The perfect camera. That phrase means different things to different people, depending on whom you ask, the type of work they do, and how they’ve developed their workflow. How we decide what constitutes the perfect camera is usually determined by frustration with our current camera’s limitations and/or omissions. Typically, we find elements we like about certain cameras, but almost inevitably we find them lacking other features we desire. For instance, I loved the HD imagery of the Sony FX1 but found the 12x zoom limiting and was disappointed that it didn’t have progressive shooting modes. Naturally. I bought Sony V1Us when they came out because they addressed these issues with a 20x zoom lens and shot true 24 and 30p. However, because they had only 1/4" chips, their low-light performance was even worse than my FX1s’, which were just passable in low light. So my search continued.
Needless to say, those experiences over the last few years solidified my camera wants and needs and helped me formulate the characteristics of my own personal "perfect camera." I was been waiting on a camera that would deliver the high-quality HD images I was used to getting from the FX1s and V1Us, but would be great in low light, include progressive capabilities, and be able to get very clean slow motion via overcranking for specialty shots. I also was looking for a way to speed up my editing process via some sort of tapeless workflow because I do a same-day edit at almost every one of my weddings. And I wanted all of this in a camera for under $10K. That’s not too much to ask, right?
Best of Both Worlds?
Given the aforementioned wish list, you can imagine my excitement when Sony announced its PMW-EX1 at NAB 2007. I thought I’d finally found that long-sought-after perfect camera. Of course, I say that tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well that there’s no such thing—however ideal a model may seem when it’s under glass at NAB, there are always trade-offs you discover when you bring a camera into your workflow, and the EX1 is no different. Regardless, with its tapeless workflow via SxS cards, full-raster HD, sizeable 1/2" chips for much better Depth-of-Field (DoF) control and low-light performance, and progressive shooting modes, it promised many of the most important features I was looking for in a camera, and I couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype.
It’s clear from the outset that Sony engineers meant the EX1 to be a hybrid of their higher-end XDCAM series and their popular prosumer models like the Z1. It even carries the CineAlta badge, which means it was manufactured in the same factory responsible for the XDCAM models. As a result, it has many of the high end features found in larger shouldermount cameras like the F350, packed into the body size and shape of FX/Z series, while weighing about a pound more than the latter.
Camera Controls: The Good, the Bad, and the Baffling
For the most part, the controls are straightforward and easy-to-find, especially for a lifelong Sony user like myself. Because I’m primarily a handheld shooter, I love the rotating handle which allows you to shoot at a variety of angles without putting strain on your wrist.
Overall, the menu’s are easy to navigate, and the controls are intuitive with one glaring omission: You can’t assign picture profile settings and specific camera operations like overcrank to an assignable button. For instance, the Panasonic HVX200 allows you to go into over-undercrank mode simply by pushing a single assignable button. By comparison, to go into these modes with the EX1, you have to access two separate menu settings that are found at opposite ends of the menu, which is neither intuitive nor especially helpful to run-and gun shooters. I’m hoping to see this issue corrected with a future firmware update, but not holding my breath.
Another feature of the camera that falls under the "what were they thinking" category is the placement of the power button. The off button is inexplicably located in the middle of the media and camera settings. Consequently, until I got used to it, I often accidently put the camera into media mode when I meant to turn it off, which drained the battery without me knowing it. But these few sticking points aside, there is plenty to be excited about with this camera.
One of the EX1’s major strengths is its professional 14x Fujinon lens with its novel engineering, capable of both servo-motor and true mechanical focusing. Most cameras in this price range use strictly electrical focusing methods, which means when you focus, the barrel is unmarked and spins forever, making accurate focusing difficult at times. However, with the EX1, a simple tug backward of the focus ring locks the camera into full manual setting, where you physically turn the glass and it literally stops at macro and infinity. It also has foot and meter readings in this setting. This is very important for pulling accurate critical focus.
Traditional electronic focusing modes are also available, including full auto and a manual with focus assist. It also has a macro focus setting, which allows you to get really close to your subject and get some great shallow DoF shots of wedding rings, invitations, and things of that nature.
The professional iris ring is truly a joy to work with. It is a full-sized ring with all the f-stops clearly labeled, and it’s located right near the focus ring, which makes it very easy to get dialed in quickly and accurately. All of these elements combine to allow the user to get some incredible imagery out of this camera.
To claim that the EX1 picture quality is simply breathtaking would not, in this case, be typical new-camera-owner hyperbole. I’ve been shooting HDV for 4 years now but I’m consistently astounded at the quality of the footage this camera produces. Colors are vivid and realistic without being overly saturated. With the EX1’s 3 full-raster 1080 HD chips, there’s a noticable increase in resolution over my past HDV cams, but it’s more than that.
Thanks to the shallow DoF afforded by the 1/2" chips, the 24 and 30p progressive modes, and the camera’s unlimited tweaking of cine and gamma settings, the footage I shoot with the EX1 also has a filmic look to it, something Sony cameras haven’t exactly been noted for in the past.
