I decided to review both of these cameras together. Why? Well because many of the people I have met recently have been looking at both of these cameras as possible options. The price of both of these cameras is very similar, yet both cameras are actually quite different. On the one hand the Z100 offers 4K and a 20x zoom lens while the PMW-300 offers broadcast quality HD in a sort of shoulder mount design. Which to choose?
To start with both cameras are well built. They both feel very solid and well put together. I didn’t notice any creaks or flexing of either camera body. They both feel like professional pieces of kit that will withstand the bumps and knocks that they will almost certainly get. They are finished with a nice matt black finish. The Z100 appears to have a primarily plastic shell while the PMW-300 has a magnesium alloy shell. One small criticism here is that this has a slightly rough finish and is prone to marking from finger nails etc. But the marks can simply be wiped off. Of the two the PMW-300 feels just a little more substantial. Compared to the Sony PMW-200 I feel that both of these cameras feel more substantial and better built.
The PXW-Z100 design is very conventional. A handheld camera with a flip out LCD on the top of the handle and a second small drumstick style view finder on the rear of the handle.
The PMW-300 is rather different. It’s a little larger than most handycam’s, a little heavier too at almost 4kg (9lbs) and instead of a flip out LCD display features a large colour monocular viewfinder. The viewfinder is on an articulated arm that slides fore and aft on a sliding rail. The rail can be adjusted left right by about 30mm to give a small degree of left/right adjustment.
However I found it really fiddly and tricky to get at the release leaver for the left right adjustment. The viewfinder can easily be detached for travel or storage. The plug for the viewfinder goes into a recess in the cameras body and is then covered by a plastic plate that stops it pulling out.
I used the camera for a dealer event. By the end of the day at the dealer event the little plastic cover had been broken off. It’s attached to the camera via a thumb screw and a very thin piece of plastic. I suspect a lot of these will get broken. It doesn’t really affect the operation of the camera, but without the cover there is nothing to prevent the viewfinder plug from being pulled out.
The other major design feature of the PMW-300 is that the lens in interchangeable. There are two kit lenses to choose from plus adapters that will allow the use of conventional 1/2″ and 2/3″ ENG style zoom lenses. More on the lenses in a bit.
The flip out viewfinder on the PXW-Z100 is sharp and clear. It’s a 3.5″ 852 x 480 pixel screen and the colour and contrast appears pretty accurate. In common with most cameras like this however it struggles in bright sunlight. On the back of the camera there is a small 0.45″ 852 x 480 pixel EVF. Now although both of the screens are supposed to be the same resolution, I felt that I could see more detail on the bigger flip out LCD. In addition if I blinked my eyes when looking at the EVF, I would see a rainbow colour effect. This is because the EVF display is shown one colour after the other, rather than all three RGB colours together. I also found that when I got the center of the EVF in focus using the diopter adjustment, the left side of the screen was out of focus. I don’t know whether this is a fault on the demo sample I had or whether they are all like this. To assist with focusing the camera has a coloured peaking system and via a button on the hand grip (Focus Mag) the ability to zoom into the image to check focus without effecting the recordings. The peaking also works in the Focus Mag mode, so you can both zoom in and have peaking at the same time. This is just as well as when shooting in 4K, focus is super critical.
The viewfinder on the PMW-300 is a delight! It is a little bulky and this does tend to make the camera slightly lop-sided from a weight and balance point of view, but with it’s large 3.5″ high resolution 960 x 540 screen behind a monocular eyepiece it is sharp, accurate and very nice to use. It’s very similar to the viewfinder available for the F5 and F55 cameras. The monocular itself flips up to allow the LCD to be viewed easily from behind or above the camera and mirror assembly flip up so that you can view the LCD from the side. In addition you can remove the lens and mirror assemblies if you choose. There is a mirror switch on the finder so you can reverse the LCD image when using the mirror or have a normal image without the mirror. As well as the mirror switch there are controls for the brightness contrast and peaking as well as switches to turn the zebra and display overlays on and off. Like the Z100 there is a Focus Mag button on the hand grip that enlarges the viewfinder image to help with focus, but on the PMW-300 the peaking is disabled when Focus Mag is engaged which is a shame.
The Z100 has a 20x zoom lens and the PMW-300 is available with a choice of two lenses, a 14x and a 16x. Both lenses being very similar, the 16x having a little more telephoto reach (available early 2014).
