Tag Archives: handycam

The Sony PXW-Z90 – a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it’s best!

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.

36B8104-683x1024 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
In Norway with the PXW-Z90.

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.

stacked-cmos The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Sony’s new stacked CMOS EMOR RS sensor

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.

Z90-Night-scooter-ride-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Frame grab from a night time snow scooter ride. Shot at +15dB gain the noise is still very minor. (click on the image to view a larger version.

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.

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Frame grab form a PXW-Z90 – Hybrid Log Gamma. Click on the image to see a larger version.

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.

AJC03989-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Adjusting the AF response on the PXW-Z90.

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.

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The PXW-Z90’s variable AF drive speed.

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.

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Working with the PXW-X90 in Norway.

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).

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Dog sledding in the arctic (frame grab). Shot in HDR using HLG on the PXW-Z90.

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.

36B7978-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The PXW-X90 is very small, so carrying it around on the snow scooters was easy.
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The rear of the hand grip of the PXW-Z90.

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.

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The Full Auto switch and ND filter control on the PXW-Z90.

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.

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The Sony PXW-Z90 compact 4K camcorder.

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.

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The wide end of the PXW-X90’s zoom range.
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The long end of the PXW-X90’s zoom lens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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The right side of the PXW-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.

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The audio controls of the PXW-Z90.

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.

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The PXW-Z90’s flip out LCD screen.

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.

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The rear of the Sony PXW-Z90.

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.

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Iris, gain and shutter speed controls on the side of the PXW-Z90.

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.

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2018 was yet another great year for my Aurora tours. This picture taken on January 20th.

 


 

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PXW-X70 Teaser Video.

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.

Shallow-Dof-1024x576 PXW-X70 Teaser Video.
Frame grab from the PXW-X70.

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.