I have recently returned from a trip around Canada. While I was there I spent some more time shooting with Sony’s new PXW-Z280 handycam camcorder. This neat little camera continues to surprise me. I used a pre-production sample to shoot parts of an airshow in the summer and it worked really well. It was so easy to use, I had forgotten how much quicker it is to work with a camera with a 17x zoom lens compared to a large sensor camera with a very limited zoom range or prime lenses.
The Z280 uses 3x state of the art EMOR Stacked multi layer sensors. Each is full 4K, so you have full RGB 4K, unlike a single chip camera where the chroma resolution is much reduced by the bayer layout of the pixels. The 3 chip, full resolution design also means no aliasing in the color channels as is often typical of single chip designs.
The color splitting prism is more efficient than the absorption color filters on a single chip design, so more light gets to the pixels. The multi layer sensors have very good on-sensor processing so even though the pixels are rather small you get good sensitivity, low noise and good DR. The Z280 is approx 650-700 ISO with the base gammas so very close to an FS7 with it’s standard gammas and the colors match an FS7 extremely well. The picture look really nice.
From the testing I have done in the cameras dedicated HDR mode, where you can choose between HLG and S-Log3, with S-Log3 the DR of the Z280 appears to be around 13 stops, which is really quite remarkable for this type of camcorder. The sensor readout is very fast so rolling shutter is minimal.
When you factor in the Z280’s f1.9 lens, compared to an FS7 with the Sony F4 zoom or many other zooms that are typically around F4 the Z280 with it’s f1.9 lens does better in low light and offers similar DoF when both are wide open. Of course you can change the lens on an FS7 and use a faster lens, but then you won’t have anywhere near the zoom range of the Z280.
Like any small compact camera, it isn’t 100% perfect. Overall the lens is pretty good for a low cost 4K zoom, but like many 17x zooms it does have a touch of barrel distortion when fully wide. As well as the LCD It has an excellent OLED viewfinder that is much, much better than those typically found on Sony’s smaller cameras. It has Timecode in/out and genlock, all the XAVC-I and L codecs as well as MpegHD. There is a full suite of wifi, LAN and network functions for streaming, ftp and remote control as well as the ability to offload files from the cards to a USB drive or memory stick without a computer. It’s a modern camera designed for the modern news or documentary shooter and a big step up in terms of image quality from the PXW-X200 IMHO.
A full review and sample video will be coming in the very near future with lot’s more information.
Normally when I travel up to arctic Norway for my annual Northern Lights expeditions I take a large sensor video camera. Last year it was the Sony FS5, which performed very well and gave me some great results. But this year I decided to down size and instead of taking a bulky camera I chose to take a pre-production sample of Sony’s diminutive new PXW-Z90 camcorder.
On the outside the Z90 looks almost exactly the same as the older PXW-X70 camcorder. I’ve shot several videos with the X70 and it’s a great little camcorder that produces a very good image considering it’s small size. Being a new model I expected the Z90 to offer some small improvements over the X70, but what I didn’t expect was the very big improvements that the Z90 brings.
The Z90 is the first camcorder from Sony to incorporate a new design of sensor. It’s a 1″ type sensor, so like the X70, bigger than you used to find on small handycams, but not as big as the super 35mm sensor found in the FS5, FS7 etc. This is a nice size for this type of camera as it makes it possible to obtain a shallow depth of field by using the cameras built in ND filters (yes- it really does have ND filters built in) and a large aperture. Or if you need a deeper depth of field for easier focussing or run and gun then you can use a smaller aperture by switching out the ND filters. The maximum aperture of the zoom lens is f2.8 but it does stop down to f4 towards the telephoto end.
This new sensor uses a new construction method that allows it to have several layers of electronics immediately below the imager pixels. The “stacked” sensor can as a result incorporate more image processing and a large memory area right under the pixels. This means that the sensor can be read out much more quickly than is normal for this type of camera and as a result rolling shutter is hugely reduced (I didn’t notice any in any of my footage).
As well as a reduction in rolling shutter compared to other similar sensors, the ability to do more on chip image processing appears to bring other advantages as the noise levels from this camera are very low indeed.
The low noise levels mean that this camera performs surprisingly well in low light. Adding in +6dB was not a problem if needed. Even with +15dB of gin the images hold together very well. Clearly the camera is doing a fair bit of electronic noise reduction at higher gain levels and there is a slight increase in image smear as a result. Plus in certain circumstances the noise levels do rise, especially if you have large dark areas amongst in an otherwise brighter scene. In my sample footage during the night time snow scooter ride, which was shot at +15dB gain, you don’t see and noise over the snow, but you can see some grainy noise over the dark jacket of the snow scooter driver (see the frame grab above). The fact that you can push the camera up to +15dB and in most cases get a pretty good image is very nice.
On top of good sensitivity you also have great dynamic range, more than the X70 and enough to make direct HDR shooting and log shooting possible with this tiny hand held camcorder. It doesn’t quite have the dynamic range of an FS5 or FS7, but there is still plenty of range to help deal with challenging lighting situations.
As well as bringing a nice improvement in image quality over the X70 (which is pretty good already) the new sensor brings a vastly improved autofocus system. There are 273 focus detection points which are combined with faster readout, faster on sensor processing and the same AF processing technology as used in the flagship Sony A9 stills camera. This brings a really remarkable autofocus system to this camera. The AF system is a newly developed hybrid system that combines phase detection AF with new algorithms created specifically for video rather than stills photography. At last this is an autofocus system that really works for a video camera. It is intelligent and responsive. There is no hunting for focus, it just seems to get on with the job.
Just about every aspect of the autofocus system can be customised in the camera menu. You can choose between using focus zones, the full image width or selectable focus spot areas. The cameras LCD screen is a touch screen so you tap the screen where you want to focus.
You can also tailor the AF’s response speed, you can adjust the size of the tracking range, using a wide range for occasions when you want the AF to follow an object through the shot, or use a narrow range to restrict the focus depth range.
You can customise how quickly the AF will move from one object to another, from staying locked on to a faster more responsive setting.
In addition it has that wonderful Sony face detection system that allows you to choose one face out of a crowd of people using the thumb stick on the hand grip or the touch screen. Once selected the camera will stay locked to that face.
While I was up in Norway it was between -24c and -30c. In those temperatures you really don’t want to take your mittens off for more than a minute or so. Being able to rely on the cameras autofocus allowed me to keep my fingers warm. Not one shot out of all my rushes from the trip has incorrect focus. That is truly remarkable and made shooting with this camera a real pleasure. I’m not saying that you should always use autofocus. When possible I love to be able to pick and choose how I focus. But in many situations or for less experienced shooters this autofocus system will be a game changer.
For my test shoot in Norway I mostly used Picture Profile number 10 which gives an instant HDR workflow thanks to the use of Hybrid Log Gamma. Using HLG you can shoot as you would do with any other conventional camera. Then take the footage and play it back in HDR on an HDR TV without any grading or other post production work. I also shot at a couple of locations using S-Log2 to test how that worked (I was shooting in UHD and the camera is 8 bit in UHD. For 8 bit I prefer S-Log2 over S-Log3). The Z90 has 10 picture profiles that allow you to tailor how the image looks, including a crunchy DSLR type look. Some filmic looks using Sony’s cinegammas as well as profiles for shooting S-Log2, S-Log3 and Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG).
The Z90 has Sony’s XAVC-L codec. This high quality codec offers 10 bit 4:2:2 broadcast quality recordings in HD and 8 bit 4:2:0 recordings in UHD (3840 x 2160). The camera records to SDXC cards, so media costs are very low. There are two card slots and you can record to each slot singly, record to one card after the other or dual record on to both cards at the same time for redundancy and an instant back. You can even use each of the cameras two record buttons to control the records on each card independently should you wish.
The Z90 is a small camcorder and like all small camcorders this doesn’t leave much room for large buttons and switches. The menu system and many of the cameras functions can be controlled via the touch screen LCD or the small joystick/thumb stick on the hand grip. Iris, shutter speed and gain each have a dedicated access button that selects the function.
Then you use the thumb stick to select the value you want, or you can set each item to Auto. In addition there is a switch to put the camera into full auto on the rear of the camera. Just below the full auto switch is the control switch for the ND filters.
The lens is a Zeiss 12x optical zoom with built in optical image stabilisation. It is controlled by a single ring around the barrel of the lens which can be switched between focus control or zoom control. In addition there is the usual zoom rocker on the handgrip as well as a small zoom switch on the top handle. In addition to the optical stabilisation the camera also has Sony’s electronic “super steadyshot” stabilisation that can be used in addition to the optical stabilisation. Another very handy function is “Clear Image Zoom”. This is a form of electronic zoom function that makes use of a database of textures and object types. When using clear image zoom the camera uses this database to apply just the right amount of image processing during the electronic zoom process. In most cases you can’t see any degradation of the image when using clear image zoom. I left it on for all of the Norway shoot as it turns the 12x zoom into a very handy 18x zoom.
