Alister Chapman reveals that sometimes good things come in small packages!
As the owner of a Sony AX100, which is a really great little 4K and HD camcorder I wasn’t really all that excited when I saw the first prototype of the X70 at Broadcast Asia back in June. You see in the past Sony have done this many times, taken a high end consumer camcorder, updated the firmware, added a handle and then sold it for a higher price as a pro camcorder. In the past, there has in reality been little difference between the cheaper consumer model and the more expensive pro version.
The PXW-X70 is different. This is much more than an AX100 with new firmware. For a start the body of the camera is quite different. The right hand side of the X70 is quite different to the AX100. It has a much fatter hand grip. This makes the camera much easier to hold comfortably for long periods. It also makes space for a full size HDSDI output and a full size HDMI output. But the differences don’t stop there.
On the top of the hand grip there is a large assignable button that is normally set to act as a control for the focus magnification function. This button falls immediately under your index finger when your shooting. In front of this is a new larger and easier to use zoom rocker and then in front of that is another assignable button, this one set as a one push auto iris button – very nice!
At the back of the handle there is a small joystick that ends up under your thumb (just where it needs to be). This joystick can be used to navigate through the cameras menu system. So, without taking your hand out of the hand grip you can check focus, zoom in and out, set your exposure and go through the menu system. If only it was this easy on all of Sony’s cameras! Ergonomically this camera is really good, especially when you consider how small it is.
The camera has a nice 12x stabilised, optical zoom lens, behind which sits a 1 inch 20 megapixel sensor. In video mode about 14 million pixels are used, so even in 4K (there will be a paid 4K upgrade option next year) there are more pixels than needed for full resolution. Rather than let this extra resolution go to waste you can activate Sony’s “clear image zoom” function that works seamlessly with the optical zoom to give you a 24x zoom range in HD.
The clear image zoom really is remarkably transparent. If you look hard enough at the image, on a big screen, when it’s zoomed all the way in you can just about discern a very slight softness to the image, but frankly I don’t think this is any worse than the softness you might see from a compact optical 24x zoom. It certainly doesn’t look electronic and unless you have side by side, with and without test clips I don’t think you would know that the clear image zoom has been used.
If 24x is not enough there is also a further digital extender, controlled by a button on the right side of the lens that doubles the digital zoom. This you can see, the image is a little degraded at 48x, but it’s not terrible, might be handy for a breaking news story where you can’t get close to the subject.
As well as the optical stabiliser in the lens the camera also has a switchable electronic stabiliser. The active steadyshot is very effective at smoothing out even the shakiest of hands. But it does tend to hang on or grab hold of the image a bit. So when you do deliberately move the camera it tends to try to stabilise the scene until it can no longer correct for the cameras movement at which point the scene is suddenly released and starts to move. If your using a tripod you definitely want to just use the standard steadyshot and not the active mode.
The pictures are recorded using either XAVC, AVCHD or standard definition DV to SD cards. For XAVC you must use SDXC cards, but these are cheap and readily available these days. There are two card slots and you can choose between relay record where the camera will switch from slot A to slot B once A is full, or you can make two simultaneous recordings on both cards at the same time. This gives an instant backup if you need it.
XAVC HD recording
The XAVC HD recordings are 10 bit 422 long GoP at 50Mb/s, 35Mb/s or 25Mb/s. The quality of the 50Mb/s recordings is amazing with no compression artefacts that I can see (there must be some, I just can’t see them). Even the 25Mb/s recordings look really good. You can shoot at up to 60fps in 60i mode and 50fps in 50i mode. In 60i mode you also have 24fps.
Considering this is a highly compact, single chip camera the images it produces are really very good. They don’t have that typical small sensor camera look. The pictures are remarkably noise free at 0db and largely free of artefacts. I tend to find that small handycams often suffer from what I would describe as “busy” pictures. Pictures where perhaps there is a lot of added sharpening or where the pixels are read in special ways to make a sharp picture. This makes edges slightly flickery and gives the pictures a tell tale small sensor look. The X70 with it’s big sensor and abundance of pixels just doesn’t have this “busy” look.
The pictures really look like they come from a pro camera. Occasionally very fine, high contrast details like white text on a black background can look a little busy, but this is very minor. Dynamic range is quite respectable, it’s not as good as a PMW-300, but not too bad for a compact handycam (I estimate about 10 to 11 stops of DR).
One thing I did find with this camera is that because there is so little noise and the codec is so good, you could quite comfortably shoot about a stop darker than you would normally and then just bring the image up a bit in post. Shooting a little darker helps the camera handle bright highlights and then in post you can just bring up the shadows and mid tones with a simple colour correction to give a nice exposure. I wish I had realised this when I shot the demo video. I would have exposed a little on the dark side and then tweaked the shots in post. There’s so little noise at 0db and so few artefacts that the image holds up to this really well. If your using auto exposure you can set an exposure offset to allow for this in the menu.
