Large-Sensor Camcorder Roundup



It’s very easy today to record stunning HD video, even with an inexpensive camcorder. But if you want to achieve the video quality demanded by professionals you should be using a large-sensor camcorder. Here’s a look at some of the highest functioning large sensor camcorders on the market.

Sony PMW-F3

“One size fits all” is fine for most consumers, but the ability to change lenses is critical in the world of professional video production. Sony’s PMW-F3 Super 35mm Full-HD Compact Camcorder meets that requirement. It also uses fast and reliable SxS media for recording.

The PMW-F3 features a PL lens mount adapter that allows the connection of countless PL-mount cine lenses, including Cooke /i and Arri LDS models. Removing the PL adapter reveals a native stainless steel F3 mount that will provide direct compatibility with a line of zoom lenses that Sony will be introducing in the future.

The PMW-F3 records 1920 x 1080 HD video using MPEG-2 Long GOP codec and it offers native 23.98p recording (In 1440 x 1080/23.98p (SP) mode, images are handled as 23.98p and recorded as 59.94i signals through means of 2-3 pull-down). Frame rates are selectable, from 1 frame per second (fps) to 60 fps in 720p mode, and from 1 fps to 30 fps in 1080p mode, in 1 fps increments. Bit rates are also selectable, with 35Mb/s in HQ mode or 25Mb/s in SP mode.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the PMW-F3 is its Super 35mm-size CMOS sensor (23.6 x 13.3 mm), which provides a high level of control over depth of field, high sensitivity in low light, low noise and extended dynamic range. The sensor was developed specifically for digital cinematography and is nearly the same size as 3-perf Super 35mm film (24.9 x 14mm), so it provides the same optical characteristics as the film does when used with 35mm cine lenses.

Numerous interfaces on the PMW-F3 make the camera even more versatile. Dual HD-SDI ports are ideal for connecting to an external recorder, and the camera also features down-converted SD-SDI output, i.LINK/FireWire (HDV & DVCAM) input/output, USB 2.0 and analog composite output. Other features include a slow shutter function for recording in low light, over-cranking and under-cranking, genlock and timecode interfaces, and a 3.5-inch color LCD screen with a resolution of 1920 x 480 pixels. The camera can record two-channel 16-bit, 48 kHz linear PCM uncompressed audio, and dual XLR inputs allow the use of professional-quality microphones.

You can purchase the PMW-F3 in body-only form if you already have some compatible lenses for it. If you don’t have any lenses, there’s a PMW-F3 kit that includes the camcorder body and 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses.

Important to note is that this camcorder is in a different class from the Panasonic AG-AF100 or the Sony NEX-FS100 (and certainly the NEX-VG20). The PMW-F3 accepts S-Log gamma curves and look-up tables for truly cinematic operation. Sony positions this camera against the RED ONE and the ARRI Alexa. It also has a huge dynamic range.

Sony NEX-FS100

Anyone with a vast budget can afford to spring for Sony’s high-end PMW-F3. But if your budget is only half-vast you should consider Sony’s NEX-FS100. The NEX-FS100 offers many of the same features as the PMW-F3, but does away with some of the super high-end features in order to meet a price point that’s much more palatable to many videographers.

Like the PMW-F3, the NEX-FS100 features an Exmor Super35mm CMOS sensor, and it lets you change lenses. But the NEX-FS100U does not support SDI or HD-SDI, and instead of SxS media, the NEX-FS100U uses much more affordable Memory Stick and SD/SDHC/SDXC media.

At 23.6mm x 13.3mm in size, the Exmor Super35 CMOS sensor is roughly the same size as an APS-C sensor. The image sensor provides top-notch clarity, excellent low-light sensitivity and shallow depth of field, making this camcorder ideal for use in the ENG fields and the motion-picture industry. It records in the AVCHD format, which is supported by most popular nonlinear editing systems. Uncompressed 4:2:2 footage, with embedded SMPTE timecode, can be output through the HDMI port to an external recording unit. A shotgun microphone is included with the camcorder, and dual XLR inputs let you capture high-quality audio with your favorite professional microphones.

The NEX-FS100 can record 1080p full HD video with playback rates of 60, 30 and 24 frames per second and bitrates as high as 28Mbp/s. A slow- and quick-motion function allows you to select a frame rate that’s different than the one used for playback (you can choose from 60, 30, 15, 8, 4, 2 and 1 fps). Of course, the camera can also record in Standard Definition MPEG-2 format.

Since the Exmor sensor’s imaging area matches that of 35mm film cameras, the NEX-FS100U is compatible with numerous cine-style lenses, once you get the proper adapter. Sony has released the specifications for its E mount, so expect to see compatible models from manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron and Cosina soon. Additionally, a large selection of Sony A-mount lenses is compatible when used with the optional LA-EA1 lens mount adapter.