On the Z100 lens there are three rings, one each for focus, zoom and iris. All of these are of the electronic round and round, uncalibrated servo variety. I’m not a fan of these and this camera reminded me of why. The focus and iris control is a little sluggish so snap focus changes are almost impossible. When using the ring to change the aperture you have to go slowly to make sure you don’t overshoot. The zoom ring seemed pretty responsive and I found I could use the zoom ring to re-frame shots more accurately than the zoom rocker. The zoom rocker has quite a large dead band area where you push the rocker and nothing happens. Then you suddenly find the point when the zoom starts to move and if you’re not careful the zoom will start quite suddenly. It is possible to do slow creeping zooms, but finding the “bite” point where the zoom starts to move is tricky. Press the rocker further and you can have quite a quick zoom.
The big plus point of the lens though is the zoom range. Having been shooting with large sensor cameras and restricted zoom ranges for a few months it really was quite a revelation to get back to a camera with a big zoom range. I think I had forgotten how nice it is to be able to get a wide shot and a very long shot without changing lenses. In addition the lens is optically stabilised and this really helps with long shots on wobbly tripods or when using the camera hand held.
One thing I did note that was a little disappointing is that the aperture ramps as you zoom. If you start wide open at f1.6 as you zoom in the aperture slowly decreases to f3.2 when fully zoomed in. You can see this one stop exposure change in your shots. If you start at f3.2 or smaller then this does not happen, it only if you have the lens wide open.
The PMW-300’s lens is just like the lens on the PMW-200 and the EX1R before that. Except on the 300 the lens in removable, just like the EX3. There are two different lenses available. The one I tested was a 14x zoom and the other coming in early 2014 is a very similar 16x zoom with a slightly longer telephoto end. Again we have three rings, one for focus zoom and iris. Unlike the Z100 though these are all calibrated and have end stops. The focus ring has two distinct modes. Slide it forward and it’s a round and round servo controlled focus system. But in the forward mode the lens can be set to either manual or auto focus. Slide the ring back and it locks in to the calibrated focus scale and it is a responsive, accurate and snappy focus ring, just like a much more expensive broadcast lens. The zoom ring appears to act directly on the mechanics of the zoom lens and as a result in manual mode is beautifully fast making crash zooms really easy. In servo mode the zoom rocker has only the smallest of dead areas so finding the bite point and starting a slow zoom is easy. You can do a slow creeping zoom or a fast zoom and the control is easy. The iris ring is also fast, accurate and repeatable. For the money these are great lenses.
The lenses on both cameras exhibited similar amounts of chromatic aberration. This isn’t particularly bad, but it is there none the less. One issue when trying to make a lens sharper or higher resolution, then CA becomes harder to control. The Z100 lens is a good example of this. Remarkably sharp, but with some CA, especially out at the edges of the frame.
Lets start by saying that the laws of physics and optics will almost always mean that a small sensor with small pixels will be less sensitive than a larger sensor with larger pixels. The PXW-Z100 is at quite a disadvantage here. For a start it has a single fairly small 1/2.3″ sensor (that’s smaller than 1/2″ but a little bigger than 1/3″). Packed in to this area are 8 million active pixels. That’s a lot of pixels in a small space, so they are very small. To help make up for the small pixel size Sony have used a back illuminated sensor. Back illuminated sensors have fewer obstructions in front of the pixels so are more efficient than conventional sensors, but this advantage only goes a small way towards making up for the very small pixel size.
On the other hand the PMW-300 has three 1/2″ sensors. Sony’s EX and now PMW range of half inch cameras have always performed well in low light thanks to the larger than average sensors used, most handycams use 1/3″ sensors. The PMW-300 is no exception, not only does it have the same 1/2″ sensors as the PMW-200, EX1 and EX3, but it also has a new and improved noise reduction system. As a result the PMW-300 tends to show a little less noise than it’s predecessors. Even with +9db of gain added the pictures are still pretty good.
So just what is the PXW-Z100 like in low light? First of all let’s look at what it’s like in good light. Below I’ve included two frame grabs. One from the PXW-Z100 and one from the PMW-300. The shots were done within a few minutes of each other in good daylight. The Z100 was set to HD. Both cameras were at 0db gain. Click on the images to see them larger or at the original resolution.