The low-light ability of this camera is phenomenal. Like any camera, the EX1 still benefits from some auxiliary lighting, but even the darkest venues are no match for the 1/2" chips. I can take the EX1 up to 12dB and still get very clean, crisp images with little noise, and have found it more than up to the task for all but the darkest of lighting situations. Recently, in a very challenging lighting situation, I put it at 1/40 shutter speed and was floored by result. I got very clean images with colors that still popped with very little grain. Finally, a camera with pristine HD picture quality, with the low-light abilities of your best SD cameras!
One of the biggest strengths of the EX1 is the wide variety of formats and shooting modes at your disposal. I shoot primarily in 1080/30p, but you can shoot in 720 and 1080 at a variety of frame rates in both progressive and interlaced modes.
In all of the different shooting modes you have the option to use either HQ or SQ settings. The HQ setting yields a 35Mbps stream, whereas the SQ is 25Mbps, a lower-quality HDV setting that allows more footage to be recorded on your cards. Coming from an HDV workflow, I have not shot a single thing in that mode and instead have shot everything in HQ mode, preferring the higher quality over a little bit of extra recording time.
The EX1 and the SDE
At the heart of the EX1 workflow is its SxS cards, which were developed by Sony in conjunction with SanDisk. They’re based on the Express Card interface, and footage taken on them can be ingested for editing in a variety of ways. The simplest and fastest way is inserting them directly into your laptops Express Card slot (in my case, a MacBook Pro), where footage can be transferred to your computer at speeds ranging from 4x to 8x. Regardless of the speed you choose, it’s very fast. For example, a full 8GB card with 25 minutes of HQ footage takes less than 5 minutes to import. Needless to say, I will not be missing my old tape-based workflow anytime soon—especially on my SDEs.
As someone who does Same-Day Edits at almost every wedding, the day is usually segmented into 20-30 minute blocks of time, so this works perfectly with the 8GB card workflow. For example, at most weddings my assistant and I will each shoot about 10-20 minutes of prep. We meet up before ceremony and I dump both of our cards at that time and back them up.
Out here in Southern California, almost all of our non-Catholic ceremonies are about 20 minutes long, which means they can be easily covered with one 8GB card in HQ mode. Again, this makes importing ceremony footage for SDE and back-up very easy. Likewise, the cocktail hour and grand march/first dance can also usually be fit on one 8GB card. This is all I need for my SDEs, so once I have all of the footage from these 8GB cards, I have my second shooter switch to the 16GB card for the bulk of the reception while I edit for the SDE.
Going Tapeless: Other Issues
To be sure, most of us will experience a bit of fear of the unknown when we first switch to a tapeless workflow. But it quickly diminishes when you understand the proper protocols and establish a good plan for backup. At the time of this writing, I’ve shot 8 weddings and a few other events with my EX1s and have developed a pretty solid workflow. Until the cost of XD-compatible Blu-ray Discs come way down, I’ve decided to use primarily 8GB cards with my cameras, because I can back up each card to its own dual-layer DVD. This makes backing up my cards very simple and straight forward. Each card gets assigned its own dual-layer DVD so after a shoot, so instead of a pile of tapes, I have about 6-8 DL DVDs as backup. I also have backups on two different RAID partitions, one internal and one external.
One of the common knocks against the EX1 is the expense of the SxS cards. Currently, SxS cards cost about $500 for 8GB and $900 for the 16GB variety. When you factor in how many you may need for a typical wedding or event, the cost can seem fairly daunting.
I prefer to look at it long-term. I currently use six 8GB cards and one 16 GB card. Four of those 8GB cards came free from Sony (2 came with my EX1s and 2 came free via rebate), so my total investment in cards for my two cameras has been $1,800. That’s not bad when you consider that I figured I spent over $1,200 in tapes last year alone. Factor that out over 5 or so years and the SxS not only is a lot faster and more efficient than tape, it is actually cheaper in the long run. Also, while tape is fixed at its current storage limit and price, SxS card capacities will rise and costs will certainly come down as less expensive third-party solutions become available.
The logistics of my new tapeless workflow mean that I need to start pushing large amounts of data around for archive and backup. So I decided to invest in an eSATA setup. For the uninitiated, eSATA is capable of speeds that rival and even exceed the transfer rates of internal-drive systems. With a relatively cheap adapter, I turn my Express Card port in my Mac Book Pro into two eSATA ports. On site, once I am done dumping a card onto my laptop’s hard drive, I immediately take out the card and pop in the adapter and back up the footage to an external portable eSATA drive. The extra time it takes to switch out using the Express Card port is more than made up for with the lightning fast speeds. I am able to import an 8GB card’s contents to my computer and have a safe external backup in about 5 minutes. Cards are never erased until I have 2 backups of the footage, one on my laptop’s HD and the other on an external drive. This gives me the much-needed peace of mind required with a tapeless workflow.
While the EX1 is far from the perfect camera, it has very much lived up to the hype and even exceeded it in some areas. The fact is, I like it so much I may even use this camera for more than a year. For those who know me and how often I switch cameras in my neverending search for the perfect one, that speaks volumes about how much I like this camera. Simply put, this camera is perfect for me at this particular time in my career.
Daniel Boswell (daniel at dvartistry.com), a Menifee, Calif.-based wedding videographer, was named to the 2007 EventDV 25.