JVC Everio GZ-MG555 hands-on review
JVC GZ-MG555, known as GZ-MG575 in Asia and Europe, is the top of the line standard definition JVC tapeless consumer camcorder for 2007. It records standard definition video onto either a built-in hard disk drive or on a secure digital memory card in MPEG-2 format.
The camera records video in four quality settings: Ultra Fine (720 x 480, 8.5Mbps), Fine (720 x 480, 5.5Mbps), Normal (720 x 480, 4.2Mbps), and Economy (352 x 240, 1.5Mbps). The 30 GB (40GB for the GZ-MG575) built-in hard disk drive can hold up to 7 hours of footage at highest quality setting.
When recording to a memory card the recording time depends only on capacity of the card. The camcorder uses full-size SDHC memory cards. One 4GB card fits roughly 1 hour of video at highest quality setting. There are no limitations for using any of the recording formats when recording to a memory card.
The camcorder stands out of the crowd having the largest imaging sensor for a consumer camcorder in 2007, 1/2.5-inch. Other useful and increasinly rare features include external microphone jack, accessory shoe, built-in neutral density filter, threaded lens barrel for attachments, and of course black body color. On the other hand, the camcorder has no viewfinder, no headphone output, no focus ring, and no full manual mode.
This article is not a detailed technical examination of the camcorder's features. There will be no charts and numbers. It is rather an informal story about my two-week life with it, I hope you will find these notes interesting.
Sony and Canon camcorders have their accessory shoes deeply recessed and hidden from stray eye with flimsy covers. Nevertheless, some industry observers rant that the covers are hard to pull out, or hard to push back in, they can be lost if they have no tethers, or the tether is too flimsy, or too short... Come on! A camcorder is not a fashionable purse item, it is a tool.
JVC knows thing or two about functionality, because it equipped the GZ-MG555 with a no-nonsense accessory shoe that proudly bulges up from the very top of the camera. The shoe has shape and size that have been used in photo and video industry forever. It is not a custom attachment that Sony shoves into throats of its devoted customers, so you can use any attachments you want. The shoe is not powered, neither it is intellectual, but this is the price to pay if you want the most lowest denominator of them all.
The shoe is located slightly to the back of the camera, so a long shotgun microphone can double as a carrying handle. The shoe is raised up, so attaching mics or lights is easy even if the attachment has wide base. The shoe is always ready for the job, and unlike what some may think, it does not rip a pocket or a camera bag.
External microphone connector
JVC did not stop in the middle of the road, so the accessory shoe is nicely matched with an external microphone jack. The jack is a standard 3.5mm connector (1/8-inch for those who haven't switched to metric system yet), located at the front of the camera, right beneath the lens. Cannot blame JVC for trying, after all many consumer camcorders do not have microphone input at all, but the location is not optimal.
With the layout chosen for the camera, one has to route the microphone cable so it does not get in the way of the lens, nether get torn off by a videographer's hand. Another, more serious issue, is that some lens attachments, like wide-angle converters, matte boxes or filters may obscure the microphone socket up to the point of complete unavailability.
Case in point: with the Cokin filter holder having the modular hood affixed there is no way of attaching a microphone with straight connector if you want to use the filter holder. At this point one may start thinking whether JVC engineers use products they design, or test them in the field.
Anyway, the point is that if you are considering this camera, and you want to use bulky attachments, try them on the camera before committing to buy. Sometimes it may work if you use right-angled connector instead of straight one. Most microphones come with straight connectors, so you will need either to cut it and solder on a new one, or to get an extension cable.
I cannot stop finding professional features on this consumer camcorder. One of the seemingly mundane things is the tripod mount. Unlike many other camcorders, this camera has a real metal screw socket, not exactly what you call heavy-duty, but much more rugged than cheap plastic imitation.
Another point scored by the JVC is the locking hole beside the tripod socket. The locking hole works together with the locking pin, located on the tripod mounting plate. Not all tripods have locking pins, and not all cameras have locking holes.
Before you asked, yes, you can mount a camera without locking hole onto a plate with the locking pin, because the pin is suspended with a spring, and can be pushed into the plate if the camera has no matching hole.
And finally, the location chosen for the tripod socket. It is not too much to the front or to the back, so the camera is nicely balanced. Is is not too much to the left or to the right, so the camera does not tilt when you tighten it to the tripod. Overall, the GZ-MG555 is very tripod-friendly, a proper videographer's piece of equipment.