The NEX-FS100 features a 3.5-inch, 921,600-dot LCD screen that can be rotated for easy viewing from either side of the camera. A viewfinder tube with a 1.2x magnifier is included with the camcorder to convert the LCD into a viewfinder, allowing easier operation in bright sunlight. You can purchase the NEX-FS100 in body-only form or an NEX-FS100 kit that includes an 18-200mm zoom lens.

Panasonic AG-AF100

Not to be left out of the big sensor game, Panasonic is offering the AG-AF100 Professional Memory Card Camcorder, a Micro Four Thirds professional HD camcorder with interchangeable lenses, manual video and audio controls, variable frame rates, HD-SDI and HDMI outputs, XLR inputs, SMPTE timecode and more. This should surely whet the appetite of video professionals everywhere.

The AG-AF100’s 4/3-type MOS image sensor has about the same imaging area as 35mm cinema film. Though smaller than the APS-type sensor that the Sony camcorders in this roundup feature, the AF100’s sensor is 13 times the size of comparably priced 1/3" sensors, and about four times larger than the 2/3" sensors found in many more expensive cameras. The plus-size image sensor offers comparable depth of field and focal range of cinema film cameras.

The use of a Micro Four Thirds lens system allows a reduction in the camera’s size and weight, as well as smaller, lighter lenses, while also making the camcorder compatible with hundreds of high-quality lenses on the market, via optional adapters. The camcorder body features an internal neutral density (ND) filter that can be set to 1/4ND, 1/16ND, or 1/64ND with any type of lens.

The AG-AF100 uses the AVCHD recording format and also supports AVCHD’s highest quality PH mode. AVCHD complies with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 High Profile, a compression technology that’s more than twice as efficient as the MPEG-2 system used for HDV, and one that delivers superb image quality and low data rates. The PH mode supports a maximum AVCHD bit rate of 24 Mbp/s when recording 1920 x 1080 full-HD images. It’s compatible with multiple HD formats including 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 1080/24p and 720/60p, and you can select 60Hz or 50Hz depending on where in the world you use the camera. The PH mode also supports uncompressed 16-bit LPCM 2-channel digital audio recording and Dolby Digital 2-channel audio.

Other helpful features have found their way into the AG-AF100. A new Variable Frame Rate (VFR) function supports full-HD 1920 x 1080p with a 20-step under-crank (lower frame rate)/over-crank (higher frame rate) function to produce a 1/2.5x slow-motion effect and 2x fast motion effect in 24p mode.

The AG-AF100 uses SD, SDHC and SDXC Memory Cards up to 64GB. The camera’s two card slots support Relay Recording, which allows uninterrupted recording when the first card fills up by automatically switching to the second card. This yields a maximum recording time of 12 hours in PH mode. Still images equivalent to two megapixels can be captured from recorded HD video.

Professional viewing options are part of the AG-AF100 package. It features a 0.45-inch 1,226,000-dot equivalent viewfinder that can be tilted up to 90°; and a tilting 3.45-inch, 921,000-dot color LCD panel with a 16:9 aspect ratio. An HD-SDI terminal can output HD signals or down-converted SD video signals. An HDMI output allows for easy connection to consumer HDTVs and two-channel XLR input terminals with a 48V phantom power supply allow you to use professional quality external microphones instead of the internal microphone.

Sony NEX-VG20

The Sony NEX-VG20 is one of the coolest, most futuristic-looking camcorders you can buy. But because you should never buy anything other than art based on looks alone, you’ll have to consider the NEX-VG20’s high-end feature set over its high-tech appearance. The NEX-VG20 gives you the option of changing lenses, which is important for professional use and just plain awesome for casual use. The NEX-VG20 features a large 16.1-megapixel Sony Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor that lets you shoot AVCHD video at up to 28Mbp/s at full 1920 x 1080/60p HD resolution. It also lets you capture 16 megapixel still images. Everything is stored on Memory Stick or SD/SDHC/SDXC media.

The NEX-VG20 is compatible with all of Sony’s smaller, lighter E-mount Series lenses, which are optimized for video with silent operation and autofocus. An optional LA-EA1 adapter lets you attach Sony Alpha and Konica Minolta A-mount lenses, including Sony’s G lenses and Carl Zeiss lenses. The camcorder features a 25-point auto focus system, multiple white balance modes, a burst mode, and an anti-motion blur mode that uses multiple shots to create a single super-sharp image. It also offers full manual control of Iris, Shutter Speed, Gain and White Balance for video and still shooting.

