Friday, December 4, 2009

Me and the Little-Camera-That-Could

Say hello to my little friend...  the Canon HV20.

To date, this camera has shot 3 short films (soon to be 4), two feature length films, one music video and at least 20+ hours of family occasions (including the first five or so minutes of my daughter's life). This camera has earned a spot in a bullet proof housing which will rest in my office like a retired fighter plane in an air museum.

A bare bones Canon HV20. Image from

The Canon HV20 was released in 2007, I purchased one not long after it launched because some investigating sparked excitement in my "gear" head. When brand new it cost around 1,000 bucks in Kit form (wide angle adapter, extra battery and bag). It shot to tape (which compresses and loses quality) when the market for HDV was emerging. But even shooting to tape, the results where promising at that time: the camera was not very "noisey" if you played with the electronic controls/settings. I would use it to shoot one short film, both as a filmmaking exercise and camera test. I was already thinking about tackling a feature and if this camera gave me something I hoped for, she would be the lucky one.

As it turns out, I was quite happy with the results this little champ mustered out. A 1/2 inch CMOS and 24P shooting (3:2 removal required) were great attributes. As time progressed I learned more tricks to gain some more control over the image (eg. the "block-to-wide-open" trick to get a 1/48ths Shutter in Cine Gamma mode).

I already liked the performance of the bare camera, but I would soon add accessories and rails while maintaining mobility and speed. It allowed me two shoot in a familiar style.  The real magic happened in two ways:

The Letus Mini 35 minus lens of your choice. Image from

1.) The Letus Mini 35mm lens adapter would give me the Depth-of-Field I had been searching for; something that I had long yearned to have in video since my earliest adventures in movie-making. When I was 8 years old my Uncle Raul gave me a really cool camera body (which I still have) that I could hook up to a VCR to record it's video signal. The coolest thing was that this camera had a really sweet lens that had macro functions and some manual focus control. So now, I would have an HD image and some filmic depth of field. The next step would be finding good deals on great lenses.

Screengrab from an initial lens adaptor shooting test. Image by VC.

Intensity Pro minus a tower & connected HDMI cable. Image from

2.) The Black Magic Intensity Pro capture card which allowed for HDMI direct capture directly onto your computers hard drive. It would send out an uncompressed HD signal that I could capture with plenty of visual slack to tweek color and decrease digital artifacts.

Shooting at night.

WARNING: There were certain requirements for shooting with this Canon HV20/Letus Rig. Already considering a single sensor camera does not handle low light very well, the lens adapter only added to lost light. To put it simply, you had to overlight in many circumstances.  

ALSO: The fact that Canon would not allow you to adjust the shutter, iris and gain both individually and independently sucks. I mean, even if we had to do it electronically that would have been earth-shattering; but NO, they don't want to kill their own business (understandable to a point).

BUT if you spent enough time toying and testing this thing, you could find a way to find the ideal (sometimes just acceptable) setting(s). It was sometimes a fight, like give and take, with this camera; however, if I could walk away satisfied with the imagery, then it would feel like a win.


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 The camera package in it's entirety can fit in to one sturdy, medium sized case.

A.) HV20 and it's accessories: 3 batteries, the fast charger, Bag, Cables, Wide Angle Adapter, lens cleaner, LCD hood and HDV tapes.

B.) The Lens adapter and a padded foam and a few pairs of AA batteries. As well as a rail system with lens supporter and base plate.

C.) 3 Lenses in their own protective bags/pouches (30, 50 and 85mm) as well as various sets of filters.

"Look how much space I don't take up..."

 I heavily enjoy being mobile and light, the outfitted HV20 with lens adapter and lens weighs less than 10 pounds. This camera package worked great. I've seen high end HD Cameras and 35mm/S16mm film shoots where it takes a team of people to move all various boxes and components around, not to mention having a team of people operating the cameras. With the HV20, I could easily be a one-man-army and strike like lightning when necessary. Don't get me wrong, it would be fantastic to shoot with a big camera team, with a 40 pound or 60 camera, but for now: this little camera can do it.
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While it is true now that you can spend the same amount on an VDSLR (Canon 7D with the basic zoom lens) that I spent on this HV20/Letus rig, you should think about your budget and the ever changing realm of technology before you sink your teeth into a camera. I have my issues with the 5D and 7D (ergonomics, functionality and heavy compression) and it's awesome imagery, but honestly the biggest investment  one could make would probably be acquiring fast prime lenses for whatever camera you'll end up with. The technology world changes so fast that today's hot new digital cinema camera will become what the HV20 is now: old news. The glass however (lenses), will most likely be the same.

Note: Photos of Me and the Camera thanks to Corine Aubin.

To conclude, create a camera package that meets your needs. If you like the image quality and the things that can be done with that footage then great: the content is where it really counts anyway.

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