Camera Review: Canon HV20

A few weeks ago we purchased a Canon HV20 camcorder. As a camera, it lacks certain basic features, but its power and price tag make it a very tempting purchase for the independent filmmaker and video producer alike. For our projects, the HV20 will primarily be used as a DV and HDV tape deck for capturing footage acquired on other cameras, but its small size makes it convenient to carry around, and it can be handy to have a secondary camera on most shoots.

As you can see, it’s quite tiny. This means it can fit into almost any bag, but also that it’s virtually impossible to hold still. It weighs just over a pound and is less than six inches long, so it has no inertia to speak of. The integral optical stabilization may remove the majority of the shakes, but there’s still plenty of jitter left over, especially banking rotation.

The tiny size also means an itty-bitty lens. It’s a pretty good lens, with 10x optical zoom and a 50° wide angle view, but a dust speck looks like a blimp through the viewfinder. The built-in automatic lens cap is neat, but I would suggest getting a 43mm UV or polarizing filter for extra protection, and an after-market lens hood is a must.

A single 0.37” progressive CMOS chip feeds 1920×1800 images to the same DIGIC DV II processor that handles the data for the XL H1 and other HD Canon cameras. It can record 24p and 60i, but strangely does not shoot 30p or 30f footage. However, the tape deck can play most HDV formats, including all Canon versions, and the Firewire, HDMI, component and composite outs make it an ideal playback machine.

Image Control
Unfortunately, it limits the shooter to largely automatic settings by linking aperture, shutter speed, gain, and neutral density filters to one control labeled “exposure.” Some control can be gained by switching to AV or TV modes, giving control to either iris or shutter speed, but the only way to manage them both is lock the “exposure” at a certain setting that will give you constant results.

click to enlarge

In my opinion, the greatest weakness is the lack of any manual gain control. Gain is evil. It’s often been said that video noise is just another area of artistic expression, but as long as video is being compressed, any increased signal noise means decreased video quality. The HDV codec throws enough data away when it compresses a pristine image; giving it the added detail of dancing high-gain noise only degrades the final output further. I hope that in the future Ca