Review of the new Sony XDCAM PMW-EX3
by Philip Bloom. ©2008 Philip Bloom
A lot of people know that I love my EX1, so much so that I now have two. I was lucky enough to get one quite early on and as soon as I put my Letus Extreme on it and started filming with it I fell in love with it. First and foremost I love the lens, the 1/2” sensors and the LCD screen. The first time a lens with proper manual controls has appeared on a handheld camera. The LCD screen allowed me to get critical focus with my Letus for the first time without having to use an external monitor. The 1/2” sensors allowed me more control over Depth Of Field than any 1/3” camera and was almost as good as a 2/3” camera. Certainly better than any camera of this size deserved to be. The images were so mind blowing they often looked better than my F350!
It wasn’t just when the Letus was on it that I adored this camera. I shot of series of short films about Religion for Channel Five, instead of using my usual F350, I decided to see if what is deemed a “B” Camera can be used as an “A” Camera. With the flying (a complete pain these days with full size cameras) and going to remote locations it was ideal yet there was almost no compromise in using it as opposed to the full size camera. The images were crisp and detailed yet natural with vibrant colours. I even got to love the tapeless format which I had always struggled with when I had my Panasonic HVX200. The ability to record 50 minutes on one card was a godsend.
I loved the images out of this camera so much that I posted them on my website and a lot of people watched them and over time more and more people started emailing me asking me questions about what they should buy or if they had bought one what was best thing for it, what were the best settings etc.. So I accidently become an “expert” on the EX1, not because I knew the camera back to front just because I was passionate about it and I thought more people should try it and be amazed.
I have never been blinkered as to it’s faults or think it is better than anything ever!! There is much I would to change in the camera, but to find a camera that is absolutely perfect in every way is almost impossible! If Panasonic brought out a new HVX that had 1/2” sensors, removable lens, super sharp LCD, full HD chips and AVC I codecs I would probably be first in line for it. If the new RED Scarlet is incredible I would that too! I will always want what I believe is currently the best and currently that is the Sony EX1. Well that is until now.
Due to my love of the EX1 and the fact that quite bizarrely people come to me for advice Sony decided that I should be the one to road test their latest XDCAM camera, the PMW- EX3. I was enormously flattered and slightly anxious. Quite a responsibility, but I was mostly really excited.
I went to Sony HQ early in April with my friend Dennis Lennie from Mitcorp, now part of Creative Video (the companies I bought all of my cameras from), himself a former cameraman and someone I have known since he worked at Procam. Both of us not really knowing what we were there to see, all we knew was it’s a new camera and that’s it!
Phil from Sony opened up the box which had some bizarre code name on the outside and showed it to us. It was a new EX camera, the EX3 (apparently Sony don’t like even numbers!). Our initial thoughts were it was slightly odd looking but quite striking. It looked like a Canon XL style camera had mated with my EX1 and we were present for the birth of it’s child, it looked like it’s mummy and daddy!
No pressure, but this was the only camera outside of the factory in Japan so I had to make sure nobody stole it, saw it, photographed it etc…
I took it to one of my favourite spots, Richmond Lock to get some photos taken and to film some pieces to camera with it. Mark Dawson of londonmarkfilms.co.uk came along to take some photos and operate the camera filming me. Mark has helped me out on both the Trench and Confession short films and is a top bloke. He has some nice stuff on Vimeo so check him out.
A few people passed by asked what camera it was, I said it was the Sony XDCAM EX2 to throw them off the scent.
I didn’t use the pieces to camera as I discovered a few features whilst using it that I wanted to talk about so I decided to do them at a later date.
So anyway, I am blathering…
The EX3. What is it all about? Why should you care? Why should I care? Well first off this was a complete surprise to me, I wasn’t expecting another EX camera for quite some time and certainly not with these features. This review will have some technobabble but what I hope it will do is be useful for people who don’t care about numbers, colourspace, compression, they want to know how these things actually effect their decision to buy one as well as the camera geeks out there like me!
First off lets get things straight. This is an improved EX1, underneath the chassis this is the same camera. Same 35mbs or 25mbs compression, same 4:2:0 colourspace, same CMOS rolling shutter. It’s the ergonomics which have been massively improved. If you were turned off the EX1 for whatever reason this may or may not address your issues. For me it does. After all I own so many cameras it’s just silly. I even used to own an HVX200 too but sold it to help pay for the EX1.
