Video / Hands-on Review

Sony NEX-VG10

         

The first creature to crawl out of the primordial ooze onto dry land probably wasn’t much to look at, but I doubt anyone will disagree that those first few steps were a landmark event that opened the door to future evolution.

Think of the Sony NEX-VG10 as one of those first amphibians—it's an important camera because it has the power to change the entire industry and influence the evolution of future models. It is a jumping-off point from which other cameras will improve. 

The Sony NEX-VG10 has some issues that I could nitpick, but there’s no denying that its release is an important moment for consumer video cameras, because this is the first consumer camcorder to have interchangeable lenses. For a consumer camcorder, this in itself is huge.

There is a trend in the video community whereby people purchase DSLRs solely for shooting video. DSLRs, thanks to their large CMOS sensors and interchangeable lenses, give a videographer much more control over depth of field, compared to many consumer and prosumer cameras. DSLR video gives footage a more cinematic look than the traditional “everything-in-focus-at-all times” look of digital video, largely because of the effects of 35mm optics. More attractively, DSLRs ensure that for the cost of a prosumer video camera, you can buy a DSLR and have enough money left over for a couple of those desirable lenses. However, the DSLR form factor is not necessarily ideal for shooting video. Given these circumstances, it seems like a logical step to take the innards of a DSLR and stick them into a video camcorder form factor. But try doing this without crippling important features like progressive shooting, variable frame rate shooting or the ability to capture RAW photographs. And that is what Sony has done here. Sort of.

  

Sony has taken the same 23.4 x 15.6mm Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor (below, left) that it sticks in many of its DSLRs, and has placed it in a package that’s much more video friendly. Because it has the same chip, the NEX VG-10 can also take some pretty decent 14.2-megapixel still photos as well. In theory, this is the low-cost camera videographers have been clamoring for. But, because of some perplexing choices that Sony made when designing this camera, the NEX-VG10 falls short of what many people were hoping for, and depending on your needs, it may be inferior to many DSLRs for shooting video, as well as inferior to DSLRs at shooting still photographs. Those people looking for more control over their footage may still be better off opting for a DSLR, for now.

The camera I tested is a preproduction model, and I was assured that many of the problems I experienced would be fixed by the time the production model will be released. It is possible that some of my other issues with the camera can be fixed with future firmware upgrades. Keep in mind that this is part of Sony’s Handycam consumer camcorder line. This is not a prosumer product, and is not aimed at that market, though the camera could potentially be used as a backup to shoot B-roll footage.

The camera is a lot smaller and lighter than I expected it to be, weighing in at 1 pound 5 ounces (620g). As you add lenses and other accessories, the weight begins to increase fairly quickly. With the stock lens and battery, the weight increases to 2 pounds 12 ounces (1.3 kg). The three-inch, 921k flip-out LCD takes up most of the left side of the camera, with the majority of the camera's limited controls tucked away beneath it. The 1152k viewfinder is located on top of the camera, as are hot and cold shoe mounts, a 3.5 Audio In and a Dolby Stereo recording mic. On the right are ports for HDMI, USB, 3.5 headset and DC power. Appearance-wise—aside from the E-mount at the front—the NEX-VG10 is very similar to many consumer cameras on the market. There is little here that would surprise you.

I didn’t find the form factor of the NEX-VG10 to have a huge advantage over DSLRs. Without a lens, it was incredibly light and it balanced fairly well in my hand, but as soon as I slapped on a lens (many of which weigh more than the camera itself), I found that getting steady handheld shots with the suddenly front-heavy camera was much more difficult, especially while trying to manually focus or zoom. Obviously, these issues can be abated by using a tripod or steadying accessory— but DSLRs can be tripod or Steadi-cam mounted as well. The camera has an Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, but I couldn’t see much of a difference on the model I tested. I would have preferred the addition of some sort of shoulder-based stabilization to help capture less shaky footage.

