Film director/videographer ANTONIO TIBALDI takes a close look at Sony's XD CAM EX1 solid-state camera
This review is based on a three-day test shoot conducted at CCNY (City College New York), where I teach in the Media & Communication Arts department's Film and Video Program. Thomas Cznarty, a graduate cinematography major and an experienced camera operator, assisted me. Kymberli McKenna, an actor, kindly acted as our model. The interior portion of the shoot was done in a studio under tungsten lighting, and in some various interior locations in available lighting. We also took the camera outside and shot on Amsterdam Ave at 138th street in New York City during the afternoon and the "magic" hour. We then transferred the media into Apple's Final Cut Pro and got a first impression of the work flow.
I was initially drawn to the Sony PMW-EX1 early last fall after reading about the specs, a native 3 1/2" 1920x1080 CMOS, 24P, non-shoulder mount, solid-state camera. I like the versatility of a handy-cam, so I never really considered a 2/3" shoulder mount. I need a camera that doesn't draw attention to itself, that is rugged, and that can be handheld easily. This is mainly because of my work with UNTV (United Nations TV). We travel to remote countries where conditions are often difficult and the weather is uncooperative. I need to be able to carry my own gear (video and audio) and remain as "transparent" in situations as possible. But I need to bring home visually compelling material. You could say that I like to have my cake and eat it, too. Don't we all? Well, the EX1 might be as close as you get to do that, at least for the time being.
I'll start from the body of the camera, as it appears when you open the shipping box. The first thing one notices is the weight, 6 pounds, 2 ounces with lens hood, the standard PB-U30 battery, and one SxS card. It is almost twice the weight of the Panasonic DVX 100, and about a pound heavier than the Sony Z1U. I don't see this as a problem personally, as it allows for steadier handheld shots. I find the DVX 100 and even the Z1U too light for that particular function. Gravity needs to anchor a camera so that handheld shots are naturally steady. If the camera is too light, the shots end up jittery and convey a threat of motion sickness-a feeling we all know well. If you replace the standard battery with the optional PB-U60-which you will want to do because it allows for 4 hours of use instead of the 2 hours of the standard battery-you add another few ounces, but that extra weight, concentrated on the back end where the battery fits horizontally balances the camera nicely, as it tends to be nose-heavy.
Sony has separated (at least for this camera) from Carl Zeiss and has teamed with Fujinon-known for its remarkable professional broadcast lenses in SD and HD for 2/3" camcorders. It is a non-interchangeable lens, just like the Z1, the DVX 100, and HVX 200, but what a lens it is. It is heavy, and does put some strain on the wrist while handholding the camera, but it is well worth the price for the quality it delivers. It's a 14x zoom lens, which has a 5.8-81.2mm range, and a luminous F 1.9 aperture. At its widest (5.8mm) it's equivalent to a 31.4mm on a 35 reflex camera, and slightly wider than the HVX 200 and DVX 100. At full telephoto mode (81.2mm) it does compress the perspective very nicely, and you get a real taste of the shallow depth of field, enhanced by the 1/2" CMOS sensors. I don't foresee a great need for a wide-angle or a telephoto adapter-at least not for everyday, common use (Sony offers a .8X wide conversion lens). Unlike the other handy-cam camcorders currently on the market, the lens on the EX1 has a proper f-stop-marked aperture ring, just like a pro lens. The zoom lever has clear millimeter markings, 5.8 to 81.2, and a removable screw-in lever.
The focus barrel is what really differentiates this lens from its direct competitors. Anyone who has worked with any of the previously mentioned camcorders knows that serious focusing cannot be accomplished with servomotor-designed autofocus lenses, even when they are set on manual. On those lenses the barrel is unmarked and spins forever, and when pulling focus, the barrel itself feels like it spins more than it rotates, because it offers no resistance. The EX1 does have the servomotor system, which allows for the AF mode and push-button AF on MF mode. But by physically gripping the ring and pulling it towards the body of the camcorder (about 1/2"), the lens is transformed into a Full Manual focus lens. It now stops at infinity and at the macro end. It has foot and meter readings, and when you pull focus it becomes stiff enough for you to feel what you are doing. No more focus blowouts because of wind (it happened to me one too many times with the DVX 100-and it's embarrassing and difficult to explain when you are watching the footage with your producer, or yet worst when you get a call from the editor). The lens also appears to have an adequate built-in optical stabilizer.