After doing so much shooting on large sensor cameras with restricted zoom ranges getting back to a small camera with a big zoom range was fun. For future Norway trips I am very tempted to switch to a camera like the Z90.
The Z90 body is almost exactly the same as the X70. The cameras top handle has 2x XLR connectors with the audio controls for the two channels on the opposite side of the handle.
If you want to make the camera more compact the handle can be removed, but when you do this you will no longer have any XLR connectors. Instead you will have an MI shoe on the top of the camera body that can be used to connect a Sony UWP-D radio mic or a n XLR adapter. There is also a stereo microphone built into the main body of the camera, so even with the hand grip removed there are plenty of audio options.
The flip out LCD panel acts as the cameras main viewfinder. Opening and closing the LCD screen turns the camera on and off. It starts up and shuts down very quickly. The resolution of the LCD is similar to most other modern camera LCD’s. It’s adequate for this type of camera, but it isn’t the highest resolution screen in the world. To check focus you have a button on the top of the hand grip to activate the image magnification function and the camera has a coloured peaking system to help pick out what is, and what is not in focus. I suspect that with this particular camera, many users will take advantage of the cameras excellent auto focus system and there is a lot of feedback to the user of how this is working including coloured boxes that indicate exactly what the camera is focussing on.
As well as the side LCD panel there is also a small OLED electronic viewfinder on the rear of the camera. This is very useful for use in very bright sunlight, but it is rather small.
The cameras gain, shutter and iris functions each have a dedicated button on the side of the camera. One push of the appropriate button enables that function to be controlled by a small dial wheel just under the front of the lens.
Press the shutter button and the wheel controls the shutter. Press the gain button and the wheel controls the gain. Overall this system works well, but I would still prefer a separate gain switch and a shutter speed up/down switch. On the rear of the hand grip there is a small joystick that sits under your thumb. You can use this thumb-stick to set many of the cameras settings and to navigate through the cameras menu system. In addition you can use the LCD touchscreen to navigate through the menu as well as select your autofocus points etc.
The PXW-Z90 is a small camera that packs a very big punch. It’s never going to give the fine degree of image control that you get with most large sensor cameras and it won’t quite deliver the same image quality either (although it’s really, really close). If you need a small, discrete camera, perhaps you travel a lot, or you just need a “B” camera, then the Z90 offers a possible solution. I haven’t even touched on all the streaming, ftp and wifi capabilities of this camera. The auto focus system is a delight to use and it’s the best AF system I’ve ever come across on a video camera. The new sensor in the Z90 is clearly a fairly large step forwards from the sensor in the previous similar model the X70, it has more dynamic range, a lot less rolling shutter (not that it’s a big problem on the X70) and the final images look better as a result. I might just have to add one to my camera collection.
If you would like to join me on one of my adventures to arctic Norway please see take a look at this page. I’ve been running these trips for 11 years and EVERY tour has seen the Northern Lights. This year was no exception and we got to see some really great Auroras and had a great time dog sledding, ice fishing and exploring the Finnmarksvidda.
Although it’s been on the market for a while now I have not yet had a chance to write a proper review of the PXW-Z150. I’ve played with it a few times and I’ve felt it offers good value (approx £3k/$4K). As it’s starting to gain some traction amongst corporate producers and those looking for a straight forward 4K camera with lot’s of bang for the buck I though it’s time to share my thoughts.
Cameras like the Z150 are often overlooked these days as they don’t have the “cool” factor that comes with the large sensor Super 35mm cameras that are all the rage, cameras like the PXW-FS5 or FS7.
But not everyone wants shallow depth of field all of the time. In addition many people want zoom lenses that can zoom in to get a tight shot and zoom back out smoothly without a focus shift. If you add portability and ease of use into the mix then there is no Super 35mm camera that offers all of these. Want a big par focal zoom range – the lens gets big, heavy and very expensive.
This is where a one piece camera with a fixed zoom lens comes into it’s own. For a fraction of the the price of any of the 10 times or more par-focal S35m zoom lenses you can get a fully functioning camcorder. The PXW-Z150 has a 12x optical zoom that can be boosted up to 24x in HD (more on that later).
So lets take a closer look at the Z150.
From the outside the PXW-Z150 resembles many other handycam style cameras and is almost identical to the HXR-NX100. But this is from the PXW product line, I’m lead to believe that stands for “Professional XAVC Writer”. So this means it will have the XAVC codec. It’s also an XDCAM camcorder and in this case that means it also includes the MPEG2 HD codec. In addition in case you haven’t spotted it there is also a big “4K” symbol on the side.
CODECS AND RECORD FORMATS
So the camera can record UHD (3840 x 2160, the 4K standard for TV) at up to 30fps using Sony’s XAVC-L codec. This is the long GoP version of XAVC and comes in 60 and 100Mb/s versions in the Z150. It is worth considering that this codec does require a pretty good computer to work with it in post production, ideally a minimum of a 4 core i7 processor with 16GB of main ram plus a good NVIDIA or AMD graphics card with 2GB of dedicated video ram. In UHD XAVC-L is limited to 8 bit 4:2:0, this still produces a great looking image but is not considered good enough for main stream UHD broadcast.
The image below is a UHD frame grab from the Z150. Click on the image to see larger versions including the full 3840×2160 image. The grab is a jpeg so may have some compression artefacts not in the original frame.
If you are not shooting in UHD then you have lots of options. Again we have XAVC-L now at 25, 35 and 50Mb/s and up to 60fp. 35Mb/s and 50Mb/s XAVC-L is normally considered broadcast quality at 25/30fps. In HD XAVC-L is 10 bit 4:2:2.
As well as XAVC-L you also have two more 8 bit HD codecs, MPEG2HD and AVCHD. There are two versions of MPEG2HD, the regular HD version which is 4:2:0 at 35Mb/s as found in the older EX1 and EX3 camcorders as well as the 50Mb/s HD422 4:2:2 broadcast quality version as found in the PMW-200 and most of Sony broadcast camcorders. These older MPEG2 “XDCAM” codecs are still incredibly popular and accepted almost everywhere for broadcast HD. They are really easy to use and even though they are 8 bit still give great looking pictures. Finally if you just need something compact there is AVCHD, although frankly why you would want to use AVCHD when you have so many better options available I’m not sure. Perhaps those running older or consumer based edit software will benefit from the inclusion of AVCHD.
In order to be able to record all the different formats available you must use SDXC cards. These are readily available and low cost. Please remember though that SD cards are consumer media. It is normally very reliable (probably more reliable than tape used to be) but card failures can occur and a duff card could result in the loss of everything on the card. Fortunately Sony have considered this and the camera features two card slots.
The two card slots can be configured in a number of ways. To record long events you can use relay record where once the first card is full the camera will automatically switch to the second card. For security you can use simultaneous record where you record to both slots at the same time. This means you are creating an instant backup, so the failure of a single card should not be a drama. As a further option you can control the recording function of each card slot separately. You can use the record button on the hand grip to control one slot and the record button on the carry handle to control the other to give 2 independent recordings.
A further recording function is the ability to record a proxy file alongside the main recording. The proxy file can be used in a number of ways. One way is to provide an easier to handle 720p HD file for use as an edit proxy when shooting in UHD. Another is as a small compact file that can be uploaded to the internet via the cameras built in ftp function, perhaps for a breaking news story or remote editing and preview. As this is a proper video camera there are none of the overheating problems or limited record time issues that effect many DSLR type cameras.
One word of advice: Buy your cards from a reputable source. There is a lot of fake media out there that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The fake cards are often unreliable, so do make sure you only buy good quality genuine media from one of the main brands such as Transcend, Lexar, SanDisk etc.
1″ TYPE SENSOR.
The sensor that feeds all these different codecs is a “1 inch type” Exmor RS back illuminated CMOS sensor with 14.2 million effective pixels. What does all that mean?
“1 Inch Type” means the sensor size is bigger than the sensor on a 2/3″ broadcast camera but smaller than APS-C, Micro 4/3rds or Super 35mm (see this for more info on imperial type sensor sizes). So the depth of field will be deeper (more in focus) than a camera like Sony’s PXW-FS5 with it’s Super 35mm sensor, but shallower than most typical 2/3″ ENG broadcast shoulder cameras and other traditional handycams with 1/2″ or 1/3″ sensors.
Exmor RS is Sony’s latest generation of back illuminated sensor technology that gives better low light performance with small pixels compared to traditional front illuminated sensors. In addition RS stands for “Rear Stacked”. The stacking technology allows for a faster sensor readout among other things and this significantly reduces image skew and rolling shutter artefacts compared to the previous generation of these sensors. The faster readout also means that every pixel is used when shooting at up to 120 fps in HD using the cameras super slow motion function (note that this is 120fps interlace XAVC-L), so less aliasing and moire.