The X70 is pretty sensitive and 9db of gain is quite useable, so shooting indoors in a typical home or at a wedding venue without extra lights should be no problem. Ramp it up to +33db and it see’s better in the dark than I do, but there is a fair bit of noise at +33db.
As well as being generally rather sensitive the PXW-X70 also has a nightshot mode that bypasses the cameras IR filter and includes a switchable infra-red light, so you can shoot in total darkness if you want.
To see what you are shooting there is a 3.5″ LCD panel. This panel is higher resolution than the one on the AX100 and gives a sharp and pretty accurate image. On the back of the camera there is a small OLED viewfinder. This little OLED is pretty good. It has great contrast and is pretty sharp for a small finder. It’s a great feature on bright sunny days when the LCD can become harder to see.
Crisp, sharp images
The HD images are crisp and sharp without any obvious sharpening, almost certainly a result of having a 4K ready sensor. The lack of obvious detail correction helps give the pictures a pleasing, more filmic look. The camera has picture profiles so if you want you can soften or sharpen the images if you choose. As well as detail and aperture controls there are also controls for gamma (standard, still, Cinematone1, Cinematone2, ITU709) and color. The color controls are similar to those on the FS700 where you can adjust the saturation as well as R, G, B, C, M, Y and K brightness. In addition there is a choice of 6 different preset color modes plus black and white.
The camera can be controlled either fully automatically or fully manual as well as various in between modes. There is a switch on the back of the camera to switch between auto and manual. In manual you can control the iris, shutter and gain by pressing one of three buttons along the bottom edge of the camera and the using a small wheel just below the lens to set what you have selected. In practice this actually works quite well. There is another button for white balance control on the side of the camera with the usual presets plus auto white balance. Just under the Manual/Auto switch there is a selector for the built in ND filters. I recently purchased a A7s DSLR type camera and I had forgotten what a fiddle it can be to use a camera that doesn’t have built in ND’s. So it’s really good to see proper ND filters on the PXW-X70 as they really help you manage your depth of field.
On the lens there is a single large control ring that can be used to focus the lens or to act as a manual zoom ring. The focus is responsive and although I don’t normally like round and round servo focus rings this one wasn’t too bad.
There really is so much to this camera that it would take a small book to go through all the features. For example there’s the touch screen LCD that can be used for touch to focus or touch to expose where you just touch the part of the screen you want to expose or focus on. There’s a full set of exposure and focus aids including peaking, histogram, zebras etc.
On the top of the camera you have Sony’s new MI shoe (Multi-Interface) for connecting accessories like the supplied handle with XLR audio inputs. The supplied detachable handle is really well made and very secure when attached. One small note is that by default when you attach the handle to the MI-shoe the camera switches to XLR audio automatically by default. So if you don’t actually have a mic connected to the handle you won’t have any audio as the internal mic gets shut off. You have to go in to the audio section of the menu to enable the internal mic if you want to use the handle but want to use the built in mic.
If you want to do time-lapse or slow stuff down the camera has S&Q motion that goes from 1fps to 60fps at 1920×1080.
The camera has WiFi and NFC and allows remote control via Content Browser Mobile and simply touching an NFC enabled phone or tablet against the side of the camera will pair the camera with the phone or tablet. In the future following a firmware update you will be able to use the camera to stream your content live via U-stream.
Finally – build quality. It’s really well made. It feels nice and solid, it feels like it will really last. Don’t tell Sony, but I dropped the camera from waist hight while I was using it. It survived, no problem at all.
This is a nice little camera. It’s very easy to operate. The picture quality is very good for such a compact camera, the only thing that lets it down just a bit is the highlight handling. But the camera is so clean that you can afford to expose a little lower to compensate for this. Since shooting the demo video I have been playing with the picture profiles to help with the highlight exposure and I found that bringing up the black gamma really helps as it lifts the mid range allowing you to expose slightly lower.
The large sensor, combined with the switchable built in ND filters gives you much greater control over the depth of field than normally possible with a compact handycam.
I think you have to remember that this is a small camera. It isn’t a PXW-X180 and it never will be, but if your budget is tight and you want an easy to use compact camera this could be the one for you. I think it would be a good fit as a “B” camera or for use in lower budget corporate productions. In addition the PXW-X70 would be a good camera to give to PA’s and producers or to hand off to inexperienced shooters for fly-on-the-wall productions.
Alister Chapman is a veteran broadcast cameraman with 20 years of experience and runs his own company, Ingenious which is a one-stop shop for video production, TV production and multimedia. The opinions expressed in this article represent those of the individual author who is independent of the Sony Group of Companies. Accordingly the contents of this article do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of Sony Corporation or its subsidiary companies.