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Hands-on XDCAM HD

To capture behind-the-scenes footage of The Darjeeling Limited for HBO, DVD, and several video podcasts, second-unit cinematograher Barry Braverman used the Sony PDW-F350 XDCAM HD for the non-35mm work to help him keep up with the ever-changing demands of the job.

In November 2006, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to northern India to shoot second unit and behind-the-scenes for Wes Anderson's new movie, The Darjeeling Limited. My role reflected the “converged” nature of what it means to be an all-purpose shooter today. While shooting second unit on the feature itself, I simultaneously captured and produced a half-hour behind-the-scenes show for HBO and DVD, and prepared several edited video podcasts and a daily audio diary for the production's blog. My principal camera for the non-35mm work: the Sony PDW-F350 XDCAM HD. (The F350 was a 2006 Digital Content Producer Vanguard winner. click here.)

The changing job description on this and similar feature-type projects demands versatile tools. In this context, the rugged, yet lightweight F350 makes eminent sense. My behind-the-scenes show includes a potpourri of interviews, B-roll, and oddball content, the sum of which requires an extraordinarily high level of productivity. After all, the camera is running more often than not over the course of four months, so easy integration into computer-based IT systems is critical. Besides that, satisfactory low-light performance is essential.

The F350's robust XDCAM media and straightforward integration into Apple Final Cut Proand other NLEs must also be considered in light of the video podcasts I had to prepare on location in remote northern India. Beyond all of this, and on a more traditional note, I consider the 1440×1080 imager in the F350 to be a major plus for this project, given the many highly detailed vistas I had to capture across India and the Himalayas.

Every camera has its day


It's a truism of the business that every camera, owing to its design, has an ideal niche. The demands and size of the ENG market have long driven the mid-level camcorder market. The F350, therefore, reflects in large part the requirements of news organizations and broadcasters. The camera is sturdy and reliable. It features sufficient uninterrupted run time — more than an hour in HD highest-quality (HQ) mode at 35Mbps. And it is relatively light, inspiring confidence in its ability to function as well under hand as on the shoulder through a wide range of conditions.

The PDW-F350's low-light performance is somewhat impaired by its smaller 1/2in. imager. The sensor exhibits a low-light sensitivity of approximately two stops less than that of the popular Sony DSR-370, a 1/2in. standard-definition camcorder. The reduced low-light sensitivity in the F350 stands to reason, given the necessarily smaller pixels in the equal-sized HD imager. (Sony says the camera is rated at f/9.)

For reference, an ISO rating equivalent of 160 appears to be realistic when shooting with 0dB gain and the camera shutter turned off. Disabling the shutter in progressive mode yields the desirable additional stop, but with a corresponding increased risk of motion blur. This has not been a problem in my India project because the behind-the-scenes footage appears to benefit from the elimination of the 50Hz flicker from the fluorescent lighting in the train car workshop where the various set departments prepared and where a few scenes were shot. Nevertheless, the slightly streaked look can look unsophisticated in some high-motion situations, so care must be taken when using this strategy to augment low-light performance.

In most cases, I appreciate the gentle Sony look in moderately underlit scenes. The dark shadows obviously lack some detail, but at least they're quiet and unobtrusive. Highlight latitude, with Dynamic Contrast Control (DCC) turned on, is surprisingly good, given the reduced-size chipset. In this respect, the F350 images lack the inherent organic feel of the Sony HDW-F900 CineAlta — and the F350's much lower price is a sizeable difference as well.

I should point out that I made my evaluations for this article with the new Canon 21X 5.7 1/2in. optics. This lens ($26,000 MSRP) performed well during my first few weeks in India, but I did notice chromatic aberration in some scenes inside the train cars under construction. The bare bulbs used for illuminating the work areas produced noticeable blue and yellow fringing near the edges of the frame, especially in high-detail wide-angle scenes.

With their extended zoom ranges, high speeds, 2X extenders, lighter weights, and lower price points, modern zoom lenses — especially HD models — are bound to exhibit a few shortcomings. I believe we are simply asking too much of our primary optics. We should all take a breath and a long, sobering look at the inherent physical challenges of designing and constructing a high-quality lens. Accepting a shorter zoom range, or slightly greater weight, might be what we must do to reduce most common chromatic aberration and ramping issues.

