Tarif Sayed, film director and managing director of Dubai-based production house, The Frame, shares his experience with the Sony PMW EX1 HD solid-state camera.
The Sony PMW EX1 HD solid-state camera has been a long awaited camera in the Middle East so when I got my hands on the first unit in the region, I took it out to do a shoot for an architectural documenatry we were working on.
The EX1 with its solid state memory seemed a good choice for a company such as ours, which is an entirely tapeless facility. Additionally, architecture seemed the ideal subject to test the merits of a HD camera as this requires us to get a lot of detail in the picture as well as colours and great depth of field.
First off, when taking the PMW-EX1 out from its packaging, I was impressed by how light it was. It seemed a bit heavier than a Sony HDW-Z1 or a Panasonic Vx200 but still a lot lighter than one would expect. In terms of both look and feel and placement of buttons, the EX1 seemed very similar to the Z1. This was definitely a plus point.
This camera comes with an in-built Fujinon lens. This is a significant shift from Sony, which has often partnered with Carl Zeiss in the past. As a result, this camera comes with a lens that has a new professional design with no iris wheels. It is like any other professional lens with a ‘proper' aperture ring.
An impressive feature is the focus barrel, which has a servo motor system. The camera comes with a full manual focus mode as well and although not as smooth as a pro lens, it is a huge improvement from any other built-in lens I know.
This feature enabled us to totally control the focus during the shoot. We found the servo system on this HD camera to be absolutely essential as in HD capture, the smallest mistake is noticeable on screen.
The ND filter level is placed just like on the Z1; from the left side with two optical built-in glass ND filters. The GAIN settings for L, M and H default to 0, 6 and 12, you can go to the menu and change the default settings to suit your requirements.
However, there were some challenges as well. It took me 10 minutes to figure out the location of the white balance. The switch between Preset, A or B memories was clearly visible on the left side but the push button for the automatic white balance was nowhere in sight.
It took a good 10 minutes to discover that it was right under the lens just beside the shutter ON and OFF switch. This is not easily accessible and I believe its positioning must be changed in the next version.
Most of the other function buttons such as Zebra, Peaking and a Full Auto button were in the same place.
As this is a solid state memory camera with no other storage options, let's look at the SxS card slots that are located at the back of the camcorder. It can take two solid state cards of 8GB or 16GB at a time. Sony has scheduled the release of 32GB cards later this year.
The SxS cards are based on the new PCMCIA. Both Sony and SanDisk have delivered the SxS cards to the market.
One can record 50 minutes of full HQ HD footage onto a single 16GB card, a 100 minutes if you have two cards at the same time, or 200 minutes if you have two 32GB cards in the two slots. This is more than enough for an average shoot.
We found that we could easily manage with two 16GB cards during one shooting day. With the delete capability, the user can delete the last clip, or browse clips and delete those they do not want. This was not an option we have had in the past with most cameras.
Impressively, we can change one card while the camera is recording on the other. This means there needs to be no lag in recording time. Additionally, prices are cheaper than other similar disks or memory sticks used with other camera manufacturers such as Panasonic P2, Revpro and the Rampak for Ikegami.
Regarding audio, we see a significant improvement from the Z1 in that the audio selection from internal to external is from an external switch, instead of a menu selection like on the Z1.
The camera is equipped with a built-in microphone and you can switch to external input and plug your own microphone or input lines.
Looking down from the rear side, the new heavy-duty BPU-60 battery provides a run time of around four hours. This heavy battery balances the EX1 nicely from the opposite side to the heavy Fujinon HD 1/2" optics.
The camera comes with a ‘CineAlta' stamp meaning that it records native progressive at 24 frames per second (fps). On this side of the camera is also the HD/SDI BNC output, and the FireWire or I-link socket, where an end-user can take an HDV output if required.
A new addition to the grip handle is the ‘Release' button. By keeping it depressed, the user can swivel the grip around for a comfortable wrist angle during operation.
On top of the camcorder to the front of the handle is also the VTR or the video memory controls and thumbnail controls, where a user can access and control recorded media. A user can replay, mark, or delete pre-recorded videos.
A quick look at the menu shows features like Gamma, Matrix, Colour Correction, Knee, White Offset, picture profiles, Skin Tone Detail, Black Gamma, Low Key SAT and so on. These features enable a user to give his video the cine look.
The recording format is switchable between 1080i and 720P with multiple frame recording capability such as 50i, 59.94i, 50p, 59.94p and native 25P, 29.97p and 23.98P.
In addition, the PMW-EX1 camcorder offers a ‘Slow & Quick Motion' capability, which is also commonly known as ‘over-cranking' and ‘under-cranking' in the traditional film world, allowing users to create unique looks or special effects of slow and fast motion. Having these functions, Sony PMW-EX1 camcorder is on the product line of Sony CINEALTA.
Having looked closely at the body of the camera and some of the menu features, we headed for the ‘Dubai Marina' to film some of the architectural wonders there. The objective was to film some towers at the Marina for our Architecture in Dubai documentary.
We filmed on very high daylight mode. However, we needed to use some filters like diffusers or ND filters so we fitted our matte box to the PMW-EX1. We had no problems doing this. However, end users need to ensure they change filters only from the bottom.
The shoot started with some general long shots of the Marina EMAAR Towers. On the LCD, the image and colours looked like they would on a real HD camera.
