Your Documentary-Friendly Antidote to Large-Sensor Camcorders
Of course you want a large-sensor camcorder for the greater dynamic range, improved low-light capability, the reduced noise, and the trendy narrow-depth-of-field look we all crave. It is silly to invest in anything other than a large-sensor camcorder, whether you’re shooting a national commercial or a high school play. It is 2015, and doesn’t it just make more sense to shoot full-frame at 4K, 5K, or 6K resolution?
Except, that is, if your bread and butter is shooting news, nonfiction, or documentaries, which covers at least three-quarters of us. In that case, a 1/3-, 1/2-, or 2/3-type HD camcorder makes a helluva lot more sense.
Sony's PXW-X180 is more rugged, better constructed, and exhibits smoother zoom and focus than competing small-format camcorders with integrated lenses.
Enter Sony’s new PXW-X180 with three smallish 1/3-type CMOS sensors. Toting around the new X180 on your next project will hardly earn you accolades from The Full-Frame Crowd, but you’ll be duly rewarded with astounding images from a rugged and compact, highly economical package.
In terms of imager size, you can actually find and hold critical focus at the long end of the X180's 25X zoom. No doubt the whisker-thin narrow depth of field look currently in vogue offers some storytelling advantage. When shooting with a large-format camcorder at normal focal lengths, the shallow focus enabled by the corresponding longer lenses helps soften backgrounds and thus more effectively direct the viewer’s eye to what’s important inside the frame. The reasoning is sound and I applaud it.
Owing to the regular use of longer-focal-length lenses, documentaries and other nonfiction forms usually benefit from a small-format camcorder that allows deeper focus in close-ups. Professionals understand that close-ups pay the bills, so our choice of camera must accommodate the capture of compelling close-ups to the greatest extent possible.
For documentary nonfiction shooters, however, our emphasis is not so much on achieving the least depth-of-field possible but rather how to capture the most compelling close-ups that serve our visual story. Those of us who earn a living every day in the nonfiction genre know that close ups account for 80% to 90% of our storytelling, and they (usually) require longer-focal-length lenses with an inherently narrow depth of field. Thus, the full-frame sensor so ardently demanded by shooters today may work against a documentary shooter’s craft, with the very narrow focus in close-ups rendering critical scenes objectionably soft or completely out of focus, giving the footage an amateurish feel.
The X180 exhibits very little noise in low light, even at +21dB—a real achievement in a small-sensor 1/3-type camcorder. Sony has had traditionally excellent noise-reduction technology, and the x180 takes that to a higher level.
Something You're Not Getting
When you invest only $5000 in a professional camcorder, there is one thing you are most assuredly not getting with your purchase: a $25,000 lens. Such is life in the real world, and the world of economical high performance cameras like the X180.
The PXW-X180 fitted with a 25x zoom with the equivalent range of 26-650mm is very effective for capturing the close-ups that get us hired, keep us working, and pay the bills. The one-stop loss of exposure over the full zoom range is modest for a lens of such magnification. I liked the smooth and robust mechanical action—no cheap or flimsy feeling here, despite the camcorder’s (relative) low price. Another nice point: The Macro feature is auto-sensing. No separate button-push is required to place the lens in macro mode.
Still, the camera’s 25x macro-zoom, with an effective 1:1.6 f-stop and 26mm–650mm equivalent zoom, is astonishing in its versatility and performance. There is some apparent ramping, i.e. loss of exposure, as one might expect at the long end of the zoom. However, at less than one stop the light loss is relatively modest and good contrast is maintained throughout the zoom range. No doubt Sony engineers are correcting internally for common lens defects. The significant barrel distortion one might expect in such a wide-angle zoom is barely apparent in the X180. Tracking and centering are also quite good, from wide-angle through full telephoto. And chromatic aberrations — the main reason cheap lenses look cheap — are notably absent, save for a modicum of fringing apparent around the edges of certain light sources, like an incandescent bulb when fully zoomed in.
The PXW-X180 features a unique variable neutral density filter not found in Sony’s higher range of cameras, including the PXW-X200. Providing seven stops of attenuation, the VND is particularly effective for capturing time-lapse or undercranked footage to avoid the use of narrow f-stops that steal resolution and contrast. Shooters working with 1/3-type camcorders like the X180 should take care to avoid apertures narrower than f5.6, which can produce dull, uninspiring images no better than standard definition.
The X180 is fitted with an unusual variable neutral-density (ND) filter that allows for seven stops of attenuation (1/128th), aka 2.1 density. In case you’re wondering, the filter is mechanical, to a degree, containing a single glass element that is varied electronically.
A strong ND like that found in the X180 is critical in a small-format camcorder. F-stops narrower than f5.6 may introduce a bevy of diffraction artifacts that can dramatically reduce contrast and resolution. As shooters increasingly capture time-lapse scenes, or scenes at very low frame rates, the ND in the X180 helps forestall the loss of resolution by providing a nearly continuous range of attenuation in order to achieve the optimal f-stop.
The PX180 features a common 82mm-diameter front element thread to support a range of popular screw-in filters and adapter rings. Unfortunately, the stereo microphone housing is positioned too far forward to accommodate my professional clip-on matte box. As a workaround, I inserted the 4×4 filter holders from the bottom — a risky way of working that can lead to problems in the heat of battle.