The first thing you notice about it is it’s new viewfinder, the low resolution one at the back of the EX1 has now gone and I for one am not in mourning for it. It was quite unusable to get critical focus so I have never used it, I always use the LCD screen, generally with a Hoodman 400 to take the glare off it. What Sony have done is kept the LCD screen, put a large hood around it (it no longer retracts under the microphone) and supplied a clip on viewfinder. Again, it’s a little like what Canon use on their H1, but much better quality. When the viewfinder is clipped on it works very well, it’s comfortable, has a number of height and width adjustments and is really quite sharp. One thing I did notice is when you blow the LCD screen up using the viewfinder it doesn’t look quite as sharp as the LCD screen on it’s own. I guess it is all about perception, but with peaking on and the unchanged focus assist, critical focusing is very achievable. With the viewfinder attached you can unhinge it and lift it up whilst leaving it attached so you can see the LCD or just remove it completely.
The new shape helps this camera enormously when using it handheld. I learned to shoot on a Betacam SP camera, it wasn’t until 18 months ago that I first used a handheld camera for anything other than home movies. My first one was a Z1, lovely camera, but how anyone can use it handheld for prolonged periods of time is beyond me. The EX1 suffers from the same problem, in fact probably worse. It is quite side heavy and when I used it handheld I had to keep it tucked into my body lower than I should have as my wrist was hurting so much. In the end I bought a £20 shoulder support off of ebay from China (this is detailed in my blog) and when I was filming the documentary “Nightshift” in the States in March it was an absolute joy. Lots of actuality so almost all handheld and I was in no pain. But, it seems crazy you have to buy something else, even if it is cheap, to make something more usable. The EX3 fixes this rather well. Taking the Canon series as a template it now has a semi shoulder mount, not a true shoulder mount as if it did it would be a much larger JVC HD200 size camera and Sony are trying to still keep it small. The curved body has a shoulder pad on it which wedges into your shoulder taking the weight and with the viewfinder perfectly to the eye it feels so much like a proper camera. Still front heavy but much more usable.
The next major change is enormous. So many people asked me about whether they should buy a Z7 or and EX1 as they love the Z7 interchangeable lens. Now that amazing feature has come to the EX. The Fujinon lens which is identical to the EX1 now comes off and with the included in the box 1/2” B4 adaptor you can put on 1/2” glass. Proper 1/2” glass, like i have for my F350. So we are talking proper long lenses, proper wide angles. Not wide angle adaptors! Also if you add on the 2/3” to 1/2” adaptor you can use 2/3” inch glass and even digiprimes with just a small increase in focal length. Also with the huge number of 35mm adaptors out there, the makers are bringing out relays for the different cameras out there. I understand both Letus and Brevis have them in the works. So this means putting a 35mm adaptor almost onto the body itself. Absolutely fantastic. Not yes, but soon!
Other new features: Peaking, brightness and contrast on the front of the viewfinder. A mirror image for non flipped 35mm adaptors. Although this is just in the viewfinder it still records upside down.
There is also now a super cool, holy crap, what a great idea, why didn’t i think of this addition to the left side of the camera. You can now select and adjust variable frame rates from here without touching the menus. You hold down the dial for 3 seconds and it lights up blue, you can then dial in what you want. Unfortunately there is no varicam style ramping, it works only when out of record mode. Also the same restrictions continue as there were with the EX1. 1080p mode you can select 1-30, 720p mode you can select 1-60. This is terrific as my F350 only goes up to 50fps in 25p mode, whereas the EX1 can go even slower, although be careful when selecting frame rate when artificial lighting is present as you will get pulsing if in a conflicting frame rate
As you can also see some of the others buttons have moved around from the rear and top to the side. The menu, wheel, picture profile and on off switch are now here. The on/ off switch is identical to the EX1, still very fiddly but you get used to it. Likewise the ND filter switch is as imprecise as before and can sometimes get slightly stuck between NDs. Shame they weren’t improved upon.
