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Shoot Review: Sony PMW-EX3

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EX3 update

The Sony PMW-EX3 introduces a new large color viewfinder based on the PMW-EX1”s super-high-resolution LCD panel and a radically new 1/2in. lens mount for use with interchangeable lenses.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

On first sighting Sony’s PMW-EX3 last April at NAB, I blogged, “How could there be an EX3 when the PMW-EX1 debuted only a few months ago?” I called it an EX1 with interchangeable lenses and noted the “weird, oversized viewfinder cobbled together from the EX1’s flip-out LCD and a sizable arrangement of viewing optics.” In my NAB wrap-up for this magazine, I dubbed it a “platypus,” that chimerical egg-laying mammal with the bill of a duck and tail of a beaver.

Those comments stand. It’s virtually unprecedented for a manufacturer to release a follow-up product hard on the heels of the original, which highlights the fact that the EX3, despite a successive product number, is not a successor to the EX1 but rather its matched complement. In fact, had they been introduced in reverse order, this review might instead be touting the just-released EX1 as a compact, stripped-down version of the EX3 welcomed especially by documentary makers and those who slide slim camcorder cases into overhead bins while flying.

After all, the EX1 and EX3 are essentially the same camcorder. Same 1/2in. 3-CMOS imager with 1920×1080 pixels; same 1080i/p and 720p with 24p and 50Hz/60Hz field rates; same super-high-resolution LCD display; same twin S×S card slots. Even the EX3’s supplied detachable lens, a dual-mechanism 14X Fujinon zoom (mechanical and electronic focus) with a true iris ring and rotating handgrip, is the same lens that comes fixed on the EX1. (See my first look of the EX1.)

The large viewfinder on the EX3 required distending the rear of the camcorder toward the shoulder and adding an extensible
shoulder brace.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

Given use of the same lens, then, the EX1 and EX3 produce identical images. What has changed instead is morphology — the shape and external functionality of the EX3 compared to that of the EX1. Imagine an action-figure version of the EX1 unfolding like a Transformers toy, sprouting a duck’s-tail rear end, a pop-out shoulder brace, a full-sized viewfinder, an external hard-disk recorder, and all manner of 1/2in. and 2/3in. zooms using a pair Fujinon lens adapters — you get the idea. Sound like fun?

Shape-wise, the EX3’s obvious analogue is Canon’s XL H1, which debuted three years ago offering a removable zoom lens, an LCD panel doubling as viewfinder by means of large viewing optics, and an elongated body in a “chainsaw” profile that ends in a shoulder brace. (The body/lens of the XL H1 measures 1in. longer than that of the EX1.) Of course the 1/3in., 3CCD (interlace, pixel shift) XL H1 records 1440×1080 to tape-based HDV; whereas, the 1/2in., 3-CMOS (progressive, 1920×1080) EX3 records full 1920×1080 to S×S flash cards.

These specs represent a world of difference in terms of performance, but what fascinates me is how these two companies coming from different directions arrived at the same place. Canon’s design derives from its MiniDV XL1 and XL2 series from 1997, which in turn traces back to its interchangeable-lens L1 and L2 Hi8 camcorders, which were popular with embedded journalists in the first Gulf War. Sony’s EX1 began as a Handycam with a flip-out LCD panel and rear viewfinder attached at the handle.

Clearly, not everyone preferred the EX1’s 252,000-pixel color viewfinder over its larger 922,000-pixel LCD panel when it came to viewing and focusing a 2.2-megapixel image. Not that there’s anything wrong with the EX1’s viewfinder. When it’s used in conjunction with 2X expanded focus and peaking (four flavors: white, red, yellow, or blue), I find it more than adequate to the task (although not as smooth and crisp as the Sony HVR-Z7U’s sequential color LCoS viewfinder). But Sony recognized an opportunity to create a new, larger viewfinder based on the EX1’s new, outstanding high-res LCD panel.

This entailed subtracting the rear view-finder and attaching a large viewfinder housing with conventional external controls (peaking, contrast, and brightness) to the operator side of the camcorder. This inevitably unbalanced the Handycam-like design of the EX1 (not renowned for its handheld balance in the first place), which in turn required distending the rear of the camcorder toward the shoulder for bracing, resulting in its new shape.

For the EX3, Sony created a new, larger viewfinder based on the EX1”s new, outstanding high-res LCD panel.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called convergent evolution in which unrelated organisms independently evolve similar traits in response to the same environment. For instance, dolphins (mammals) and fish have similarly evolving streamlined bodies and dorsal fins. What I find most fascinating is how the very different camcorder designs of the Canon XL H1 and Sony PMW-EX3 independently arrived at the same unlikely morphology — one that somehow bridges the classic shoulder-mount profile of the 1980s and prosumer Handycam of the 1990s.

