If you’re a Doc student taking a production class beyond Doc I, you have two camera options: the Sony DSR-300 series and the PD-150/170. They are both rock solid cameras in their class, and deciding between the two isn’t always easy. I’ll gloss over the differences in each camera line since they are relatively minute in the grand scheme of functionality. Although these two camera series end up featuring many of the same capabilities, studying their differences will betray their roots: the DSR-300 was modeled around higher end DVCAM cameras (the DSR-500WS) and then stripped of abilities to lower the cost, while the PD-170 could be thought of as a beefed up consumer camera (ala the VX-1000) with most image parameter controls that a professional requires while still retaining remnants of its “point and shoot” ancestors.
Both Cameras produce fine quality, standard definition interlaced images recorded at a 4:3 aspect ratio at 60i onto mini-DV or DVCAM tapes, although it’s important to note that the 300 can accept the longer format DVCAM tapes. Forget about Sony’s marketing hoo-ha claiming “800 lines of TV resolution” on the 300. What you’re actually getting is 768×494, compared to the 720×476 on the PD-170. The relatively small difference is certainly not nominal, but it’s not too significant either: in a side-by-side comparison you may be able to tell the difference but over the course of an entire documentary the discrepancy is easily forgettable. Both utilize 3 CCD chips, but neither the 300’s ½ inch nor the 170’s 1/3 inch chips are arrayed for 16:9 aspect ratio. The 170’s widescreen is an anamorphic setting, so it squeezes the image horizontally so that when run through a digital signal processor it will display properly on widescreen TV’s in the right setting. The guide frame setting is something of a mystery to me: presumably it exists to help framing for cropping into 16:9 later in post while actually shooting in 4:3, but the box it creates is centered and does not actually encompass the full and exact aspect ratio. Perhaps it’s just there to tell you where the center of the frame is? I did not find it useful. The 170 claims to have a 30p setting, but this is sadly more marketing hoo-ha, and the camera is actually just pushing together 60 interlaced frames into 30 progressive frames (plus, this feature is unavailable in widescreen).
Both cameras tout great color saturation even when using gain in low light conditions. The 300 edges out the 170 in low light performance (a minimum lux rating of .5 vs. 1, respectively), but both are obviously superb in this regard. This has much to do with their fantastic gain controls, where the 300 again beats the 170 with a max of 36 dB versus 18 dB. That said, the 170 can still keep pace with the 300 by producing noise free images all the way up to around 14 dB, where both start to falter. Both are capable of iris control to the tune of 12 f-stops between 1.6 and 11. Each has a passable auto exposure feature, but only the 300 is capable of programming and saving exposure settings, very useful for situations where, say, you need to follow a subject outdoors on the fly. The 170 is capable of shutter speeds between ¼th to 1/10,000th of a second while the 300 can only perform at 1/60th to 1/2,000th of a second. So while I wouldn’t count on being able to capture a bullet in mid-flight on either camera, the 170 gives you some more options if you want to incorporate blur effects. The 300 has four ND filters to the 170’s two, but both sets are quality and you should be fine in most settings with either camera (unless shooting in the Fortress of Solitude). Both have quick automatic white balancing (as well as a few pre-sets, in case you’re desperate), but only the 300 features manual adjustment of color temperature by degrees, for a mathematically precise exposure. In terms of tendency towards vertical smear, wherein lights or other reflecting objects create a vertical column of light that can run across the entire frame, the 300 wins by a hair, although most of the time it seems too close to call. Not everyone considers the ability to smear with a certain degree of control a bad thing, but neither camera really gives you the option anyways.
Physical Design and Layout
The 170 definitely provides a good selection of digital and analog connectors on its casing by featuring three RCA connectors, an S-Video, and 4-pin iLink. But, the 300 goes above and beyond the call of duty with: two RCA’s, S-Video, 6-pin Firewire, Genlock VBS input, a BNC output for monitors, a VTR/CCU for external device control, and multiple jacks for TC in/out. Both cameras have dedicated rings for focus and for their 12x zooms that are ridged for grip (though a knob mounted on the zoom would be nice on the 170). Both sets of rings have almost the perfect amount of drag, other than the 170’s slightly-too-tight focus. The 170’s auto-focus is exceptional for a camera of its class, and you will rarely see it noticeably focus hunt. The 300 does not have an auto-focus, but attaining a sharp focus is easy on its razor sharp, 23,000 pixel viewfinder, further aided in black and white for stark contrast. The eyepiece can be flipped up to expose the viewfinder and the entire mounting can be slid laterally to accommodate shooters of all shapes and sizes.
