The HC3E’s lack of prosumer features also extends to the control system. There’s no separate button for exposure, although this can be varied using the touch-screen LCD’s menu system. This also gives access to the handy spot metering and spot focus capabilities, where you can choose a point in the visible frame to use as reference and let the camcorder set its focus or exposure accordingly. But there’s no direct access to shutter speed, other than via the Program AE modes, which include the usual portrait, beach & ski, landscape, spotlight and sunset & moon.
On the plus side, you get a tidy built-in iris instead of a lens cap, which opens automatically when you enter record mode. The 2.7in LCD offers 211,000 pixels, which is a vast improvement on the HC1E’s 123,000 pixel unit. Manual focusing is also readily available at the push of a switch, although this uses a thumb wheel rather than the more user-friendly lens ring. Another feature we had enormous fun with was Smooth Slow Record, which buffers three seconds of video recorded at four times the usual frame rate, then records it to tape at the usual rate to make 12 seconds of footage. The result is ultra-smooth slow motion for things like sports highlights, which only professional cameras like Sony’s Varicam could improve upon.
The HDV format used by the HC3E records interlaced video at 1,440 x 1,080 in MPEG2 format to the same tape as regular digital camcorders. So resolution is already nearly four times that of DV’s 720 x 576, if not quite as high as the full 1,920 x 1,080 HDTV broadcast by Telewest and Sky HD services. This makes for much sharper images than any DV camcorder can achieve, even three-CCD models. You can also shoot standard DV with the HC3E, as with other HDV camcorders. But there isn’t much point spending the premium in that case.
Although HC3E sports a lower-resolution CMOS than its HC1E predecessor, we weren’t expecting this to have a noticeable effect on video quality, as the extra pixels are only used when capturing stills. At 1/3in, this is still a large sensor so should offer good colour fidelity and low light characteristics. In good lighting, we found the HC3E’s image a little more saturated than the HC1E, but not necessarily inferior in quality, just a different emphasis. However, we did notice a little more stair-stepping along diagonal lines. This could be the result of greater sharpening, which is often found in camcorders aimed more at consumers than semi-professionals.