Well this didn’t really start as a review project, but as I spent a few days shooting with an EA50 in Hong Kong and everyone want’s to know what it is like, I thought I should write down my thoughts in a little more depth.
First of all what is the EA50? Well it’s a shoulder mount camcorder that uses the APS-C sized sensor from a stills photo camera, that shoots video and takes photos. It records on to a single SD card or memory stick as well as an optional 128gb flash memory unit (FMU). The recordings are encoded using now ubiquitous AVCHD codec at up to 24Mb/s.
Now while I and Sony call it a shoulder mount camera I think you do have to differentiate between the EA50 and an old school full size broadcast camera. A heavy old school camera normally sits completely on your shoulder, some of the camera sticking out behind you, some in front and this gives the camera excellent balance and stability. All the weight, or at least 80% is supported by your shoulder. The EA50 is different. For a start the camera is actually quite compact, it looks bigger in photos than it is in real life. On the rear of the camera there is an extending shoulder pad, that when in the extended position sits on the users shoulder. This supports the rear end of the camera, but most of the weight is forwards of your shoulder so your left hand and arm end up supporting a significant portion of the weight. Fortunately the camera itself is not heavy, but put a heavy lens on the camera and it will get tiring to use for long periods. There are a couple of 1/4” screw holes on the top of the shoulder pad, so it would be quite easy to construct a counterbalance bracket if you are going to do a lot of shoulder mount work. In many respects holding the EA-50 on my shoulder reminds me of the PMW-EX3. It is more stable than a handycam style camera and it is quite nice to use, but it isn’t really a true shoulder mount camera. The plus side of this is that because it is quite light you can still easily use it as a handycam for lower level shots with ease and you don’t need a particularly big or heavy tripod which helps keep the budget under control.
The large viewfinder is again very similar to the one on the PMW-EX3. It has a very high resolution LCD with excellent, accurate colour reproduction so judging exposure and colour balance is easy. Resolution is good, but for accurate focussing I found that I needed to use the colour peaking function to accentuate when things were in or out of focus.
I think one of the biggest surprises with this camera for me is the build quality. Lets face it, this is a low cost camcorder, but you know what, it really doesn’t feel low cost. It is made primarily of plastic, but it’s a really nice plastic that feels like it will take the bumps on knocks that come from professional use. The handle is robust and feels solid in your hand and the switches, buttons and knobs all feel like that come from a more expensive camcorder. Talking of which, there are conventional pro camcorder style switches for white balance and gain as well as rotary controls for the audio record levels. This really is a pro camcorder and it feels and behaves like one.
The NEX-EA50 uses Sony’s now familiar E-Mount for it’s lens. The beauty of this mount is that the distance between the mount face and the sensor itself is very short. As a result it’s easy to add adapters to go from the E-Mount fitting to almost any other lens fitting you desire. This opens up a massive range of lens possibilities, via the La-EA2 you can use Sony’s Alpha lenses, via a metabones adapter you can use Canon EF lenses, via a MTF Nikon adapter you can use…. err… well… Nikon lenses and so on. So lots and lots of lens choices from ebay DSLR lenses to PL Mount Ultra Primes.
The camera is supplied with the new Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 E-Mount power zoom lens ( SELP18200 ) In Asia there is also the option to buy the camera with the non servo 18-200mm lens. The power zoom allows you to zoom in and out using a zoom rocker built in to the camera. The power zoom is based on the 18-200mm stills lens found on the FS100 and FS700. It has optical image stabilization and can operate in auto focus or manual focus modes. The fastest zoom speed is a little slow and the lens does extend as you zoom, so adding a matte box would be difficult. The pre-production unit I played with had a tendency to shift the image left and right as you alternated between zooming in and zooming out and if you used manual focus there would be some small shifts in the focus through the zoom range. I’ve had quite a few discussions with Sony about this lens and I think you do need to be realistic. This lens has been built to meet the demand from end users for a cheap servo zoom for large sensor cameras. A PL mount servo zoom lens will cost you around $50K (and is much bigger and heavier), this lens is about 1/48th of that price, it’s a bargain and I want one for my FS700. Production units should have near zero image shift and the focus shifts should be minimal, but don’t expect then to be zero. The best way to use this lens while zooming is with the auto focus switched on. Use it like this and provided the camera stays focussed on the same target, you won’t see any focus shifts as you zoom. Just don’t expect to be able to zoom in and out with the lens wide open and not see any changes in the image.