The stock E-mount 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 OSS lens that comes with the camera is pretty darned good for a stock camera lens in this price range. It’ll give you the focal range equivalent of 27mm-300mm, and has a built-in autofocus that works silently. You won’t have to worry about the camera's microphones picking up the autofocus at work. Using the lens, I was able to manually zoom and focus easily while the camera was  tripod mounted, though because of the camera body’s size I found that while handheld, zooming and focusing manually while keeping the shot steady became much harder.

   

Keep in mind that the lens, when zoomed, is longer than the camera itself. The zoom ring can be locked to avoid accidental zooming while shooting. The NEX-VG10 can accept any E-mount lens and is also compatible with DSLR A-mount lenses with the LA-EA1 adaptor, which is sold separately. As good as the camera's stock lens is, I was much happier with the camera footage once I swapped out the stock lens for an A-mount Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom lens—but that’s the great thing about cameras with interchangeable lenses. You always have the option to upgrade your lenses without having to buy a brand-new camera.

The menu system is pretty easy to navigate, and even though the camera I received did not come with a manual, I was able to dive right in and had little trouble finding what I needed. I did feel that the organization of the menu system could have been made a little more intuitive. For example, if I wanted to look at the still images I’d shot, I’d have to go four-levels deep into the menu. I’d click "Menu," then scroll to “Playback,” then scroll to the “Movie/Still select,” and finally, I’d need to scroll to “Still,” just to get a thumbnail index of my images. I’d have to repeat the process to get to a thumbnail index of the video footage. Something as basic as a thumbnail index should require less drilling down. In addition, I could not find a way to easily navigate backwards, so if I clicked the wrong item by mistake, I'd have to start all over from the top level.

The camera does give you full manual control of the iris, shutter speed, gain and white balance, though all these controls are accessed through the menus—there are no hardware controls. There are also a couple of shooting modes: Automatic shooting mode; Aperture-priority mode; Shutter-priority mode; a Manual mode for aperture and shutter speed; Anti-motion blur; and a handheld Twilight mode for shooting night scenes without a tripod. Anti-motion blur and handheld Twilight mode were not activated in the model I tested, so I haven't included those features in this review.

The LCD performed fairly well indoors. I was able to focus accurately and I had no complaints. The second I stepped outside, however, the LCD became useless. Any amount of sunlight rendered the LCD a solid black. This is not so surprising—pretty much any LCD is going to be hard to see in sunlight. Outdoors, the viewfinder worked better than the LCD, but I’d highly recommend some kind of hood or viewfinder cushion, as the viewfinder was hard to see in sunlight without one, and accurate focusing was impaired. The camera boasts a 25-point autofocus, but autofocus on the lenses I tested was annoyingly slow. I was assured that this was a preproduction issue and would be fixed by the time of release.

Footage is recorded on Memory Stick PRO Duo/Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo or on standard SD / SDHC media, and Sony recommends using class 4 or higher memory. Unlike prosumer models, there is only one memory card slot. For most applications, this shouldn’t be a problem, since swapping out a card takes about five seconds. The footage I captured with the NEX-VG10 is really beautiful, some of the best I’ve seen from a dedicated consumer camcorder. The control I had over the depth of field was unparalleled in the consumer-camera field. One minor issue I had was that, due to the rolling shutter technology associated with CMOS chips, there was a bit of jello-vision when I panned the camera quickly. Objects appeared to wobble. In most shooting situations, this shouldn’t be a huge issue, and if you’re unsure, I’d definitely recommend coming into the B&H SuperStore to try the camera yourself.

The NEX-VG10 has several recording modes, all of which record 1080i video: 9Mbps HQ, 17Mbps FH and 24Mbps FX AVCHD. My footage looked sharp when played back at 1080i on a 55-inch LCD television. Color reproduction looked pretty accurate. While the camera captures the HD footage at 30p, it is recorded as an interlaced 60i in the AVCHD format. I found this somewhat surprising. Most DSLR cameras on the market (including many that cost far less than this camera) have the ability to record progressive frames, so its exclusion here seems odd. I spoke to Sony about the choice of recording interlaced frames and they claimed that the decision was made because of compatibility issues.