At 12.6 lbs fully loaded, the 300 is of average weight for shoulder mounted cameras, but if you’re not used to running and gunning for hours on end, it can weigh you down. However, it does feel very evenly balanced and it features a gel-pad shoulder rest. The zoom, VTR, and manual/auto iris can all be controlled with the right hand while holding the camera steady, freeing the left hand for a whole other host of controls clustered around each other for easy reach: ND filters, audio boost, gain, white balance, and zebra settings . Many of the rest of the controls are only accessible through the switches on the flip-out side panel that hides them, meaning that you’ll have to unhoist if you want to adjust them. For some reason Sony didn’t think it was necessary to include the battery life on the viewfinder, but other than that I was impressed overall. In general, the 300 feels very natural when having to juggle adjusting focus, zoom, framing etc. on the fly.
The 170 is a solid brick of a handheld camera at almost 4 lbs. fully loaded, making it almost as tiring to operate for hours on end off a tripod as the 300. This problem is slightly exacerbated since the placement of the handgrip is slightly behind the center of gravity. As a result the 170 is naturally front heavy, and this problem is worsened with the wide-angle lens attached. These relatively minor handling issues aside, the 170 is expertly designed for a hand-held operation or use on a monopod. Like the 300, most of the critical options for image control have their own buttons, but their location on the camera has been adapted around hand-held use, albeit with less success. Localizing the white balance, shutter speed, audio levels, gain, and AE shift around a central jog wheel is simple and effective, but I’d rather have some of those settings on the same side as the LCD screen up the body of the camera, like the iris and ND filter switches. As is, you must either crane your neck back or flip the camera down and lose the shot to adjust other settings. The auto/manual focus switch is in this easy to reach space though, including a push-auto button right underneath.
I can’t think of a single critical image control without a dedicated button on the 300 (even the skin tone and viewfinder have their own switches and knobs). This is a plus since its menu system can be clumsy and counter intuitive thanks to mediocre organization and poor navigation with the jog wheel. Getting used to the menu intricacies contributes much to a pretty steep learning curve. Mastering the additional goodies also contribute considerably, such as the “free run” preset on a chosen master camera that designates a synched time code for all others connected to it. Or the system for indexing and marking scenes while shooting. Or the Edit Search function that will let you go straight to the end of the time code so that there are no gaps. These features, combined with the phenomenal life of almost 3 hours on its best battery and the capability to use the large format 184 minutes tapes, make the DSR-300 the easy winner for shooting multi-camera setups if you happen to be shooting an event, conference, or multi-subject dialogue.
On the other hand, the PD-170’s learning curve is noticeably easier, thanks to previously mentioned features (like autofocus), a more streamlined menu system, and a handful of additional automatic digital effects that, in my opinion, are not really suitable for professional use. To name a few: a fade out video transition, a ghosting trail effect, and a glitchy double-exposure mode, all of which could be accomplished with more precision in post. The 170 can also take still images and hold up to 988 of them on their 64 MB Memory Stick flash cards, but the image quality is a joke compared to even the cheapest consumer cameras or even phone cameras (a little over 1/3 megapixel). Still, I could see it being useful if you wanted save a shot composition on a medium that could immediately be transferred to a hard drive.
The audio control options and physical configuration for the 170 average out to be good but ultimately not impressive given the competition of not just the 300, but other dual XLR input equipped DV cameras that sample at 48k. In the end, it comes down to the fact that the breakout box isn’t as impressive as it sounds on paper. Having the channel controls for both audio lines up and removed from the rest of the camera body sounds great, but how often are you going to need to change between mic and line on the fly or switch on and off the phantom power? I’ve read other testimonials claiming that this design eliminates noise created by the motor drive of the tape deck, but I can’t think of a single time when I’ve noticed such a disturbance in cameras where the XLR inputs are housed close to the deck (like on the Panasonic DVX-100). The 170’s audio control might be above par if the adjustor for audio levels was moved from the back jog wheel and given a set of dedicated controls, preferably in an easy to reach place, like the breakout box. Having a microphone holder that will accept other shotgun mics than the included one is definitely a step up from a built-in microphone, but hopefully you won’t have to rely on a mic mounted on the camera at all, making this something of a moot point.
The audio support for the 300 is fantastic comparatively, everything that you’d want from a professional camera. There are three XLR inputs plus a mounted mic, but the camera can still only record onto 2 channels at once and the third input is at the front of the camera, whereas the other two are conveniently located at the very back of the camera. That said, the button for switching between lines is reasonably accessible and so I still count this as a valuable asset. More importantly, the level controls have a dedicated button for each channel and a general boost conveniently located in the front left cluster of controls on the camera.
These two cameras really are two different birds with two different personalities, although you may have trouble distinguishing between footage captured by either one. The 170’s no slouch, but the 300 has a clear, but perhaps trivial for some, edge in general perks and image control characteristics. These pro’s come at a cost though, and if you were thinking about purchasing either camera you can count on paying at least a few of hundred more for the 300’s (Sony has discontinued selling the 300’s and third party prices vary). The discrepancy of the sheer size of each camera will play a role in how much attention you want to attract while shooting in public, as well as how much shooting on sticks versus on the move you’re looking at. Whatever your preferences, both cameras deserve to be perused first if you’re not sure what is best for your next shoot.