JVC HM100 – perfect for low-key documentary filmmaking

My 7-year-old niece can handle the HM100

Back when I was a professional photojournalist in the mid-90s, I preferred to be invisible when I was taking pictures. I was always after moments of truth, and recognized that the presence of a camera changed the way people behaved. So I kept my cameras small and my profile low. At that time, it would have been nearly impossible to have taken the same aesthetic into filmmaking. But today, thanks to cameras like the JVC HM100, it is becoming possible to shoot in full HD with a camera that’s smaller than the largest drink you can buy at Starbucks.

While working on Shine over the summer with co-director Ben Medina, I learned to appreciate quality optics. Ben owns a Panasonic HVX200, which is the workhorse of the indie filmmaking world. We used it for all the interview footage. We were also able to work a deal with Sunshine Whitton of AbsoluteTech, who rents a Red package, that allowed us to shoot quite a bit with this amazing – but very bulky – camera (the dreamy soft-focus opening sequence footage of Shine was shot on a the Red, which is why it looks so dreamy).

But when I got ready to buy my first camera specifically for documentary filmmaking this fall, I was looking for a camera that could accommodate my preferred shooting style. The Red was far too big, not to mention expensive at roughly $50k for a complete kit. I also ruled out the HVX200 as being too big for me, and I hate the Panasonic workflow (which uses tape, or expensive proprietary cards, or REALLY expensive and temperamental FireStore drives) that all have to be laid off and ingested into Final Cut before you can review the footage (more about that shortly).

When I learned about the Canon 5d and 7d from the outstanding blog of British filmmaker Philip Bloom, I thought I’d found the perfect documentary camera for me. The shallow depth of field and incredible optics available in a SLR-sized package was very tempting. Those cameras offer at least some of what the Red provides, for a fraction of the price and with a much smaller footprint. But after a lot of research, I concluded that the audio capabilities just aren’t there yet, at least not without strapping on a lot of extra things like external digital audio recorders or pre-amps. And I knew that I would end up lugging a ton of glass with me everywhere if I was depending on a DSLR as my primary documentary filmmaking camera, a thought I didn’t relish.

What I needed was a camcorder that included a fast zoom with a full range and professional audio capabilities, all in a package not much bigger than a consumer camcorder. And a tapeless workflow that used inexpensive SD cards would be nice, too.

I found the camera I was looking for in the JVC HM100. I first learned about it from this outstanding JVC HM100 review posted by Philip Bloom, which contains a short film he made in London using the camera. What immediately got my attention about this camera was its small size and its streamlined workflow. First of all, it’s tiny. It weighs barely 3 pounds. It’s got a quality Fujinon fixed zoom that gives you the 35mm equivalent of a 37mm – 390mm lens. It packs two XLR jacks that allow you to use it with a wireless or shotgun mic (and a cheap but functional shotgun mic is included when you buy the camera – but I recommend you do what I did and upgrade to something at least as good as a $200 Audio Technica 875 as fast as you can).

But here’s the thing that made the decision easy for me: this camera records data onto two SD cards at 35mps – not in some funky codec that has to be ingested before Final Cut can read it – no, it actually writes the file natively in .mov format. Translation: when you’re done shooting, you can simply pop out the card, drop it into a card reader on your computer, and drop it straight into a timeline on Final Cut. One word: awesome.

The camera does have a few shortcomings. Most notable: to get the small size, JVC equipped the HM100 with 1/4″ CCD sensors. That means you can forget using it for shallow depth of field of any kind except at the long end of the zoom range. That makes it not so great in low light. My second biggest complaint is that the iris controls are a bitch to use when shooting manually. You have to fiddle with a tiny lever at the back of the camera to change iris, rather than spinning a ring on the lens, which is what you’d expect to find on a professional camera. But I gotta say, aside from a few nitpicks like having to hunt through a long menu to turn optical image stabilization on and off (which I do frequently when using it with my Steadicam Merlin), that’s where my complaints end.

One of my favorite things about the camera is the ability to remove the handle, which contains the audio jacks, and go guerrilla. It’s entirely possibly to pass as just some schmo with a cheap camcorder, rather than a filmmaker. I did this a couple weeks ago on a film I’m making about a Seattle street artist, Ryan Henry Ward. He went to Home Depot to get some supplies, and I decided to film him there. I figured I’d film for as long as possible until getting kicked out. (The adage I learned in journalism school, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission,” applies equally to documentary filmmaking.)

As it turned out, they didn’t even notice I was shooting for nearly 20 minutes. When the inevitable security guard finally show up with “Excuse me, sir, you can’t use that in here,” he actually allowed me to talk him into letting me continue shooting. And I’m certain that was due to the fact that the camera did not look professional, hence in his mind I was just a shopper wanting to record the beginning of his friend’s art project. That, and Home Depot has some cool security guards.

Bottom line: This is a storyteller’s camera, a camera for documentary photographers who prefer a low-profile approach that allows them to keep their attention where it belongs: on their story, rather than on their equipment.

