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Old 01-17-2005, 07:00 PM
Doug Johnson
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Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 186
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Default Sony HDR-FX1: High Definition Without Breaking the Bank


Product Category: Digital video camera
Manufacturer: Sony
Where to Buy: Amazon [Affiliate]
Price: $3699.99 USD
Specifications: 4 lb 4 oz, 1440 x 1080 HDV Video, 3 lux sensitivity

Pros:
  • True 16x9 1080i high definition video using 3 CCD sensors;
  • Image quality is extremely high in all modes;
  • Excellent manual controls;
  • Many video format conversion options.
Cons:
  • Being marketed as a 'consumer' camera, but is too complex, big, and expensive for a typical consumer;
  • A camera at this level should include XLR microphone inputs;
  • Low-light performance, though very good, is not quite as good as prior Sony cameras in this price range.
Summary:
Perhaps one of the most anticipated events in recent history, by semi-pro videographers is the upcoming release of Sonyís new HDR-FX1 3-CCD high definition camcorder. Many of us have been disappointed by the JVC offerings due to their decision to use only a single CCD, and have been anxiously awaiting a true 3-CCD camera. With Sonyís announcement earlier this year of such a product, many of us got really excited. The good news is that their resulting product, the HDR-FX1 is now available.

Read on for the full review!

Why is This So Exciting?
A 3-CCD camera splits up the image coming through the lens into its primary colors: red, green, and blue, each with its own image sensor. This results in a very dramatic improvement of color accuracy over single sensor cameras, but 3-CCD cameras usually have another advantage as well. In most cases the CCDs are larger, which improves low light sensitivity and picture noise. Professionals insist on using 3-chip cameras, and for anyone looking into buying a video camera, I very highly recommend going with a 3-CCD model if your budget allows.

Up until now if you wanted a high-definition (HD) camera with 3 CCDs, you were limited to professional offerings at $20,000 plus, without a lens or accessories. The Sony HDR-FX1 is the first camera to change that by offering this camera for less than $4,000.

Why High Definition?
A regular (standard definition, or SD) television picture is limited to a resolution of less than 720x480 pixels (about 1/3 megapixel for you digital camera types). High Definition (HD) increases the picture resolution and color accuracy dramatically. The highest resolution of HD is 1920 by 1080 pixels (approximately 2 megapixels), so you are dealing with approximately 6 times the picture information as you do with standard definition. In addition, the HD formats use a different way to store color information more accurately, and support a 16x9 widescreen aspect ratio, providing a wider, more cinematic view than conventional 4x3 television.

Introduction to the HDR-FX1
Sony is marketing the HDR-FX1 as a "consumer" HD camera, though its $3,700 street price, relatively large size, and its apparent complexity put it out of the reach of most consumers. In my opinion, this camera was really aimed at a semi-pro market. After having using the camera for a while, I believe that its picture quality and features are more in line with professional cameras, and that it could be used professionally in many (though certainly not all) situations.

The camera itself is specified at four pounds, four ounces, which is quite heavy for a "consumer" camera. In practice, though, I found that I wish it was a little heavier, as heavier cameras are easier to hold steady without shaking. Sony has announced that it will be shipping a shoulder brace to help steady it, but its street price of an additional $400 may discourage many would-be purchasers.

When handheld, the camera feels well balanced. The tripod mounting socket, however, seems to be mounted a bit too close to the front of the camera. While mounted on a tripod I found the front of the camera wanted to drift upward slowly.

A new feature of this camera is an integrated lens cover. A switch at the back of the attached lens hood opens and closes the cover, which comes in the form of two plastic flaps inside the lens hood that swing up and down, in and out of the way.



Figure 1: Lens cover closed and open; just flip a switch to open and close the integrated lens cover.

Physical Arrangement
The physical arrangement of the camera is somewhat different than what we are used to seeing. For example, the flip-out 3.5" widescreen LCD is actually placed on the top almost at the front of the camera, mounted on the front of the carrying handle instead of on the left side of the camera body. When the display is closed it covers numerous buttons including the VCR style transport controls, which are revealed when the display is opened.


Figure 2: Huge 16x9 LCD screen and tape transport controls.

In addition to being placed in a new location, the LCD displays a very high resolution of 250,800 pixels. Because HD video utilizes a much higher resolution than any small LCD can display, accurate manual focusing is accomplished using a feature Sony calls ďExpanded Focus.Ē When engaged, the LCD shows the center of the image at full resolution without affecting the image being recorded on tape. This allows for precise focusing without having to include an extremely expensive (and large!) LCD screen. This works fairly well, except you canít see anything other than the center portion of the image when the feature is engaged.