In fact, the EX3 steals pages from film-camera design too, including its new wide-throated bayonet lens mount and its overall modularity. The new three-flange Sony lens mount is 3in. in diameter compared to Arri’s industry-standard four-flange PL mount, which is 2in. This adaptable and super-sturdy mount opens up the EX3 to worlds of lenses, including recent zooms for 1/2in. cameras (using the supplied Fujinon ACM-18 adapter), familiar zooms from 2/3in. cameras (using the optional Fujinon ACM-21 adapter, $1850 at B&H), several still-camera formats, and even motion-picture lenses. (Angle of view, of course, will be narrower, depending upon the ratio between the diameter of the larger format and the EX3’s smaller 1/2in. sensor.)

Interchangeable lenses; an adjustable rotating handgrip; an extensible rear shoulder brace; and the kludged, cantilevered LCD-panel viewfinder add to an impression of film-camera modularity in the EX3. While it’s far from an Arricam (or a Sony F35, for that matter), it’s an interesting development in compact camcorder design and one worth noting. Furthering this impression is the new PHU-60K 60GB hard-disk recorder, which sturdily attaches to the EX3 using either the front or rear shoe. It requires a second battery, but it is so well-integrated into the EX3’s architecture that it contributes no further imbalance. (More on this device below.)

At NAB, Sony announced the PHU-60K, a 60GB, 1.8in. hard-disk recorder for the EX1 and EX3. It sits in a shoe mount using a rugged shoe-bracket adapter that can adjust the angle of the compact PHU-60K to suit the user.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

Sony evidently senses the potential of this new design paradigm, including use of EX3s as economy studio cameras in multicamera environments. Toward that end, Sony has augmented the HD-SDI output from the EX1 with gen-lock, timecode in/out, and a round 8-pin connector that permits the EX3 to be remote-controlled by a Sony RM-B150 or RM-B750 — handheld controller boxes that adjust gain, iris, white balance, pedestal, and gamma from a distance. (Incidentally, the credit card-sized RM-F300 remote infrared controller supplied with the EX1 and EX3 can start and stop the camcorder, mark shots, zoom the lens, and even place the lens in momentary autofocus.) It doesn’t hurt any that the Fujinon ACM-21 2/3in. lens adapter encourages use of already-owned 2/3in. studio zooms (those with standard B4 mounts).

How does the EX3 stack up as a field or documentary camcorder? Forget about being discreet or surreptitious. This thing is gnarly, and like any modular camera with accessories attached to it, it tends to grow ever more so. (Expect kids on the street to ask if they can be in your movie.) At the same time, however, it’s lighter than any Betacam ever was, and once you get it up to your eye and resting against your chest bone, it’s surprisingly stable and ergonomic. Since the weight of the EX3 is cantilevered forward from your chest (your arms serve as brackets), some will find handholding tiring over time, some won’t. But everyone will agree that the viewfinder image is big, colorful, glorious, and with a little peaking, pin-sharp. You’ll never experience doubt about focus.

For those who don’t like rear output cables brushing their cheek while handholding, Sony supplies a modular cheek pad that attaches at the base below the extensible shoulder brace. It’s a thin plastic flag, about 3″×3″, that brings an inadvertent advantage to handholding: It can act as a brace for the side of your head, adding a surprising amount of additional stability and control. (I often butt my eyebrow against the viewfinder of Handycam-type camcorders to achieve this.) Try this with the shoulder brace fully extended for best results.

As everyone appreciates by now, field use of flash-memory camcorders is complicated by the constant need to download filled cards, especially in long-form documentary work. I’ve been able to get my hands on one of Sony’s new 32GB S×S cards, and it’s a huge boon. This single card records 160 minutes of any of the HDV-equivalent 25Mbps SP modes (1080i60, 1080p24) and 116 minutes of the 35Mbps HQ modes (1080i60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, 720p30, and 720p24). If I had two of these cards, I could record continuously more than 5 hours of HDV-quality footage — more than adequate for an entire day of documentary production.

The new three-flange Sony wide-throated bayonet lens mount is 3in. in diameter compared to Arri’s industry-standard four-flange PL mount, which is 2in. This adaptable and super-sturdy mount opens up the EX3 to worlds of lenses, including previous zooms from 1/2in. and 2/3in. camcorders (using the supplied Fujinon ACM-18 and optional ACM-21 adapters, respectively), several still-camera formats, and even motion-picture lenses.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

(When shooting in any of the basic HQ progressive-frame-rate modes, the EX3 can capture images at any frame rate — from 1fps to the maximum of the selected frame-rate mode — to create an immediate slo-mo effect. There’s a new dial on the side of the EX3 for dialing in the desired frame rate. Press it for a second, wait until the ring around the dial glows blue, and you’re in business.)

