Walking With Camcorders

Gareth Mason raises a bushy eyebrow and wonders if a new millennium is a good place for a 20th century format…

With the emergence of digital, the VHS-C format doesn’t have the support it once had. In fact, that dwindling minority inhabiting this world are perhaps the AV equivalents of a Neanderthal man scratching his oversized forehead with bemusement at the more successful antics of the smaller, hairless wonders frolicking around him. But evolution does, for a time, allow such species to live alongside each other. In the AV world, this is usually due to older formats dropping their prices so that their higher value outweighs their antiquity.

At £400, the NV-VZ15 a close relative of the NV-RZ15 but adding a 2.5in colour LCD, is near the bottom of the price chain. But its existence still raises an overgrown eyebrow. For instance, the demo mode greets you with the repeated phrase: ‘Yes, it’s VHS!’ a statement which begs the response ‘Yes, but surely you’re extinct?!’. The same mode repeatedly drops that frighteningly modern ‘d’ word into its conversation whenever quality performance needs to be empathised with vague onscreen outbursts such as ‘digital process’ and ‘high quality by digital’. Is this species envy trying to tell us something? And can VHS-C still justify its continued life when the price-friendly ‘high-band’ formats of S-VHS-C and Hi8 offer a comparable, if significantly lower, performance than digital?


Design and layout

Pushing the scales at over a kilogram with battery, the bulk of the NV-VZ15 is not for the limp-wristed and contrasts sharply with the wonders of miniaturisation. That said, it’s still loyal to the traditional sleek lines of Panasonic though you might have to look at it through a telescope backwards for it to look truly cute.

It’s relatively devoid of features on each side; most are found front left where two buttons and a wheel control the menu functions. Moving about these is straightforward enough though it would be more intuitive if the wheel could make selections when pressed in thus avoiding the need to use three buttons to do one thing. The wheel also doubles for tracking and, in tandem with the ‘Set’ button, for Manual focus. Above these, selections can be made for one of the five Program AE modes, Fader functions or electronic image stabiliser – the last of which we’d recommend as a default.

The Program AE modes are a series of settings designed for shooting in circumstances where point and shoot recording may not get the best results. The nine Digital effects lend a more creative influence on the finished product while Fader can round off the beginning and ends of scenes in a variety of ways. But there’s some madness in the Fader method as holding the button on and off during this tortuous process requires a bit too much attention to do it well and easily.

An info window appears above these displays, rather unnecessarily, whether the camcorder is in VCR, Charge or Camera mode, the last of which is illustrated in an alarming red. Forward of this you’ll find a switch operating the 0lux function for shooting in darkness while the lens barrel opens onto an f1.8 lens with a decent 18x optical zoom – an upgrade on the 15x of last year’s model. Less serious is the 700x digital zoom. Or it would be, if all the manufacturers didn’t collude in pretending this is a useful function by plastering this meaningless statistic all over its products and literature. In reality, it contributes to good footage much as Gazza does to lucid speech.

On the lens is a kind of lens cap without a cause, which comes off easily as you test to see whether it’s a manual focussing ring. Clearly it isn’t, but, as with a well-designed bra, for the full picture, it’s often best left-on. Beneath this, you’ll find the infrared display and microphone and underneath the VZ15 itself is a tripod mounting. Talking of which, use of the tripod will not be impeded by the cassette flipping out sideways from behind the otherwise-bare wall facing the LCD monitor. Might take an eye out though.

The black and white viewfinder, while not extendible, can flip up 90 degrees. In front of it are VCR transport controls which double up for time-base correction (a standard feature for reducing jitter), and backlight compensation for scenes with too much light coming behind the subject of your shots. Pressing Record check quickly effectively slips the camcorder into VCR mode so you can test whether you did just get that once in a lifetime scene on tape or whether you just thought you pressed record. Talking of Record buttons, that can be found just below where a righty’s index finger would naturally reach just behind the Zoom switch (which also adjusts playback volume) and ahead of buttons for Date/time and Eject.

Behind the curved right-hand surface on which the VCR playback speaker is found, you’ll find the Control switch (Camera, VCR), a DC input and a flap in which composite video and mono audio is output. While the VZ15 wears most of its features on its sleeve, the menus reveal a few more, such as Motion sensor. This is designed for shooting where nothing may happen for hours such as with night-time wildlife whose sudden appearance or movement theoretically triggers the camcorder into life.

In a similar vein is Interval record in which the camcorder can be programmed to record for a certain amount of time, say one second, every say, 30 seconds. It’s easy to set up. Less exciting but more commonly used would be the Titler menu in which the language, size and colour of your message can be adjusted for each of the ten pre-set titles. On the VCR menus, there are just a couple of added extras but they are both good ones. Insert edit and audio dub are more commonly found on higher-end models. Applying to pictures and sound respectively, they allow you to replace a section of either of these, insert edit for a chunk of video without affecting the audio, while audio dub does it the other way around.



First impressions in a reasonably well-lit room were not that reasonable. Analogue artefacts blazed back at us with pictures flecked in grain that suggested a film of dust on the lens. There wasn’t one and the long play shots displayed a dot crawl which literally took the edge off things. Colours were decent enough though if glaring away from the norm in brighter light, and exaggeratedly dull elsewhere.

My yellow cushion faded, my kettle lost five years, and my face came across as more orange than usual. A low band format needs natural light to deliver pictures of decent quality for the merry amateur – the soberer semi-pro is clearly fishing further up the camcorder food chain. And here, even on a grey early November morning, they achieved that respectability.
The fuzziness of its roving auto focus was negated by cityscape shots enhanced by the slight boost of colour the camcorder gave to red brick and green grass. The zoom slid up smoothly through its indicated extremes though it wasn’t far before it starts magnifying all that grain disturbingly. Mono sound was predictably limited in range, tinny and boomy at opposite ends of the scale.

The various enhancements on offer proved a mixed bag. Manual white balance was a real boon, not only did it improve the colour balance of shots in the range which auto white balance covers but it did its job of dealing with the more extreme conditions which the manual clearly explains it’s designed for. Manual focus, though too awkward to select mid-shot, nonetheless sharpens the picture up nicely. Even if the limits of VHS-C make truly sharp pics impossible it’s a useful feature and offers a helpful alternative to the wayward auto version. Interval recording worked and you can’t ask for much more from it.

Less impressive was the backlight compensation which needs to be held down distractingly to operate and made no discernible difference in my Heath Robinson room of many light sources. But the duff feature award went to the motion sensor which generally failed the less than Herculean task of recording when something moved in front of it. Blocking the lens or swinging it round in a circle tended to work, dancing a jig or filming an earthworm eat his supper is less likely to. But ending on a bright note is the 0 lux mode, which but for the twin tracers of its infrared light, carved out a clear black and white picture from the darkness of my windowless bathroom. It’s in the same league as Sony’s Nightshot, if a couple of places down the table.

All in all, the NV-VZ15 has some interesting features for a beginner-friendly model, even if using them isn’t always as simple as it could be, and they lack consistency in their effectiveness. Performance was fine for its type but the first-time user is sacrificing an awful lot of quality to make a not substantial saving on higher band models which will comfortably outgun it for sound and pictures.

What Camcorder magazine 2002