Top-quality sound is captured by the camcorder’s quad capsule spatial array stereo microphone, and a microphone jack lets you connect external microphones if you want extra audio options. Other features of the NEX-VG20 include an ergonomic grip and belt design, direct-access hard keys for more efficient operation, an expanded focus button, a second RECORD button and a 3-inch, 921,000-dot touch screen that swivels 270°. It can also capture RAW still images and 5.1 surround sound recording with audio level control. You can get the NEX-VG20 in body-only form or in a bundle that includes an 18-200mm 11x zoom lens.

If you have any questions about professional camcorders, please feel free to post them in the Comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you.

  Sony PMW-F3 Super 35mm Full-HD Compact Camcorder Sony NEX-FS100U Super 35mm Sensor Camcorder Panasonic AG-AF100 Professional Camcorder Sony NEX-VG20 HD Handycam Camcorder
Sensor type / Resolution  Super 35mm Exmor CMOS Image Sensor - 1920 x 1080  Super 35mm Exmor CMOS Image Sensor - 1920 x 1080 4/3-type MOS Image Sensor - 1920 x 1080 Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor - 1920 x 1080
File Formats HD - MPEG2 /  SD - DVCAM HD - MPEG4, AVCHD / SD - MPEG2 MPEG4, AVC / H.264 HD - MPEG4, AVCHD / SD - MPEG2-PS
Lens type / Lens Mount Sony F3, PL Mount Adapter Sony E-Mount  Micro Four Thirds  Sony E-Mount (A-mount via adapter) 
Viewfinder Size / Resolution 3.5" Hybrid Color LCD / 921,000 dots 3.5 inch-type, XtraFine LCD / 921,600 dots 3.45" Wide LCD / 920,000 dots 3.0" Wide Xtra Fine Touch Screen / 921,000 dots
Recording Media SxS, ExpressCard 34 Memory Stick, SD, SDHC, SDXC SD, SDHC, SDXC Memory Stick PRO Duo, Pro-HG Duo, Pro-HG HX Duo, SD, SDHC, SDXC 
Microphone Input Dual XLR Dual XLR Dual XLR Stereo Mini
Video Outputs SDI, HD SDI, Composite, HDMI, Firewire, USB HDMI, USB, Composite, Component HD SDI, HDMI, Composite, USB HDMI, Composite, Component, S-Video, USB



Really enjoyed this roundup of cameras like this with large sensors.

It's misleading and incorrect to label the Exmor sensor in the Sony PMW-F3 and NEX-FS100 as a "Super 35mm-size CMOS sensor (23.6 x 13.3 mm)" and describe it in the text as "nearly the same size as Super 35mm film (24.89 mm × 18.66 mm)".  Multiply it out.  The Exmor sensor has only 2/3rds the area of Super 35mm film.  That does not "provide the same optical characteristics as the film does when used with 35mm cine lenses".  

Thanks for pointing it out,
That sensor has 1.5 crop factor, the article describes as if it has 1.0 crop factor. 

In video, Panavision 35mm frames are the standard, they run on a 35mm reel, but aren't the same size as 135 photo frames, thus the "standard" crop factor is different. 


I would like to try and clear this issue up for you.  The Standard Academy 35 mm movie film size is (21.95 mm × 16.00mm) with the extra space used for the sound track.  35mm Full Camera Aperture (24.89 mm × 18.66 mm) uses the entire film area (perf to perf) including the portion used for the sound track. This makes the original negative capture image 32% more image area than the Academy Standard 35-mm format.

Super 35 (originally known as Superscope 235) is a production format. The desired aspect ratio is extracted or cropped out of the original Full Camera Aperture capture. This is why you may have had the experience of watching a movie in a theater and seeing a boom microphone in a scene.  This is due to the projectionist not racking the projector to the proper head room for the film being shown.

Super 35 formats include for television 1.78:1  (24 x 10.04mm) which is 16:9 in video and 1.85:1 (24mm x 12.98mm)  which is what most movies are shot in.  The Exmor sensor in the Sony PMW-F3 and NEX-FS100  @ (23.6 x 13.3mm’s) is very close or "nearly the same size as Super 35mm film 1.85:1 (24mm x 12.98mm)  aspect ratio. 

(24.89mm × 18.66mm) which is “35mm Full Camera Aperture” capture but is not used for release prints and would be to “boxy” for today’s wide screen theatrical presentations and home wide screen TV’s.

Thanks for the cogent explanation, Chuck.  My initial (too acerbic, I'll admit) comment was in reaction to the comparison with the Full Camera Aperture numbers, which sounded like the manufacturer stretching the comparison a bit far.   I wouldn't generally define 2/3rds as "nearly the same", but I agree the cropped Super 35 1.85:1 comparison is valid.

As long as I'm being pedantic, are your dimensions for the television 1.78:1 Super 35 format correct?  24 x 10.04mm looks like 2.39:1 to me, which is Panavision wide-screen, right?