The assignable buttons are the same, again odd that they are labelled with actual functions when they are assignable. I didn’t get a chance to go through the menus properly to see if more functions were available to put here than on the EX1, more like the Z1. I hope so. I want to put turbo gain on one, i want to put a warmer/ colder white balance selector on two of them. The front assign 4 is still there, next to the shutter switch and the white balance button. I hate all the button placements here. Really awkward to use. So many times have I accidently lost my white balance as I have reached for the shutter and knocked it.
The SxS slot has now changed. This demo unit’s cover was flimsy but am assured the production version will not be. It still takes two cards but slot B has a gully which is for the new EX hard drive unit which has a SxS connector which goes into B and the cable comes out into the hard drive which mounts on the rear cold shoe. This is a 60gb hard drive that records 4 hours of 1080p HQ video. Not really big enough really. I would have liked to have seen at least 200gb, maybe the next one will. What is cool though is with the hard drive in slot B it can act as a backup device. Copy everything in slot A onto it and you check it is there in the viewfinder as it acts just like an SxS card. Very cool. Now just make it MUCH bigger please and I will get one. I wonder how it will work with the EX1 though as it has no gully for the cable, you might have to leave the cover open. Not ideal, especially if in a dusty environment like I was the other day in Death Valley.
A plastic cover now covers the audio pots. Great. The exposed ones on the EX1 kept getting knocked and it was really annoying.
The rear of the camera now no longer looks like a Ford Focus dashboard. It is covered with new connectors and moved connectors. The HDV firewire connector is there, still 4 pin and still only usable in 25mps mode, so no firestore style 35mps recording here. The HD SDI is now at the top, with genlock in, timecode in and out and a remote lens socket all new. The remote lens socket will control many features of the lens, like exposure, white balance etc
On the right side we now have a proper composite BNC out, proper phono out, proper S video connector. Only the proprietary component remains. Great, shame that hasn’t gone too. I hate them, they are flimsy and not good enough for a camera of this quality.
Well that’s pretty much all the changes to the body of the camera but it’s more about where buttons are, it’s about ergonomics. The camera now feels so much better to use, the viewfinder and shoulder mount alone making it so much better than the EX1. This camera feels right. Ergonomically the EX1 really is something you have to get used to. The EX3 is something that instantly feels right. Whether on your shoulder or on the tripod it just feels right.
Of course many people will feel annoyed that they have just bought an EX1 and now this comes out, well in July it is supposed to come out I believe. I understand how you feel very well. After all I have two EX1s. BUT, the EX1 is still an absolutely wonderful camera which delivers stunning images, the EX3 is a step up certainly but it is fairly more expensive. I think the best way to look at it is by looking at the Canon A1 and H1, same camera, different bodies. One with semi shoulder mount and interchangeable lenses the other without, but the A1 is still an awesome camera, just as the EX1 is still an awesome camera!
So if you are looking to buy into the EX line then what to buy? Well that really depends on what you want to do with it, what it is for. If you want to mount a 35mm adaptor on to it then it works brilliantly, the stubby design of it means it is perfect for them, with the EX3 mounting one makes it quite long as the lens sticks out much further than the EX1. At least until relays start appearing.
I will continue to shoot most days with my EX1 and will continue to marvel at just what it can do. The only difference now is I will be longing and dreaming of something else as those new features really are quite extraordinary and for me make this camera leaps and bounds over anything else out there. This is so good for the industry as by Sony bringing this out they have upped the stakes for the others. Panasonic and JVC will respond in time and that can only be good news for us. The users.
Here is a little test short I made using the EX3 and the Letus Extreme. It’s called “3 Days in April” and it was filmed near my home in Richmond in the UK. It tells the story of 3 very different consecutive days in the same location. Enjoy and if anyone wants more info please feel free to contact me at email@example.com
As an owner of Canon, JVC and Sony cameras my loyalty lies with whomever delivers the best product to the market. Obviously I am heavily invested in the XDCAM line with the F350 and two EX1s, whatever solid state format you buy is a real investment as the media is so pricey, hence if you buy into P2 you will most likely stay with P2 and hope Panny upgrade the HVX to something similar, likewise now I have invested in SxS the EX line is what I will most likely stay with for some time, so I naturally want Sony to make their products better and better, and it seems they are. Long may it continue!
First short shot on EX3 and Letus Extreme