Shoot Review: Sony HXR-MC1
Where others zig, Sony zags. In the past year, Sony has unleashed a flood of unconventional low-cost HD camcorder designs. Well, grab those galoshes again. Here comes another one.
Sony's brochure calls the HXR-MC1 a Digital HD Video Camera Recorder. Five categorical words that bring no specific image to mind. Sony's press release tries on the conventional label: point-of-view camera. But all cameras are point-of-view, at least by the laws of perspective.
Let's explore Sony's naming quandary as we take a closer look at the singular HXR-MC1 and see if we can't come up with better language to describe what might become a new product category.
The HXR-MC1 has three components: a camera head, a headless body, and a cable joining them.
The camera head, about 3.5"×1.5"×1.5", resembles a tiny C-mount box camera — the type attached to skydivers' helmets, Formula One chassis, and 7-Eleven ceilings. Except that it contains a fixed, built-in 10X zoom (no C-mount) and a stereo microphone that varies its directivity to “zoom” along with the lens.
Inside is a single 1/5in. CMOS sensor with a full HD resolution of 1920×1080, incorporating both Sony's ClearVid technology (pixels rotated 45 degrees, more green pixels) and Exmor (fast column A/D readout and dual noise canceling).
The headless camera body cradles in the hand like a fat BlackBerry. The cable attaches at the top like an iPod earbud cable does. Next to it is a small InfoLithium H-series NP-FH60 battery. At the center of the camera body is a 2.7in. LCD (211,000 pixels), and at the bottom there are camera controls including a small zoom-rocker switch, which I'll discuss below.
The thick black cable, 2.8 meters long, permanently attaches with strain relief to both camera and camera body. In other words, head and body are always tethered to one another.
This is why you could call the HXR-MC1 a snake-cam — a long, slinky black body with a head at the end — although I can see Sony's reasons for holding off on that one.
What about recording? The camera body contains a slot for a Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or Pro-HG Duo flash-memory card to record 1080/60i AVCHD (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264) at 5Mbps, 7Mbps, 9Mbps, or 16Mbps. Why any professional would consider the first three is beyond me, as they record 1440×1080 only. If you wish to record full HD 1920×1080, you have but one choice: 16Mbps. If you're still into standard definition, the HXR-MC1 also records 480/60i MPEG-2 at 3Mbps, 6Mbps, and 9Mbps.
The use of solid-state Memory Stick Pro Duo cards — millimeters narrower than competing SDHC cards — makes for silent, low-power, instant-start recording that perfectly fits the liberating spirit of this unusual camera rig. A 16GB card, the largest Memory Stick Pro Duo card available as of this writing, captures up to 110 minutes of 1920×1080 or almost 4 hours of SD at 9Mbps. Pro Duo cards with 32GB of storage are due soon.
Two-handy cam? You can't quite call the HXR-MC1 a Handycam because it takes two hands to operate: one to clasp the camera body and one to wave the roving eye.
Although, come to think of it, maybe in a genetic sense it is very much a Handycam. If you've been tallying the features so far, they match exactly Sony's consumer HD Handycam HDR-TG1, which was announced last April. It has the same Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, f/1.8, 3.2mm-32mm (10X) zoom, and the same terrific Tele Macro mode for remarkable telephoto close-ups at less than 15in. despite normal telephoto minimum object distance of 32in. Wide-angle focus, by comparison, is available virtually up to the front surface of the lens. Further, it has the same colorful GUI and LCD touchscreen controls — small fingers are helpful — and the same singsongy beeps and tones accompanying every menu selection, though thankfully they can be turned off.
The HXR-MC1 also shares with the HDR-TG1 Handycam the same minimum illumination spec of 5 lux (with Auto Slow Shutteron — too blurry for normal motion reproduction) and noise buildup in low light. Plus it has the same through-the-lens passive autofocusing (guided by image contrast) with its pokey, hunting tendencies in dim circumstances.
So expectations must be tempered. Images from a single 1/5in. chip can never equal images from the 3-CMOS 1/3in. sensors in Sony's HVR-Z5U/Z7U series or 3-CMOS 1/2in. sensors in the PMW-EX1/EX3 series. Not to mention the gap in lens performance. (See my comments regarding just how small an HD camera can get in my article about Canon's Vixia HF S10.)
But here's the upside: The HXR-MC1 is based on a nifty state-of-the-art consumer camcorder with remarkable qualities. In addition to full HD capture and recording, the little 10X zoom produces little if any geometric distortion or color fringing. Its ultracompactness translates into the lightest remote HD camera system yet.
