As someone who's passionate about vintage cameras and has always been seeking the “analog look“, I find it unfortunate that there’s so little information online about cameras made before the era of YouTube and message boards. So I thought I’d make a few posts over the coming weeks about some older Sony cameras I have access to, to help spread the knowledge for other vintage camera aficionados.
The Handycam brand refers to Sony's line of small, handheld consumer camcorders. The first Handycam (the CCD-M8E) debuted in 1985, and the first of the TR series (the CCD-TR55) came in 1989. The particular Handycam I'm writing about fell on the lower end of the 1995 Handycam range, which starts with the TR44, increases by increments of 10, and ends with the TR94. The desirable features exclusive to the higher-end models were a color viewfinder (versus B&W) and a SteadyShot function. But otherwise, they're all fairly similar and simple. So regardless of which model you chose, it was extremely easy to operate. Even your 90-year old grandmother could pick one up and use it without reading the instructions. Simply turn it on, press record, and you're off to the races!
The record button is big, red, and hard to miss! It's right next to your thumb for easy access, and you can lock it to prevent an accidental press.
There are a few settings you can change, but I'm guessing most people never touched them. There's a "BACK LIGHT" button that bumps up the exposure. This is useful for when you're taking the typical tourist photo with the sun in the background and you don't want the faces of your family to be underexposed. There's no manual exposure—just four AE (auto exposure) modes.
The Program AE dial has four modes: AUTO, Sports, High-speed shutter, and Twilight
These change the shutter speed to compensate for motion, or in the case of Twilight mode, low light. You still have no control over the overall exposure, so again, most users probably just left it on AUTO mode.
Anyways, who really cares about all the settings on a 27 year old consumer camcorder? I know the burning question on everyone's mind is "what does the footage look like?!"
Left: Sony a1 with a $40,000 cinema lens / Right: Sony Handycam Video8 CCD-TR54
Here you go. As you can see, the dynamic range is quite limited (as is the case with all consumer camcorders of this vintage). The purple diamond lens flare is pretty cool though! For both of these shots, it would have been nice if there was a "darken" button to drop the exposure. I mean, they gave us a "BACK LIGHT" button to brighten the shot, I feel like it wouldn't have been difficult to add a second button that did the opposite.
Another consideration: the above Handycam stills were taken straight from the camera's video out via a capture card. However, if you record to 8mm tape like you're supposed to, the image quality differs.
Left: taken from 8mm tape playback / Right: taken from live camera feed
You'll notice in the top two photos that the transfer to tape degraded the image slightly. If you look at the softbox in the top right corner, you can see the edge isn't as sharp on the left photo. Also, if you look at the left edge of the car, you'll see some color bleed in the left photo. Shockingly, the 8mm tape seems to have retained more dynamic range in the bottom photos of the trees.
So besides making another Blair Witch Project, what would this camera be useful for nowadays? I've mostly used it to make cool analog visuals. I created the above with a feedback loop: I ran the Handycam video out through a circuit-bent video processor and into the TV, which was facing the Handycam.
Stills from other videos I've taken with this camcorder
It's also great for shooting stuff I would've otherwise taken with my iPhone. The iPhone camera is terrible. The colors are awful and Apple puts a sharpening filter on every photo you take, and you can't turn it off. Since I appreciate the vintage look, I think this camcorder looks better.
It's just fun to use a camcorder. This Handycam was my family's home movie camera when I was growing up, and I have such fond memories of the countless hours my brother and I spent making our own silly movies with it. When my mom passed away, I was so thankful to have our family tape collection where we could watch her and remember what she was like. People don't record 30 minute videos on their phone cameras. By using a camcorder at a family event, you're creating a slice of life archive that you can look back at 10, 20, 30 years down the road. Call me old-fashioned, call me crazy, but I love this little camera, and I believe there's still a place for camcorders in the modern world.
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