A friend recently loaned me his Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM EX camcorder for a few days so I had a chance to take this fascinating new camera for a spin. In this post I’ll share my first impressions. I’ll be taking the camera out for another spin next week for more shooting, so I’ll get into the details of camera operation and post-production workflow in subsequent posts.
The top seven things that stand out for me and thus make the EX1 the first camera I’ve taken a serious interest in since Panasonic’s introduction of the AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD camcorder include: 1. solid-state memory recording, 2. true HD (1920 x 1080) imaging using three 1/2-inch CMOS sensors, 3. no-fuss 24P and 30P recording, 4. a spot meter, 5. a flip-out LCD viewfinder that’s quite sharp and bright with an effective peaking circuit for razor sharp focusing, 6. a 5.8mm to 81.2mm, f/1.9 zoom lens with full-manual override, a real aperture ring, and a real focus ring controlling the optics directly, and 7. most of the controls and buttons you use most often are in relatively logical places with reasonable ergonomics. All in all, the EX1 represents an interesting mating between a 1/3″ handicam and a 2/3″ professional camcorder. What you get from this union and what you think of it has a lot to do with where you’re coming from. For a handycam camcorder perspective, this is one big heavy monster that’s unwieldy except on a tripod or using some form of camera support. From a professional camcorder perspective, this is a small and light alternative, much better for hand-holding off the shoulder.
In terms of first impressions shooting with the camera goes, the first thing I noticed is that while the camera is a bit on the heavy side for hand-holding in “handycam” mode, the adjustable handle with the ergonomics of a pro 2/3″ zoom lens handle made it easier to use as a handheld camera. Of course, on a tripod the camera is right at home. A camera’s handholdability is all relative, I’ve grown used to shooting with my HVR-A1 and a friend’s Sony HVR-V1 over the past year, so I find the EX1 to be a big change in terms of weight. But the extra weight is worth it, for the image quality is absolutely spectacular. Goodbye HDV (and good riddance to videotape), hello XDCAM EX!
There’s lots of serious glass in this camera, as the 1/2″ sensor requires a larger lens than 1/3″ chip cameras like the Panasonic AG-HVX200 (still an excellent performer). And while it’s still not providing the 2/3″ image sensor look of a professional camcorder, the 1/2″ sensors are a big improvement over 1/3″ sensors in most prosumer cameras. It’s easier to get separation between the foreground and background. I’d like to see Sony come out with an APS-sized single sensor camera (like a documentary form-factor Red) someday, but I digress. The EX1 is clearly not in the middle of the pro-sumer price range, it straddles between pro-sumer and low-end professional gear in terms of price. While the camera alone sells for $6,500.00, by the time you add a couple of 16G memory cards and extra batteries (which you’ll need), a wide-angle adapter, and a few other gismos, you’re looking at something hovering around a $9,000.00 purchase. That’s a serious chunk of change when you compare it to the HVR-Z1 HDV camcorder, but if you look at it another way, this camera does most of what the Sony PDW-F350 XDCAM HD camcorder does for much less dough. So it’s either a very expensive pro-sumer camera or an amazing price/performance breakthrough in professional level cameras.
Not all things are rosy, however. Audio was clearly a second-thought with this camera, with digital recording there is no reason why Sony can’t support four channels, but it only supports two. One of the features I’ve really enjoyed with the Panasonic HVX200 is recording camera mic audio on channels 3 and 4 while running audio from my mixer into channels 1 and 2. Having the ambient sound is a nice plus, as well as it often makes it easier to hear a director’s questions in an interview. Battery life is short, so you’ll have to buy one or two additional high-capacity batteries with this camera. In addition, for folks who shoot with a 35mm lens adapter, you’ll not be pleased with the camera’s inability to invert the viewfinder image. There is no ability to shoot in standard definition, so for those quick and dirty jobs that require standard definition deliverables, your stuck converting in post. But no camera can be all things to all people, and this camera seems to have most of the bells and whistles most people want.
Since I’m Macintosh and Final Cut Pro user, I found this camera integrated seamlessly with my Final Cut Pro workflow. I have previously worked with XDCAM HD and I found the workflow to be pretty much identical, except there is no need for a camera or deck. If you’ve got a MacBook Pro you’re all set, you simply slide the SxS card into the ExpressBus/34 slot. Otherwise, you can use the camera to transfer media via USB2 to your computer or use an external USB2 SxS card reader available from Sony. For all of this to work, you’ll need to download two pieces of software, the SxS card driver (from here) and the XDCAM Transfer Utility (from here). It was a snap to ingest footage, rename the clips, and bring them into Final Cut Pro. The much fast transfer time of the SxS cards was a welcome change from having to do HDV captures in real-time. And the footage shot in the HQ mode looks spectacular. Ahh, the beauty of real high definition progressive scan images, simply breathtaking. Some sample images and images of the camera can be found in my Sony PMW-EX1 Flickr set.
Minor revisions were made to this post on 22-Feb-09.