While RS does not eliminate rolling shutter artefacts from what I can see the Z150 offers a big improvement over cameras like the PXW-X70 and the A7S. You have to pan very fast before rolling shutter becomes a problem and in normal use skew and jello should not cause any significant problems.
12X OPTICAL ZOOM LENS.
Light is fed to the sensor by a 12x optical zoom lens. On the side of the camera there is a big and bold “18X“. That’s there because this camera also has Sony’s clever “Clear Image Zoom” technology. In the past if you mentioned a digital zoom it used to make people cringe as it normally meant a drop in picture quality. But Clear Image Zoom really is very clever.
First of all remember that in HD you have a UHD sensor, so you can crop into this by 2 times with virtually no loss in image quality anyway. So in HD you have an additional 2x zoom on top of the optical zoom giving a combined total of 24x. In UHD the camera uses a database of textures to determine the best way to process the image. This allows for a virtually transparent extra 1.5x electronic zoom on top of the optical one. This gives you the 18x zoom range indicated on the camera body. In use, the clear image zoom function works seamlessly with the optical zoom. So as you zoom in or out the electronic zoom takes over where the optical one finishes.
There is the very slightest of bumps in the zoom at the changeover point from optical to digital which I don’t think most audiences would spot. After shooting so much recently with Super 35mm cameras I really had forgotten just how much quicker it can be to shoot with a good par-focal zoom with a high zoom ratio (par focal – focus remains constant through the zoom range). The lens is reasonably wide at the equivalent of 29mm going all the way optically to a 348mm in full frame 35mm terms. The only downside really to the zoom is that the widest aperture ramps from f2.8 to f4.5 as you zoom in. This is one of the penalties you pay for having a larger sensor.
Another slight peculiarity of the aperture is that the minimum is f11. Most lenses go down to f16 or smaller, but this is limited to f11. I suspect this may be to prevent something called diffraction limiting. When light travels though a very small aperture it can become slightly defocussed. When you have very small pixels (like when you cram 4K’s worth of pixels onto a smallish sensor) this slight defocussing has a big impact and can lead to soft and blurry looking pictures. I suspect that Sony may be limiting the smallest aperture to f11 to prevent this and help ensure sharp pictures at all times. If you have too much light then don’t worry as you have a 4 way ND filter system where you can choose between clear, 1/4, 1/16th and 1/64 ND.
The lens has three control rings. One for aperture, one for zoom and one for focus. Unfortunately none of these have any markings as they are all electronic controls with no direct connection to the mechanics of the lens. Fortunately though the lens is quite responsive. The iris ring works well with almost no lag. The zoom ring is the weakest link as you can turn the zoom ring faster than the lens can zoom and this can result in some lag as you wait for the zoom to catch up. The zoom speed range is pretty good, using the rocker on the hand grip you can go from a very slow creeping zoom to a respectable 2.5 seconds (approx) from fully wide to 12x.
The focus ring is big and chunky, easy to find and easy to grip. While you can’t crash focus with it the manual focus, it is nice and responsive and doesn’t exhibit any nasty overshoots or other surprises. So manual focussing is nice and easy. This is assisted by a good viewfinder peaking and a focus magnification system that helps you determine the sharpest parts of the image with ease. One observation though is that if you leave the peaking on the default “White” setting it can make some scenes appear over exposed as white sparkles appear across areas of fine detail. For this reason I normally use the Red or Blue peaking colors.
INPUT AND OUTPUT CONNECTIONS
For audio there is a built in stereo mic on the front of the handle that is adequate for background and ambient sound recording. You then have the usual 2x XLR connectors with switchable phantom power on the front of the hand grip plus Sony’s MI Shoe on the top. Using the MI Shoe you can connect Sony’s UWP-D radio microphones directly to the camera via a low cost mounting adapter (SMAD-P3) eliminating the need for wires or batteries in the microphone receiver. It’s a very neat system.
To output your pictures you have an HDSDI connector on the rear of the camera for HD plus an HDMI port that can deliver UHD. There is also a legacy standard definition composite video output, this is one of the few Sony professional cameras to still have this built in. There is of course also a headphone socket on the rear panel of the camera just above the DC in socket.
POWER AND BUILD QUALITY.
The PXW-Z150 runs off readily available and incredibly common Sony NP-F series batteries. It’s a low power camera so a single battery lasts for ages. I got about 3.5 hours from one of the smaller F770 batteries. An F970 would give at least half a working day, so two of those is all that most people would need.
When I first picked the camera up it felt good. Like most modern cameras it’s constructed from a mix of plastics and alloy. The plastics appear to be of good quality and it seems to be well constructed. Perhaps not quite as high quality as the PXW-FS5 or FS7 but this is a much cheaper camera.
Buttons and switches:
There are very few switches on this camera. Just the on/off switch and switches for the audio inputs. But there are plenty of buttons including 6 user assignable buttons. For exposure control you have push buttons that select the gain, white balance and shutter settings and work in conjunction with a small up/down rocker button on the front left of the body. The rocker is used to scroll though the selections available for each of these. In practice this works quite well except that once you select one of these functions, lets say the gain, it remains selected and the rocker switch active unless you press a different function. If you press gain again to try to deselect it, gain will switch to auto and you have to press it again to go back to manual. It’s a minor thing but did result in me ending up accidentally going to auto gain or shutter when I didn’t mean to. I’m sure if you were to use the camera regularly you would soon get used to this.
Iris(aperture) is switched between auto and manual via a dedicated button as is focus. Autofocus works surprisingly well even in low light. It’s not fast but hunting is minimal once it’s focussed and it was able to track moving objects quite well.
While a one inch sensor is bigger than 2/3″ or 1/2″ it’s still significantly smaller than the Super 35mm sensors that are all the range. The Z150 has a lot of pixels squeezed onto quite a small space, so don’t expect amazing low light performance, it’s not that kind of camera. However it’s low light performance is very good for this class of compact all-in-one UHD/4K camera. For all but the most critical applications you can add 12dB of gain without any major dramas to boost the low light performance. +24dB isn’t horrendous if you really have to push the camera and the top limit of +33dB is impressive but rather noisy. In low light the lens works best when it’s wide and at f2.8. Zoom in and it drops down to f4.5 and that does drop your brightness by over a stop or the equivalent of a little over 6dB of gain (1 f-stop = 6dB = Double/half the ISO).
So picture quality… that’s a pretty important factor.
Single small sensor cameras have come a long way in recent years and the Z150 is no exception. The picture quality is pretty good for a budget camera. The smallish sensor with it’s tightly packed and very small pixels does impose some limitations on just how good it can be, especially in dynamic range and sensitivity but it does produce a nice picture for what it is.
Colours are vibrant, noise levels are low and dynamic range perfectly useable. I estimate about 10 stops of dynamic range so it’s not in the same league as the super 35mm cameras, but respectable none the less. Noise levels are low enough that you can afford to slightly under expose the camera and tweak the pictures a little in post production if you need to. This can be useful if you notice the camera is struggling with bright highlights. I used the cameras built in Histogram to help judge exposure and found that if I had bright highlights such as the bright clouds in the sky as seen in the frame grabs here, that the best results were achieved when ensuring the highlights were below the grey 100% line on the histogram. If you expose the highlights all the way to the far right of the histogram (109%) the highlight areas are flattened by the cameras knee and they can look a bit odd. I felt it was best to expose just a little lower as this gives better looking highlights (about half to one stop). If using auto exposure, including a -0.5 to -1 EV offset to the auto exposure (in the camera menu) has the same effect. Chromatic aberration is very low, probably being hidden by in camera processing. and the sharpening/detail correction well balanced. The PXW-Z150 creates good looking images for a single smaller chip sensor out of the box.
But as well as the standard look the camera does include 6 picture profiles which can be found towards the bottom of the camera menu. Each profile gives a quite different look.
As you can see each of these looks is quite different (The Z150 also has several different scene settings that can be used for shooting in full auto under differing lighting conditions, these change the way the camera works out the auto exposure levels).
The dynamic range is no different in each profile. PP2, the DSLR look adds contrast by crushing the mid range and blacks, it’s also highly saturated to give stronger colors, particularly reds. The red flower in the frame grab was not that red.
Picture Profile 3 mixes Rec709 gamma with Sony’s “Pro” color matrix. I like the Pro color settings as it gives true to life colors and it grades quite well if you want to make tweaks in post production.
Picture Profile 4 is Rec709 (ITU709) gamma and color. To me the colors are not as accurate as they could be. The flower looks a little too “electric” compared to the real life color.
