Sony HDR-HC3 Camcorder Review
The HDR-HC3 uses a 1/3" CMOS sensor, the same kind found on the DCR-DVD505. The chip in the HC3 has 2,103,000 gross pixels; 1,434,000 effective pixels in 16:9 video mode; 1,076,000 effective pixels in 4:3 video mode.
At 3000 lux, the high definition picture measures 1440 x 1080 (spread over a 16:9 area) so the imported image is 1920 x 1080. Overall, the picture is very sharp, as we’d expect from high editions. There is a good color balance, though the saturation has increased noticeably since the HC1, primarily in the magenta through the blue portions of the spectrum: greens are slightly more saturated, reds remain the same, and yellows are marginally less saturated than they were in the HC1. As Sony is aiming for a different market for the HC3, they may be adjusting the image to match the expectations of those users. While the image is certainly saturated, it's not excessive, and it doesn't detract from the brilliance of the picture.
The HC3 also shows more in-camera sharpening than did the HC1. The result is stair-stepping along curved lines, something which we don't expect to see in HD video and which disappoints us. While not excessive, the sharpening is definitely noticeable, as is the haloing that occurs along most borders. Noise is also more prevalent in the HC3 than it was with the HC1, which managed to confine it to fine grain patterns; in the HC3, noise and sharpening combine to produce slight blurring along high-contrast areas.
We also compared the HC3 to the top SD models of Canon and Panasonic, and to the top Sony DVD camcorder. The Canon Optura 600, which has a larger 1/2.8" CCD (though much lower effective video resolution), produced a less detailed image, as the picture is only standard definition NTSC 640 x 480. Both cameras produce similar color performance, appear to have commensurate levels of apparent sharpness, and show the same stair-stepping in a close view. Saturation levels are higher in the Optura 600, however, and the color balance is better in the Sony.
The Panasonic PV-GS500 had even more in-camera sharpening problems. Noise levels were also higher in the Panasonic, though the noise was of a fine grain variety rather than the blocky noise in the Sony HC3. There’s no question that the HC3 produces much better video performance and is a better value when it comes to video quality.
The Sony DVD505 has the same CMOS imager as the HC3, producing a similar color balance and saturation levels. Due to the significantly reduced bit rate of DVD camcorders, however, the DVD505 produced fuzzier images.
The HDR-HC3 offers some limited control over both sharpness and saturation levels (called Color Levels). Each control is presented as a scale that you can toggle up or down, with results similar to those of increasing sharpness in Photoshop. Most of the sharpening occurs where desired, along the edges of differently colored objects, but some also appears along the image as a whole, which unfortunately draws out the noise. Furthermore, it's unclear whether the sharpness scale denotes threshold, radius, or a combination thereof. The image below shows the picture at 3000 lux with the sharpness levels all the way up.
The color level scale has 8 increments. In auto, the camcorder is in the middle of the scale. At a color level of +2, saturation increases, most noticeably in the reds and greens. Overall, the difference is not great and did not seem to greatly affect sharpness. This control does not allow you to boost RGB channels independently.
At -2, the image looked better than it did at auto. The colors seemed more natural, and the decreased saturation seemed to increase the apparent sharpness of high contrast lines.
At 3000 lux, the standard definition 640 x 480 image had the same levels of saturation, but leaned towards more red than the HD picture. Brightness levels were about the same. In close up, some of the trademark Sony blue noise became apparent in the magentas and reds.
The Optura 600 offered a similar image and nearly identical color balance and resolution. The Sony still had more saturation, though, and did show some moiré patterns in the resolution trumpets that the Optura did not.
The Sony DVD505 had nearly the same color levels. The HC3 was sharper overall, a result of the better MiniDV compression. The Panasonic had stronger colors, and much stronger contrast, but higher noise levels.
We tested the HDR-HC3’s video for resolution by shooting a standard ISO 12233 resolution and running stills from that video through Imatest imaging software. Shooting in HD, the HC3 produced 605.1 lines of horizontal resolution and 566 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate resolution of 342486.6.
In SD at a 4:3 aspect ratio, the camcorder produced 478.6 lines of horizontal resolution and 344.7 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate resolution of 164973.42. In SD with a 16:9 aspect ratio, the camcorder produced 501.1 lines of horizontal resolution and 342.8 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate resolution of 171777.08.
When the HD resolution was used to determine the score, the HC3 fared somewhat better than its predecessor. The chart below summarizes:
Low Light Performance*(7.5)*
As with all camcorders, we evaluate low light performance by shooting at 60 and 15 lux. There were no huge differences between the HC1 and HC3. At 60 lux in HD, the HC3 stayed very strong, surely benefiting from the large 1/3" CMOS sensor. The overall brightness diminished evenly all around, showing that the saturation does not kick into overdrive when the lights go down. Noise took a turn for the worse, it was more noticeable, creating a fine, dark grain evenly across the image. It did not overwhelm the picture, though.
Few camcorders have shown this sort of performance at 60 lux, though the upper-tier – the top models from each manufacturer – put in some serious competition. The HC1 managed a similar showing last year: the image was slightly brighter, though the lower saturation left the impression of slightly duller colors. The PV-GS500, which has three 1/4.5" CCDs, had remarkably good low light for the chip size. The sharpness was good, and the boosted saturation helped strengthen the color performance, but the color balance was not as good as the HC3's: similar colors began to look a little too similar.
The Canon Optura 600 had higher levels of saturation in all light levels, and this was no exception. Color balance was the same in the greens, but there was less distinction between the reds, blues, and violets. The Sony DVD505, once again, had much less sharpness and was generally fuzzy. The picture was ever so slightly darker than the HC3; the biggest difference was in the yellow panel, which was more of a goldenrod than the canary color of the HC3.
At 15 lux, the HC3 lost a significant amount of color information. Noise increased a great deal. We wouldn’t say it ran rampant across the screen, but it was impossible to ignore. The noise obscured some of the finer details. The HC1 was much dimmer, with less color information, less sharpness, and more noise.
The Panasonic PV-GS500 managed to produce a sharper looking image with finer grain noise. The color information was much less present, however. This also affected color distinction. The Optura 600 had less color than either the HC3 or the GS500 and noise was also comparatively worse. All the Optura’s saturation seems to have left it at 15 lux. The DVD505 actually retained as much color information as the HC3, but the noise levels were much worse. Blue noise, too, crept in for the first time. Once again, however, the DVD505 did not have nearly the sharpness that the HC3 did.
Overall, the HDR-HC3 had an excellent showing in low light.
Wide Angle* (9.0)*
The Sony HDR-HC3 was tested for wide angle by placing the camcorder in both 16:9 HDV 1080i and 4:3 DV format. These two formats are accessed by entering the recording format sub-menu in the broad administrative menu. When shooting with the 16:9 format engaged in HDV format, the camcorder produced a field of view measuring 45 degrees, while the 4:3 format resulted in a field of view that measured 36 degrees. Shooting in SD with this camcorder decreases your field of view by more than twenty-five percent, far more than with Canon camcorders such as the Elura 100, which produced a 52-degree wide angle measurement.