu. This is very effective, leaving only the very narrowest dark band across the image, but it doesn’t work in all modes or when you have the shutter switched on.
Perhaps more important than dynamic range alone is the way a camera handles over exposure. Some cameras do a terrible job with highlights suddenly going into nasty, ugly clipping with weird hues getting added to the over exposure. Non of that here. Over exposure is very well handled with a pleasant transition from non clipped to clipped. The camera is a little “videoish” but really not bad at all for a 1/3″ camera. I expect some of the “videoish” look can be dialed out through the comprehensive camera process page of the menu and next time I get a look at the camera I’ll take some time to go through this in more depth.
The one thing that did catch my eye was the lack of noise. In fact at times there was so little noise that the images looked a little plasticky. Clearly there is a lot of noise reduction going on in camera. The majority of modern cameras use noise reduction circuits to decrease the appearance of noise. These circuits, while reducing noise can introduce other image artefacts. One of the most common of these is image smear. On a static scene you won’t see this but move the camera or have something move through the shot and the motion can look slightly blurred. I did see a higher than average amount of this on the HM650. Don’t panic! JVC are aware of this. Not only are they aware of this, but they already have a fix (or at least useful improvement) in the pipelines. There will be a firmware update for the camera in the coming weeks that will fine tune the noise reduction to reduce the smear. This will almost certainly mean a little more noise in the pictures, but from what I’ve seen so far I think a little extra noise will actually improve the way the pictures look.
23x Zoom Lens
The 23x zoom lens is very nice to use. I’ve been using prime lenses a lot recently and it really was liberating to have a beautifully smooth zoom lens with such a long range. Slow creeping zooms are possible, although it is quite hard to get a completely seamless transition from a static shot to a zooming shot when using the zoom rocker, there always appears to the very slightest of jumps as you start or end a zoom.
This is no worse than most cameras in this class. Focussing manually uses the large focus ring. This is of the round and round, un-calibrated variety but it’s quite snappy and responsive. There is a separate ring for the zoom control as well as iris. It was nice to have a full size iris ring, even if it isn’t calibrated rather than a silly knob or dial. Just to the rear of the lens you have one push buttons for exposure and focus as well as switches to choose between auto focus and auto iris. These are well positioned and easy to use and I often took advantage of the iris button to quickly set my exposure which the camera did very accurately in most cases.
Viewfinders and Audio.
OK, so we have nice pictures, how do you see them. Well there is a nice 3.5″ LCD panel up on the handle as well as a small electronic EVF on the rear of the camera. The LCD is nice and clear and you can adjust the peaking (via the menu’s) to aid with focussing. The EVF is a small 0.45″ LCD panel with good resolution, but it’s small size means it’s hard to see critical focus. Many handycam camcorders suffer from this same issue. All the design effort goes into the LCD and the EVF’s often appear to be an afterthought. It’s not that the EVF is unusable, it’s just a bigger screen would be nicer.
Audio is as you would expect these days. A built in stereo mic plus a pair of XLR inputs with mic and line levels as well as phantom power. There are two small dials for setting the audio levels up on the handle of the camera. When the LCD screen is open you have access to all the audio controls and the dial. Close the LCD and just the lower part of the audio dials sticks out at the bottom of the handle, so you can still adjust the audio levels, but now there is some protection against accidental knocks and bumps. One extra bonus with the HM650 is an additional mini-jack input on the camera body for use with radio mics etc. This makes it easy to switch between say a handheld mic on the XLR’s and a radio mic without having to unplug anything, this is a nice touch.
SD Card Recording.
At the rear of the camera there are two slots for SD cards. The HM650 records in a variety of codecs including Mpeg2, H264 and the AVCHD version of H264, so you have a choice of codecs. Bit rates go up to 35Mb/s. When using Mpeg2 you can choose between using either MXF. MP4 or.mov as the file wrapper. So Mac users will most likely use .mov and Avid users MXF. If your an XDCAM EX user then you might choose MP4. The 35Mb/s mpeg 2 codec is the same as the one used by Sony in the XDCAM EX cameras, so the workflow is well sorted and the footage support by all the major edit applications. Having the files wrapped in .mov’s (as opposed to the XDCAM EX MP4) removes the need to do any re-wrapping if you use Final Cut Pro and this is a real time saver. For the highest image quality you can use what JVC call UHQ (ultra high quality) mpeg4 avc h.264 which should offer better quality than the Mpeg2 or AVCHD modes, although I didn’t get a chance to really put this to the test. The HM650 can even record Mpeg2 to one of the SD cards while also recording AVCHD on the other card, all very clever stuff. Apparently the HM650 has an additional set of image processing circuits compared to the HM600. This extra processing power is what makes it possible to add the wifi and wireless features. As I said, in the future you’ll be able to stream live footage over an internet connection with the HM650. For now you can connect the camera to the internet using a wireless adapter and use ftp to transfer files from the camera to an ftp server. I didn’t have time to go through all of these advanced features, but if your doing TV news I can see this being a very handy camera to have.
With so many features the menu system is quite complex. It’s not hard to use, but there’s a lot of stuff in there so finding some things can take a bit of hunting. You can use a little thumbstick on the LCD panel or the playback controls on the cameras body to navigate through the menus. If you want to adjust the way the pictures look there is a comprehensive setup page where you can adjust the detail, matrix and gamma settings. There’s only one memory for these settings so no multiple picture profiles to choose from as with some other cameras, but the range of adjustment is good.
Overall the HM650 is a good little camcorder. The build quality appears very good and the camera is well balanced and easy to hold. The pictures are good and comparable to most other 1/3″ pro camcorders. Where it really excels though is the feature set. A big zoom ratio, great codec and recording choices, flash band reduction, 15 second memory cache, the use of low cost SD cards and it’s streaming and internet connectivity. I’m quite sure that the HM650 will be very popular with journalists, reporters and news organisations as well as anyone else that need the ability to stream live or upload material quickly and easily. Nice one JVC.
I’m going to spend some more time with the HM650 to look at the paint and setup settings as well as the new firmware with improved noise reduction.