Zoom without a zoom! The EA50 also has the ability to electronically zoom in and out even with a fixed focal length lens. This option is selected in the camera menu and gives a 2x zoom controlled by the zoom rocker. It’s a really useful feature that allows you some flexibility in framing when using a non servo zoom. I didn’t notice any appreciable loss in image quality when I used this function and the zooms were smooth and easy to control.
In use, shooting around Hong Kong thanks largely to the servo zoom the EA50 did feel more like a traditional news camcorder than a big sensor camera. The ability to zoom in and out to re-frame shots quickly and simply, as well as using the zoom during a shot was nice. Although looking back through the footage I think I did overuse the zoom, probably because I’ve been shooting with prime lenses so much lately that I got a bit carried away having a servo zoom again! This isn’t a fast lens at f3.5 – f6.3 so don’t expect super shallow depth of field, especially at the wide end. It’s reasonably sharp and contrast is pretty good considering the 10x zoom range. A good prime lens will easily out perform the zoom but, for versatility and quick re-framing etc it’s hard to better. My biggest gripe is the way the focus ring works, it appears to have two speeds, at first the focus changes rapidly and then as you fine tune the focus the change in focus requires a lot more twisting of the focus ring and I find this tricky as there is also some lag in the lenses response to your focus input. Despite its little annoyances the lens is overall pretty good and it does make the EA50 very useable for run and gun. As I said I want to get one of these lenses for my FS700 as soon as possible.
The camera menus have the same layout and style as the FS100 and FS700, so clean and simple and easy enough to find your way around. There are no slow motion or timelapse options on the EA50, but you can shoot at 50p/60p and then slow things down in post to 25p/30p if you need slow mo. For time-lapse, just let the camera roll and speed it up in post. It’s not as though AVCHD files take up a lot of storage space and SD cards are cheap as chips. You can have full manual control over exposure, there is a large thumb wheel at the front of the camera body to control the aperture and buttons that select the auto/manual modes for each of the shutter, iris, and gain functions. In addition there is a “full auto” switch that puts everything to automatic for simple point and shoot filming. As well as video the EA50 can also take still photographs, but you do have to switch between stills photo mode and video mode depending on which you want, so no taking photos while your shooting video. The EA50 has the full suite of picture profile options including adjustable colour, detail and gamma settings. It uses the cinematone gammas found on the FS100 if you want a more filmic look.
There are XLR audio inputs with phantom power and lots of outputs including HDMI, component and composite, so something there for everyone. I really don’t think you can complain too much about not having HDSDI at this price point.
But what about the image quality? Well as this camera is using an APS-C sensor designed for stills it isn’t as optimized for video as a dedicated video camera like the FS100 or FS700. However the pictures are pretty good. They are a little softer than I get from my FS700 but in a not unpleasant way. They don’t look blurred or anything like that, they just lack that final crispness that makes the FS700 look so nice. The images are well rounded, they don’t look over enhanced or electronic and colour reproduction is good and accurate. I did find the images to be more contrasty than I’ve become used to recently with blacks and deep shadows looking just a tiny bit crushed. It handled bright skies very well but did struggle a little with very high latitude scenes. Being a DSLR sensor I did expect to see evidence of aliasing and other jaggies, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well controlled this were. I didn’t find any shots that I could do and there are no nasty surprises in the rushes I shot. You can see a few jaggies here and there and a little bit of aliasing every now and again, but overall for a stills sensor I think the EA50 does a pretty good job as a video camera. I did do some shooting at night at the Monk Kok ladies market and on the waterfront at Kowloon and there is quite a difference in sensitivity between the EA50 and a dedicated video large sensor camera like the FS100, the EA50 is much less sensitive. But don’t panic, it’s no worse than most video cameras with normal sized sensors, I felt it actually had similar sensitivity to the Sony PMW-200, so that puts about 1.5 stops slower than an FS100.
So what do i think overall? Actually I’m quite impressed. Would I buy one? No, I would not, but then I already have a FS700 and PMW-F3. What I do think is that it offers a very good price/performance ratio in an interesting form factor. I can see this camera being very popular for wedding videographers, schools and other training organizations. In the right hands this camera will produce nice pictures, pictures that are certainly good enough for online HD videos and with careful use you could even shoot a film that would hold up to projection on a big screen. If you need to have a low cost, versatile camera that looks like a pro camera and you want shallow depth of field the EA50 has to be considered.