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Equipment Review

Sony PMW-EX1 Camcorder

The Sony PMW-EX1 is an amazing camera, especially considering the $6,400 price. Unfortunately, its not a perfect camera for wildlife work. But for nature, landscape, documentary, or any other work it is the camera to have.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the EX1 is that it can record at a bit rate up to 35mps. It records a true high definition of 1920x1080 as well as 1280x720 format (it can also record at 1440x1080 in a standard mode). It can record up to 30p at the higher resolution and 60p at the lower resolution. It has undercranking and overcranking capability. For example, at 1280x720 shooting at 24p the camera can be overcranked to 60p; in playback this will give excellent slow motion effects. The camera will even allow you to switch to the PAL or NTSC formats (unfortunately, to go from 30p to 25p requires several steps and a fair amount of rolling of the jog wheel). An especially noteworthy fact about the XDCAM EX format is that it has been given the Silver status by Discovery Networks, meaning that entire programs can be filmed using the format (whereas there are strict limits on the amount of HDV format that can be used).

IThe camera records to SxS memory cards. The camera comes with a 8gb card which will record for about 30 minutes at the higher quality settings. 16gb cards are currently available for about $700. The camera has 2 card slots meaning that up to 2 hours of footage can be recorded (at the higher quality settings) using 16gb cards before new cards are needed. Sony maintains that SxS cards are the wave of the future, in contrast to the P2 cards used by Panasonic.

Sony EX1 Side View

The EX1 has a fixed Fujinon 14x lens. Although an excellent lens, it is a severe handicap for wildlife work. Even with an extender you are not getting past 200mm focal length. Having said that, the Fujinon lens is of the highest quality. An especially nice feature is the way it can be used in autofocus or manual mode. To go to full manual focus simply pul the focus ring back. Unfortunately, the autofocus is a bit soft and of marginal value at the telephoto end. Fortunately, the camera has some very nice peaking features and a focus extender that greatly aids in manually focusing the camera.

I'm not too crazy about the buttons and switches on the camera. Most of them are recessed into the body and for anybody with normal size fingers they can be a challenge to operate. The power switch is extremely difficult to operate and a step back from many of the prosumer Sony camcorders. Sony needs to consult with some cold weather operators to build more user friendly external switches.

The camera has a built in stereo microphone as well as two XLR inputs. There are dual channels for monitoring audio with automatic and manual settings.

The rear viewfinder on the unit is serviceable. Where the EX1 really shines is the fold out LCD screen. It is of excellent quality. Sony has taken advantage of the large screen and high resolution to add some nice features such as a histogram to monitor brightness and contrast. Several of the options such as gain, iris, shutter speed, and white balance can be controlled in several ways including external switches and buttons as well as soft controls using the menu display. Not surprisingly, there is a bit of a learning curve figuring out which ones have priority.

One gripe I have with the camera-and this was a surprise-is that the infrared remote control only works from the front of the camera. Perhaps not a big deal to some users (who may never even use the remote), but for wildlife work it is nice to be able to control the camera from behind with the remote control. For example, I sometimes will set the camera up on a tripod having it focused and framed on an attractant (say some suet in a stump). I'll then go some distance away (say inside the house, especially when its 10-below outside!) and wait until the animal shows up. I then use the remote to hit Rec and get my video. Using the remote control from behind also allows for steady zooms (you can get this with the shot transition feature, but it requires several steps to set it up).

Sony supplies software to help with capturing and converting the new XDCAM EX format. I've had no problem working with the format with Sony Vegas 8. Although not all NLEs can currently handle the format, most are coming on board. In addition to the software and an 8gb card, the camera also comes with a battery good for about 2 hours, a charger that can run the camera without a batter, an infrared remote control, and cables and other accessories. A word of note about the battery; its my experience that if you leave it in the camera it will drain after a few days (yes, even with the camera turned off).

Sony EX1 Oblique Angle

Pros

Exception picture quality. Versatily in formats and frame rates. Records to flash memory cards.

Cons

Soft autofocus. Hard to operate external buttons and switches. Battery drain if left in the unit for a long time. Flash memory cards are currently expensive. IR remote works only from in front of the camera.

UPDATE - January 11, 2009

Sony has announced the release of firmware 1.11 which improves the autofocus and addresses other issues. It costs about $100 to have the firmware upgrade, plus shipping. Sony will also replace a card that should fix the battery drain issue.

 

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