New 1-Inch Sensor Camcorders—Are They the Latest Craze?

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In an ever-changing world, finding a happy medium that satisfies everyone is nearly impossible. When shopping for camcorders, many consumers clamor for larger sensors with their unique aesthetic, while others yearn for the ever-practical smaller sensors for their deep depth of field and ease of use in run-and-gun situations. Enter the latest crop of mid-range camcorders from Canon and Sony. Each brand announced three models. Canon brought out its XF400 and 405 plus the Vixia GX10, and Sony introduced the FDR-AX700, HXR-NX80, and PXW-Z90V, all of which utilize a 1-inch sensor. Now, the burning question, “a 1-inch sensor? Big whoop, what gives? Super 35 and full-frame are where it’s at!” I can’t completely disagree with that statement, regardless of its uncouth delivery, because large-sensor cameras easily grab the limelight at trade shows and in store windows. However, camcorders that feature 1-inch sensors really bridge the divide between the convenience of a smaller sensor and the aesthetic of a larger sensor.

Sony PXW-Z90V 4K HDR XDCAM with Fast Hybrid AF

Before diving into why 1-inch sensors are so great, I would like to clarify what a 1-inch sensor is. A 1-inch sensor is technically known as a 1-inch-type sensor. This is because the sensor itself does not measure 1 inch in any of its dimensions. Rather, the 1-inch classification denotes a theoretical video-tube diameter that would support the active imaging area of the sensor. This is the same for cameras that feature 1/3", 2/3", and even Four Thirds (that’s right, your GH5’s sensor is not even 4/3" diagonally). Since the rest of the article is not focusing on this technicality, I will be using the “1-inch sensor” colloquialism below.

About 1-inch Sensors

OK, enough with the tech speak, what’s so great about 1-inch sensors? And why am I so excited that these new camcorders have them? In my experience, the 1-inch sensor size sits nicely between smaller sensors found in palmcorders and professional ENG camcorders and the larger sensors prevalent in mirrorless cameras and cinema cameras. The format is large enough to render shallow depth of field without resorting to extremely long focal lengths, and its small enough that powerful zoom lenses don’t have to be overly large. Of course, you won’t find 25x or 30x superzoom lenses for these cameras, but 10x or 12x is plenty for most video work.

As I mentioned above, this year, Canon and Sony beefed up their camcorder lines with new models; three cameras to each brand, with all six featuring 1-inch sensors, as well as coming in similar compact form factors. 4K recording is standard on all the new models, with the 1-inch sensor providing a large surface area for cleaner images, compared to smaller sensors. Another interesting factoid: the 1-inch sensors used in many camcorders have a similar surface area to classic Super 16 film, so it should come as no surprise that it’s possible to generate some cinematic imagery if that is your goal. Now that we know about what a 1-inch sensor can offer us, let’s have a look at the new models and some of their other trend-setting features.

Versatile Zoom Lenses

I remember the days of the “zoom wars,” when camcorder manufacturers would try to pin the largest zoom numbers to the side of their camcorders, in an effort to attract consumers. Thankfully, this trend has stopped and, instead, those numbers have been replaced with more realistic ones. One of the advantages of smaller sensors is smaller lenses. A huge 25x zoom lens can easily be made for a 1/3" sensor. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon to see Super 35 or full-frame zoom lenses top out at 3x or 4x. There is a bit of a trade-off here, though. It can be difficult to manufacture a high-quality zoom lens that can capture a wide-angle field of view for small sensors, and the repercussions of this meant that most zoom lenses had a wide-angle 35mm full-frame equivalent focal length of 40mm or even 50mm at the wide end. Larger sensors make better wide-angle lenses easy to design. The new Canon and Sony camcorders feature 15x and 12x optical zoom ranges with respectable wide-angle focal lengths of 25.5mm and 29mm, 35mm full-frame equivalent.

Phase-Detection Autofocus

While the 1-inch sensor doesn’t require the lens to be focused with quite the same precision as the ones in front of larger sensors, the shallower depth of field, compared to smaller sensors, can present a challenge for those moving up in sensor size. With smaller sensors, relatively rudimentary contrast-based systems were usually sufficient for autofocus, because the depth of field is so large, keeping subjects in focus was not difficult. Now that the depth of field is smaller, Canon and Sony have incorporated phase-detection autofocus into their sensors. This technology is well known for its implementation in DSLR cameras, though not directly on the image sensor. What makes phase-detection technology superior to contrast detection is its ability to know in which direction to focus. How it does this is outside the scope of this article, but the takeaway is that phase-detection is a reliable autofocus method, even with large sensors. Phase detection enables accurate subject tracking, keeping your subject in focus, even as it moves throughout the frame. Canon’s renowned “Dual-Pixel AF” phase-detection is even implemented on its high-end cinema line to actuate the focus motors inside compatible EF lenses to an astonishingly precise degree. That’s how good phase-detection autofocus can be.

What’s Next?

Speaking from a personal perspective, I’m very excited for these new camcorders to take the market. They represent an important evolutionary step, combining the strengths of two markets once considered diametrically opposed. The Sony camcorders feature Log picture profiles, setting them up for HDR workflows, and perhaps Canon has something up its sleeve for implementing HDR in a firmware update. As always, the best is always yet to come. Are you considering moving to a camcorder or camera system with a larger sensor? Or are you, perhaps, looking for a more manageable run-and-gun solution to complement a Super 35 or full-frame setup? Get the conversation started in the Comments section, below.

5 Comments

I have had an 1 inch sensor in my VG20 and CX900.  The CX900 is great for run and gun and event shooting, but the autofocus is still painfully slow.  I'm glad that the new Sony Handycams started to have SLOG 2 and 3, but I really doubt that low light performance has improved much.

Still its better than a DSLR that has only an hour of battery life and limits on recording lengths.  My experience with the Sony Prosumer cameras has been nothing, but excellent.  The only complaint I have other than low light is the hotshoe that needs an adapter to use other shotgun microphones.  

And I also to note I have never had a camera overheat on me from shooting.  I shot a two hour event and it didn't even get warm.

I have heard that overheating has been a problem for large chip DSLRs if the shot length is over 10 minutes.

Can these new large chip camcorders be used for long-form events such as weddings and other special events without an overheating problem?

Older DSLR cameras whose sensors were not designed to output images over long periods of time did indeed suffer from this issue. However, as sensor efficiency has improved, overheating is less of an issue. Also, these cameras use sensors that are smaller than full-frame sensors, thus generating less heat. Barring a shoot in the open desert, I don't think any of these cameras will have overheating issues during long-form events.

All the best.

These are video cameras. Unlike DSLRs they are designed to shoot video all day. 

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