I hate using consumer camera equipment. I admit that I am rather a snob when it comes to this stuff. I even think my Sony EX3 is plasticky and about as robust as a DeHavilland Comet. However I can always forgive a camcorder such failings if it produces a stunning picture, which the EX series undoubtedly do, or features some other useful addition.
Recently I have become involved in a website called UK Active Outdoors. This is a website about another passion of mine, getting out of the house or office to do something infinitely more interesting than wasting my life away.
The trouble is that many of the things that I need to shoot for the site involve going out into the wilderness somewhere and joining in with activities such as White Water Rafting, kayaking, Gorge Walking (Ghyll Scrambling or Canyoning) etc. These sorts of activities take place in all types of weather.
While I can easily get a rain cover for the EX3, it doesn't change the fact that it is still not an easy camera to get into the midst of the action. For example during Gorge Walking there are plunges off ledges into water, and climbing powerful waterfalls. Situations where the camera will be subjected to a total soaking, and something that is beyond the capbilities of a normal rain cover, and besides, there was still the issue of the EX being too big, even if I had the smaller EX1. I was also not ready to risk such an expensive camera in those conditions either.
I could also have bought a Ewa Marine cover for the EX3, but that would have been expensive and still would have suffered from the bulkiness problem.
What I was in need of was a tiny camcorder that could record high definition to at least a passable quality, that had some form of manual control when I needed it, but was totally waterproof. I would obtain 'in the action' shots with the small camera, and then the less risky 'beauty' shots with the EX3. At first I looked into the Canon HF10 and 11 cameras with the idea that I could get a cheap waterproof cover such as those from Ewa Marine to protect it. The HF cameras are great and produce a rather incredible 1080p picture in good lighting conditions. The trouble was that while these camcorders produce an amazing picture, a waterproof cover of any sort is cumbersome.
Panasonic had a waterproof camcorder in the form of the SDW-SW21. The trouble is though that all of Panasonics offerings at the time of writing are SD affairs, which is of no use to me
Then after a bit of stumbling around I happened upon Sanyo's offerings. I liked the look of the VPC-WH1 because it was very compact and looked very similar to the Canon HF cameras, it recorded high def, albeit in 720p form, to the AVCHD codec on SDHC cards, had manual overrides for control, and it was also available in colours such as bright yellow, which would make it easier to find should I drop it in a muddy pond somewhere!
The VPC-WH1 is a very new camcorder so there were not many reviews available. However I had garnered from example footage on Vimeo etc that while it recorded to a paltry 9Mb/s datarate, its picture quality was certainly passable for brief cut in footage. Or so I thought.
I would have preferred a 25Mb/s rate or higher, and the same chip as Sanyo's top of the line HD2000 Xacti, which produces a picture quality on par with the Canon HF11, but I can't have everything. I have no doubt that Sanyo will update the WH1 accordingly in a year or so.
In the meantime what do I think of the WH1?
The camera is very small. Certainly small enough to put into a pocket when not in use. This is a major plus for some of the situations that I will be taking it into. There is no option for a screw in filter. The lens is housed behind a protective cover, which annoyingly has no lens cap so you need to be ultra careful not to scratch it when you dump it into your bag or pocket etc.
The main controls are on the rear of the camera and the buttons for the most part are nice and big. One of the first things that I did was to go into the menus to see what I could setup.
Here I could set up whether I wanted manual control and exposure, and whether I wanted some auto functions such as aperture or shutter priority. Given that a camera such as this is usally a pain to use fully manually it was nice to see that I had options. Manual control is via an on screen adjustment using the control joypad on the back of the camera. A bit of a pain in other words.
It is easy to switch between manual, automatic, and automatic macro focus. Although irritatingly you cannot adjust the focus manually while the camera is actually recording. Not that this is a huge issue because such cameras have an incredibly deep depth of field. For exposure I decided upon shutter priority and exposure comp when needed.
The shutter speeds available are a clue to one of the most annoying 'features' of the WH1. It can only do 30p, even on the model available in the UK. This is rather stupid beyond all comprehension, although most probably Sanyo did this so that people could just upload videos straight to YouTube where it doesn't matter as much. Whatever the case don't bother trying to shoot under flourescent or sodium lighting in the UK. This meant that I would either need to find a good framerate converter, or shoot everything in 30p on the EX3 to match.
The WH1 also has a highly complex 3D noise reduction circuit that apparently "makes your videos look more professional". So the first thing I ever did with the camera was to turn this function off. Any time a manufacturer says that a function will make your videos look more 'professional' is a good cue to turn that function off. It will usually have completely the opposite effect.
Noise reduction of any sort reduces detail, and on a tiny single chip CMOS camera such as this one that is the last thing that you need. The fact that this is a single CMOS camera means that it is no good in low light (although passable all things considered), and also that it possibly doesn't have a very high effective resolution.
I am not sure what chips Sanyo are using in the WH1, although it is part of their "Dual" line of cameras, which means that it can take stills as well up to 2MP in size. Its sister camera. the VPC-CA9 can do 8MP stills. Which begs a bit of a question. The WH1 and the CA9 use the same chips, we know that much. So they must be of a decent resolution, but I would love to know how they are recording the 720p footage, mainly because I'd like to know whether the filtering used to obtain the RGB elements is reducing the actual video resolution well below 720.If the camera uses any form of Bayer style filtering then the actual number of lines resolution that the WH1 produces could be as low as 360 TVL! I don't have any charts handy at the moment to test.
From my initial messing about I would say that the answer to this was a resounding yes. However at the same time the recording bitrate is very low, so that could also be a contributing factor. The picture quality from the WH1 is not stellar. It is a bit rubbish really by even consumer HD camcorder standards. However in ideal light it is definitely passable, and certainly you will not be able to find a camcorder like this that will record in the types of situations that you can take the Sanyo into easily.
Note that I said "ideal" light and not "good" light. The reason for this is diffraction. On a camcorder with chips as small as the WH1 (1/6") you are going to run into resolution limits waaaaay before f4, and my playing around with it shows this to be so. Go to f8 and the picture becomes unusably soft, especially on wide shots.
With this in mind I would recommend that you get the WH1 as close to your subject as possible. Forget landscape shots of any kind. Use it for getting medium shots and close ups, preferably on the lowest focal length. Zooming in without support will obviously give you jittery home video style footage by virtue of the way this camcorder must be held.
A tripod or even a monopod won't be an option where I will be taking it, and they are a moot point when attaching it to offroad buggies etc anyway. With the iris fully open the lens goes to f2.1, which fairly respectable. Although you get around three stops of light loss when you zoom to full telephoto with the cameras rather incredible 30x optical zoom! At that focal length be prepared for a lot of CMOS 'jellocam'!
If you are thinking about getting a Sanyo VPC-WH1 I highly recommend that you have a specific use for it in mind. The picture quality will not blow you away, in fact it is downright lackluster, but in the right situations it will get you footage that not many other camcorders will. At £329 from Clifton Cameras with a £30 rebate it is also a steal in terms of price. As I mentioned earlier if Sanyo married this camera housing with the chips from its HD2000 or VPC-FH1 camcorders, which can record 1080p at up to 60fps, it would have a true champion on its hands. As it is the VPC-WH1 is a very useful camcorder that will get jobs done where no other camcorder wiil, and I'm going to be having a lot of fun with it!
Addendum: Since my original purchase of the WH1 there have been many developments in the camera world. Not least the release of the GoPro HD Hero. Sanyo themselves have since released the Xacti DMX-CA100, while Kodak have their Playsport Zx3.