The viewfinder has a very similar 252,000 pixel resolution. Visually it appears to have the same resolution as the LCD. It comes with a standard rubber eyecup, as well as a much larger professional eyecup. I found the standard eyecup comfortable, but too soft.

Controls and Layout, Part I
Arranged along nearly the entire left side of the camera are most of its controls. And for a "consumer" offering, there are an awful lot. There are dedicated controls for adjusting iris, gain, shutter speed, and white balance. These controls and their operation will be familiar to operators of professional cameras. Having this degree of manual control is a very welcome change over previous models, but will overwhelm amateurs.


Figure 3: Manual exposure toggle buttons.

Also found on the left side of the camera are the focus mode selector switch, neutral density filter selector, 3 assignable buttons, audio level controls, record review, spotlight and backlight controls, plus the focus and zoom rings. The focus and zoom rings are not physically connected to the lens elements, but these are, rather, used to indicate to the cameraís electronics how to position the lenses. On older cameras this technique didnít respond well, but on this camera it seems to work fine at all but the fastest of speeds.


Figure 4: Additional camera controls.

An improvement over previous cameras is an adjustment wheel on the left side at the back of the camera to manually adjust audio level. When manual adjustment is enabled, two audio level meters appear on the on-screen display. There is only one control, so separate adjustment of the two stereo channels is not possible.

One of the neatest new features of the camera is called "Shot Transition." With this feature, you can setup two shots and have the camera transition between them smoothly. Each of these shots can have different zoom, focus, exposure, and white balance settings, and the duration of the transition can be set between 2 and 15 seconds. Without this feature the individual controls would have to be adjusted manually, something which is very hard to achieve individually, nigh impossible collectively, especially if they have to be repeated over and over again. The resulting transitions are smooth, and add a more professional look to your video if used properly.


Figure 5: Shot Transition, format indicators, and other controls.


Controls and Layout, Part II
Additional controls are located on the back of the camera. A configurable zebra and peaking control is at top. The Zebra feature is normally used to indicate areas of the image that are overexposed, but Sony has made this configurable, allowing the level of zebra to be set between 70 and 100 IRE, plus a 100+ setting that only indicates areas of the picture that are truly overexposed. The peaking control enhances the sharpest details of the image, making focusing easier. The zebra works well, but I found the peaking feature would be more useful if its effect was more prominent.


Figure 6: Controls at the back of the camera.

A row of buttons underneath the zebra/peaking control include Picture Profile, Menu, and P-Menu (a "build your own" menu for commonly accessed features). To the left of these buttons are a Status Check button, which shows a 3-page on-screen summary of current camera settings, and a Select/Exec roller/button combo control for navigating menus and adjusting settings. If you have used a Sony camera in the past, operation of these features will come very easily to you.

On the handle of the camera is a zoom rocker along with a record start/stop control. The speed of the zoom rocker can be selected between customizable low and high settings via a switch on the left side of the handle, but the rocker itself is only good for one speed at a time.

The main zoom rocker falls under the middle and ring fingers of your right hand, and provides a very usable control over the zoom feature. Slow crawls were easy to pull off, though I do find that the slowest speed could be a slower (as always).

The right side of the camera is also where all of the input/output connectors are found. These include S-Video In/Out, Component Video Out, Audio/Video In/Out, Mic/Line In on the front, and LANC and Headphone at the back. The S-Video and Audio/Video connectors can be used simultaneously, but if something is plugged into the Component Video output the video on the other two connectors are turned off. Like many Sony cameras, the Audio/Video connector uses a 4-conductor 1/8Ē jack, which can be a problem if you leave the cord at home. I suggest ordering a spare cable, just in case.

Picture Quality
So is this camera really high definition? Yes, it is. The resolution of the CCD image sensors is 960 x 1080 pixels, but the 960 lines are converted to 1440 lines (using a special CCD and a much more sophisticated method than just stretching), resulting in about 1.55 million pixels per video frame, approximately 5 times the resolution of SD. The footage I recorded isnít quite as good as broadcast HD: the picture is slightly softer, but the colors are as vivid, and the overall image is very smooth. Occasionally I could see a little bit of a moirť effect on the tightest repeating patterns, but other than that, the image recorded by this camera is excellent!

On this camera the video format used for HD is called HDV, and it is stored on standard off-the-shelf MiniDV tapes. This format was developed by several big-name video companies, and is based in MPEG 2. The combination of higher resolution and higher compression used by HDV over MiniDV results in an identical data recording rate, so recording times for the two formats are the same. Overall I would say that HDV has fewer unwanted artifacts than DV. The main problem with HDV at this point is that few video editing packages support it, though support from the major players is on the way. With the HDR-FX1, however, you can export HDV as DV, and use your existing editing software until the appropriate HDV plug-in arrives: shoot HD now, edit in DV now, re-import in HD later.


