Reviewing the Sears RCA CPR-250.
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
The RCA CPR-250 is in my opinion a very impressive artifact of 80s appliance engineering. The video cassette offers a lot of advantages over 8mm film. VHS is reusable if you shoot garbage, the camera can play the contents of the recording natively to a TV, you can save so much money without developing costs. In the same way that the digital revolution would slaughter the film industry, so too did the VHS mark the death of the 8mm home video. But the death was not unjustified, companies like RCA and Panasonic blew the competition away with rugged, reliable, and affordable cameras such as this. The fact that this camera is older than half of the people that will read this is and still works flawlessly is a testament to the awesome engineering that went into it. We're going to look at and admire this camera and what it was capable of producing given some TLC and a lot of leeway when it comes to resolution.
The technical stuff
The RCA CPR-250 featured here is rebranded for Sears and sold as an unbranded camera, however the only real difference between this model and the RCA model is silk screening. The camera is considered a full size VHS camcorder. It was produced from 1986-1989.
It weighs 4.4 lbs. and runs on 12v. The recorder has four heads and outputs an NTSC color signal. The camera sensor is a solid state MOS sensor scanning at 525 lines, 60 fields, 30 FPS. For all these tests and footage we captured out at 720 x 480 but the camera itself outputs a standard NTSC signal meaning it has a resolution of 300 x 360. The upscaling is done to create a more usable resolution for display on modern machines. On a standard 1080p monitor the video is tiny.
How the footage is captured
The art of capturing and digitizing analog footage has been a pain. For over 20 years TV capture cards were sold as PCI expansion cards. Today we have an easier way. This EasyCap dongle is just one example of a small market of vendors selling TV tuner USB cards and a submarket is component/composite capture dongles. These dongles take an NTSC signal and send it to the computer as a webcam video stream. That's what we're using here. The camera connects to the dongle, the USB dongle is recognized in video capture software as a webcam. All the witchcraft really is in how you re-encode the video stream on your PC from a webcam. There are right and wrong ways to do this and they differ from capture dongle to capture dongle with things like chips, software revisions, and even the firmware. But with some tinkering you can get an excellent video feed from this camera. The camera natively outputs composite video so that's what we're using from the camera.
One last note. If you want to use this camera without a VHS tape you can by using an external recorder and simply capturing the live view from the camera with no tape present. This can be a feature if you use this camera in production work where the nuances of VHS tape noise are not a priority.
Images were taken directly from the video output. Upon pixel peeping scruting you can see the pixels themselves at any level of enhanced size. However the image quality itself is very striking given the age of this camera and the medium involved. Remember that these images were captured and retrieved off a VHS tape on a camera that was made at the end of the 80s.
Color, especially earthy tones and vibrant colors seem very natural and pleasing. It reminds you of 90s television. The greens and whites are beautiful. I'm also very surprised by the quality of the bokeh possible. You can see fuzzy squares in the background bokeh, that's from the square shutter.
Images taken with a wide gamut of lighting values reveals the tremendously limited range in light values that the CCD can produce. There's blowout city and murky shadows any time you have strong light contrast.
But...you can make it work, this is the sort of effect we are going for. And it's amazing how well this camera actually performs in harsh lighting conditions.
In low light this camera is worthless, it can't handle the dark at all even at low shutter speeds. Here's a streetlight showing how poorly this camera performs in a bright night.
Given typical home lighting however the camera does admirably. It outperforms in performance the early digital still cameras such as the Argus DC3200 camera we reviewed.
Using the camera
The camera has clear controls on the top to allow you to manipulate the tape. I'm unsure how the younger generations will grasp rewinding and fast forwarding a tape if they try to use it, however they should have a far easier time with this camera than some I've seen. The buttons are simple and well marked and this camera lacks some advanced features.
Ergonomically this camera is heavy and boxy, it sits on your shoulder somewhere and for me I had a hard time resting it anywhere besides the edge of my shoulder, it hurt and it sucks. Fortunately this camera has a standard tripod screw. That said however, the hand hold and grip area for your right hand is well placed, well designed, and helps you feel in control of the camera.
Really the bulk of this camera is the giant VHS recorder/player in the back. I am amazed by the size of this thing. The optical train only makes up the front quarter of the camera and is surrounded by buttons. This camera predates the idea of compact which works both ways. On the one hand it's easy for my large frame to hold, on the other though you've got a VHS player attached to a camcorder with ergonomic grips to help you hold it. Compact cameras really were a huge leap forward.
A note about audio.
Onboard audio was awful, picking up the whirring of the tape section and creating that famous buzzing sound that all these cameras had. I tried to use a modern RODE microphone on this camera but while that worked, there was a loud buzzing. If you shoot with this camera and need audio I highly suggest recording with an external recorder. Be aware however that after a few minutes it may fall out of sync due to WOW flutter from the tape recording and playback.
While this camera is dirty it is the way I left it after using the heck out of it. Armed with a new 120 minute tape I set out to shoot several small projects with this camera. It banged around in the back seat of a car, it fell off a couch, it was hauled around town for several days. During that whole time it received some dust, dog hair, and a couple small scratches but it did amazing the whole time.
Trying to shoot some sort of production with this camera.
I set out to try to make something worthwhile with this camera, I wanted to see if it was a viable tool for creativity or if the format was so old and outdated it was just junk. So I set out to shoot several projects. One of which is this music video that would pair the look this camera produces with the trend of "vaporwave." I was able to produce something acceptable and I think that's really surprising for both the camera and the medium itself. I paid $5 for this camera and given that VHS tapes are nearly free, anyone with a capture card and a dream could shoot a retro looking video with this camera, someone with some skill could really do something interesting. Here's my music video as an example.
The RCA CPR-250 is definitely a good camera and in my unit the batteries did still hold a charge after all these years. After a few power cycles they seemed to come back to life and hold a fairly typical charge. The camera was rugged and easy to work with in the field and had I been tasked with making a production of some sort with a VHS camera I'd strongly consider this camera as a contender for the job. I enjoyed using this camera and I enjoyed seeing what came out of it.