Bucking the Trend
Sony's quality continues to be very good, bucking the current trend that has seen a marked decrease in quality (and quality control) in many Japanese products, from automobiles and appliances to digital camcorders, in recent years. Many experts attribute this to the ruthless competition now presented by low-cost manufacturing in China and especially in Korea, but the build quality of the X180 is top-notch. The camera’s robust switches and controls have a positive feel, not at all sketchy or flimsy like other similarly priced handheld cameras on the market.
Sony’s compact wireless microphone package is a joy to work with! The receiver mounts cleanly to the camera’s accessory shoe and adds little bulk to the overall package. Most handheld camcorder configurations require velcroing a spate of cables and boxes to the camera body, reducing the operational advantage of selecting a compact camcorder in the first place.
Sony's wireless microphone accessory is extremely convenient and a pleasure to work with. The receiver mounts cleanly atop the camera in the sliding shoe for clutter-free operation. This is important for documentary shooters working alone, or nearly so. They require a simple yet elegant solution without band-aiding a slew of Velcro, cables, and boxes to the exterior of the camera, which is usually the case with handheld camcorders in this price range.
For all its strengths, the X180 is notably lacking in suitable mounting points on the top handle. Aside from the standard accessory shoe, the top handle offers only a single 1/4-inch socket for mounting an external monitor, LED light, etc.
The camera's base is similarly challenged, featuring two (!) 1/4×20 mounting sockets. A heavier-duty standard 3/8×16 socket is expected in cameras in this price range, and should be included here.
The X180 is also very well-balanced, a welcome change from earlier Sony models like the PMW-EX1, with its radically skewed center of gravity transforming every handheld assignment into a withering match of man versus machine. In contrast, shooting handheld all day with the X180 is a pleasure and very comfortable. At a wedding or an awards ceremony, behind the scenes or on the red carpet, the X180’s unobtrusive size is unlikely to draw undue attention from camera-shy subjects. This makes the camera suitable for a wide range of nonfiction applications from reportage and news to impromptu music videos captured at night on the streets of New York during Christmas.
Captive XLR covers are a nice detail and particularly helpful in a handheld camcorder that is likely to see service in a wide range of difficult climatic conditions.
Shooting "The Romantic"
I used the new PXW-X180 recently for precisely this application — shooting jazzman Michael Tinholme’s latest music video, "The Romantic." Working after hours in icy, wet and snowy New York streets, the camera performed remarkably in harsh conditions, producing low-noise images in very low light with excellent shadow integration and color saturation.
The X180’s high performance may be attributed in great part to the XAVC Intra codec, an all I-frame H.264 variant introduced on the company's flagship F65 camera in 2010. The advent of XAVC Intra in the X180 brings 10-bit XDCAM recording to Sony’s handheld camera line for the first time. This is a critical development for shooters as it allows (finally) an all 10-bit workflow from image capture through post-production using Sony's mid-level handheld equipment.
Most X180 shooters will opt to record on SXS cards, which provide maximum reliability and the best chance of data recovery in the event of an end-of-file (EOF) error or similar issue.
The camera supports two SxS cards or new XQD cards with a proper adapter.
On startup, the X180 communicates with the XQD card and optimally adjusts its output to accommodate the medium.
The Workflow Morass
Workflow efficiency continues to be an issue for some shooters employing the latest generation MXF codecs like XAVC. Panasonic faced the same challenge several years ago with the introduction of its own AVC-Intra format, as developers of post-production editing software have been slow to offer an efficient, hassle-free solution.
The X180 ventilation fan attests to the high power draw required by XAVC Intra processing. Shooters should opt for the highest-capacity battery available.
Adobe has taken the lead in offering the most comprehensive support for XAVC. Version 7.2 of Premiere Pro CC natively supports XAVC Intra and Long-GOP variants at all resolutions up to QFHD and 4K. Grass Valley’s Edius Pro 7 users are in similarly good shape. Like Premiere Pro, the latest version of Edius handles XAVC in all flavors seamlessly and without undue intrigue.
Woe be to us, however, as we look to other popular editing platforms. Final Cut Pro X is reasonably compatible, requiring a QuickTime plug-in for playback of XAVC files. If you’re a laggard still working in Final Cut Pro 7 or Adobe Premiere CS6 on a Mac, you’ll have to do the old ProRes shuffle and transcode original camera files via third-party software like Imagine Products Proxy Mill or Brorsoft Video Converter. As many of us know all too well, this dispiriting workaround greatly balloons the storage load to accommodate the transcoded files. Archiving such projects is an ongoing struggle. And, consistent with the traditional Avid workflow, Media Composer 7 requires users to transcode original XAVC Intra camera files to DNxHD. This may be accomplished via a free Sony-provided AMA plug-in, which supports 4K as of MC 7.0.3. The plug-in is free, so there is some solace there, although as of this writing, XAVC Long GOP from the X180 continues to be unsupported on the Avid platform.
The X180 features a nifty wireless capability for streaming to a tablet or smartphone, proxy transfer of files from the SXS or SD card, and remote control of the camera.
With v2 firmware the camera acquires greater wireless functionality, including picture cache recording and remote control of white balance.