As tempting as it is to create fanfare about getting my hands on a pre-release version of Sony's 4K professional camcorder, the reality was very much like the camera itself: quiet, and to all appearances, unassuming. There is quite a bit that I liked about the PXW-Z150, things that most people who shoot for a living are going to find both exciting and, yet, very familiar. But first, a brief look at the tech aspects, before I get to the really good stuff.
A professional camcorder that captures 4K out of the box
The Sony PXW-Z150 design has retained the NX-100 form factor and upgraded the sensor and codecs. The sensor is an Exmor RS—the “R” still stands for Back Side Illuminated, for low light capability, and the S stands for “stacked,” which is important because it enables a faster readout of the data from the sensor. The camera also does XAVC Long GOP—4:2:2 8-bit in 4K, and 10-bit in HD. Let us also mention MPEG2HD (4:2:0 and 4:2:2 in 8-bit), as well as AVCHD, making the camera suitable for existing broadcast workflows and matching legacy production. Please don't get upset that it is only 8-bit in 4K; yes, 10-bit would be nice, but 8-bit is perfectly acceptable, and the camera can capture pleasing images. If you are upset that Sony has not included the DV codec, then this is clearly not the camera for you, and you should please go visit the B&H Used department—there is an occasional time machine available in which you can travel back to 2006.
As much as I come from a “use primes” mindset and must have a camera with interchangeable lenses, I have spent a significant part of my career shooting with various ENG cameras, and this style of camcorder. So, the Sony PXW-Z150 felt very natural for me to use. It is nice to be able to pull the camera out of its case, put in media and a battery, and just go shoot. There is something very comforting about the body style. Yes, it has all the buttons you could want, six are assignable, and I like the layout. But what matters to me with this camera is that the size and shape provide me with a whole different style of shooting, compared to other form factors.
Yes, it has an EVF, but with this style camera, maybe I use the EVF if I'm recording someone standing at a podium, and I'm on a tripod. Yawn. What this camera screams for is movement and action. So I recorded a practice session for a band I know. Suddenly it is like being unchained, the flip-out LCD screen, more than sufficient, and shooting by holding the top handle. Go wide and get in tight on the guitar—running down the neck and getting the fingering up close, then moving off and zooming to a close-up. Then, of course, I wanted to get in front of the singer, but with all the instruments and amps in the way, it was impossible to negotiate and still get to the shot before the verse was over. Oh wait—who said you have to hold the camera by the handgrip, or the top handle? A quick shift of my hands and I've got the camera by its back, where the battery goes in, and I'm arcing out the camera and getting the shot. Running around the small rehearsal space, I felt a good deal younger than I am, and the camera just felt good in my hands.
4K—okay, not surprising, but clean, nice, even with gain, even with lots of gain. Yes, everything came up, but the black levels stayed clean, not really noisy. The images surprised me by how clean they remained (shooting mostly by little decorative LED lights and a few 60-watt bulbs). For you bokeh lovers, the zoom lens produced extremely smooth out-of-focus highlights. Nice to see. UHD 4K at 24 (23.98—which is really 23.976) is what I like to shoot at, with a “180-degree” shutter. I just like the look, but in 4K you can shoot up to 60p (really 59.94). If you want a higher frame rate, switch to HD and shoot using the extended S&Q motion of 120 fps.
The “Leaves Room for Improvement”
As much as I liked the integrated lens, which is both manual and servo, I prefer a lens with a mechanical link between the lens ring and the movement, even if that means occasionally pinning the lens. If I can't have a mechanical link, then an electronic link that imitates the mechanical link is my preference. I am not fond of a lens that adjusts more the faster you spin the ring—just a personal preference. It’s not anything that would stop me from shooting with the PXW-Z150. On the other hand, you can manual focus or zoom or use the servo without having to switch the lens from one to the other, so that is nice.
Hands-down, for the right job, or for most gigs, this is a good overall camera—a solid grab-and-go camera that looks perfectly at home on a set or location, and allows you to capture good, clean images in 4K and HD.