Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM Camcorder
In Part 1, Mike Jones discusses the camera's body, lens, and recording format
By Mike Jones
For some time now the video making populous has been sniffing the sweet scent of a tape-less recording future. And while many consumer mums-and-dads have long since ditched tape for the convenience of hard-drive and DVD recording cameras, professionals and indie movie makers have moved a much slower pace of adoption. The reasons for their reticence have been largely well founded with solid-state potentially presenting as many issues as benefits.
Panasonic lead the charge in the tape-less arena introducing the P2 memory card system in its HVX series camera some time back. But up until now they have been rather lonely on a solid state island. Now Sony, obviously having bided its time to see how P2 panned out, has come to the party with its own tape-less, memory card-based HD recording system; the EX1.
While the physical body of the EX1 resembles existing Sony small-form models, such as the popular Z1 and FX7, it would be a fundamental mistake to view the EX1 as an extension of the HDV range. As a part of the high-end Sony Cine alta family of cameras, and built around the XDCAM video format, the EX1 is a very different beast to any HDV camera even before you throw in the tapeless solid state recording system.
XDCAM denotes a range of shoulder-mounted Sony camera systems principally intended for TV news and broadcast. The EX1 possesses virtually all the elements of these bigger and more expensive brothers but mounted into a more portable, less expensive, fixed lens camera.
|Sony's XDCam EX 1|
|Right side view|
|The EX1 uses SxS cards.|
In most respects, the guts of the EX1 are near identical to its shoulder mount siblings, namely the 3x1/2 inch CMOS sensors which are the largest imagers ever seen in a camera of this class.
But with this inheritance also comes a surprising difference between existing XDCAM and the new breed of XDCAM-EX found in the EX1. Traditional XDCAM HD is a 1440x1080 resolution image with a pixel aspect ratio of 1.333:1 using MPEG-2 compression. This is the same as HDV but with the difference in quality coming in the higher bitrate off XDCAM over HDV. However the XDCAM-EX flavor of the EX1 records a full, square pixel, HD 1920x1080 without any anamorphic stretching. This combined with a robust 35mbps bitrate certainly makes for a rich and dynamic High Definition image.
Obviously pitched as a direct competitor to Panasonic's HVX, the EX1 uses the ExpressCard-based SxS cards for storage rather than PC Card technology. SxS is significantly faster in transfer speed and built on a technology being widely implemented across the tech sector. P2 cards handle a data transfer speed of 1.2 gigabytes per second (gbps) to SxS 2.5gbps.
Transferring footage from the SxS memory card proved to be an extraordinarily easy and fast process. Indeed, in truth, I was expecting it to be much more complicated or troublesome than it proved to be. In the camera, the XDCAM MPEG-2 signal and all metadata is written to a MP4 file format wrapper. The process then is simply to insert the SxS card into the ExpressCard3/4 slot on your laptop (virtually all current model laptops have such a slot as standard). From there you launch the XDCAM EX browser software supplied with the camera. This rather effective and simple software allows you to view each clip, tag OK clips and even change the thumbnail to represent the clip. Then with one click you transfer the footage to your hard drive and in the process the clips are automatically translated to an open MXF file format, ready for use in any NLE. This process of transfer happens in 1/4 real time; so a full 8GB SxS card holding 25 minutes of maximum quality 35mbps HD video is copied and re-wrapped to MXF in about 7 mins.
The current capacity of SxS cards might be low, but the EX1 can take two at a time with 16GB cards already available and 32GB on the way. 2x8GB cards = 50mins, 2x16GB = 200 minutes, 2x32GB =400mins. As prices drop on cards, recording times really won't be an issue and with 400 minutes transferring to computer in a bit over an hour and half there's a level of production efficiency to be had that will appeal to many.
Of course all this solid-state efficiency and native 1920x1080 HD isn't worth much if the camera itself isn't up to scratch.
The component that separates the EX1 from anything in Sony's HDV range is the lens; not the usual Carl Zeiss lens sported on most Sony fixed-lens cameras but a new Fujinon HD lens. The 14x zoom lens is specifically built for the native HD imagers and is driven by a servo motor giving it the kind of smooth motion between focal lengths and zoom distances that you'd expect to see on an interchangeable lens camera.
The manual and servo driven aperture/iris also sets this camera apart from the HDV range, and confirms its pedigree from the higher end, with a smoothly selectable range from f1.9 to f16. The EX1 is certainly capable of a great degree of control over depth-of-field and this will please many as this is often the distinct separator between the look of low-end and high-end cameras.
Joining the servo lens is a two-stage ND (Neutral Density) filter at 1/8 and 1/64. When shooting bright subjects and over exposed environments, this will greatly increase image clarity and reduce exposure without having to close down the iris and shift your DoF.
The Sony FX1 and Z1 HDV cameras set a new design model for placing the flip out LCD screen at the front top of the camera. It was a smart move and made small-form cameras more ergonomic and functional. The EX1 has borrowed this element and improved on it. The placement at the front of the camera remains but the LCD now rotates to slide under the microphone/handle which makes the camera less bulky and sleek when not using the LCD.
There is however a problem with this design as it forces the built-in mic and LCD section to sit very far forward on the camera almost past the lens. The potential here is that it would get in the way of any sort of mattebox that you may want to fit to the lens. UK camera Guru, Nigel Cooper, has found that by turning some matteboxes upside down you can get them to fit but it may well be something to consider when accessorizing the EX1.