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New Year,New Camera Focus

The big announcements for new broadcast cameras won’t be coming until March and April with the approach of the National Association of Broadcasters convention, but the launch of several new camcorders in recent weeks provides a preview of the major trends and technological advances that will be important for broadcast camera equipment in 2011.

Some of the most notable advances have been in the image quality of smaller, less expensive camcorders. “Broadcasters have been doing what we would call equipment-downsizing while trying to retain, or even expand, the number of people who are out in the field reporting, and that has caused them to look at equipment differently,” notes Dave Walton, assistant VP of marketing and communications at JVC Professional Products. “The big-iron equipment is a thing of the past.”

JVC led the move to smaller, less expensive camcorders a few years ago, and most of the other manufacturers are now offering units priced at under $10,000, with some costing less than $5,000. In late December, Panasonic began shipping its AG-AF100 camcorder ($4,999). This month, Canon started delivering its XF105 and XF100, priced at just $4,300 and $3,300, respectively.

These cameras illustrate how “there have definitely been some big steps forward in lenses, sensors and processors” that have allowed for units providing much higher quality high-definition images, notes Chuck Westfall, technical adviser for consumer imaging group professional products marketing at Canon USA.

In Canon’s case, some of these advances involve improvements in the CMOS chips that Canon had been using for many years for its digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.

Canon’s XF105 and XF100 use a 1/3-inch CMOS chip, which allows the smaller, less-expensive camera to still offer 4:2:2 color sampling. The two models also utilize the Canon XF codec that handles MPEG-2 files at 50 megabytes per second (Mbps). “The color sample and 50 Mbps capability is something that you’ve tended to see in the $10,000 and up price range,” Westfall says.

The new Panasonic cameras also highlight the influence that DSLRs are having in the production community. DSLRs offer a low-cost production option with large sensors that offer very high-quality images with a tight focal length check that provides a more cinematic look. This allows producers to use a large array of more affordable, high-quality DSLR lenses.

The new Panasonic AG-AF100 that began shipping in late December has some of the advantages of these DSLRs, including a modest price tag, a large 4/3 inch MOS sensor and the ability to use a wide variety of still camera lenses with the camcorder. But the camera is also designed to overcome some of the disadvantages of the DSLRs, which lack many of the features videographers expect from traditional camcorders. DSLRs can also be difficult to use in certain production environments.

Given these limitations, Canon is currenly working to improve the capabilities of the DSLRs for more traditional TV production. Among other things, the company is looking for ways to adapt its DSLRs to the needs of TV and movie production by improving sound, recording times, output formats, ergonomics and usability, Westfall says.

A number of important advances are also being made in the CCD sensors that have long been the mainstay of broadcast cameras, notes JVC’s Walton.

“Our clients continue to tell us that they prefer CCD cameras because of the way [CCD] handles motion and because of the overall picture quality,” Walton says. “We’ve developed technology that allows us to use small CCDs while retaining the performance of larger CCDs.”

Other advances have considerably improved workflow for TV stations. “With our cameras, broadcasters are able to send compressed MPEG-2 output directly from the camera feed into the microwave and go live on-air,” Walton notes.