As mentioned earlier, this lens does add considerable weight to the front of the camera. To compensate for this potential problem, Sony has cleverly designed an interesting solution to help avoid excessive wrist strain.
The handgrip rotates in click-stops, and is easy to regulate on the fly, appearing to be rugged and effective. It can be rotated a full 100 degrees, which allows you to maintain a natural wrist position while handholding the camera at different heights (from overhead to knee-level). I have not seen this insightful addition in other camcorders. The only drawback is that the handgrip itself protrudes excessively, throwing the camera off-balance to the left, thus making it virtually impossible to hold with a single (right) hand. You will always need to support the camera with your left hand under the body.
EYECUP, VIEWFINDER, AND LCD SCREEN
A small detail that puzzled me right away was the eyecup. I use my left eye when operating with the viewfinder. Unlike the eyecup on the V1U, I was surprised that the eyecup can't be removed and switched around to accommodate "left-eye" operators like me. This is because the eyepiece focusing knob is covered by the eyecup when the eyecup is flipped and positioned for the left eye. The eyecup was just not designed to be flipped. I guess I will have to purchase a special 'lefty' eyecup from Sony, hoping that they manufacture it. Because of this, I shot the tests relying solely on the flip-out LCD monitor, which has a 640X480 resolution. It is an all-new transmissive-reflexive hybrid LCD (works backlit or by reflection in bright sunlight). Its forward placement is ideal both for handheld and tripod operation, and the LCD is reliable for focusing, especially when using the 2X expanded focus function (which maintains a 1:1 pixel display). A well-positioned button on the handgrip controls the expanded focus function.
ON/OFF SWITCH, BUTTONS, AND CONTROLS
The On/Off switch for the EX1 has 3 positions: Camera-Off-Media. Seemingly ill-conceived, the switch itself is very small and recessed. It is also quite stiff with a very short space between the 3 functions. It's easy to switch the camera off mistakenly instead of setting it to Media, and vice versa. This brings me to a general note about the EX1: almost all of the knobs, buttons, and the jog dial on the body of the camera are too small. They are difficult to feel at the tip of your fingers. Because they are mostly used on the fly, and a camera operator frequently needs to change settings quickly without removing the eye from the LCD or viewfinder, this is an unfortunate drawback.
SxS MEMORY CARD
Inserting the SxS memory card is easy and fast, and with its two slots, the camera is theoretically able to record continuously and endlessly (by switching automatically and seamlessly from slot A to slot B and vice versa).
Pressing REC coincides with the moment you begin to appreciate one of the advantages of memory cards versus tape-recording systems. Solid-state recording means that the moment you press REC you begin to lay video (and audio) data. There is no lag time required as the tape is being shifted onto the heads. There are no more linear parts to the process, the digital dimension is embraced in full, and it is quite an invigorating experience. For me, it had begun to seem increasingly anachronistic and contradictory to have to insert a tape into a digital camcorder, a system that felt antiquated, like a leftover from a time that had long passed. With the EX1 I will not miss cassettes, dirty heads, tape dropouts, lag time when pressing REC and STOP, and log and capture tedious and time-consuming process to prepare the media for post-production random access. The EX1 is an all non-linear, international and universal camera: It records in all flavors of HD. The scanning mode is switchable among 1920x1080, 1280x720, and 1440x1080 resolutions. Frame rates go from 60i, 30P, 50i, 25P, and native 24P. In addition, 60P and 50P are available in 1280x720 mode. These formats can be output in HD or SD, making them compatible with NTSC and PAL regions. The EX1 has 2 slots for 2 cards, currently available in 8GB and 16GB, with a 32GB card announced for 2008. On a single 16GB card you can record 50 minutes of full HQ (35mb/s) HD footage. These recording times mean that you won't have to drag a computer and hard drive to the field to start archiving and backing up as you shoot.