So what do I see in these images? Well first of all there is a saturation difference between the two camera. The PMW-300 looks richer because it has more colour saturation. This is easy to adjust with either camera via the paint or picture profile adjustments. The next is the difference in dynamic range. The PMW-300 has better dynamic range than the Z100. Look at the highlight on the back of the blue car, the top of the street lamp on the left and the widows of the distant houses. The PMW-300 is holding these highlights much better than the Z100. Also look at the deep shadow across the grass, both cameras are handling this similarly, so the PMW-300 has better dynamic range. This isn’t really a big surprise as the bigger the pixels the better the dynamic range and the 300 has significantly bigger pixels.
Colours: The Z100 produces some very pleasing and natural looking colours straight out of the box. The PMW-300 has that slight yellow/green look that most Sony cameras have. This can be corrected or altered with a few matrix tweaks in a picture profile if you don’t like it, but as it has this typical Sony look it will match quite closely with most other Sony broadcast cameras.
Both cameras show low noise levels at 0db. The z100 is marginally noisier than the PMW-300, you can see a little more noise in the sky in the Z100 shot but it’s not in my opinion a significant difference. Sony claim 60db for the PMW-300 but don’t give a noise figure for the Z100. The Z100’s noise is a little blotch when the camera is set to HD, I suspect the blotchy nature is a side effect of the cameras built in noise reduction. But, again, I don’t have an issue with the noise levels of either camera at 0db. The Z100 is using quite a bit of noise reduction at all gain levels. As a result there can be a little bit of a difference in noise levels from shot to shot.
So while the noise is not bad, just refer back to the settings noted in the full size frame grabs. The PMW-300 is at f8 with 1/16th(4 stops) of ND and the Z100 is f6.8 with 1/4 (2 stops) of ND. Even allowing for the Z100 possibly being fractionally over exposed compared to the PMW-300, that’s a not insignificant 2 stop sensitivity difference between the cameras. This difference becomes even more apparent when the light starts to fall off. I rate the PMW-300 at approx 340 ISO and the PXW-Z100 at about 75 ISO.
So I did some further tests to evaluate the low light performance of both cameras. The first test you can see below. This was shot in my living room using a ceiling light fixture with 3 x 40w household light bulbs. I would suggest this is a fairly typical light level for a lot of living rooms at night and the type of situation that might be encountered when shooting an observational or fly on the wall type documentary.
As you can see the difference is quite striking. Just to be sure of my results I repeated the test using a chart as you can see below, both cameras at 0db and wide open.
So the Z100 is obviously around 2 stops less sensitive than the PMW-300. Can we make up for this lack of sensitivity by adding some gain? Take a look at the results below, the Z100 with +9db and +18db of gain:
This test confirms the slightly over two stop sensitivity difference between the PMW-300 and PXW-Z100. You can see that at +18db the Z100 is marginally more sensitive than the PMW-300 at 0db. 18db is the equivalent to 3 stops. AT +12db the Z100 is less sensitive than the PMW-300 and 12db is two stops.
The key thing here is to note that in a low light situation where the PMW-300 is just about producing an acceptable image at 0db, your going to need 12 to 18db of gain to get the same brightness image out of the Z100. Looking closely at the noise levels from the Z100, I would be reasonably comfortable using +9db gain if I had to, but +12db from the Z100 is too noisy for me and 18db is getting pretty grim. In addition there is some loss of contrast at the higher gain settings.
Low light is where the PMW-200 and EX1 etc have always been good performers and the PMW-300 continues this. I also decided to take a look at how well the 300’s new noise reduction circuits work, so here are frame grabs from the PMW-300 at +9db and +18db.
The noise reduction on the 300 is quite effective at +9db and if I had to, I wouldn’t be too uncomfortable using +9db of gain (I never want to use gain, but sometimes you just have to). Above about 12db however the noise reduction is less effective and also starts to reduce the contrast in the image quite noticeably.
So, the PXW-Z100 struggles a bit in low light compared to a camera with a larger sensor and fewer pixels. But then the Z100 is a 4K camera and can produce a much higher resolution image. Just how good is this 4K image as in many cases the Z100 will be used alongside cameras like the PMW-F5 or F55, both of which are capable of stunning 4K.