Having said all this, these compromises appeared to only moderately affect the Canon 21X 5.7. The 1/2in. configuration allows greater opportunity to achieve a lower overall mass. It's important to note that with the proper adapter, industry-standard 2/3in. optics also can be mounted on the F350. While the appropriate lens factor must still be considered, owing to the difference in imager size, there is no light loss through the converter — an important consideration to make when you're opting for higher-end optics.

The new Canon 21X 5.7 IRSE 1/2in. optics lens performed well with the F350, with the exception of some blue and yellow fringing near the edges of the frame in some shots—especially high-detail wide-angle scenes.

New firmware


In October, Sony released version 1.5 firmware for all XDCAM and XDCAM HD camcorders and decks. The F350 now supports an updated protocol with longer file names. Thus, it is much easier to enter critical data such as a shooter's name and other info. Prior to ingesting into the NLE, the clip names can be further refined in a Mac or PC. This greatly facilitates the archiving chores complicated by tapeless acquistion. The big remaining problem is instilling a new discipline in shooters, and getting them to use the new conventions. Old habits are hard to break, which only underlines the need for simple naming systems in the field.

Cache recording, a popular feature of the SD version XDCAM camera, finally comes to XDCAM HD in the F350 with the new firmware. The Picture Cache allows for pre-recording intervals of 0 seconds to 12 seconds. (The actual menu setting indicates a series of two-second ranges for each setting.) An important note to shooters: The timecode preset is disabled when you enable cache recording. Shooters new to the F350 face almost-certain consternation when they attempt to set timecode; you're unable to move the camera out of Free_Run with the Picture Cache enabled.

Camera operation


The F350's menu structure is similar to that of the HDW-F900, so the right-out-of-the-box feeling is familiar and reassuring to many industry pros. One thing that is not reassuring, however, is the single filter wheel that handles only neutral density chores. Selecting proper daylight or tungsten color balance is accomplished via a button at the top left of the camera. It's easy to miss proper color balance in the camera's monochrome viewfinder, so F330 and F350 shooters should beware. I personally don't like the single filter wheel that Sony has adopted; it suggests a compromise to achieve a desired price point. Of course, this may be necessary — and unavoidable — for manufacturers in the present cutthroat price-sensitive environment, but the single filter wheel seems like the wrong cost-cutting move to me. There is no advantage to the single wheel from an operator's point of view, only peril. And given all the other vagaries of this business, we don't need new ones.

When shooting 24p, the output from the F350 is 30fps (60i) with pulldown applied. This can be problematic for shooters who tend to use their cameras' output for recording, and thus need to maintain the integrity of the 24p video stream. The Sony PDW-F70 XDCAM HD deck offers the option of adding pulldown or not; the F350 doesn't offer that flexibility. FireWire output is limited to 25Mbps only, which may pose workflow considerations for some users. Putting the camera in FAM (File Access Mode) would appear to mitigate this issue because the XDCAM HD media can be mounted directly on the computer desktop as ordinary data volumes. I was happy the F350's HD-SDI output features embedded audio, which forestall synchronization issues downstream.

The side-mounted multi-purpose flip-out LCD display is useful from an operational perspective, but it is incorrectly placed for viewing during normal shoulder-mounted operation. The screen should be mounted on an articulated arm to permit forward viewing of the LCD screen in all operating modes. The required offset would no doubt add cost to the camera, but the usefulness of such a re-positioned viewfinder screen is indisputable.

Conclusion


It is understandable that some top-end shooters might have reservations about shooting a major production with a 1/2in. camcorder, and for folks that have used the F900 and similar gear in the past, the PDW-F350 XDCAM HD camcorder will not alter that dynamic. For those us in the nonfiction realm shooting EPK interviews, video podcasts, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and all the rest (often at the same time), the powerful attraction of a lightweight 1/2in. camcorder cannot be denied. The F350 camera and XDCAM HD recording is a potent combination for today's versatile shooter, whose success in the ever-changing marketplace is predicated on extreme productivity and efficiency. It's a lucrative and rewarding niche to be in right about now, so it's nice to know that the vastly capable Sony PDW-F350 camcorder is looking after me well.


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