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In search of options for capturing and producing quality HD imagery

Doug Jensen explores the new Sony PMW-EX3 EXCAM EX camcorder's options and versatility.

By Jack Fettman

Doug Jensen is a 25-year veteran of the television and video production industry, with experience in all phases of production. He has worked extensively as a free-lance network cameraman and owns a production company called Vortex Media. Vortex Media also manufactures production tools such as Warm Cards, Storm Jackets, Media Filer 3.0, and Vortex HD Stock Footage. He has written, directed, and co-produced the Hands-On HD series of training videos for such cameras as the PMW-EX1, PDW-F350, and the HVR-Z1U. As a member of Sony's I.C.E. Team (Independent Certified Expert), he has been called upon by Sony to teach HD work flow classes at NAB, and to provide camera demonstrations for the press and selected customers. He wrote, produced, and presented Vortex Media's three-hour training DVD titled, "Mastering the Sony PMW-EX1: A Complete Guide to the Camcorder and the XDCAM EX Workflow," which was released last December. A three-hour training DVD for the PMW-EX3 is already in production.

Jensen owns several cameras, including a Sony PMW-EX1, Sony HVR-Z7U, Sony F350 XDCAM HD, Sony Z1U HDV camcorder, and an Ikegami HL59 Betacam. His credits and clients include NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, PBS, BBC, NHK, EBU, TNT, Discovery, ESPN, E!, A&E, HGTV, WGBH, Food Network, NASCAR Images, MLB Productions, Travel Channel, History Channel, Sundance Channel, and NBA Entertainment.

We had the opportunity to speak with Jensen recently, and here are some of the things he has to say about Sony's PMW-EX1 and EX3 HD cameras.

B&H: What is the PMW-EX3?

The EX3 is the latest camcorder in Sony's high-definition XDCAM product line that already includes its smaller brother the EX1, and its bigger cousins the PDW-F335 and F355. All of the cameras deliver video with stunning picture quality and offer all the benefits of an efficient tapeless work flow. The EX3 has over a dozen changes and improvements over the EX1.

B&H: Before we get into the differences between the EX3 and EX1, tell us what they have in common?

It's not an exaggeration to say that probably more has been written about the EX1 than any other camcorder in history. It's a phenomenal camera that has generated a lot of interest in the press and online forums. I started shooting test footage with the EX1 last summer for Sony, and I was so impressed that I immediately got on B&H's waiting list so that I could buy one of the first ones to ship last November. Since then, I've spent a lot of time shooting with the EX1 and, even now, nine months later, I'm still regularly amazed by what it can do.

Just about anything that you have read about the EX1 also applies to the EX3 because under the skin, they are exactly the same camcorder. Both cameras have three ½” CMOS image sensors that shoot full raster 1920x1080 hi-def images. There is no need for pixel-shifting or other gimmicks that attempt to trick you into thinking they are hi-def cameras – because they are true hi-def cameras. They offer several choices of 1080 and 720 shooting modes with selectable bit rates in both PAL and NTSC standards. They offer a choice of interlaced and true progressive 24P, 30P, and 25P frame rates. They both record on removable SxS flash memory cards. They both come with an excellent 14x Fujinon lens. And they both offer 60fps slow-motion modes, time-lapse recording, and too many other features to mention here.

B&H: So what are the differences between the cameras?

The differences are mostly on the surface. The EX3 has improved ergonomics for hand-held shooting, interchangeable lenses, timecode input/output, genlock, an interface for remote control operation in a studio situation (RMB150 or RM-B750), a very different viewfinder design, a quasi-shoulder mount, and the addition of several new external switches and controls that improve efficiency during a shoot. For some people those differences will be very important, but for others, the EX1 will meet their needs just fine.

B&H: Is the EX3 better than the EX1?

No. They are different camcorders designed to meet different needs. One is not superior to the other and I'm certain the EX1 will go right on selling for many years to come. The EX3 is NOT a replacement for the EX1.