Built-in neutral density filter
The most unusual feature that this camera has, is a built-in neutral density (ND) filter. Simply put, ND filter is a gray glass, that limits amount of light hitting the CCD. An ordinary ND filter attaches in front of the lens, but many professional video cameras have built-in ND filters, allowing performing quick adjustment to different light conditions.
The ND filter on this camera is not just a nod to professional equipment, it is a necessity, because the aperture range of the lens is very narrow, F3.5-F8. For comparison, the Canon Elura 100 has much wider aperture range, F1.8-F22. This means that the JVC can handle illumination range of just 2-1/2 f-stops, while the Elura easily handles 7 f-stops. Obviously, the Elura is not capable to record 7-stop video, but unlike the JVC it can accomodate intense light, for example when shooting on a bright sunny day.
Why the GZ-MG555 cannot closer beyond F8? One possible reason is that large CCD and lens require longer lens barrel for smaller apertures. Another reason is that very small apertures cause distortion and loss of sharpness. Whatever the case, the camera would be unusable on a sunny day without an ND filter. JVC equipped the camera with built-in ND filter because it could not requre users to purchase and carry screw-in ND filters with them every time they use the camera.
So, does the GZ-MG555 become a prosumer camcorder because it has built-in ND filter? Sadly, no. Seems that unlike Sony and Canon, JVC simply could not design and build cost-effective, fully automatic and seamlessly working built-in ND filter. Sony and Canon make cameras that have built-in ND filter as part of the unified system that controls exposure. This system includes iris, shutter, gain, and the ND filter. This system allows having wide range of shooting modes, from full automatic to full manual, with specific scene modes in between, and it works very well.
Regrettably, JVC was unable to deliver an exposure-control system, comparable to what Sony and Canon can offer. The ND filter on the GZ-MG555 must be switched on and off manually, even in fully automatic mode! This would not be such a big deal, after all, manual controls are a mark of professional equipment. But this camera has exposure compensation control, which cannot completely lock exposure. To completely lock exposure you need to press the joystick for 2 seconds after making the adjustment. This is not very convenient. Also, the camera does not have a full manual mode, only aperture priority and shutter priority. Having a decidedly manual feature, combined with inability to fully control the camera makes one bizzare, but definetely not a prosumer product.
Enough bashing, how the thing works? Pretty well, if you don't forget to turn it on or off when lightning conditions change. Two framegrabs show what difference the ND filter makes (click on an image to see full frame). The first shot was taken with ND filter off, the second was taken with filter on. Both shots were done handheld with stabilization system and autofocus on. Notice heavy bluish tint and red push on both images. Still, the dynamic range has been preserved pretty well.
The sensor of the GZ-MG555 has respectable 5.37 Megapixel resolution and produces beautiful photos in still mode. Will moving pictures have the same quality?
What you see here is a framegrab from your regular amateur "look at my baby" video, taken handheld in my son's bedroom with just one 60W tungsten lamp on the ceiling. The conditions are not very bright even for human eye.
Click on the image to see the full frame in its sadness. Pistachio-painted walls have yellowish patches, the wide red portion of the drape has pink patches, the carpet has patches too, and look at my son's shirt, it has the ugly yellow-violet noise you come to see on old VHS tapes. This is pretty horrible for a still picture, imagine how awful it looks, when the patches are moving around as you watch video.
Aside of poor color rendition, the image is fuzzy and soft. There seem to be no point on this image that is in focus.
The GZ-MG555 has the largest imaging sensor among all 2007 consumer camcorders, a whopping 1/2.5-inch. With all other things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better low light capability. Below are two images, one taken with the JVC GZ-MG555, another taken with the Canon Elura 100. Both cameras were stabilized and manually white-balanced using white sheet of paper. the room was illuminated with one 40W ceiling spot light. To see full frame click on the images.
The first one is taken with the GZ-MG555. The image is fairly noise-free, but has visible artefacts in form of horisontal streaks. Also the color is greenish despite manual white balancing.
The second is taken with the Elura 100. The image is darker, red noise is everywhere, but the color balance is much closer to natural, and there are no weird horizontal artefacts.
You've seen it, choose your poison.
The camcorder stores video in MPEG-2 program stream files. Video conforms to DVD-video standard, the same format is used for commercial DVD movies. The standard specifies maximum allowable of 10 Mb/s, but the camcorder records at a slightly lower rate of about 8.5 Mb/s at the highest quality setting to ensure compatibility with existing DVD players.
For detailed information about video file format and directory structure see the following article: Working with JVC Everio MOD & TOD files.