The Cinematone Gammas in picture profiles 5 and 6 flatten the image a little and bring up the shadows. This can help a little if you wish to tweak or adjust the images in post production. The Cinematone gammas are not the same as the Cinegammas found in the higher dynamic range cameras like the FS5 or A7.
Personally I did not like the colors associated with the Cinematone color settings. But one of the great things about the Picture Profiles is you can mix and match the various gamma curves and color matrix settings to create your own looks and styles. The “Pro” color matrix offers some very accurate colors and I quite like the look that you get when you combine Cinematone 2 gamma with the Pro color matrix. If you find the colors a little flat you can boost the saturation level a bit, I found that setting the saturation to +15 gave a great look straight from the camera. Don’t be afraid to go into the Picture Profile settings and experiment with different combinations of Gamma curve and Color matrix. Just don’t turn up the Saturation too high, I would not recommend going above +20.
One small annoyance I found with the PXW-Z150 was that the only menu button is up on the top of the hand grip. As I like to fiddle around with the Picture Profile settings I did find it a little awkward to access the menu controls on the very top of the camera, especially if it was at shoulder height or above on a tripod. You can’t see them up there!
Like most modern cameras the PXW-Z150 has a full set of WiFi features including the ability to transfer files wirelessly via ftp to a remote server, to stream live or control the camera from a tablet or mobile phone. A future firmware update will add Sony’s QoS (Quality Of Service) streaming error correction that promises much improved image quality over poor network connections when streaming to a Sony QoS server. To remotely control the camera you need to install Content Browser Mobile on your Android or iOS device.
SUPER SLOW MOTION
One more trick that the PXW-Z150 has is the ability to shoot continuously at up to 120fps (100fps when the camera is set to 50i area). The image is full HD but more highly compressed than the regular HD recordings, plus it’s interlaced, not progressive. In addition the inevitable faster shutter speeds mean that you do need plenty of light to get the very best results. I could definitely see a small drop in image quality when shooting at 100 or 120 fps, but the footage is perfectly useable and it is great to be able to slow down motion by 4 or 5 times. You do need to be a little careful if using the interlaced footage within a progressive production as very fast moving objects that travel through the frame may exhibit the combing artefact common in regular interlace material when show progressively. To get the full 5x slow down the camera needs to be set to 60i area to allow the selection of 120fps.
The PXW-Z150 is a compact jack of all trades camera that’s easy to work with, has a great zoom range and delivers a respectable looking image. The largeish 1″ sensor gives a greater degree of control over the depth of field than you will have with a camera with a 1/2″ or 1/3″ sensor. But it’s isn’t going to give you that super shallow film look unless you are using longer focal lengths.
I think the Z150 will find a home in many corporate and industrial production applications. The ability to shoot in 4K gives the flexibility to crop int the image to re-frame shots for HD productions. And the price is good too, you get a lot of camera for the money.
Today Sony launched a couple of the new cameras. The MC2500E a very low cost, fairly basic shoulder mount AVCHD camcorder with a single 1/4″ CMOS sensor and a new full size, shoulder mount XDCAM camcorder the PXW-X500.
This is basically a replacement for the PMW-500 with the added benefit of the XAVC and SStP codecs. Like the PMW-500 and PDW-850 this is one of the few cameras to still use CCD sensors, so no flash bands or skew, making it a great news gathering workhorse. It has some new features not found on the PMW-500 including upto 120fps S&Q motion (looks like this is an option) and GPS. It looks like this possibly has the same very good sensors as the PMW-500 but with new signal processing and improved noise reduction. More details can be found on the Sony web site.
So really that just leaves the PMW-200 without XAVC. It can’t be long before we see a PMW-200 replacement with XAVC.
As the owner of a Sony AX100, which is a really great little 4K and HD camcorder I wasn’t really all that excited when I saw the first prototype of the X70 at Broadcast Asia back in June. You see in the past Sony have done this many times, taken a high end consumer camcorder, updated the firmware, added a handle and then sold it for a higher price as a pro camcorder. In the past, there has in reality been little difference between the cheaper consumer model and the more expensive pro version.
The PXW-X70 is different. This is much more than an AX100 with new firmware. For a start the body of the camera is quite different. The right hand side of the X70 is quite different to the AX100. It has a much fatter hand grip. This makes the camera much easier to hold comfortably for long periods. It also makes space for a full size HDSDI output and a full size HDMI output. But the differences don’t stop there.
On the top of the hand grip there is a large assignable button that is normally set to act as a control for the focus magnification function. This button falls immediately under your index finger when your shooting. In front of this is a new larger and easier to use zoom rocker and then in front of that is another assignable button, this one set as a one push auto iris button – very nice!
At the back of the handle there is a small joystick that ends up under your thumb (just where it needs to be). This joystick can be used to navigate through the cameras menu system. So, without taking your hand out of the hand grip you can check focus, zoom in and out, set your exposure and go through the menu system. If only it was this easy on all of Sony’s cameras! Ergonomically this camera is really good, especially when you consider how small it is.
The camera has a nice 12x stabilised, optical zoom lens, behind which sits a 1 inch 20 megapixel sensor. In video mode about 14 million pixels are used, so even in 4K (there will be a paid 4K upgrade option next year) there are more pixels than needed for full resolution. Rather than let this extra resolution go to waste you can activate Sony’s “clear image zoom” function that works seamlessly with the optical zoom to give you a 24x zoom range in HD.
The clear image zoom really is remarkably transparent. If you look hard enough at the image, on a big screen, when it’s zoomed all the way in you can just about discern a very slight softness to the image, but frankly I don’t think this is any worse than the softness you might see from a compact optical 24x zoom. It certainly doesn’t look electronic and unless you have side by side, with and without test clips I don’t think you would know that the clear image zoom has been used.
If 24x is not enough there is also a further digital extender, controlled by a button on the right side of the lens that doubles the digital zoom. This you can see, the image is a little degraded at 48x, but it’s not terrible, might be handy for a breaking news story where you can’t get close to the subject.
As well as the optical stabiliser in the lens the camera also has a switchable electronic stabiliser. The active steadyshot is very effective at smoothing out even the shakiest of hands. But it does tend to hang on or grab hold of the image a bit. So when you do deliberately move the camera it tends to try to stabilise the scene until it can no longer correct for the cameras movement at which point the scene is suddenly released and starts to move. If your using a tripod you definitely want to just use the standard steadyshot and not the active mode.
The pictures are recorded using either XAVC, AVCHD or standard definition DV to SD cards. For XAVC you must use SDXC cards, but these are cheap and readily available these days. There are two card slots and you can choose between relay record where the camera will switch from slot A to slot B once A is full, or you can make two simultaneous recordings on both cards at the same time. This gives an instant backup if you need it.
XAVC HD RECORDING:
The XAVC HD recordings are 10 bit 422 long GoP at 50Mb/s, 35Mb/s or 25Mb/s. The quality of the 50Mb/s recordings is amazing with no compression artefacts that I can see (there must be some, I just can’t see them). Even the 25Mb/s recordings look really good. You can shoot at up to 60fps in 60i mode and 50fps in 50i mode. In 60i mode you also have 24fps.
Considering this is a highly compact, single chip camera the images it produces are really very good. They don’t have that typical small sensor camera look. The pictures are remarkably noise free at 0db and largely free of artefacts. I tend to find that small handycams often suffer from what I would describe as “busy” pictures. Pictures where perhaps there is a lot of added sharpening or where the pixels are read in special ways to make a sharp picture. This makes edges slightly flickery and gives the pictures a tell tale small sensor look. The X70 with it’s big sensor and abundance of pixels just doesn’t have this “busy” look.
The pictures really look like they come from a pro camera. Occasionally very fine, high contrast details like white text on a black background can look a little busy, but this is very minor. Dynamic range is quite respectable, it’s not as good as a PMW-300, but not too bad for a compact handycam (I estimate about 10 to 11 stops of DR).
One thing I did find with this camera is that because there is so little noise and the codec is so good, you could quite comfortably shoot about a stop darker than you would normally and then just bring the image up a bit in post. Shooting a little darker helps the camera handle bright highlights and then in post you can just bring up the shadows and mid tones with a simple colour correction to give a nice exposure. I wish I had realised this when I shot the demo video. I would have exposed a little on the dark side and then tweaked the shots in post. There’s so little noise at 0db and so few artefacts that the image holds up to this really well. If your using auto exposure you can set an exposure offset to allow for this in the menu.
The X70 is pretty sensitive and 9db of gain is quite useable, so shooting indoors in a typical home or at a wedding venue without extra lights should be no problem. Ramp it up to +33db and it see’s better in the dark than I do, but there is a fair bit of noise at +33db.
As well as being generally rather sensitive the PXW-X70 also has a nightshot mode that bypasses the cameras IR filter and includes a switchable infra-red light, so you can shoot in total darkness if you want.