They were very far ahead and much improved from the previous Sony HDV cameras or similar category HD handheld camcorders from other vendors. This is primarily because Sony is using a true high definition chip in the PMW-EX1. It is a 3 x native HD 1/2" 1920x1080 CMOS chip.
This is the first non-shoulder mounted camcorder with Super HD half-inch resolution CMOS. This means that the end user gets superb quality, a sharp and detail rich picture with fascinating colour saturation in true high definition.
Since I was testing the camera, I filmed in multiple modes. I started with 1080/50i, then shifted to 1080/25p, achieved film-like shots in 1080/24p, and finally moved to 720/24p. I swapped between all of these formats on HQ mode as I was looking to see how I could maximise the potential of the camera.
Before going to the office to look at the rushes, I also took a look at the footage shot on location. We used the HD/SDI output to connect to a Sony HD LMD monitor. The quality of the footage was impressive.
The new HD lens from Fujinon has played a key role in enabling the EX1 to produce such high image quality. Not only was there a lot of detail in the picture, the colours were just as brilliant and vibrant.
Additionally, an end user does not need to invest in an HD monitor to notice the quality. A user can go to the menu and down-convert the output to SD and use any SD monitor to view the footage.
This output can be used on edit if the system is not yet ready to import MPEG4 files directly from the SXS card into the editing timeline. We took some time-lapse scenes as clouds moved above the towers. In this case, what we will eventually have is clouds moving rapidly above the buildings. Although this is a cliché in production, it was just the ideal shot to test the camera's time-lapse function.
It is also the first handheld camcorder to carry the CineAlta 24P brand with multiple frame rate recording capability such as 59.94i, 50i, and native 23.98P, as well being 1080i/720P switchable.
There is also a choice of a 35Mb/s High Quality mode or a 25Mb/s, HDV 1080i compatible mode.
To take advantage of this high performance recording capability, the PMW-EX1 uses an all-new imaging system consisting of three ½-inch type CMOS sensors, each with an effective pixel count of 1920x1080 to produce images in full HD resolution.
In addition, there's a purpose-built Fujinon Professional HD ½-inch 14x lens and a dual focus ring mechanism. Three impressive features including its IT-friendly MP4 file recording to advanced creative features, such as selectable gamma curves and "Slow & Quick Motion" capability.
To maximise recording time, the PMW-EX1 has two memory card slots which means with a pair of 16 GB SxS PRO memory cards, it can record up to 140 minutes of HD footage.
A wide variety of accessories are also available, including a USB Reader/Writer, a wide-conversion lens, battery and charger.
From the other side of Sheikh Zayed Road, we tested the slow-motion function as cars sped along the highway. We changed the frame-rate from the menu but found the final clip to be smooth. Traffic appeared to be moving slowly and smoothly. We captured shots of vehicles in full detail with no trails, and no blue or green edges.
After four hours of shooting in daylight, we were ready to test the camera at night. There was ample opportunity the same night at the gala dinner to celebrate the launch of the new boutique offices at Dubai Studio City.
I asked the crew to meet me there around 8:00 P.M. so we could test the camera at night in low light conditions. We filmed the first Emarati hip hop group 'Desert Heat'.
Although the stage was not perfectly lit, the camera and the Fujinon lens were able to make the necessary adjustments. The final output was superb and better than I expected.
There was very little grain or noise when I was filming some dark areas and had the Iris open to the maximum, but generally the darkness looked very clean. Even with the grain switched to medium or high levels, the EX1 did not show as much grain as would be expected from camcorders in the same range.
We also had an unexpected burst of fireworks that night, which gave us the opportunity to shoot this. I turned the EX1 towards the sky and captured some fantastic shots. The fireworks on the LCD not only looked real but showed an impressive amount of detail.
The native 1/2" HD 1920x1080 CMOS chip was doing its job and clarity and detail were amazing.
We then took this footage to the edit table. At Frame TV, we use an Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro as well as and Edius so we tested the footage on all three systems to see what results we would achieve.
The Edius from Thomson and FCP were ready to import the MPEG4 files immediately to the timeline. Using the Avid system, we had to connect the EX1 from the HD/SDI output to the Adrenaline Breakout Box, and perform a traditional capture as Avid does not yet have a release update that allows us to import footage from the EX1 directly.
We took time on each system to review the footage and the image quality. The footage filmed in HD 24P and 25P shooting modes was very close to what we can call a ‘film look' due to the progressive scan mode and the depth of field of the lens.
There is more: the EX1 has a tonne of ‘picture profiles' that can be set up and customised to get the ‘look' you want; you can change skin tones, add or reduce contrast, or adjust cinegamma curves.
The positive thing here is that all these picture modes and adjustments on the EX1 do not look too ‘electronic' compared to other camcorders. Overall, the pictures have a film-like look and feel.
To conclude, I was very impressed with the performance of the Sony XDCAM-EX MW-EX1 solid-state camcorder. A cost-effective camera with superb capability, great image output, a wide range of formats and options, fast workflow as well as film-like HD vdeo output. This is an affordable option for budget-conscious filmmakers wanting to start out in HD.
It fits the bill for documentary films, HD news stories, corporate videos, and with the right usage, it is a very capable camera.
Tarif Sayed is a film director and managing director of The Frame FZ LLC, Dubai.
Solid state memory
Solid state cards are expensive
White balance location not user-friendly
Price: Approx. US $8400
Camera provided by: UBMS