Currently, the camera can only record at a frame rate of 60i. This was also pretty shocking to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would think that many of the people interested in controlling depth of field in their video footage would also be interested in having the option to drop the frame rate to 24p for a more cinematic look. Sure, 24p can be simulated in post production using a pull-down, but since many less expensive DSLR cameras already offer this feature natively, it seems like a glaring omission on Sony’s part, especially if they are marketing this camera to people who buy DSLRs solely to shoot video.

The audio I recorded with the stock Quad Capsule Spatial Array stereo microphone was surprisingly good. The sound was sharp and really seemed to have decent stereo separation. I also tested an optional Sony camera-mounted shotgun mic, which was more directional and also had pretty good sound quality.

The 14.2MP still camera on the NEX-VG10 takes decent photos, and you have some degree of control because you can fine-tune contrast, saturation and sharpness. There are also six finishing styles: Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset and Black and White. It should be noted that with the NEX-VG10 you can only take JPGs, and there is no way to save RAW files—another curious choice on the part of Sony. But I guess this camera is aimed mostly at a video audience. If you desire full control of your still pictures, you're better off buying a dedicated DSLR. I found that the NEX-VG10 camera's form factor is far from ideal for shooting stills. It was difficult to frame my shots and keep them in focus.

The electronically controlled mechanical focal plane shutter should enable the camera to take up to seven shots per second, but on the model I tested, there was a second or two lag between the moment I pressed the shutter and when I could take the next shot. I also found that I had to push the shutter button pretty firmly to make an exposure, but once again, I was assured this was a preproduction issue. The camera has Auto HDR, which Sony claims will give you much snappier contrast than a single frame possibly could, by taking three bracketed shots and combining their best highlight and shadow details into one image. The camera has a self-timer, and you can choose either a two-second or a 10-second delay.

The camera comes with a free download of Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum video-editing software, which will allow you to add transitions and other effects.

Overall, this is among the best consumer camcorders released to date, and anyone looking for a top-of-the-line consumer camcorder with a video-oriented form factor should definitely consider the Sony NEX -VG10. Wedding and event videographers could make good use of this camera, as the different lenses can add a lot of flexibility and variety to their video-making process. However, independent filmmakers, those who want more control over their frame rates and people who require progressive shooting might be more satisfied with a DSLR as a low-cost video option.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that it's only a matter of time before someone releases a camera with all the features of a DSLR in a video form factor. The new SONY NEX-VG10is an important camera, not because it’s a perfect camera, and not because it has everything you could possibly want in a consumer camera, but because it takes a revolutionary step forward by offering interchangeable lenses and it is the springboard for many great cameras that will come in the next few years. I don’t doubt for a second that other companies are working on their own cameras that build on the foundation that this camera has provided. Much of their evolution will be traceable to the Sony NEX-VG10.

Have you had experience shooting with this camera? Do you agree or disagree with the review? Let me know in the Comments section below.

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Excellent review. I have this camera and have found it to be excellent hardware both for stills and video. The only real complaint for the system is a lack of visual cues for focusing as there are times one needs this to attain accurate focus when doing a shoot. Zebras or some other "fix" would greatly aid in this process. For me, the form factor for shooting stills works as the range finder gives an accurate read when taking shots. As for Raw, yes, it's something Sony should fix in an update but the .jpg setting is equivalent to a 10 in Photoshop and I have not found any artifacts in the images I have taken, the quality of which is more then adequate for 4/C printing as I used many VG10 images in a large design job I did for a client.

All in all, the NEX-VG10 is worth the money without question and yes, I am a satisfied B&H customer as I bought the camera from the company. 

remoran:

Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your user experience.

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