Well I think it does very well considering the small size sensor. The 4K images have nice contrast and plenty of detail. The deep depth of field that the small sensor provides really helps when you have street scenes like the ones below which were shot in Austin, Texas. Sometime’s you don’t want a shallow depth of field and for the kinds of applications I can see this camera being used for, I think a deeper DoF will be good.
Picture Profiles and Scene Settings.
Both cameras have the ability to customise the way the pictures look. On the PMW-300 you have 6 picture profile memories that you can use to save 6 different camera setups. There are adjustments for the matrix, detail, white balance and gamma settings. As well as standard gammas including Rec-709 (STD 5) you have the same 4 Hypergammas as used by the PMW-200, 400, 500, 700 and also used in the F5 and F55. The Hypergammas extend the cameras dynamic range and provide a very pleasing highlight roll off that is closer to film and less video like (Hypergammas should be exposed a little lower than standard gammas for best results). The PMW-300 appears to have a very respectable 11.5 stops of dynamic range.
The Z100 only has a single set of paint settings. Most are very similar to the 300, but instead of Hypergammas the Z100 has two gamma curves called Cinematone 1 and Cinematone 2. It’s important to note that unlike the Cinegammas found in the EX series cameras or the Hypergammas in the PMW’s the Cinematone gammas do not extend the dynamic range. The Z100 appears to have around 10 stops of dynamic range when using the standard gamma and knee settings.
The Cinematone gamma curves both tend to pull down the black and shadow areas of the picture increasing contrast. There is almost no change to the highlight handling. Personally I would not use these curves. I would rather shoot with the standard 709 gamma curve and then adjust my black levels in post production where I have more control. Having said that if you do want a contrasty look straight from the camera then the Cinematone gammas may prove useful.
Recording Codecs and Media.
The PMW-300 like every other PMW camcorder is based around Sony’s SxS solid state recording media. This very robust professional media has been around for over 6 years now and is widely accepted in the pro video world. The cards are expensive when compared to consumer media, but they are very fast and very reliable. I’ve been using them for 6 years and never had any issues. The camera has two SxS slots and it will automatically switch from one card to the other as the cards fill up without any interruption to the recordings.
The 300 currently comes with Sony’s XDCAM HD codec as standard. Next year there will be a firmware update that will add the new XAVC codec to the camera. As it stands right now the 300 has two distinct modes. FAT mode and UDF mode. In FAT mode the camera records in standard definition DV, HDV and 35Mb/s 1920 x 1080 4:2:0 XDCAM. The XDCAM footage is wrapped in the .mp4 wrapper. The key benefit of FAT mode is the ability to use cheap SD cards via an equally low cost SxS to SD card adapter. The BBC use SD cards via adapters for some TV news applications. For those on a tight budget the SD cards are certainly an option, or they can be used as a backup for those times when perhaps you run out of the more expensive SxS cards. Just remember that SD cards are mass produced consumer products. In addition there is a lot of sub-standard fake media out there, so do be careful where you buy your media.
To get the very best from the PMW-300 you want to use UDF mode. In UDF mode you cannot use SD cards, only SxS cards or via an adapter XQD cards (more about those in a bit). In UDF mode the camera can record XDCAM HD422. This is wrapped in the broadcast industry standard MXF wrapper, is 4:2:2 and has a bit rate of up to 50Mb/s so offers better image quality than the FAT modes and fully complies with most TV broadcast standards. One limitation however of the Mpeg 2 encoding used by XDCAM is that the maximum frame rate that can be recorded at 1920 x 1080 is 30fps. So if you want to shoot at 50p or 60p with the 300 you have to drop the resolution of the internal recordings to 720p.
At the moment (December 2014) it is unclear exactly what frame rates or modes will be available when the XAVC codec gets added to the PMW-300. I would hope that one of the things that will be added is the ability to shoot at 1920 x 1080 at 50p and 60p, but at the moment Sony are being quite tight lipped as to what will come.
The PXW-Z100 records on to XQD cards. XQD is a new high end, very fast consumer flash media. At the moment only Sony and Nikon use them and you will only them in the Nikon D4 camera as well as the Z100, plus via adapters in most other PMW cameras. Cards are available from Sony and Lexar and to add to the confusion they come in different speed ratings with 3 different classes of card from Sony, N, H and S.