B&H: What are your impressions of the EX3?

I was in Japan last winter for Sony when I first learned about the EX3. It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised that a new EX camcorder was going to be released so soon after the introduction of the EX1. And to be honest, the EX3 didn't interest me very much at first. I already had my EX1, I was very happy with it, and the addition of a few extra “bells and whistles” didn't seem very important. However, since my company, Vortex Media, produces training DVD's for Sony XDCAM and HDV camcorders, it was inevitable that we'd be buying an EX3 whether we really needed it or not.

It wasn't until I actually started shooting with the EX3 that I came to appreciate the differences between it and the EX1. As much as I like the EX1, I'd have to say that I like the EX3 even better because of the improved viewfinder, interchangeable lens, shoulder-mount design, and addition of several new external controls on the body. The rest of the new features, such as timecode in/out, genlock, and the remote control interface don't matter to me at all, but to other shooters those features might be very important. Everybody has different needs, and I guess that's why Sony offers more than a dozen different HD camcorders.

B&H: Why is having a removable lens important?

The lens on the EX3 is the same lens that's used on the EX1, except it's removable. There are many reasons why someone might want to put a different lens on the EX3, but I don't think that image quality is necessarily one of them. The stock Fujinon 14x lens is sharp, very fast, and has a decent zoom range on it. In other words, it's not a cheap throwaway lens that you will have to replace right away. This is good because Sony doesn't sell the EX3 body only. If you buy the camera, then you're going to get the lens whether you want it or not. And you should want it. It's a good lens and I think I'll be using it most of the time with my EX1.

However, with that said, the stock 14x5.8 lens doesn't offer the focal length range that some people require. It's not super wide and it's not that impressive at the telephoto end of the scale, either. Yes, you can buy wide-angle and telephoto adapters (I have purchased both) but adapters are never as convenient as simply swapping out one lens for another.

The EX3 uses a proprietary ½" mount but the camera includes an adapter so that just about any standard ½" lens can be used without any focal length magnification or loss-of-light side effects. I own a Fujinon HSs18x5.5 lens that normally resides on my XDCAM HD F350 and it has worked fantastically well on the EX3. What a difference having a real broadcast lens makes!

When you stop and think about it, your main interaction with any camera while you're shooting is with the lens. You zoom, focus, and adjust the exposure with the lens—not the camera. And when you're shooting handheld, your hands are on the lens—not the camera. So when you replace the stock lens with a traditional-style broadcast lens it really makes a difference in how the camera feels.

Standard 2/3” lenses can also be used with the EX3 via the optional ACM-21 adapter. I don't have that adapter and therefore haven't been able to try any of my 2/3” lenses yet, so I can't say how well it works. But because of the smaller ½” sensor size of the EX3, the resulting focal length will be 1.37 times longer. That's not so good for wide-angle shooting, but at the telephoto end it will be a big benefit for subjects like sports and wildlife.

B&H: Why do you like the new viewfinder design?

One of the few things that I don't like about the EX1 is the low-resolution viewfinder that is virtually impossible to use for focusing. To make up for that shortcoming, the EX1's 3.5” LCD flip-out monitor is the best one you'll find on any camera at any price. But being forced to use the flip-out LCD (no matter how good it is) instead of a regular viewfinder is not my preferred way of shooting. I like to put my eye against the viewfinder to block extraneous ambient light and to provide an important point of contact for stability during handheld shooting.

The EX3 uses the exact same hi-res 3.5" LCD monitor as the EX1, but the low-resolution viewfinder has been eliminated. Instead of a dedicated viewfinder, the EX3 uses an attachment with an adjustable diopter to allow the LCD to do double duty as both a viewfinder and as a monitor. I was skeptical at first, but now that I've actually used it in the field, I love it. It works great. Once again, a seemingly small change from the EX1 makes a big difference in how the camera feels to work with.