Both camera and body — let's call the latter a camera-control unit (CCU) although it's also the recorder — come with standard 1/4-20 threaded holes for mounting. You'll need this on the camera. For reasons related possibly to size, the camera lacks optical image stabilization.
The featherweight CCU nestles in the hand, rests on the ground, or attaches easily with its threaded hole. Its six controls are clear and uncluttered. There's a button for start/stop video recording, a photo button for capturing simultaneous stills with the same 2.3-megapixel resolution and 16:9 aspect ratio as HD, a button for switching between video and a still-only mode (4-megapixel resolution, 4:3 aspect ratio), and an on/off button for data in the LCD display.
There's also a small, remarkably sensitive rocker switch for zooming. Both accelerated and slow, deliberate zooms are easily accomplished, although starts and stops can be sudden as they're not feathered.
Manual focusing and manual exposure — zebras at either 70 IRE or 100 IRE — bring this camera squarely into the professional operator's comfort zone. To avoid menu trees, there's a clever Manual button paired with a dial control for one-touch switching into manual modes from automatic. By pressing and holding the button, a pop-up menu appears with five choices: focus, exposure, autoexposure shift, white-balance shift, and reset.
Selecting manual focus provides slow, steady control from infinity to 3.9in. It is adjusted by turning the adjacent dial control, and the distance is indicated on the LCD. Good focus control is essential when focusing an object an inch from the lens, where depth of field is a millimeter or two. Subtle peaking seems to be present in the 2.7in. LCD image to facilitate focusing, but the user has no control of this function. Color peaking might be useful in future versions.
Manual exposure, disappointingly, is indicated by an unmarked sliding scale with plus and minus at either end. It works OK in conjunction with zebras, but you have to play back your clips to determine which combination of f/stop, gain, and shutter speed were used in any given scene. Amazingly, these key exposure parameters can't be controlled individually, only displayed post facto as data superimposed over the recorded image.
Standard white-balance options — automatic, indoor, outdoor, and an adjustable setting — are available by paging through menus. The white-balance shift mode assigned to the one-push manual button shifts the white tint plus/minus four points (of what?) along a yellow/blue axis — hardly visible and essentially useless. The autoexposure shift is simply disabled. Selecting reset with the manual button returns focus and exposure control to automatic.
At the left side of the CCU are DC in, HDMI out, HD analog component out, and USB 2.0.
In a series of outdoor tests on a sunny day, I discovered that autoexposure attempts to limit the iris to f/3.4 (to minimize diffraction) while raising shutter speed as high as 1/500 second to prevent overexposing. To avoid this undesirable fast shutter speed, I screwed on a Sony antireflection-coated 30mm ND filter supplied with the HXR-MC1. (Marked ND8. Why not standard ND9, three stops?) It did the trick, reducing shutter speed nearer the normal 1/60 second. Sometimes, however, the effect of the ND8 on shutter speed failed to match expectations, making me wonder whether negative gain was selectively involved too. If so, it's not indicated. To test autoexposure limits, I pointed the HXR-MC1 into the sun and was able to close down the iris to a surprising f/14.
For this review, I inspected HXR-MC1 images on a pixel-to-pixel basis using a Sony LMD-2450W 24in. Luma LCD monitor with 1920×1200 pixels. HXR-MC1 images were output via HDMI to an AJA Io HD, which converted them to HD-SDI. This was necessary because the Luma lacks HDMI input. Incidentally, the Luma proved to be a dream match for my Apple Final Cut system with its 23in. Apple Cinema Display, also 1920×1200 — but that's another review.
HXR-MC1 images will look amazing if you avoid gain by ensuring sufficient lighting and stick to a tried-and-true rule: When mixing small-format images (16mm, MiniDV) with higher-res images (35mm, HD), use the lesser format for close-ups and the larger format for long shots containing fine detail. For instance, Velcro the tiny HXR-MC1 to the visor above the driver's seat to get a close-up of tense, bloodshot eyes during a wild car chase down a wet city street at night. Then switch to an EX3 to capture the wide shot of the driver's car careening past. Shoot them at the same time. See what I mean?
For greater versatility — let's say you want a two-shot in the front seat of that car instead — Sony offers two 0.7X wide-angle adapters to fit the 30mm-diameter threads of the HXR-MC1. One, the VCL-HG0730A, is zoom-through, but it's twice the diameter of the little camera. The other, the VCL-HGE07A, is smaller but works best with the zoom fixed at wide-angle. There is also a 1.7X tele-conversion adapter.
With its lens axis (sans adapters) a mere 3/4in. off the ground, the HXR-MC1 is the ideal cucaracha-cam or mouse-cam for naturalists. (I live in New York, where these are the local fauna.) Although I have to tell you, having tried it for fun, experiencing a big brown water bug in macro close-up in full HD on a 24in. screen is not for the squeamish.