We shot our tests mostly at 1080/24P, at the HQ setting of 35mb/s. We chose a shutter speed of 1/48. Both Thomas and I come from a film background, and I guess we wanted to see how the camera performed using a film-like setting. Thomas took a light reading with his Spectra Cine Pro IV-A: The EX1 sensitivity translates to a film equivalent of ISO 500.
While I was setting the camera, Thomas prepared a basic 3 light set-up (Key, Fill, and Backlight) I am very impressed by the softness of the image on Kymberli's face; something I was not expecting from a Sony camcorder, traditionally known for sharpness and contrast. The colors have a wonderful punch without being overly saturated.
These images are not color-corrected, and were obtained with the EX1's standard picture setting. The only adjustment made was an offset of 200 K (warmer) on the white balance. The EX1 has 6 pre-set Picture Profiles, which enable you to store to memory 6 different picture settings. With an HD field monitor, I could see getting into elaborate selections of the many available settings: hue, saturation, phase, specific frame area of color phase, detail level, frequency, white/black limiter, skin tone details, gamma curve, knee point, etc.
We tried the EX Slow Shutter, an advanced mode of the SLS (Slow Shutter Speed). We wrapped the ever-patient Kymberli in X-mas lights, and I zoomed in while shooting at a 16-frame accumulation. An even more dramatic streaking light effect could be obtained by setting it to 32- or 64-frame (maximum) accumulation. In the next image, also at 16-frame accumulation, I panned and tilted circularly, with the camera on Thomas's 501 Manfrotto/Bogen tripod.
Under-cranking (sped-up) and over-cranking (slow-mo) capability is another feature that makes this camera arguably the most flexible on the market (in its category). The frame rate depends on the shooting format. At 720 shooting modes, because of the lower bandwidth requirements, the camera will shoot at up to 60 fps.
We tried it, shooting 60P at 720, with me following Kymberli going up a staircase and walking down a hallway. Played back at regular speed, it does create an impressive film-like slow-mo, quite different from the result you get by shooting at 30P (or 24P) and subsequently selecting a 50% speed setting in FCP.
||To make use of the macro capabilities of the Fujinon lens, one needs to set it to MF (not Full Manual Focus) by gripping the ring and pulling it away from the body of the camcorder. One can then either pull focus manually, use the PUSH AF button, or set it on AF. The macro will not work in Full Manual Focus mode.
In macro mode, one can appreciate the contrast between the softness of the background and the impressive detail of the area in focus. Here the HD reads almost too much information — highlighting blemishes, minuscule blackheads, and other skin and makeup imperfections.
We wanted to see how the camera fared in highlights. We exposed for Kymberli's face and we let the parts in direct sunlight blow out. Except in the full blown-out sections of the image, there is still considerable information in areas that are 5 stops overexposed. I was looking out for purple or green fringing on the vertical line of the dark door against the overexposed background, but I was happy to see that there was virtually none. I have shot in similar conditions with the Z1 and must report that fringing had been an issue.
EX1 (left) V1 (right)
We did a comparative test in low light between the EX1 and the V1 (I would have preferred to do this same test with the Sony Z1, the JVC GY-HD200CHU or the Panasonic XVX 200, but those cameras were not available that day).
Both the EX1 and the V1 had the iris wide open, the EX1 at F 1.9, the V1 at F 1.6, shutter speed on both at 1/48, both with gain at 0 DB. There is close to a 2-stop sensitivity difference between the 2 cameras, and the EX1 reads remarkably well in the underexposed areas. One can also notice that the angle of view of the V1 is not as wide as the EX1's.
We went outside during two afternoons on clear winter days. We shot at sunset and "magic" hour.