To see what you are shooting there is a 3.5″ LCD panel. This panel is higher resolution than the one on the AX100 and gives a sharp and pretty accurate image. On the back of the camera there is a small OLED viewfinder. This little OLED is pretty good. It has great contrast and is pretty sharp for a small finder. It’s a great feature on bright sunny days when the LCD can become harder to see.
CRISP, SHARP IMAGES:
The HD images are crisp and sharp without any obvious sharpening, almost certainly a result of having a 4K ready sensor. The lack of obvious detail correction helps give the pictures a pleasing, more filmic look. The camera has picture profiles so if you want you can soften or sharpen the images if you choose. As well as detail and aperture controls there are also controls for gamma (standard, still, Cinematone1, Cinematone2, ITU709) and color. The color controls are similar to those on the FS700 where you can adjust the saturation as well as R, G, B, C, M, Y and K brightness. In addition there is a choice of 6 different preset color modes plus black and white.
The camera can be controlled either fully automatically or fully manual as well as various in between modes. There is a switch on the back of the camera to switch between auto and manual. In manual you can control the iris, shutter and gain by pressing one of three buttons along the bottom edge of the camera and the using a small wheel just below the lens to set what you have selected. In practice this actually works quite well. There is another button for white balance control on the side of the camera with the usual presets plus auto white balance. Just under the Manual/Auto switch there is a selector for the built in ND filters. I recently purchased a A7s DSLR type camera and I had forgotten what a fiddle it can be to use a camera that doesn’t have built in ND’s. So it’s really good to see proper ND filters on the PXW-X70 as they really help you manage your depth of field.
On the lens there is a single large control ring that can be used to focus the lens or to act as a manual zoom ring. The focus is responsive and although I don’t normally like round and round servo focus rings this one wasn’t too bad.
There really is so much to this camera that it would take a small book to go through all the features. For example there’s the touch screen LCD that can be used for touch to focus or touch to expose where you just touch the part of the screen you want to expose or focus on. There’s a full set of exposure and focus aids including peaking, histogram, zebras etc.
On the top of the camera you have Sony’s new MI shoe (Multi-Interface) for connecting accessories like the supplied handle with XLR audio inputs. The supplied detachable handle is really well made and very secure when attached. One small note is that by default when you attach the handle to the MI-shoe the camera switches to XLR audio automatically by default. So if you don’t actually have a mic connected to the handle you won’t have any audio as the internal mic gets shut off. You have to go in to the audio section of the menu to enable the internal mic if you want to use the handle but want to use the built in mic.
If you want to do time-lapse or slow stuff down the camera has S&Q motion that goes from 1fps to 60fps at 1920×1080.
The camera has WiFi and NFC and allows remote control via Content Browser Mobile and simply touching an NFC enabled phone or tablet against the side of the camera will pair the camera with the phone or tablet. In the future following a firmware update you will be able to use the camera to stream your content live via U-stream.
Finally – build quality. It’s really well made. It feels nice and solid, it feels like it will really last. Don’t tell Sony, but I dropped the camera from waist hight while I was using it. It survived, no problem at all.
In conclusion: This is a nice little camera. It’s very easy to operate. The picture quality is very good for such a compact camera, the only thing that lets it down just a bit is the highlight handling. But the camera is so clean that you can afford to expose a little lower to compensate for this. Since shooting the demo video I have been playing with the picture profiles to help with the highlight exposure and I found that bringing up the black gamma really helps as it lifts the mid range allowing you to expose slightly lower.
The large sensor, combined with the switchable built in ND filters gives you much greater control over the depth of field than normally possible with a compact handycam.
I think you have to remember that this is a small camera. It isn’t a PXW-X180 and it never will be, but if your budget is tight and you want an easy to use compact camera this could be the one for you. I think it would be a good fit as a “B” camera or for use in lower budget corporate productions. In addition the PXW-X70 would be a good camera to give to PA’s and producers or to hand off to inexperienced shooters for fly-on-the-wall productions.
Here’s a short clip to keep you going until later in the week when I will upload the full length version of my video “Dancers on the line” shot with the new Sony PXW-X70 camcorder. As well as the film there will be a behind the scenes video with some insight into what the camera is like to shoot with and how the images look. It’s all good stuff, this is a great little compact handycam and a pretty big step up from the AX100.
It has a nice big 1″ size sensor, built in ND filters and a nice power zoom lens. It records XAVC long GOP 10bit 422 at 50Mbps at up to 60fps. Also has AVCHD and standard definition DV. The ergonomics are brilliant, clearly Sony have done a lot of works on this area and it a delight to operate run and gun or when your pressed for time. You get great battery life and the pictures are pretty amazing for a compact handycam. You can even dial in your own picture profiles for a custom look. Dual SD card slots allow for relay recording or dual card recording, there’s an full size SDI and HDMI out too. LAst thing for now… it’s 4K ready. There will be a paid upgrade to 4K option in the first half of next year. More details to come as the week progresses.
Here’s the press release from Sony.
Basingstoke, July 29, 2014: Sony has today launched the 4K-ready PXW-X70, the first compact XDCAM professional camcorder ever produced. Expanding the popular file-based XDCAM family to a new smaller form factor and lower price point, Sony has combined stunning picture quality, speed of shooting and robust performance into a package which is ideal for a wide range of applications from news gathering and documentary to events work.??
The PXW-X70 features a 1.0 type Exmor® R CMOS Sensor with a resolution of 20 megapixels. The sensor, which is even larger than the Super 16mm film frame, delivers high resolution and fantastic low light performance, as well as offering more depth of field control as demanded by today’s diverse shooting requirements. The new camcorder has the ability to record High Definition in XAVC Long GOP, enabling 422 10-bit sampling at 50 Mbit/s. This in-turn supports a broadcast-quality workflow, increasingly adopted by productions in many different professional applications.
This addition to the expanding next generation XDCAM family follows the recently announced PXW-X180 and PXW-X160 and builds upon Sony’s successful heritage of compact professional camcorders. The PXW-X70 is the first professional compact camcorder from Sony to include Wi-Fi-enabled control via Smart Phone or Tablet using the Content Browser Mobile application. An upcoming release will also provide customers with the ability to upgrade the PXW-X70 to record in 4K Ultra High Definition, with file transferring, and live video streaming capabilities.
“This first compact member of the XDCAM family brings the performance and workflow benefits associated with XAVC to an even wider range of shooting scenarios,” said Robbie Fleming, Product Marketing Manager, at Sony Professional Solutions Europe. “Over the past couple of years we’ve seen the broadcast industry really embrace the picture quality benefits associated with large sensors; the one-inch sensor at the heart of the PXW-X70 sets a new standard for colour, depth and texture in a professional compact camcorder. Coupled with the ability to upgrade to 4K, this represents a multipurpose, future-proof option for customers looking for a tough camcorder which doesn’t compromise on image.”
Key features of the PXW-X70
• 1.0 type Exmor® R CMOS Sensor and Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* lens for stunning picture quality. High sensitivity and fantastic resolution with 14.2 million effective pixels delivers striking detail and colours, even in low light conditions. The lens offers a 12x Optical Zoom, which can be increased to 24x with Clear Image Zoom while retaining full resolution thanks to Super Resolution Technology. Zoom performance can be doubled at any point with a Digital Extender by up to 48x.
• Compact, lightweight XDCAM camcorder packed with adaptable professional functions. The PXW-X70 weighs less than 1.4kg, including the XLR handle unit, battery (NP-FV70), lens hood and large eye-cup. It offers professional interfaces such as 3G-SDI and HDMI output connectors plus an XLR x 2 handle unit with zoom lever. Other professional features include a manual lens ring that can intuitively control zoom and focus, ergonomic palm grip with large zoom lever, two SD memory card slots for backup, simultaneous and relay recording, and a three-level switchable ND filter.
• Breadth of recording format capabilities. Provides multiple choices depending on application required, including XAVC, AVCHD and DV® file-based recording. When recording in XAVC, the PXW-X70 uses the MXF file format, efficiently compressing full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution using the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 CODEC. Image sampling is 4:2:2 10-bit with high-efficiency Long-GOP compression at 50 Mbps, 35 Mbps or 25 Mbps.
• Built-in Wi-Fi control functionality for monitoring and remote control versatility. Near Field Communication functions enable easy, one-touch wireless LAN connection to a smartphone or tablet, while the Content Browser Mobile application allows confirmation of shot angles and operation of the camcorder by remote, including field angle setting, spot focus and iris adjustment.
• Upcoming announcements to add even greater, future-proof functionality. Sony is set to make upgrades to 4K and file transfer and streaming by Wi-Fi function available for the PXW-X70 in the coming months.