I purchased my HM100 from B&H Photo in this kit that includes a well padded Kata/JVC backpack that I actually use, and one 8gb SD card, for $3,500. No regrets!

12 thoughts on “JVC HM100 – perfect for low-key documentary filmmaking

  1. Pingback: JVC HM100 - perfect for low-key documentary filmmaking | High technology information

  2. Kevin Fraser

    Hi Dan: Congrats on your new JVC. Got mine in July and love it. Have flown with it twice as carry-on no problem. Samples shot with it: youtube.com/kgpfaser. The Confetior Tibi piece was shot at +9dB, the Audite Populi at 0dB with the same lighting on a different day. Note the interview with the drummer in the Leisure Suite piece: lit with the only table lamp in the bar. All they had up on the stage was four 150W floodlights. The interview of the singer was with overhead 23W CF bulbs and a gold reflector. I’m happy with this machine’s lo-light, but I also got a Matrox Mini 02 with Max so I can capture live via HDMI or Component at 0dB to my MBP in ProRes 422 and color-correct without adding noise. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Dan

      I’m getting a 404 on the YouTube link – can you check that? I’d love to take a peek at your low light clips.

      Using the Matrox to capture is something I’ve never heard of, but it sounds interesting. Is there a noticeable low-light gain in quality that way? Also wondering, can you take that show on the road or does using the box require a studio(ish) environment?

  3. Steven Bradford

    The HM-100 is a great choice for docs. In all the fawning over Panasonic and Sony people overlook their cameras.

    They make some nice HDV cameras and Now that their biggest problem from the past is gone (sometimes unreliable tape transports) they’re an ideal choice. For folks in Seattle that want to try before you buy, Oppenheimer Camera in South Park is a dealer. They’re Seattle’s long time motion picture equipment rental house, but they’ve been getting into selling in this market the last few years, and are also a great resource for accesories and experiences of local filmmakers. They’re a Canon dealer now too, I bought my 5D from Marty a few weeks ago. By the way, I’ve been finding that Glazers and Oppenheimer match or beat B&H and Amazon regularly. You don’t even have to ask them meet the price. They usually already have. Probably why they’re still in business.

  4. Dan

    I didn’t know that the local shops will match B&H prices – that’s a great reason to shop local. And thanks for the tip about Oppenheimer. I’d like to rent a small crane for a shoot I’m doing – they have stuff like that?

  5. Pingback: Dan McComb » Blog Archive » Eye-Fi SD cards: almost live documentary filmmaking?

  6. Pingback: Glidetrack shooting tips | Dan McComb

  7. Marty

    i love this quote “Bottom line: This is a storyteller’s camera, a camera for documentary photographers who prefer a low-profile approach that allows them to keep their attention where it belongs: on their story, rather than on their equipment.”

    while i’m not thinking of jumping ship i desperately want some depth of field that the canon-kids are getting.. i think a 7D would make a nice addition to the kit..

    anyway, all the footage from this show from the last year is hm100 or the little brother, HD7

    i LOVE the workflow.. we spend the weekend shooting the show, transfer footage on the plane and then edit and 24 hours later the video is live on youtube getting thousands of hits per day… great!


    1. Dan

      If you have shallow depth of field envy (and who doesn’t), take a look at the newly announced 60D. Hard to beat for the money. And the workflow will be less of an issue as soon as Apple comes out with the next version of Final Cut, which should be fairly soon. Already, you can natively edit H.264 files in Avid and After Effects, so the need to transcode everything should be a think of the past as soon as editing tools catch up.

  8. Ana

    Hi, Dan

    Thanks for your review. I bought the HM100 almost two years ago and though I’m satisfied with many aspects I think i’m probably getting the best of it. I recently found about the Cinema gamma and think the colors are nicer like this but my main worry is the parameters of shooting and export. I tried the HD 24p (shutter at 48) and thought it would look very cinematic but somehow it is not the case. Also when I zoom even if the camera is not moving the images shakes a lot (with the stabilizer “on”).
    Could you please me tell me which are the options you use for shooting and exporting (from Final Cut)?
    I’m mostly concerned with the direction and writing (the storytelling as you put it) and so I’m far from being a technical person or a DOP. Thanks in advance.

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Ana,
      As long as you are shooting 24p, with cinema gamma, you are probably as close to the cinematic look that this camera is capable of. It does a nice enough job, but it’s always going to look like an HD camera in comparison because it’s shooting with a 1/4″ sensor chip.

      Regarding image stabilization, in my experience the IS on this camera is pretty good. So you shouldn’t be noticing a lot of instability while zooming. If you’re handholding the camera, of course, nothing but a tripod or a robot is going to make it totally stable at the long end of the zoom.

      Regarding export settings, the nice thing about using this camera with Final Cut is that you don’t have to do any transcoding when you’re done shooting – just save them to your hard drive and open them for editing (make sure you’re not choosing the MP4 codec, which is for non-Final Cut workflows).

      If you’re going for the most cinematic look possible, you might want to consider a large-chip camera. Anything in the Micro 4/3 to APS-C size and higher will go a lot further in giving you what you want in terms of ability to selective focus.


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