As I said, I prefer to put my eye against the viewfinder for most shooting, but anytime I want to stand back and look at the regular LCD instead, I can just release the catch and flip the diopter out of the way to reveal the gorgeous LCD panel. I'm not going to say that this design is as good as the B&W CRT viewfinder found on my F350, but it comes close.

A less obvious difference with EX3 is that the whole LCD monitor/viewfinder panel can be unlocked and slid further away or closer to the camera body to facilitate a customized fit for every user. Plus, the brightness, contrast, and peaking controls are located on the front of the unit instead of being buried in the menus.

B&H: How is the EX3 for handheld shooting?

A common complaint that you'll hear from some owners of the EX1 is that it isn't very well balanced for handheld shooting. I agree with that assessment and I always use a shoulder brace for any handheld shooting that will go longer than a few minutes. But the EX3 feels totally different, and there are three reasons: First, there's a retractable shoulder brace that can be extended from the rear of the camera when needed. Second, the viewfinder is good enough that you can actually use it for shooting—thus giving you an additional point of contact with the camera. Third, the whole viewfinder contraption adds weight to the left side of the camera and that changes the center of gravity just enough to make a noticeable difference in how it is balanced.

B&H: You mentioned the EX3 offers some additional external controls on the body, what are they?

There are many physical differences between the two cameras and it would be hard to list them all, but here are some of the highlights:

1) The lens now has a dedicated SteadyShot button so you don't have to use one of your four Assign Buttons.

2) Zebra and Peaking have their own controls on the front of the viewfinder rather than using up your Assign Buttons.

3) The audio level controls are protected under a clear plastic cover.

4) There's now a BNC composite output connector for SD monitoring.

5) There are two RCA audio output connectors.

6) There's a new dial on the camera body to change the frame rate without using the menus.

7) There's an S-video output connector.

8) The USB connector is located in a much more convenient location rather than under the lens grip.

9) The DC external power connector is located in a better position on the side of the camera rather than on the rear.

10) On the rear of the camera there are BNC connectors for Timecode In, Timecode Out, and Genlock.

11) The new LCD design does not allow it to retract and stow underneath the handle.

12) There's a second cold shoe adapter on the rear of the handle for attaching accessories.

13) There are two new cable holders for wrangling XLR and/or mic cables.

14) The cover over the SxS card slots has a recessed groove to allow connecting Sony's optional PHU-60K external 60GB hard drive.

B&H: As the owner of an EX1 and an EX3 what advice would you give to someone who is shopping for a new camera?

Sony has always been the leader in the industry and they will continue to dominate so you can't go too wrong with anything in their HD product line. No matter what your budget or needs, Sony has a camera for everyone, although it can be tricky figuring out which camera is right for you. Each of them has its own pros and cons.

The choice between the EX1 and EX 3 really isn't about which camera is better, because electronically they are identical; the choice is more about which features you want.

If you want a better viewfinder, then choose the EX3. If you want to keep the size and weight down to the bare minimum, then choose the EX1. If you need interchangeable lenses, then choose the EX3. If you don't see yourself spending several thousand dollars on another lens, then choose the EX1. If you do a lot of handheld shooting, then choose the EX3. If you want to save a couple thousand bucks, then choose the EX1. If you need TC in/out, genlock, or the option of connecting a remote controller, then choose the EX3. The choice is yours.

B&H: Any final thoughts?

The bottom line is that you won't go wrong with either camera. Both the EX1 and the EX3 shoot excellent video that rivals any other camera costing up to five times as much—plus you get a free lens, a battery, charger, and an SxS card! It's a complete turnkey package.

We haven't even touched on the benefits you get from a tapeless work flow. To me, that is almost as impressive as the cameras themselves. I've had a tapeless workflow with XDCAM optical disc media and SxS cards for 2 and half years now, and you could not pay me to go back to shooting on tape. The benefits you get with instant deletion of bad takes, custom clip naming, no logging, no bars & tone, 4x ingest speed, and so forth are often overlooked when people evaluate new cameras and formats. Until you've gone tapeless", you can't fully appreciate how it will change your professional life.

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