Here Kymberli is on Amsterdam and 138th St., facing south, at magic hour. We are not using any reflector or bounce card, yet she seemed to literally glow in the falling light. I was very impressed by the softness of the contrast on her face and the wonderful shallow depth of field.
We shot in HQ, 1920x1080 native 24P, and played back the footage via the component output on a 22" HD display. The image quality is superb, and the way the color was pulled out even after the sun had set and the light became flat was outstanding. The primary colors, especially the greens, the yellows, and the reds become electric and give a richness to the image that is quite sensational, and I could already sense that on the flip-out monitor while I was recording.
|In the above shot, one can appreciate the quality of the lens for its sharpness, and shallow depth of field.
|In this wide shot, with the light way past magic hour, the details still read in the underexposed areas, and the colors have a sparkly punch.
At 9DB gain, the noise/grain becomes noticeable but still very acceptable. We did not shoot at 12 or 18DB gain, but from looking at the LCD, it appeared that noise was becoming a factor at those settings. The EX1 has native 1/2" HD 1920x1080 CMOS chips: All these tiny pixels create the sharpness of the image but they absorb less light than a standard definition 720x576 CCD. So Panasonic's in-camera pixel-shifting technology (which "forces" 1280x720 HD resolution from CCD's that don't physically have all those pixels) will allow for greater sensitivity in low light (of approx. 1 stop) at the cost of a slightly lower resolution. It's a trade-off, and choosing between these two cameras depends upon the conditions in which one uses the camera most often.
ONTO FINAL CUT PRO:
Minimum requirements are: Mac OS v.10.4.11, QuickTime Pro v.7.3, FCP v.6.0.2, and Sony XDCAM Transfer Toolccertccrberfvqtdyzdu (PDZK-P1 XDCAM Transfer V 2.1) which you can download for free.
The procedure to import the media onto Final Cut Pro was straightforward. There is more than one way to do it. I ejected the SxS card from the camera and slid it into the Express 34 side slot of my 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. I then opened a project in FCP with the settings XDCAM EX 1080 24P 35 VBR (that's the way most of the shots were recorded), then I went to the File menu and selected Import > Sony XDCAM. At that point, the Sony Clip Browser appears and one can highlight each or all clips and choose Import on the lower right side of the Clip Browser window. Before transferring the clips I made sure to assign the desired destination for the actual video clips to be stored, because Sony's browser default location is the Documents Folder of the start up drive. The media transferred very quickly — 4 minutes for 40 minutes! (It would have been approximately three times slower had I connected the camera via USB).
For some reason, some of the transferred clips showed up twice in the FCP browser. I found out that other users have experienced the same problem. To solve it, I deleted the clip names from the FCP browser, then opened the folder in the hard drive, copied the names of the clips and pasted them back onto FCP's browser. That took care of the glitch and there was no need to re-transfer any clips. Hopefully, this issue will be addressed and solved in Sony's Transfer Tool software update.
With the EX1, Sony has created a handy-cam that is in a league of its own. It has set a new standard for solid state, low-cost, fully-professional cameras. In size and appearance the EX1 looks like a Z1 or an HVH200, but it delivers far superior image quality. For car aficionados, it would be the equivalent of the engine of a 12-cylinder GT Ferrari in the body a Lexus. I am a happy EX1 owner and will gladly start dealing with the archiving issues of solid-state recording (which would merit a whole separate article) and leave behind — forever — videotape, which has been the anachronistic glitch of the digital workflow. My only reservations have to do with body design, more appropriate buttons and controls, and some menu shortcomings (which I have not gotten into in this article for lack of space).
Antonio Tibaldi has written and directed 5 feature films. His credits include: ON MY OWN (Alliance Atlantis), LITTLE BOY BLUE (Warner Bros.), and KISS OF FIRE (Miramax). He is also an active documentarian. As cameraman and editor for UNTV (United Nations TV) producer Michele Zaccheo, he has traveled to remote parts of the world to put the spotlight on some of the world's most underreported stories. His recent assignments have been to Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico. He teaches Film and Video at the Media & Communication Arts department of CCNY (City College New York).