Video Accessories Misc

Canon HV20 One-Chip HDV High Definition Video Camera


canon hv20When Canon released its HV10 HD video camera on the heels of the first consumer HD video camera that Sony marketed, well, maybe it was just a bit too fast. There were a couple of things missing, such as an HDMI output and external microphone input. At least that was what consumers complained about on the various forums out there.

So, a few months after the HV10 came out, the HV20 was released. It has the HDMI output and external microphone input, but it is also a much different shape. Whereas the HV10 was higher than it was wide, the HV20 is the other way around.

I have to say right up front that the HV20 is a fantastic camera. It has a very good image sharpness bench test result, even compared to cameras costing more, and image quality is, to me, the most important factor. All the video cameras have the basic features now, and they all fit in your hands very nicely. Sure, some have more convenient user interfaces, but as far as I am concerned, I will put up with a less convenient and  harder to use camera if it has a top notch image quality. Well, the HV20 has a pretty good user interface, fits in my hand almost but not quite as well as the HV10 (I have very big hands), but has a superb image.


  • Codec: MPEG-2
  • Sensor: One 1/2.7" 2.96 MegaPixel CMOS
  • Resolution: 1920x1080
  • LCD Screen: 2.7" Diagonal External;
    0.27" Diagonal Internal
  • Storage: DV Tape, SD Memory Card for Still Photos
  • Lens: 10:1 Optical Zoom; 6.1mm-61mm;
    f/1.8-3; 43mm Filter Diameter
  • ISO: 100-400
  • Shutter Speeds: 1/2-1/2000th Second
  • Recording Modes: HD (1080i60, 1080p24) ; DV
  • Outputs: HDMI, USB-2, Component
  • Remote Control Included
  • Dimensions: 3.2" H x 3.5" W x 5.4" D
  • Weight: 1.2 Pounds
  • MSRP: $999 USA
  • Canon
The reason for the much better than average image quality is straightforward. Canon has been making lenses and cameras since the 1930's. So, they really know their image quality standards. Other companies who market cameras these days include some that were really not in the camera business until digital imaging came along. So, you will see their cameras listing other lens manufacturers. They are good lens producers, but there is something about having the camera and lens made by the same company - one that has been making such devices for the major part of a century - that insures the very best final image that can be had. Canon is one such company.

The HV20 is so good in fact, that there is a forum out there dedicated to the use of this camera. Mods include ways of attaching conventional 35mm lenses so that the video can have depth of field quality just like regular movie film. Using such a lens with the HV20 set to its 1080p24 mode (24 frames per second in progressive scan) will allow Indie film companies to make movies at very good quality, with a camera/lens combination costing about $2,000. Plug in a couple of wireless microphones, bring along a van full of lights, and you are in business.

The Design

There are several types of video cameras now, in terms of how they store the video content. One is the oldest method: tape. This is the way that the HV20 stores its recorded video. Second is on a hard disc drive, called HDD, and third is on memory cards. The memory card method is probably the method of the future because there are no moving parts, which means better long term reliability and easy access to all the files for reviewing them while they are still in the camera. The P2 memory card, used by Panasonic, works very well, but the cards are expensive right now ($1,000 for 16 GB) because they have to be extremely fast and they are not at the state of mass production yet (they are still a professional product rather than a consumer product).

Because tape can hold a lot of data, the HV20 uses MPEG-2 compression, which is an older technology, but it is a good one, and the video files are easily accessed by any modern NLE (Non-Linear Editor) for compiling into your home video album. If you use the HDMI output connected to a computer with a special video card, such as from Black Magic Design, you can capture (record) full uncompressed 1920x1080 video. This is the way to use it if you are making an Indie film (make sure you have a BIG hard drive, because uncompressed video streams are huge). Otherwise, onto tape, it records the HDV standard, which is 1440x1080.

The HV20 uses a CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) sensor chip rather than CCD (Charge Coupled Device). CCDs have been used in the past because they were less prone to noise, but improvements in CMOS technology have resulted in more and more camera companies moving towards using CMOS because the noise factor is not an issue anymore. CMOS is more energy efficient and, thus, the camera battery lasts longer, for more pictures before having to recharge it. CMOS is also a lot less expensive to manufacture. So, it appears, CMOS is the future for digital cameras.