I mentioned that I possess but one 32GB card. Here’s where things get interesting. At NAB, Sony announced the PHU-60K, a 60GB, 1.8in. hard-disk recorder for the EX1 and EX3. It sits in a shoe mount using a rugged shoe-bracket adapter that can adjust the angle of the compact PHU-60K to suit the user. A thin, reinforced wire from the PHU-60K ends in a connector the size of an S×S card, which is what it replaces in one of the EX3’s two S×S slots. The EX1 or EX3 sees the PHU-60K as just another S×S card — albeit 60GB.

I’m currently using the 32GB card in slot A and the PHU-60K drive in slot B. In the upper left of the EX3’s viewfinder, where the remaining time for each S×S slot is indicated, I see 116 minutes for slot A and 217 minutes for slot B. That’s a total of 5 1/2 hours of 35Mbps recording at 1080p24. If I switch to HDV-equivalent 1080i60, I get 160 minutes for slot A and 299 minutes for slot B — more than 7 1/2 hours of 25Mbps recording. Try doing that with tape. I do think the problem of shooting long-form docs with flash-memory cards is behind us, at last.

Using a separate BP-U30 battery (the same one used by the EX1 and EX3), Sony says, the PHU-60K runs 12 hours. I’ve yet to have a battery run out. The PHU-60K is internally protected by a new shock-absorbing material good for falls of 5ft., per Sony, and an accelerometer that automatically retracts the heads if it tumbles. (Perhaps less than ideal for skydiving.)

By the way, setting up the PHU-60K for the first time passed my Mac test. Early Mac users (myself included) were notorious for not reading manuals for new applications. The thinking is that superior design means menus and functions that are logical — easy to locate and operate. Obviousness as a design goal was expressed in terms of whether or not a new application was “Mac-like” enough. To Sony’s credit, the PHU-60K is Mac-like in its operation. Attaching it to a computer via USB follows suit — nothing new to learn here, as it should be.

My favorite arbiter of street price, B&H Photo Video in New York, lists the EX3 for $8,320; a 32GB S×S card for $1,500; the PHU-60K for $1,000; and that extra BP-U30 battery you’ll need for $110.

As cool as the EX3 is, I would opt for the EX1 in many documentary circumstances. Given my extensive background in documentary filmmaking, I know well the value of smaller, less obtrusive, less noticeable gear. What Sony has done is leveraged its very best new technology into two remarkable products while preserving for us, the end users, a real choice.

Schneider Optics, under its Century brand, has introduced a host of optical adapters for the 14X Fujinon zoom supplied with the EX1 and EX3: a .75X wide-angle converter, a .6X wide-angle adapter, a 1.6X tele-converter, a Super Fisheye HD Adapter, and an Extreme Fisheye HD Adapter.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

EX3 update

Since this review was written, there have been several developments regarding the EX1 and EX3.

Lens adapters

Schneider Optics, under its Century brand, has introduced a host of optical adapters for the 14X Fujinon zoom supplied with the EX1 and EX3: a .75X wide-angle converter, a .6X wide-angle adapter, a 1.6X tele-converter, a Super Fisheye HD Adapter, and an Extreme Fisheye HD Adapter.

Better battery management

A notable improvement (which slipped by me) in the EX3 over the EX1: EX1 users are often surprised to encounter the battery discharged when left on the camcorder for a day or two. That’s because the EX1’s microprocessor sips powers even when the EX1 is turned off. Powering this chip enables a battery-charge read-out, which is obtained by pressing and holding the Display/Batt Info button under the handle even when the EX1 is switched off. I’m happy to report this secret battery drain no longer occurs in the EX3, although pressing and holding the EX3’s Display/Batt Info button (now located on the big viewfinder) still displays battery charge when the EX3 is switched off.

Non-S×S flash memory OK in some circumstances

The introduction of the PHU-60K hard disk recorder for the EX1 and EX3 — described above — has quietly opened the door to use of lower-cost media in digital video file-based recording.

As detailed in my review of the EX1, Sony’s S×S flash-memory cards conform to the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association’s (PCMCIA) ExpressCard standard, which specifies serial data transfers using either a blazingly fast PCI Express link or a slower USB 2.0 controller. When the EX1 was initially released, Sony required use of Sony or SanDisk (co-inventor of S×S) ExpressCard/34 cards certified as S×S-compliant and branded “S×S Pro” — such as, for example, the new 32GB card described above. These high-performance S×S cards can interface only with the advanced PCI Express link.