At last weeks Broadcast Asia trade show in Singapore, Sony revealed that they are working on a new highly compact XDCAM camcorder. They showed a prototype camera that was under a glass cover (which was a working unit).
Very few details are available at this time. The camera shown appears to be based on either the Sony AX100 4K camcorder or the similar CX900 HD camcorder. These both use a 1″, 20MP CMOS sensor that produces really rather good images (although it does suffer from a fair bit of skew/rolling shutter) and have 8 bit XAVC-S recording to SDXC or SDHC cards in 4K and HD in the AX100 and HD only in the CX900. This new camcorder will be able to record using 10 bit 422 XAVC long GoP, probably at 50Mb/s like the new PXW-X180. Whether it will also be able to record the XDCAM Mpeg2 codec is less clear, personally I suspect not.
This camera follows on from the Sony tradition of taking a top end compact consumer model, tweaking the recording codecs, adding a few more pro style features and adding an XLR input. So it’s no surprise to see this really. Given the great images from the CX900 and AX100 I would imagine that this new camcorder will pack quite a punch for such a small unit. The AX100/CX900 have a 12x optical zoom with image stabilisation and the ability to digitally increase the zoom range to 18x in 4K(AX100) and 24x in HD with very little loss of image quality.
EDIT: I Note that 1: There are no 4K badges on the camera body as the AX100 has. 2: The zoom range is noted as 24x on the camera body. This makes me suspect that this camera will be HD only.
Here are some pictures of the unit shown in Singapore.
I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with a pre-production Sony PXW-X180 here in Singapore. I put it through it’s paces shooting around the botanical gardens, China town and Clarke Quay.
For a 1/3″ camcorder it produces a remarkably good image. Really low noise, very clean images, much better than anything I have seen from any other 1/3″ camcorder. The 25x zoom is impressive, the variable ND filter is very clever and it might seem trivial but the rear viewfinder was very nice. It’s a very high resolution OLED, much, much better than the LCOS EVF’s found on many other models.
The zoom lens has proper manual calibrated controls with end stops, much like a PMW-200. The ability to use a multitude of codecs is fantastic and perhaps better still is the fact that you can use SDXC cards for XDACM or XAVC at up to 50Mb/s, so even XDCAM HD422 can be recorded on this low cost media. This will be great for news or other situations where you need to hand off your media at the end of the shoot.
A more in depth review will follow soon, but for now here’s the video. Un-graded, un touched, straight from the camera footage. Looks very nice if you ask me.
5 years is a long time in the video world. Cameras come and go, technologies change, but for 5 years there has been one camera that has remained essentially unchanged and that’s the versatile and well regarded Sony EX1 and EX1R.
5 years ago I was asked by Sony to review a new handheld camcorder, that camcorder was the EX1. A camera that went on to change the way I work and the way many production companies work, because for the first time you had a handheld camera that could take on the bulky shoulder mounts in terms of picture quality.
The EX1 was the first handheld camcorder to offer full resolution and low noise HD pictures thanks to it’s 3 half inch 1920 x 1080 sensors. Not only did it have great image quality but it also had a great lens with 3 separate rings for focus, iris and zoom with accurate calibrated scales on each, this was a real cameraman’s camera, a delight to use compared to anything similar that had come before.
As a result the EX1, EX1R and the semi shoulder version the EX3, became the industry standard for handheld production. I owned one of each and never, ever, regretted my purchases. However, there has always been one small limitation with the EX camera line. They record using XDCAM EX Mpeg 2 at 35 Mbit/s. Personally I have never had a problem with this, I think the recorded pictures are fantastic, but the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) has very specific minimum specifications for broadcast television production. There are several tiers within the specifications and the EX cameras are permitted by the EBU within tier 2J for use in news and video journalism, but for long form productions the minimum bit rate for recording is 50 Mbit/s with 4:2:2 colour space. This restriction means that for long form broadcast television production in Europe you can only use an EX1 or EX3 with the use of an external recorder. Many production companies do exactly this, an EX camcorder with a NanoFlash is one of the standard set ups approved for many broadcast programmes. In the last couple of years other manufacturers have produced handheld cameras that meet the 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 recording minimum and some of these have been approved for use in broadcast productions. But most of these cameras don’t have the large ½” sensors of the EX cameras so often struggle in low light. Low light performance is often critical in observational documentaries’ and many of the other types of programmes that involve the use of handheld camcorders.
Now, all that’s about to change. You see, Sony have been listening and as a result of customer feedback they developed the new PMW-200 handheld camcorder.
Designed to meet the needs of broadcast productions the camera records on to solid state media using 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 XDCAM HD. This is the exact same codec as used in the highly regarded PDW-700, F800 and PMW-500 shoulder mount broadcast camcorders. As well as 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 you can also record using the same 35 Mbit/s 4:2:0 codec as the original EX cameras as well as standard definition DV. When your using the XDCAM HD422 codec you have the ability to copy your footage as video clips directly to Sony’s XDCAM optical disc system for easy and reliable long term storage and archive. A further benefit of this is that when you copy the clips to an XDCAM Professional Disc you will automatically generate proxy files on the disc, so if you already use proxies in your workflow you can now extend this to all your footage.
But what about the image quality? There’s little point in having a great codec if the front end of the camera can’t deliver great pictures. The PMW-200 uses essentially the same sensors and lens as the EX1R, so the image quality is very good.
The lens is made by Fujinon and is a 14x zoom starting at 5.8mm. It has 3 rings, one each for focus, zoom and iris. Each is marked with accurate calibration marks. The focus ring slides forwards for auto focus and slides back for full manual control. In manual it behaves and feels like a true pro broadcast lens.
The zoom ring can be used manually or it can be servo driven and controlled by the main zoom rocker on the hand grip or a small zoom rocker on the handle. This zoom has an improved servo design and as a result slow zooms are a little smoother than on the EX1R. The iris ring can be switched between auto and manual and is silky smooth. Should you choose you can add an offset of up to +/- 2 stops to the auto iris to help deal with tricky lighting situations, the widest aperture is a very useful f1.9. Because this lens is very similar to the original EX lens you can use the same Sony zoom through wide angle adapter if you need extra wide shots and it has the same connector for remote zoom control. One small improvement is the lens servo motor. The PMW-200 lens has an improved servo that give better slow zoom performance. It’s not quite up to broadcast lens smoothness but it’s an improvement over the EX1R.
Between the lens and the sensors there are 2 ND filters operated by a sliding switch giving you 3 positions, clear, 1/8th (0.9 or 3 stops) and 1/64th (1.8 or 6 stops) so the camera can cope with the vast majority of lighting situations without the need for additional filtration. The 3 sensors are the same 1920×1080 ½” sensors that made the EX cameras so special. There have been some improvements to the image processing and noise reduction in the cameras electronics and as a result there is a small reduction in noise and as a result useable sensitivity.
You can see the reduction in noise in my frame grabs from both a PMW-200 and EX1R. In my opinion the EX1R was the benchmark for image quality in a handheld camera and I think we are close to the limits of the sensitivity that can be achieved with current sensor technologies. So I don’t think it is a surprise that there isn’t a dramatic change. The small improvements are most welcome and I really like the images the PMW-200 produces.
The pictures are rich and organic looking, they have very good dynamic range, I estimate a little over 11 stops and the noise levels are low enough to allow the judicious use of a little gain where needed. Sure there is a little more noise than you would get with a modern 2/3” or Super35mm camcorder but that’s just down to the laws of physics. Bigger sensors and bigger pixels give a better signal to noise ratio and being realistic your not going to fit 3x 2/3” sensors in a handheld camera. The half inch design of the PMW-200 is a great compromise, small enough for a compact handheld design, but big enough to give good low light performance and dynamic range. This isn’t just my opinion, this is also borne out by the EBU’s specification for long form broadcast production. The specification is know as EBU R 118 (http://tech.ebu.ch/docs/r/r118.pdf ) and for long form programmes (tier 2L) the EBU specifies a minimum of 3 full resolution half inch 1920×1080 sensors (there is an exception for 3 x 1/3” camera’s that can be shown to meet additional testing criteria) recording to a minimum of 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 and the PMW-200 fully complies with this.
Picture Profiles: As with every other XDCAM camcorder the PMW-200 gives the end user the ability customise many aspects of the images it produces. This is done through the use of the Picture Profiles menu. You can change the cameras gamma curves to fine tune the dynamic range and contrast in the pictures. There are 6 standard gamma curves which can be used in conjunction with either an automatic knee or manual knee as well as 4 Hypergamma curves.
Standard gamma 5 is a REC-709 compliant gamma curve and is the default gamma. The Hypergammas are the same curves as used on the PMW-500 and PDW-700. These are very useful as they offer improved dynamic range (460%) compared to the standard gammas but more importantly they do not use conventional knee compression.