The entry level “N” series cards have a maximum write speed of 80MB/s (640Mb/s). The H series cards have a maximum write speed of 125MB/s (1Gb/s) while the faster (and more expensive) “S” series cards have a significantly maximum write speed of 180MB/s (1.4Gb/s). There are both USB3 and Thunderbolt card readers for the cards so read speeds are also very fast. To record all of the various modes that the PXW-Z100 is capable of you need the more expensive “S” series cards. If your only going to shoot in HD then you will be OK with the cheaper “N” series. In December 2014 amazon were selling a 32GB “S” series XQD card for £220 GBP ($350 USD). That’s about half the price of a similar SxS card.
The Z100 comes with Sony’s XAVC codec. This is a 10 bit, 4:2:2 “I” frame only codec. In the future there will be a firmware update to add the more compact 4:2:0, long GOP XAVC-S codec. A further update will also add the ability to record AVCHD on to an SD card into the currently un-used SD card slot next to the two XQD slots.
XAVC is a great codec. It offers very high quality 10 bit recording at different resolutions and different frame rates. Unlike Mpeg 2 it is not restricted to 30fps and HD. It is the same codec as used in the PMW-F5 and F55 cinema cameras. It is almost certainly going to become standard on most Sony pro camcorders in the future. For post production it is already supported in FCP-X, Adobe Premiere, Avid, Edius, Resolve and of course Sony Vegas.
One thing to be aware of though is the data rates. These are higher than XDCAM. In HD the data rate, depending on frame rate is around 100Mb/s, that double the amount of data compared to XDCAM HD422 and almost 3 times as much data as XDCAM EX. So a 32GB XQD card will only last a around 30 minutes (depending on frame rate 24/25/30fps, 15 mins at 50/60p). If you want to shoot in 4K things get even worse, a 32GB card lasting between 12 and 14 minutes at 24/25/30fps and a mere 6 to 8 minutes at 50/50p. For most people a 32GB card will not be big enough and your going to need a couple of 64GB cards as a minimum. Once the XAVC-S codec becomes available as an option you will be back to similar data rates and storage requirements to XDCAM HD, but without the image quality benefits that the full XAVC codec brings.
The Z100 has two slots for the XQD cards and as one card fills up the camera will automatically switch to the next card without any interruption to the recording. As XAVC can shoot at full HD when you enter into the cameras S&Q mode you can choose any frame rate up to 60fps and the recording will be in full HD. The PMW-300’s S&Q mode is only full HD up to 30fps, above 30fps it is 720p.
The PXW-Z100 is pretty conventional in it’s layout. It’s comfortable to hold and the record button and Image Mag buttons are easy to access while shooting. In addition at the front of the hand grip there is a one push button to quickly set the auto iris, very useful when shooting run and gun. It has 6 assignable buttons on the top of the left side of the main body. Out of the factory 3 of these buttons are set to quickly turn on and off the zebras, peaking and thumbnail viewer for playback.
There are conventional 3 position switches for gain and white balance controls. The gain levels can be set in the cameras menus and the preset white balance can be selected between indoor and outdoor in the cameras single set of paint settings. Incidentally the menu look and structure in the Z100 is very similar to that of the PMW-F5/F55 and F65 cameras. Once you have made any changes to the cameras settings you can save an “all file” to an SD card in the utility SD card slot.
The PMW-300 is an interesting design. It isn’t a full size shoulder camera where the center of the camera sits over the top of your shoulder. Neither is it like most hand held handycam cameras. It’s designed to be used on your shoulder, but it isn’t a full shoulder camera. At the rear of the camera there is an extending shoulder pad that sits on your shoulder. As well as extending the pad has an additional flip out pad.
This is just as well because the release catch for the extending shoulder pad is on the underside of the camera. If you attach a tripod plate to the bottom of the camera you can no longer release the catch to extend or retract the shoulder pad. Not the cleverest bit of design! When I used the camera, I extended the shoulder pad before attaching my tripod plate and then used the flip out section when needed. Depending on how you adjust the viewfinder you’ll probably find that most of the time you don’t need the flip out part of the shoulder pad.