But the PHU-60K hard-disk recorder (5400rpm) requires the slower USB 2.0 bus. So Sony enabled use of the USB 2.0 bus in the EX3 and retroactively in the EX1 too, by means of the latest firmware update for the EX1 (version 1.11). Since the ExpressCard/34 standard is, well, a standard, this means that potentially any advanced flash-memory product with an ExpressCard/34 adapter can record both SP and HQ modes, 720- and 1080-line, in either the EX1 or the EX3. This includes Sony Pro Duo Memory Sticks (either Mark 2 or HG series, both high-speed variants for AVCHD recording); SDHC cards (high capacity SD card); and the fastest CompactFlash (CF) cards. All of these are significantly less expensive than S×S cards.

The catch? Ensuring adequate transfer speed.

Very important to remember is that non-S×S flash-based memory cards must be fast enough to reliably capture XDCAM’s basic 35Mbps stream. Like being too thin or too rich, you can’t have too much transfer speed when using third-party flash-memory cards to record HD. Sony, therefore, does not guarantee and will not vouch for any flash-based card or format that is not certified as S×S Pro. S×S Pro, which exploits the lightning-fast PCI Express link, provides higher data rates that make possible the Slow Motion and Quick Motion functions of the EX1 and EX3. If you use flash-memory cards other than S×S Pro — in other words, any that use the pokier USB bus for data transfer — you forfeit all XDCAM overcranking and undercranking functions. They simply won’t work. Incidentally, this limitation applies to the PHU-60K too. It records only basic frame rates for 720p and 1080i/p.

If you wish to use a third-party flash-memory card, you must test, test, test. If the card proves reliable, don’t forget that only basic frame rates are possible. Furthermore, Sony will take no responsibility for the consequences of operating the EX1 or EX3 under such recording conditions. File fragmentation over time could impede read/write times on some types of cards. (Why it’s wise to periodically reformat, or wipe clean, these flash-memory cards after heavy use.)

The tiny 8GB Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo/Mark 2 requires an adapter for the larger Memory Stick Pro format in order to fit the Sony ExpressCard/34 adapter.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

However here’s the good news. It works.

At right is a snapshot of a tiny 8GB Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo/Mark 2 ($50 at amazon.com) which requires an adapter for the larger Memory Stick Pro format ($10, at amazon.com) in order to fit the Sony ExpressCard/34 adapter (free with Sony Vaio laptops). I tried it, and the EX3 was perfectly happy. No problems with capture, recording, or playback of 1080/24p in HQ mode. Remaining recording time left on the 8GB Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo card was indicated in the EX3’s viewfinder, as if it were an 8GB S×S card. A less funky, more reliable way to achieve the same result would be to use a Sony MSAC-EX1 Memory Stick Duo ExpressCard adapter ($35, Amazon.com) with an 8GB Pro-HG Duo Memory Stick ($105 at amazon.com).

Others have reported similar success with SDHC cards such as SanDisk’s 16GB Ultra II ($63 at amazon.com) or 16GB Extreme III ($140, at amazon.com) used with an ExpressCard/34 adapter. (A Kensington adapter is $37 and a SandDisk adapter $16 at amazon.com.)

Note that all flash-memory cards used by EX1 and EX3, including S×S Pro, are formatted using the conventional FAT32 file architecture familiar to PC users and digital still camera owners. Macs have no problem with FAT32 either. (This is why there’s a 4GB limit to the largest file size when shooting with the EX1 and EX3 — it’s a FAT32 file size limit.) Things can’t get any more conventional than this.

Don’t be surprised if these alternative memory cards joined to their adapters are sometimes longer than an ExpressCard/34 card, meaning they may protrude from the S×S slot of the EX1 or EX3. In the case of CF card adapters, they may protrude to the point of impracticality.

Caveats aside, this is a total game changer. No doubt about it.

bottomline

Company: Sony
www.sony.com/professional

Product: PMW-EX3

Assets: Improved HD color viewfinder, interchangeable 14X Fujinon zoom with sturdy new 1/2in. bayonet mount, adapters for existing 1/2in. and 2/3in. zooms, new 32GB S×S cards and optional PHY-60K drive for extended recording, surprising stability when held against shoulder brace and cheek pad.

Caveats: Oversized viewfinder produces gnarly shape, camcorder tips on its side when set on the ground.

Demographic: Professional videographers.

PRICE: $9,990 (LIST)

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