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Equipment Review

Sony PMW-EX3 Camcorder

The Sony PMW-EX3 is my new favorite camera, and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future (although I'm anxiously waiting the roll-out of the Red products scheduled for late 2009). The EX3 is the perfect combination of versatility, quality, size, and price. Retailing around $8,300, it can legitimately be called the first true professional camcorder under $10k.

The EX3 is an upgrade from the very popular and critically acclaimed PMW-EX1. The differences, in order of importance are: the EX3 can use interchangeable lenses, the EX3 has a world-class viewfinder, the EX3 doesn't have the bugs from the early productions of the EX1. About the only downsides to the EX3 from the EX1 is that the viewfinder is now precariously perched off to the side and the $2k price difference. But for wildlife and nature work, its a no-brainer; go with the EX3 over the EX1, in fact, over any other camera you can find (read our review of the EX1 as well since this review doesn't cover some topics already discussed in that review).

.The interchangeable lens feature is a winner, and that's good because the 14x Fujinon lens, although of exceptional quality (and amazing in low light), is barely adequate for wildlife. To change a lens simply release a lens lock button and then turn a lever upward while holding the lens. Pull the stock lens strait out (i.e., directly away from the camera). Reverse the steps to afix a new lens. Fortunately, lens can be changed while the camera is mounted on most rail or other support systems. The camera comes with a 1/2" adapter for standard Sony bayonet lens. Many wildlife videographers are puchasing third party adapters that allow the use of Nikon SLR lens (make sure its a lens with a manual diaphram ring). The use of such lens will increase your magnification by about 5-fold. I tested my EX3 on a Sigma 50-500 and the quality was amazing; however, I'll be judicious in the use of the longer lengths due to camera shake and a potential loss of quality (although to be honest I haven't seen any dropoff). The wider angles come in handy for finding your target before you zoom in on it. Of course, you will be on full manual mode with the use of such lens (what Sony calls "non-exclusive lens").

Sony EX3 with Sigma Lens

Sony has done away with the small electronic view finder on the back of the EX1, but that's no loss because Sony has greatly enhanced the LCD screen so it functions as the one and only viewfinder you need. The LCD quality is amazing and you can feel more confident in your focus than with any viewfinder I've ever seen. As with the EX1 its very easy to switch between autofocus and true manual focus. Sony has taken advantage of the large display to add features such as a histogram to help with light exposure and contrast. The only downside is that the large viewfinder sets off to the side of the camera, connected at only one spot. It seems prone to breakage. Also, the unit may not fit as easily into your bag as the EX1 or many other models.

IIn contrast to the early production runs of the EX1, the autofocus on the Sony EX3 works much better. Its sharp and seems to stay locked in. The stock lens also allows the use of sophisticated peaking to help with the focus, as well as zebra and the other aids you would expect in most high-end cameras. One improvement I'm especially grateful for on the EX3 over the EX1 is that you can now actually get at the USB port. Granted, its not a big deal, but it was frustrating. On the EX1 the port was buried behind the handle; now its placed further back on the unit (granted, now they've buried the lens release behind the handle on the EX3, but I can live with that).

Areas for improvement? Yes, there are still some. Sony is still relying on the small "jog dial" (or wheel) for the Sel/Set features. Even in warm weather its hard for me to operate; in cold weather its virtually impossible. Likewise, several of the other buttons and switches are difficult for anyone with normal size fingers. Even the power switch is tricky to get a grip on. And then when you finally push the switch there's the concern of pushing it all the way past the Off setting to the Media side. And although the Rec button on the stock Fujinon lens is perfectly placed, when you're using a non-standard lens (such as a 35mm lens) you have to rely on the Rec button up on top toward the front of the handle, a very awkward arrangement.

Sony PMW-EX3 Controls

Like the EX1, the EX3 uses SxS memory cards. However, unlike earlier versions of the EX1 the EX3 comes ready to handle 32gb cards. In addition, the EX3 can use Kensington adapters and SDHC cards (such as those by Transcend and SanDisk) in the card slots, and with the doors completely close (unlike the EX1). These cards/adapters cost only about one-fifth the cost of SxS cards (but you can't overcrank at 1280x720 60fps with the adapters). I've had no problem with the adapters and I strongly recommend having a collection of them in your bag. The EX3 also has a hot shoe on the back for peripherals such as the Sony PHU-60k hard drive, but to be honest, I think a bag full of adapter cards is a cheaper and better solution.

One regret is that Sony did not equip the EX3 (or the EX1) with a pre-record cache. That's a great feature for wildlife and can be found on the upper end Sony cameras in the XDCAM format as well as cameras by other manufacturers (e.g., Panasonic) and storage devices such as those by Firestore. A work-around is to assign the Last Clip Delete function to an assign button and if the critter hasn't done anything interesting after a few minutes simply hit the assign button.

The camera has a built in stereo microphone as well as a shotgun microphone holder and two XLR inputs. Two channels of audio can be recorded. The mics can be run off of phantom power. Audio levels can of course be automatic or manual.

The "chainsaw" shape of the EX3 allows for shoulder-mounted shooting by use of an extendable shoulder pad and/or a cheek pad. The shoulder pad is made of a foam-like material; it will be interesting to see how it holds up over time.

Sony PMW-EX3 Handle Side

In addition to the cheek pad, other accessories that come with the camera include software for capturing the footage, an IR remote control, a battery which will last about 2 hours (note that batteries for other Sony prosumer camcorders will not work with this unit because of voltage differences), a battery charger, and various cables. Note that the remote control only works from the front of the camera, a drawback for some nature work (see the review of the EX1). The unit can be powered directly from the battery charger. One item of note - the Sony EX3 does not come with an HDMI port, which is becoming a standard feature on most prosumer and consumer Sony camcorders.

In summary, this camera sets a new standard for professional video. Canon, Panasonic, and JVC have their work cut out for them. With a decent lens this is an excellent camera for nature and wildlife work.

Pros

IAmazing picture quality. Interchangeable lens. Great viewfinder. Versatile formats and frame rates. Accepted by major broadcast companies for full productions.

Cons

Precarious viewfinder. Hard to operate, and sometimes poorly placed, external buttons and switches.

UPDATE - No updates at this time.

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