If you're on the advanced end of the point-and-shoot spectrum, JVC's one-chip GR-DV3000 may offer just the combination of manual adjustability and automatic operation you're looking for. And although it originally sold for $1,999, videographers on a budget can pick it up now for much less than half that price. If you do go bargain hunting, make sure you can put up with this camera's quirks, and compare image quality carefully--it's the DV3000's Achilles' heel.
The sleek JVC GR-DV3000 comes dressed in silver accented with black. It weighs a moderate 1 pound, 11 ounces. However, it's no smaller in footprint than other prosumer-oriented palmcorders, such as Sony's TRV950. Despite higher-end touches such as a manual focus ring and an accessory shoe, this camcorder's bottom-loading cassette hatch; easy-to-see, 3.5-inch, color flip-out LCD; and high reliance on menus for camera control suggest point-and-shoot as the main operating mode JVC's engineers had in mind.
You'll find most of the controls behind the LCD.
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You can switch to manual focus and activate the exposure shift with these buttons. A dial for navigating menus and shifting exposure sits below.
If that's the case, JVC should have paid more attention to ease of use. Before shooting, you must choose between a fully automatic mode (wherein the onscreen menu won't display) and a mode in which you can opt for manual control. If you go automatic, you may find yourself wanting to change to manual--for example, to adjust exposure when the camera's native setting proves too bright. The switch between automatic and manual, however, resists the single-finger operation we expect; we found ourselves using one finger to hold down the lock button embedded in the power switch and the other to accurately rotate the switch itself to the desired setting.
Sometimes the challenge isn't ease of operation but ease of learning. If the viewfinder is fully extended, the LCD won't turn on when open, and when you close the LCD while shooting, recording will terminate unless the viewfinder is fully extended. While the latter may not concern experienced DV3000 users, we--in our first exposure to this model--found it frustrating. Mechanical controls can also be difficult to locate; some are on the camera body, while others are recessed behind the LCD screen. Add to that several kinds of menus, depending on the mode in which you're operating, and things can get downright confusing.
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The simple mode dial lets you select a fully automatic setting or access more-advanced options via the Manual mode.
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The cassette hatch opens from the bottom of the camera--not a good design for frequent tripod users.
Depending on your shooting style and whether you use an external mike, you may find the position of the built-in microphone problematic. It sits right under the lens, next to the exposure, focus, and menu navigation controls. Thus, if you make any adjustments while recording or use the manual focus ring, you'll have to be especially careful not to block the microphone with your hand or make unwanted noises near it.
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You can save stills and MPEG-4 video to SD/MMC media.
The DV3000 comes equipped with the now-familiar programmed shooting modes. There's some flexibility in shutter speed; the camera has a Sports mode with a 1/250-to-1/4,000-second range, as well as 1/60- and 1/100-second settings that are useful for minimizing the rolling bands that appear when you shoot conventional TVs or computer monitors or under certain kinds of lights. Another way to modify shutter speed is to slow it down. You can't do so manually, but the camera's Night Alive feature automatically slows the shutter to 1/30 second to help capture poorly lit images. But there's a trade-off: You'll need to immobilize the camera and shoot static subjects, as movement smears the image significantly.
Other programmed modes adjust for unusual lighting situations and provide a myriad of special effects (Film Look, Strobe, Sepia, and so on). There's also exposure shift and an automatic gain-up function, but this camera does not have true manual exposure control.
One of the features we found compelling was the DV3000's 1-megapixel still-photo mode. The camera also lets you store MPEG-4 movies on its SD memory card for sharing over e-mail. What we liked about that feature was not so much the ability to shoot MPEG-4 movies but to translate existing MiniDV footage to MPEG-4. You don't have to decide beforehand what you want to e-mail--your entire library of MiniDV tapes is accessible.
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The zoom motor, controlled by a switch on top of the camera, worked smoothly and was very easy to operate.
We got average performance from the DV3000. In addition to manual focus via a ring on the lens, it offers a smooth 10X optical zoom and up to 300X digital zoom. We were able to attain a sharp focus up to about 20X, or double the optical image. Images digitally magnified beyond that appeared blurred.
We found the viewfinder grainy-looking and indistinct, and we tended toward using the LCD because it offers significantly higher resolution. Less distinct objects that we could make out with the unaided eye--a distant group of buildings similar in color to the surrounding landscape, for example--weren't clear through the viewfinder yet showed up on the recorded tape.
Sound quality was good overall, and a menu setting lets you reduce wind noise blowing across the microphones. Audio settings are not under your control, however.
We were disappointed in the DV3000's video quality. Shooting simple images--a properly lit flower, for example--produced fine results. But when circumstances demanded more, image quality deteriorated.
We found the images contrasty and subject to a variety of distortions. The usual moirés appeared around points of high contrast--where the sunlight reflected from a moving car, for instance. But we also found that shooting incoming morning light through Venetian blinds produced patterns of darkness and light not evident to the unaided eye. A tree branch running diagonally through an image was reproduced with visible stair-stepping. Azalea bushes with a mixture of new, dark-green growth and last year's brown, dead leaves radiated a palette of color that inaccurately included violet in a tone that matched the real violets growing in the garden nearby. As we panned over dissimilarly lit terrain, the exposure control hunted briefly before finding the proper exposure. Finally, shots containing a surfeit of fine detail, such as bare bushes in winter, revealed bright highlights along edges.
Image stabilization is available digitally, not optically. Walking along a paved road, shooting through the flip-out LCD screen, we recorded images that seemed reasonably good. But closer examination of the resulting tape revealed that the image stabilizer was freezing the image momentarily in one of two orientations as we ambled, producing an unnatural sort of strobing effect between the two. The digital image stabilizer was a welcome help in reducing shake when we zoomed in. Help doesn't mean eliminate, though, so if you plan to do much zooming, count on using a tripod.
While the camera has a fast maximum aperture of f/1.2 to let you shoot in darker settings, it tends to overexpose a bit under bright conditions. There is no neutral density filter to offset this, but you can compensate in one of two ways. Provided you are in manual-shooting mode, you can delve into the menu to turn off the automatic gain-up or use the exposure shift button and control wheel. The latter approach offers six darker and six lighter increments to either side of the camera's automatic exposure setting. We opted for minus three (darker) on a sunny spring day shooting a clearing in the woods.