When using the 300 on your shoulder most of the weight is still carried through your arms. It’s not a heavy camera, so it’s not hard to hold for long periods. The big benefit of having it on your shoulder is stability. With your eye up against the eyepiece, you right hand though the hand grip and left hand on the lens it can be very stable. Shoulder hight is also better for interviews, I don’t like looking up at people from cameras held at chest hight. The 300 is still light enough to be used handycam style if you wish, although with the hand grip being quite well forward on the camera it’s not quite as easy to use as a handycam where the hand grip tends to be close to the cameras center of gravity.
Like the EX and PMW-200 the 300 has Sony’s direct menu system where you can use the arrow keys on the handle to directly navigate around commonly used functions like gain, exposure offset, white balance and shutter speed, as displayed in the viewfinder, without having to enter into the cameras main menus. There are also 7 assignable buttons on the left side of the camera that can be used to control various functions. Don’t forget that peaking and zebra controls are on the viewfinder with this camera so there is an abundance of buttons for you to use.
Both cameras have HDSDI and HDMI. Both cameras two XLR connectors with phantom power for external audio sources and both have timecode in/out connectors (nice to see this on the Z100). They can both be connected to a computer via USB2 to off load media and they also have USB host connectors for connecting WiFi adapters and other similar accesories. In addition the PMW-300 has i-Link (firewire), genlock and an 8 pin remote control port for lens control (same as EX1/PMW-200) plus an 8 pin remote port for connection to an RMB type remote control panel.
One note about the pxw-z100. The HDSDI is HD only. The HDMI can do both SD and HD, but currently the HDMI support is only at HDMI 1.4, so there are some limitations over the frame rates that can be passed over the HDMI at 4K. There will be a firmware update in the future to bring the HDMI up to the 2.0 specifications that will allow 4K at up to 60fps. In addition the camera cannot output both 4K HDMI and HD HDSDI at the same time. You can have 4K over HDMI on it’s own or 4K down converted to HD over HDSDI and HDMI together.
Power and Batteries.
The PXW-Z100 is a 7.2V camera and uses the very common Sony NPF style batteries. An NPF970 will run the camera for a little over 2 hours. This is a lot less than many of Sonys 7.2V cameras. The XAVC codec and 4K image processing require more power and the Z100 consumes around 15W. More power means more heat and there as a fan inside the camera to aid cooling. The vent is at the rear of the camera and there are intakes at the bottom of the camera. The fan is barely audible.
The PMW-300 is a 12V camera and like most of the PMW range it requires Sony’s BP-U type batteries. A BP-U60 battery will run the camera for a little under 2 hours. Many of the third party batteries designed for the EX1, EX3 and PMW-200 will not work with this camera. I did find that the DSM U84 worked OK and this ran the camera for 2.5 hours. Once the XAVC codec gets activated it is possible that the power consumption may increase a little. One improvement over the PMW-200 is the placement of the external DC socket on the rear of the camera rather than inside the battery compartment.
I like both of these cameras and would be pleased to own either. But of the two cameras, I think the PMW-300 is the better all round camera. I really like the 300, I think that Sony have really got this one right (with perhaps the exception of the release catch for the shoulder pad). The picture quality is once again best in class and rivals many much more expensive and larger cameras. It’s going to be a good all round camera that will find a home on corporate shoots, news and documentary shoots as well as in low budget studios. The new viewfinder is really delightful and is a big part of what makes this camera so good.
The PXW-Z100 is a bit of a mixed bag. There is nothing wrong with it as a camera, it is what it is… a small 4K camcorder. It does produce a pleasing image with good colours and the zoom range is impressive. But.. and it’s a big “but”, the fact that it is 4K and only has a small sensor hurts this cameras sensitivity quite significantly compared to a camera like the PMW-300. This isn’t a design fault, that’s just the laws of physics and optics at work. In addition the current limitation of XAVC only (XAVC-S will come later) means that your going to need two to three as much media for HD and six to ten times as much media for 4K compared to a 50Mb/s XDCAM camera. Even though XQD cards are cheaper than SxS that’s still a considerable investment in media that’s needed. If you’re coming from cameras with AVCHD and SD cards the media cost are probably quite frightening. If you are considering this camera you might want to hold off until the updates for AVCHD and XAVC-S become available. Having said that, if you need 4K in a small camera this is almost certainly the best there is at the moment (not that there is a great deal of choice). It will be a good run and gun companion camera to an F55 or F5 shooting 4K, provided you have enough light.