The Hypergammas gently roll off highlights in a much more natural looking way than the harsh electronic looking compression that a traditional knee circuit introduces. Hypergammas 1 & 2 are broadcast safe, never recording above 100%. Hypergammas 3 & 4 have the same curves as 1 & 2 but allow the use of superwhite recording levels (109%) to give you a little more data to play with in post production.
As well as gamma the picture profiles allow you to choose from 6 different preset colour matrices and allow you to modify the colour saturation and colour vectors. This makes it easy to match the PMW-200 to other cameras or to create a number of in-camera looks. Matrix 1 gives a warm look with a little extra red, 3 is a little less vibrant, 5 & 6 give deeper blues with 6 being a little less saturated than 5.
If you want a sharper looking picture you can use the detail controls to boost the edge contrast enhancement. Just be aware that too much detail correction can lead to ugly black edges around objects. Reducing the detail level below -20 starts to soften the picture if you want a slightly defocused look. As well as the detail controls there is also a separate control for aperture correction. This is a high frequency boost that can be used to enhance subtle textures and fine details on things like fabrics. I found that by setting the detail level to -8 and aperture to +30 the camera produced pictures with a nice crispness without looking artificially enhanced.
There are many other adjustments that can be made in the picture profiles including knee settings, black gamma, a multi matrix or colour correction matrix and skin tone detail settings. I urge anyone that uses one of these camera to learn about what the various settings do as the picture profiles are a great way to tailor the camera to meet your exact needs.
The PMW-200’s main menu structure is again very similar to the EX cameras. It is logically laid out and easy to navigate. There sections for the camera settings, audio settings, outputs, monitoring, timecode and general system settings. In the camera menu you’ll find settings for the more advanced modes that the camera has, which include Interval Record for time-lapse, Frame Record for animation and stop frame filming, Picture Cache and S&Q (slow and quick) motion. The Picture Cache mode is particularly useful for capturing unexpected events. In this mode the camera continuously buffers the video from the camera sensors into an internal memory. When you press the record button recording stars immediately but in addition the (up to) 15 seconds prior to pressing the record button are also recorded. I use this mode a lot when I’m shooting thunderstorms and lightning as I can simply point the camera at the storm, wait for the lightning to strike, then press the record button.
The interval record mode allows you to shoot great time-lapse sequences with ease. For sunsets and sunrises and other scenes where you may have a big exposure change you can also take advantage of the cameras clever TLCS (total level Control System) function. This is a sophisticated kind of auto exposure mode. I’m not normally a fan of auto exposure but TLCS allows you to set limits for the amount of automatic gain, iris, shutter speed and the response time. By limiting the maximum gain to around +9 db you can be sure that your pictures won’t become too grainy as the sun sets. With TLCS the camera will still be able to correctly expose while the sun is still up thanks to the auto shutter and auto iris. TLCS is a very useful tool in the PMW-200’s arsenal.
With S&Q motion you can shoot at up to 50/60 frames per second (depending on region settings) at 720p for slow motion and effects shots. You can choose any speed you want from 1 fps up to the maximum in 1 frame increments. Below 25/30 fps you can use the full camera resolution of 1920×1080.
Talking of frame rates, the PMW-200 can be switched between both PAL and NTSC regions. As a result it can shoot at a multitude of frame rates at full 1920 x 1080 including 23.98p, 25p, 29.97p, 50i, 60i and at 720p it can record at 50p and 60p.
Recording Media Choices: The PMW-200 is designed to record on to SxS cards but you can also use SD cards, memory sticks and Sony’s new XQD cards via adapters. When you use the camera in any of the 4:2:2 modes the camera must format the cards using the same UDF format as the full size XDCAM optical disc cameras and XDCAM HD422 cameras. In UDF mode you can only use SxS cards. If you want to use SD cards or memory sticks then you have to use FAT formatting and this restricts you to the same 35 Mbit/s 4:2:0 recording modes as an EX camera. I strongly recommend that you use SxS cards. They are incredibly reliable and very fast. They are designed for video applications and in 5 years of using them I’ve never suffered a failure despite freezing them in ice and washing them in the washing machine (neither of which I actually recommend). You can offload media from your cards by connecting the camera to a PC using USB or by using the Sony SBAC-US10 USB card reader. If your computer has an express card slot you can insert the cards directly into the computer or if it has a Thunderbolt port you can use the Sonnet Echo Express card reader for incredibly fast transfers around 6x real time for 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 material, even faster for 35 Mbit/s.
Audio is as you would expect from any professional handheld camcorder except this one can record 4 channels of audio at the same time. There is a built in stereo microphone at the front of the cameras handle as well as two XLR connectors for external microphones or line level inputs. The XLR’s have phantom power if you need it. It is possible to record the internal microphones with automatic gain to audio channels 3 and 4 while the external mic inputs are recorded to 1 and 2. On the side of the camera there are controls for selecting the internal or external audio along with switches to move between automatic audio gain or manual gain plus a pair of knobs to set the manual gain level.
A 3.5mm headphone socket is provided for monitoring, the volume for which can be adjusted using up and down buttons on the camera handle. If your using a single external audio source such as a mono microphone you can map this to both audio channels in the cameras audio menu. Above the XLR audio connectors there is a microphone holder. This is attached to the camera body via a rubber mount and looks to be a lot more robust that the mic holder on the EX cameras that did have a tendency to break off if roughly treated.
Great New LCD! The PMW-200 has both a 3.5” LCD screen and a small electronic viewfinder. The 3.5” LCD flips up and out from the top of the camera handle. This means that it can easily be seen from the left side of the camera as well as above and below the camera. In addition it can be twisted right around and laid back flat against the top of the handle or flipped up vertically. In the vertical position it can be viewed from the right side of the camera.
For self shooters and one man bands this is really useful as it means you can conduct an interview from either side of the camera and still check your framing. When the screen is folded flat against the handle it keeps the camera compact and the LCD is less likely to be damaged when it’s not sticking out from the side of the camera.
The screen itself is bright and clear and has a remarkably wide viewing angle. Like many LCD’s the LCD on the original EX cameras only has a useable viewing angle of about 15 degrees. If you are not looking square on at most conventional LCD’s the contrast and blacks are no longer accurate and this can lead to exposure errors. The new LCD on the PMW-200 has a viewing angle in excess of 120 degrees, you can see it from almost any angle. The contrast and brightness remains near constant even when viewed at very acute angles. This makes it much easier to use and should help reduce exposure errors. The new screen is also slightly higher resolution. One small criticism here is that on the pre-production camera that I had for review the screen was quite glossy. I hope the production screens have a less glossy finish as I prefer a matt finish.
The electronic viewfinder on the back of the camera handle is the same as the one on the EX1R. I’ve seen worse, but I have also seen better. It’s adequate.
If you make use of the cameras coloured peaking or expanded focus assistance you can focus with it, but blink rapidly and you get a rainbow effect due to the way the red green and blue pixels are displayed one after another. The expanded focus function works while recording and is easily selected thanks to a button on the hand grip just by the zoom rocker.
There are buttons on the side of the camera body for zebras and focus so these can be selected quickly and easily if you need them.
If you want to connect an external monitor or viewfinder there is a comprehensive range of input and output connections on the rear of the camera. You have HDMI and HDSDi. Both can be used at the same time should you need to. You can down convert from HD to SD while you shoot if you need to provide a standard definition external feed. If you don’t need to connect an external device you can turn off the HDMI and HDSDi outputs to save battery power. If your shooting at 23.98p (24p) you can choose whether your output is 59.94i with pull down or straight 23.98p.
Just below the full size HDSDi BNC are two additional BNC connectors. The top one is for timecode and can be set to timecode in or timecode out. This is extremely useful on multi-camera shoots for synchronising the timecode on multiple cameras. Below that is a connector for Genlock In or Video Out, again an extremely useful feature that makes the PMW-200 useable in studio, multi-camera and 3D applications. Next to the BNC connectors is a USB port for off loading footage from media in the camera. There’s an i-link connector (firewire) and AV out connector that provides stereo line level audio and composite video out.
Playback Mode. One frustration with the EX cameras is the need to switch the camera between specific recording and playback modes. To go from camera mode to playback mode takes about 8 seconds, that’s not really that long, but if you are playing back a clip and then suddenly need to shoot something, that 8 seconds feels like forever. There is no separate playback mode with the PMW-200. You simply press the thumbnail button or play button on the handle to view your clip thumbnails or play back the last clip. If you need to record again in a hurry you simply press either of the record buttons (one on the top of the handle, one on the hand grip) and within a second the camera will start recording. This is a big improvement and very welcome. The camera switches on faster than an EX1 and there is even a fast start mode where you press the record button while turning the camera on to power up very quickly and go straight into record. Another feature coming through a firmware update and the addition of a CBK-WA01 wifi dongle will be the ability to control some of the cameras functions using an iOS or Android device. I have limited information on this but you should be able to control focus, iris, white balance and rec start/stop and maybe some other functions as well. In addition the camera should support data logging and metadata management using XM-Pilot over WiFi (CBK-WA01 required).
