If Sony is looking for a heavyweight contender in the battle for semi-pro camcorder supremacy then the EX1 might well be it.
Well, it would be if the battle could be won at the weigh-in. You see the first thing we noticed when removing this new cam from the box was its weight. At 2.8kg it is a bit of a back-breaker but further investigation revealed some nifty innovations that go some way to compensate.
Sony's heavyweight camcorder
The EX1 is slightly larger and 400 grams heavier than its forbearer, the Sony Z1 HDV cam. One giant difference between the Z1 and EX1 is that the latter has no tape mechanism. The video is recorded on to Sony’s brand-new solid-state format, the SxS memory card.
The EX1 captures video images via three 1/2-inch CMOS sensors and processes this information into a variety of video formats but they are all HD. If you require standard- definition video then all you have to do is down convert when you play out from the camera to your capture device.
Well designed cam
Our first impressions of the cam were positive. It looks and feels well built and the hefty Fujinon HD lens is a massive improvement on the Z1’s inferior lens.
Sony has retained the excellent lens hood with built-in barn door shutters but the new lens has a manual focus ring with end-stops so you know when you have reached infinity or minimum focus.
Without end-stops focusing has always been a very vague procedure as the focus ring will keep turning indefinitely. The addition of stops helps distinguish pro-kit from consumer camcorders.
The lens also has a proper iris ring which is a fantastic improvement on the Z1. We found setting both exposure and focus was precise, fast and comfortable unlike most other cameras in the semi-pro range.
New lens design
With practise we were able to adjust the focus and iris and maintain constant support under the camera with only one hand. The ability to keep the camera steady while adjusting the lens is crucial for recording wobble free and level footage.
The camera has a 14x optical zoom and the lens is initially quite a bit wider than the Z1 but zooms to the same focal length at the telephoto end. This wider lens is an advantage in many situations such as filming handheld or in confined spaces like car interiors.
The weight of the PMW-EX1 is frequently an issue. Bear in mind that the main support point is the zoom demand grip so your right wrist will need to carry most of the weight.
The new lens design means that your left hand can help and still make adjustments but its near-3kg will soon put a considerable strain on your right wrist and make handheld coverage very uncomfortable.
Easy to control
This would be a disaster if not for Sony’s new innovation of an adjustable zoom demand grip. The angle of the grip can be adjusted by 90 degrees and this feature allowed us to operate the camera at chest height.
We were still using the eyepiece but with the zoom grip set at 45 degrees most of the weight was transferred to the palm of the left hand without sacrificing any zoom control.
This is good as you don’t want to be shooting from hip level and up your subject’s nose which is often what happens during the filming of observational documentaries. It will also stop you from filming via the flip-out LCD screen which is never a good idea as you lose a point of contact with the camera making it less stable.
Therefore it is essential to be able to hold the camera easily at about your subject’s eye level and the adjustable grip allows you to do this.
Fun filming effects
When it comes to actual filming, we found many of the usual features you would expect such as two levels of neutral density (ND) for shooting in bright conditions, three levels of gain, white balance presets and two memory settings, A and B.
Position B can also be assigned as auto-white which is a boon. The shutter speeds range from 1/16th to 1/2000th of a second and the EX1 also has a panic button which gives you full auto.
Some other features available include selectable gamma curves, a Slow and Quick Motion feature, and a histogram function for assessing video levels.
During filming we were able to control the most commonly required functions with a switch rather than via a menu, which really sped up camera operation.
An impressive viewfinder
The EX1 has an excellent eyepiece viewfinder with accurate colours and a noise free, high- resolution picture. Assessing exposure is easy but we found that the camera has such a massive depth of field that, when wide, the image never seems to go out of focus.
For this reason we would advise you to always zoom in to check focus. Surrounding the viewfinder image is loads of additional data including record format, white balance, ƒ number, audio levels, battery life and more.
The viewfinder also has the zebra patterning facility to help you set exposure. Professionals commonly set it to 76 per cent which gives the correct exposure on skin if the zebra pattern was just about to appear.
A camcorder with some excellent features
One viewfinder setting displays the distances between which objects are in focus. This makes up for the inadequate peaking function, designed to increase the highlights in the viewfinder image and thus aid focusing.
It does not work well on this camera, which is a shame because it works really well on the Z1. The 3.5-inch high-res LCD screen which stows very neatly below the VCR (media) controls is big, bright and sharp, excellent for playing back footage.
As well as a built-in stereo mic the EX1 has two XLR audio inputs. These can be set to line or mic level with 48 volts. A clamp is provided to secure a gun mic and the level controls are located at the rear of the camera.
It’s a doddle to adjust the audio levels during filming with very little disturbance to your shots.
Video transfer options
The EX1 has i-LINK and SDI sockets for transfer of media. Those new to solid-state cams will be delighted to find the camera capable of instant recording in total silence.
One of the greatest irritations in life is listening to an old Digibeta slowly winding its self up to record and missing great shots in the three seconds this takes. But before you even consider pressing record which format would you like?
The PAL choices are: HQ 1920 x 1080 HD at 25 progressive or 50 interlaced frames (35Mbps); SP 1440 x 1080 HD, interlaced only (HDV compatible bit rate of 25 mbps); and HQ 1280 x 720 HD at 25 or 50 progressive frames (35Mbps).
In all of the above formats the picture quality is stunning for what is basically a small, semi-pro camcorder. HQ 1280 x 720 at 50 progressive frames per second (50p) looks best. Unlike 25p which flickers during panning shots, 50p is smooth, sharp, full of detail and very realistic.
Simple to store
All of this data is silently deposited on to one of the two memory cards and when one becomes full the camera automatically switches to the other card without a break in the recorded video.
Every time you press record a new clip is created and nearly 600 clips can be recorded on one card. To fill an 8GB card we recorded 25 minutes of HQ 1280 x 720 at 50p (35Mbps). So the 16GB card can hold 50 minutes of HQ video or 70 minutes of SP video.
If you use two 16GB cards it is possible to continuously record 100 minutes of HD material.
Having often shot up to five 32-minute Digibeta tapes a day when filming for TV productions we would guess you would need at least five 16GB memory cards to be on the safe side.
A costly option
This also means you have to transfer the card data to another storage device every night before shooting can begin again. Either that or buy more cards but we have been quoted £566 inc VAT per 16GB card rather than £5 per DV tape.
In other words, when using memory card camcorders we will need to change the way we work (daily data transfer) or Sony needs to reduce the price of cards so we can use them like tapes.
It is also a concerns that stored footage needs to be backed-up before the cards are reused. For the pro user, is their time for all this transferring? With tapes at least you know the footage is safe.
Of course, it’s possible that operators will use the supplied card reader to dump data from one card while shooting on another but this is something Sony needs to address before the future of filmmaking can be SxS based.