As I mentioned, the HV20 follows on the HV10. Although the shape is different, the HV20 has the same lens, sensor chip, and same size LCD monitor screen.

larger view
The microphone ports are on the front instead of the rear, and the camera has an HDMI output as well as an external stereo microphone input. These are all things that consumers complained about not having in the HV10. So, my impression is that the HV20 was designed simply to mitigate the complaints with the HV10, and the picture quality is the same (excellent). That means you can pick up an HV10 for a song, if you can find one, and if you don't care about not having the HDMI output or external microphone input. In fact, I use an HV10 for high definition video interviews (courtesy of Canon), and it is a wonderful little camera.

large view
Viewing the camera from the rear left side (shown below), you can see the LCD screen which has push buttons on it (differs from the HV10)

rear left view
Near the front of the camera are the BackLight Control (BLC) for when the sun is behind the subject, manual focus controls, and then to the right of the LCD screen are the Display button (so you can see how much tape and battery time are left), a speaker out (so you can hear the sound when reviewing your recording), the HDMI output jack, and a flip-down panel to insert an SD card for still photography.

left side view
On the rear right are the On/Off dial, the Start/Stop button (starts and stops recording), the controls for setting menu items, the Auto/P switch (sets the camera's functions automatically, or P for Program, where you can set the functions manually), and a switch to go from taping videos to taking still photographs. The battery is at the extreme rear and snaps in and out. If you only have one battery, you can leave it attached to the camera for recharging. At the top left is the eyepiece for using the internal, smaller viewing screen (when the sun makes viewing the external LCD screen difficult).

rear right view
Screen shots of the various menus are shown below. The first one is what you see when you are shooting your videos, unless you press the Disp button which turns it off. The push buttons for zoom and other controls are beneath the screen. The other screen shot menus are for setting up different options. When I purchased my first Canon video camera 20 years ago, there was really just On, Off, Record, and Play. The resolution was only 230 lines in height.



In Use

Just as with the Canon HV10, I was very impressed with how sharp the videos were with the HV20. Below are individual frames (two fields combined) from the videos I took, using Auto mode. Photos are unmanipulated except for sizing to fit on these pages.

Every photographer has days when he or she just happens to be at the right place at the right time. One afternoon, when I was out on my deck taking videos, eight buzzards landed on a tree in my yard. This one perched on top. The sun was behind the bird, and using the telephoto lens on the HV20, I got this shot. Maybe they looked at my aging carcass and were waiting for me to keel over so they could get their lunch. (Click on the smaller photos to enlarge them.)

Also part of nature, and just as gorgeous, are these leaves on a plum tree. Notice that in macro-photography, the depth of field is very narrow, so only the green leaf is sharp. In any case, the red was not as oversaturated as I expected it to be.

Here is a red flower in shadow, which seemed to work nicely. No oversaturation.

As the reds become pink however, the usual oversaturation does occur. Going into manual mode and underexposing a bit here would help.

This flower is just plain deep pink. It would need about 1.5 f/stops less exposure to keep the image from blinding you.

In December, we still get lots of fruit on the trees, such as these lemons becoming ripe. A bit of white blowout on one of the lemons. No noise in the deep shadows.

As long as there are not too many f/stops of dynamic range in the ambient light, yellow does very well with the HV20.

If you want the small spines on a plant such as this green succulent to appear without jaggies (the video is interlaced), you need to hold the camera very still.

Blue is excellent (see also the blue sky behind the lemons in one of the photos above).

And, here is my Safeway Vegetable Rack Test. This is about as natural as I have ever seen it on a video frame, which indicates accurate automatic white balance. Very sharp too.

The outdoor spotlight test indicates an X pattern of flare, instead of the single vertical line that I have seen with other cameras.


Here is the Iris Test (click on the photo below to download the *.wmv video). It is the same result as the HV10.
iris test

On the Bench

For the Canon HV20, the telephoto lens test (second photo below) showed more falloff than the wide angle lens (first photo below). However, the maximum falloff was still only 0.7 f/stops.

The ChromaDuMonde looked very good, again indicating excellent automatic white balance.

The HV20 had an MTF50 resolution of 627 LW/PH, which is really excellent for such an inexpensive HD camera.

resolution results

resolution results

Chromatic aberration was 0.602 pixels.

resolution results

In the gray levels test, the HV20 follows the first order, which means it does not attenuate the whites to avoid blowout. Noise maxed out in the blue channel at 0.95 in the bright whites, and then decreased into the shadows. That was evident in the video material, which had nice clean shadow regions.

gray scale

gray scale results

The ColorChecker suggests a better than average color reproduction accuracy. The top left corner of each color patch is what that color is supposed to look like, and the bottom right corner is how the Canon HV20 reproduced that color.

color checker results


The Canon HV20, for 2007, has the best performance-to-cost ratio of any HD camera we have tested. Canon corporation has been making cameras and lenses for many decades. Their digital SLRs are consistently rated at the top, and it looks like their HD video cameras will continue that tradition.