Power Options: The PMW-200 is a 12v camera. It uses the same BP-U30 and BP-U60 batteries as the EX1/EX3, PMW-100 and PMW-F3 cameras. It can also be powered by an external 12v power supply. The connector for external power is tucked away inside the battery compartment so you won’t be able to use any of the 3rd party batteries that use a separate cable to connect the power. It also means that you can’t run the camera off an external power supply while you hot swap the batteries. I think it’s a shame that Sony have done this.
Power consumption is higher and the camera does get quite warm compared to an EX1. This I suspect is largely down to the extra processing power packed into the camera, not just for the 50Mbit/s 4:2:2 encoding but also for the improved image processing. I still got around 3 hours out of a well used BPU-60. To get rid of the extra heat the camera is covered in cooling vents. As handheld cameras like this get used outside in all kinds of weather I was a little concerned about water ingress.
However after shooting for a weekend at the Royal International Air Tattoo in showery rain I didn’t experience any problems. The engineers at Sony tell me that there are shields inside the camera to prevent any moisture that might get in from doing any damage. As always when shooting in the rain you should really use a rain cover with any camera anyway, but we do all get caught out in a shower from time to time.
Conclusions: Well I got to use the PMW-200 in Singapore in bright sunshine, high heat and humidity. I also shot night time cityscapes with it. It shrugged off the heat and performed flawlessly. The low light footage looks really good. Then I spent a week with it in the UK, putting it through its paces on a couple of paying shoots for clients. One a corporate video, the other shoot involving running around on the apron of a military airbase filming aircraft preparing for an airshow. In addition I used it to shoot the video review that accompanies this written review. At first I just saw the PMW-200 as an EX1R with the addition of 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2, which in itself is a nice improvement. But then when I started to find some of the subtle improvements like the better zoom servo, the wide LCD viewing angle, reduced picture noise and improved handling the PMW-200 really started to grow on me. It’s not significantly different from the EX1R and that’s good. The EX1R is a great camera and the PMW-200 builds on the strengths of the EX series. I believe this camera will do extremely well. It’s just what’s needed for many broadcast productions. Best in class low light performance. Beautiful full resolution images, easy to use and an industry proven workflow that meets broadcast standards.
Disclosure. I am a Sony ICE (Independent Certified Expert). I am NOT an employee of Sony, but I do work with Sony helping with training, education and events. I was paid a fee by Sony to cover the costs of shooting and editing the video and the time taken to write this review. I was not asked to write a favourable review and the reviews (seen here and on the Sony web site) were not modified, edited or changed by Sony from my original submission other than a correction to the EBU R118 specifications (added note about 1/3″ dispensation). The views expressed here are my own and are based on my experience using a pre-production camera for 2 days in Singapore and 10 days in the UK.
Well the rumours have been circulating for some time and prototypes have been seen at various trade shows, but the full details have been sparse to say the least. Well here it is, it’s called the FS-100 and it’s a quite radical design from the Sony Shinegawa factory. The Super 35mm NXCAM shares the same sensor as the new PMW-F3, so the images will be excellent, but the design of the camera body itself could not be more different. If you don’t like it… well you can blame me and several other DoP’s that were invited to attend brainstorming sessions with the Sony engineers. In the photo below you can see the white board from one of those sessions and you can see where we (me and the other DoP’s) discussed ideas like a modular design with removable handles and how we hold handycam cameras.
The end result is this rather quirky but in my opinion, really quite clever and versatile design. The top viewfinder allows you to use the camera cradled in your hands in front of you, either using just the LCD panel or the monocular viewfinder. When your doing interviews you can twist it so that it is visible from either side of the camera, excellent for those interviews where you are both camera operator and interviewer. It allows you to alternate the sight lines from left to right of the camera for more varied interviews. It’s also useful for shooting in cramped locations such as in the front of a car as you can hold the camera sideways in front of you to shoot… I mean film…. the driver and still see what your getting.
Unlike most traditional camcorders the camera can be stripped down to just the sensor/recorder body. You can remove the top handle, mic holder and hand grip. In addition it has a multitude of tripod mounting holes on the top, bottom and even one side. On the base of the camera there are 6x 1/4″ threaded holes and wait for it… 2x 3/8″ holes. Hooray!! On the top there are a further 3x 1/4″ holes and there is even one on the side, revealed when you detach the removable hand grip. This is going to be fantastic for use on cars as a 35mm minicam or crash-cam. It will make getting all those different car chase angles so easy as a few small suction mounts will allow you to mount the stripped down camera just about anywhere. I can see the FS-100 becoming a “must-have” B camera to compliment my F3. The 1/4″ thread on the side of the camera means you can mount it on it’s side for portrait style shooting for digital signage or to get the maximum resolution when shooting people for chroma key.
While the camera does come with a detachable handgrip, there is no zoom rocker like the F3. That’s because the camera is primarily aimed at those using DSLR lenses which don’t have servo zooms, although PL mount adapters are available. The front end of the camera has Sony’s E mount for interchangeable lenses. It will come with the rather nice (if a little slow) 18-200mm f3.5-f6.3 optically stabilised zoom lens and the auto focus and auto iris do work! As well as Sony’s own G series lenses for the NEX cameras you can get adapters for Sony A mount and most other lenses. Do consider that if you are planning on using heavy PL lenses that the E mount is not designed for such high loads, so an additional lens support system should be used.
On the input and output front the FS-100 has most of the connectors you would expect to find on an NXCAM camcorder, with one notable exception… HDSDi. There is no HDSDi, but don’t panic! The camera does have HDMI and the quality available from HDMI is every bit as good as HDSDi. No word as to whether it’s 8 bit or 10 bit though. Sony are well aware that the one thing missing from HDMI is normally timecode, but even that has been addressed and it will be possible to export timecode in the HDMI stream, although at the moment we need to wait for the HDMI recorders to update them to accept timecode via HDMI. There are 2 XLR connectors for audio in. One on the right side and one on the rear, there is also the usual mini-D component out and RCA/Phono audio and composite video outputs.
When you start to delve into the cameras frame rates and recording modes things get really interesting as the FS100 will record full 1920×1080 at 60P and 50P. Even the F3 can’t do this internally (you can output 50/60P to an external recorder). As well as all the usual frame rates like 23.98, 60/50i, 30/25P you can also shoot full resolution slo-mo at up to 60fps using S&Q motion. It’s not quite as flexible as the F3 as you will find that you only have a choice of frame rates (for example 1,2,3,6,12,25,50fps) and won’t have the ability to dial in any frame rate you want, but all frame rates will be full 1920×1080. As with the other NXCAM camcorders all these lovely modes will be recorded on to SD cards or Memory Sticks using the AVC HD codec (mpeg 4), in addition you can add the Sony FMU128 (128Gb Flash Memory Unit) for dual recording giving peace of mind with one off events.
Once your footage is on your cards the cleverness of this camera continues as you don’t need a laptop to backup your data. Simply plug in a USB drive or even a Blu-ray burner), direct to the cameras USB port and you can backup direct from the camera to the drive. Your footage will contain GPS data about when and where you shot it, which for me will be a great bonus with my severe weather footage as I can never remember exactly where I was during a storm chase!
All in all this is looking like one hell of a camcorder. The street price is estimated to be below $6000 USD, so you do have to ask the question.. why buy an F3 when this is half the price? In my view they are two quite different cameras for different applications. The F3 has the ability to output full 10 bit 4:4:4 for extremely high quality recording possibilities. It also has built in ND filters and will have S-Log and 3D dual camera control. For multi-camera shoots the F3 has Genlock and timecode in/out. There will also be some nice servo zooms for the F3 some time later this year or early next year. The F3 is a camera that would not at all be out of place as a B camera on a big budget production. The FS-100 will I’m sure also find a place on big budget productions, perhaps as a crash-cam or mini cam. But overall I think it will be most at home on more run and gun style shoots where auto iris and maybe even autofocus are beneficial. I really do think that the FS100 will replace many of the DSLR’s out there currently being used for video as a lot of thought has gone in to the ergonomics.
These are very interesting times. It’s now possible to shoot a movie, with quality good enough for mainstream theatrical release on cameras costing little more than a high end home video camcorder of just a few years ago. I doubt most cinema goers would realise that a camera like the F3 or FS100 was used, especially if it’s recorded to a NanoFlash, KiPro or even the new Convergent Design Gemini. However we must not forget that content is king, not the technology that makes it possible.
Camera setup, reviews, tutorials and information for pro camcorder users from Alister Chapman.