Hiding 9ft. away around the corner and waiting for a wary critter to approach your bait, you'll want to turn off both the beeping menus and the small 1/2in. loudspeaker on the CCU — which is, unfortunately, the only way to monitor audio. Version 2.0 of this camera should someday include a headphone jack. Audio is not the chief reason you're using the HXR-MC1. Level control is auto-only with two basic mic-sensitivity settings, normal and low, and no audio level display exists.
When fully charged, the supplied NP-FH60 battery runs the HXR-MC1 continuously for 2 hours. Larger-capacity InfoLithium H-series batteries — common to many Sony camcorders — include the NP-FH70 and, biggest of all, the NP-FH100, which Sony says will run the HXR-MC1 almost 7 hours. A battery can charge when attached to the camera body as with most consumer camcorders, but professionals will want to pick up either a $60 Sony BC-TRP single-battery charger or, for $130, a two-battery AC-VQH10 fast charger.
What else would I like to see in the next version of this camera? Progressive scan — 24p or 30p — would be nice, as would internal memory for true cache recording. As it stands, the HXR-MC1 has a feature borrowed from its consumer antecedent called Smooth Slow Record, which quadruples the field rate to 240 from 60 for 3 seconds (resolution slightly lowered). Upon playback, 12 seconds of slo-mo results. Obviously, this requires an internal memory buffer. Intriguingly, the HXR-MC1 offers an option of recording the 3 seconds either before or after the start record button is pressed. I took great macro shots of a match slowly exploding into flame by selecting 3 seconds before I hit record. Imagine if this capability were available for normal recording. When that supposedly extinct nocturnal critter unexpectedly darts from the shadows, you'd get the amazing evidence on camera even if you weren't recording at that very moment.
Speaking of nocturnal, wouldn't it also be great if the HXR-MC1 had a removable IR filter to bring back NightShot and NightShot Plus?
Don't get me wrong. The HXR-MC1 is a total blast. Every cameraperson — and noncameraperson — to whom I handed this extremely friendly camera broke into a huge ear-to-ear grin. Everyone was delighted to hold it, fly it around, and poke it into obscure places. I, for one, never realized what the back of my ear looked like. Or the bottom of my nose.
So, if I screw the HXR-MC1 into the end of a fully extended mic boom pole for a high-angle shot (I did this), is it a giraffe-cam? Using the same pole, if I drop it through a sewer grating to get an urban subterranean shot, is it a mole-cam? Pointed upward from there, it's the perfect pervert-cam — but we won't go there.
If I thread it through my leather jacket so that the camera hides in my hand and the CCU in my inner pocket, is it an FBI-probe-cam? If I raise it above a barricade during a gangland shootout, is it a periscope-cam? If I attach it to my car's front bumper for a traveling shot of the endless road ahead, is it a drive-cam? What do I call it if I attach it under the car for that drive-shaft POV of rear tires burning rubber? I've always wanted to try that.
On a dog, David Letterman-style, is it a doggy-cam? If I spin it in my fingers like a fat Cuban cigar, a twirling-world-cam? Swing it by its cable in a wide arc, a merry-go-round-cam?
Brush-cam? I'm the guy who put a lipstick cam on artist Chuck Close's partially paralyzed arm to capture a close-up of his paintbrush traveling across canvas in Marion Cajori's Chuck Close, which was released theatrically in 2007 but filmed mainly in 1997. At the time, that meant a single-CCD lipstick camera attached to a big CCU attached to a Betacam deck, all plugged into the wall. Plus a lot of light. You can see the result at www.artkaleidoscope.org/brushcam.
Creative ideas pile on with an inexpensive rig like this. Put two side-by-side like eyeballs for cheap 3D. Peer over a skyscraper's edge despite your fear of heights. Get closer to dangerous animals. As Sony's Juan Martinez wryly notes, if an alligator bites it, it's not a huge loss.
Yes, there are other miniature box and lipstick systems out there — Iconix, ChaseCam, JonesCam, and Toshiba ice cube cameras come to mind — some even feature HD output. But none has built-in zoom or audio, or captures native 1920×1080, or is as light and affordable.
Availability is in February; price is to be announced, but it should be less than $5,000. If you think of a killer name for this camera, contact Sony.
Assets: Records in full HD; lightest, most compact HD remote camera system yet; 10X zoom introduces little to no geometric distortion or color fringing.
Caveats: Manual controls for white-balance shift and autoexposure shift are near useless; camera lacks optical image stabilization; key exposure parameters can't be controlled individually.
Demographic: Any filmmaker interested in using novel points of view.
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