Figure 7: Crop of sample HD image. Click for full image (2.8MB).

When switched to DV mode the camera is very, very good. I would rate the resolution and color accuracy at least as high on this camera than previous Sony cameras, definitely higher than the Canonís XL-1, and somewhat higher than Panasonicís DVX series of cameras.


Figure 8: Same size crop of SD image. Click for full image.

One feature that this camera has that its DV competitors do not (other than the Canon XL2) is the ability to record in true, native anamorphic DV widescreen without a lens adapter. Even if you donít take advantage of the high definition capability of the camera, having native 16x9 widescreen makes it worth serious consideration.

The optics of the non-removable Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 12x zoom lens ( F1.6-2.8 ) are very good. In subjective tests I did not detect any traces of image distortion because of the lens. The lens features a 72mm filter thread diameter, so it can accept a wide variety of available filters and adapters. Sony will be making a 0.8x wide angle adapter lens specifically for the HDR-FX1, and should be available soon.

Image Enhancement Modes
The HDR-FX1 supports a feature that Sony calls "Picture Profile" which allows five groups of customizable image enhancement settings to be stored and recalled at any time. It is these picture profiles that allow for an image to be adjusted for color, sharpness, white balance, exposure settings, and more. The camera comes with 5 presets, which are designed to provide various looks, from video, to color film, to black and white. Each can be customized individually.

I've had numerous filmmakers ask me if the camera supports 24p, a mode where a camera records 24 full non-interlaced images per second, as part of the Picture Profiles, just as 35mm motion pictures cameras do. The short answers is, sort of, but not really. The camera has a feature called CineMotion24, which attempts to simulate a 24 fps look, but I found it to be too choppy to be usable in a real-world scenario: it looks more like 15 fps, even though it is 24 images per second. A similar mode, CineMotion30, is much better, and while it is not 24 frames per second, it does have a similar look.

Another feature of Picture Profiles that budding filmmakers will be interested in is called CinemaTone Gamma. This feature changes the visual response of the camera to give it a much more film-like look, and I found that this feature works quite well. I do wish it had more options than just "on" and "off" Ė adjusting the intensity of the effect, or selecting color channels individually, for example.

Sony also provides a skin complexion enhancement feature, though I found the effect was hardly noticeable. Perhaps with some more time I can better identify what it is doing, but its effect was subtle, even at its strongest setting.

As far as special effects, such as strobe, mosaic, etc, this camera just doesnít have them. It does have a black & white mode and a fader, but most of the consumer-ish effects have been left out. Since these are not used by professionals, they will probably not be missed. These types of effects, if used at all, are better added in editing software.

Using the Camera in the Real World
As mentioned previously, the weight of the camera is such that you probably wonít get tired using it, but it is not quite massive enough to prevent the shakes that are inherent with lightweight cameras. It does have Sonyís Super SteadyShot feature, and it is customizable with four different types of stabilization. Because Super SteadyShot stabilization is done optically rather than digitally, it actually works quite well.

Battery life is quite good, but not as good as previous Sony same-class cameras. It uses standard Sony InfoLithium "L" series batteries, so if you have another Sony camera you may already have batteries that can be used with this camera, though it consumes them a little faster than what you are used to. You will most definitely want to purchase a larger battery than the one that comes with the camera, as the provided battery provides a maximum of about 75 minutes of run time.

Audio
The audio on the camera seems to be good, though not spectacular. When recording in HDV the audio is compressed using MPEG 1 Layer 2 compression at 384 kbps, which is good, but not quite CD quality. Noise is lower than previous Sony cameras, but still audible when turned up loud enough. I do wish that the microphone was more sensitive to sounds coming from directly in front of the camera, but serious video enthusiasts will certainly have their own microphone setup.

This camera does not have XLR microphone inputs, though its bigger brother, due out next spring, will.

Conclusions
This camera is a very exciting new entry into the world of video. Good quality high definition has been unavailable to the consumer until now, and the Sony HDR-FX1 represents a very good starting point for inexpensive HD. It seems as though Sony has taken their experience from the DCR-VX1000 and its newer siblings and incorporated everything they have learned into this camera, as well as adding additional refinements as well. If you have liked Sonyís previous offerings, you will love this camera.

Though the HDR-FX1 is very good, I canít recommend it for everyone. This camera is too expensive, heavy, and complex for casual consumers. It is really aimed at a semi-pro market, and it does this job very well. But if you want something simple, or the full flexibility of a truly professional camera, this probably isnít for you. If you want high definition video relatively inexpensively, the HDR-FX1 is an excellent choice!
 
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