One of my first XDCAM camcorders was the ground breaking PMW-EX1. It was ground breaking because it brought very high quality images, truly good enough for broadcast television, to a small handheld camcorder with a great lens with real manual control for the very first time. The EX1 was, in fact still is, a great camcorder.
A lot of the image quality came from the use of 3 larger 1/2″ sensors instead of the typical 1/3″ or smaller sensors found in handheld cameras. A bigger sensor means bigger pixels, which in turn means better sensitivity, better dynamic range and fewer diffraction artefacts. We now see that taken to extremes with the current trend for cameras with super 35mm sensors. While these large sensor cameras like the PXW-FS7 or PMW-F5 do offer some very nice benefits such as outstanding cinema style image quality there are also drawbacks. They tend to be bulkier and while there are hundreds of lenses to choose from, good, parfocal zoom options are limited and very expensive. For example, one of the very best compact par-focal zooms you can get for a super 35mm camcorder is the Canon 17-120mm T2.95 lens. That’s a meagre 7x zoom range and T2.95 is particularly fast (the X200 lens is f1.8). What’s more that lens cost around £30k! Even the new Sony 28-135mm f4 SELP28135G lens costs approximately £2.5k and that’s only a 4.8x zoom.
After the PMW-EX1 came the EX1R with a few tweaks here and there, improving an already good camera. But the one thing that let the EX1 and EX1R down just a little was the codec. Sony’s 35Mb/s Mpeg2 XDCAM codec, while actually very good just wasn’t seen as good enough by some broadcasters, notably the BBC, for mainstream TV production.
35Mb/s XDCAM is now normally accepted for news and some types of documentary productions, but really broadcasters want 50Mb/s Mpeg2 or better. In response to this Sony launched the PMW-200 as a replacement for the EX1R. In most respects the PMW-200 is very similar to the EX1R. It has 3x 1/2″ sensors with a 14x zoom lens. It records on to SxS cards in HD using Sony’s 50Mb/s and 35Mb/s XDCAM codec as well as DVCAM for standard definition.
Now I have to say that while the PMW-200 is a good camera, it just didn’t have the ‘wow’ factor of the EX1. It is a logical improvement of the XDCAM family and a good work-horse camcorder. It does the job it was designed to do. But I didn’t really like the build quality of the camera. It has a plastic outer shell with lots of cooling vents and it just doesn’t feel as solid and robust as the older EX1 series cameras. However it has been extremely popular with broadcasters as it does produce a good quality image recorded at 50Mb/s 422.
Two years ago Sony introduced a new codec, XAVC. First seen in the high end PMW-F55 and F5 digital cinema cameras. This new codec offered the same or better quality pictures in smaller file sizes. In most modes it offers 10 bit 422 recording and can work at full HD frame rates above 30fps (Mpeg2 XDCAM can only go up to 30fps in full HD). The writing was on the wall for the PMW-200.
Two years ago Sony introduced XAVC... in most modes it offers 10 bit 422 recording and can work at full HD frame rates above 30fps.
So enter the PXW-X200. At first glance it looks similar to the PMW-200, but gone are all the slots and vents that were quite unpopular on the PMW-200. It’s slightly fatter at the rear end than the PMW-200 and there is a small vent on the right rear, but the camera feels very solid in your hand and is nicely balanced. The front of the camera is dominated by a new 17x zoom lens from Fujinon. This lens has the same sliding focus ring where forwards is for auto or electronic focus and back gives very precise manual focus control. There is a servo driven zoom ring which can be controlled manually as well as a nicely weighted iris ring.
While 17x doesn’t sound like much of an improvement over the 14x of the PMW-200 it really does make a difference as the lens provides both a slightly wider and longer field of view. At 5.6-95.2 mm (35 mm equivalent: 29.3-499 mm) it’s a very useable zoom range. It’s also image stabilised.
For the past couple of years I have been predominantly shooting with my F5 and more recently with my FS7. I love the image quality I can get from these cameras. But it was really refreshing to go back to a camera with an easy to use wide range zoom lens. During the test shoot in Iceland we had some really atrocious weather. It would have been crazy to try to change a lens in blowing wind and snow. But with the X200 I could get nice image stabilised wide shots, long shots and nice smooth zooms between the two without issue. I had forgotten how quickly you can shoot a wide range of shots when you have a single lens as versatile as this one and the stabilisation was a godsend in the windy and stormy weather.
Control of the servo zoom is good, although it was hard to get a totally silky smooth start and stop to the zoom. As you squeeze the zoom rocker there is always a definite transition from no zoom to some zoom, you can’t go from no zoom to a barely imperceptible zoom as you can with more expensive ENG lenses. This isn’t terrible (and it was a pre-production camera), but you should be aware of it. I guess it’s just one of those limitations of squeezing a good quality 17x lens into a small and low cost package.
As expected the image quality is good. I’m not sure if these are new sensors in the PXW-X200 or the same as the PMW-200, but whatever is going on there is a noticeable improvement in sensitivity, noise and smear. So either these are new sensors or the image processing has improved quite a bit. There is very little noise for a 1/2″ camera from the X200, it actually performs more like a 2/3″ camera. Sony quote 58db as the 0db noise figure for the X200. That’s within 1db of the high end PDW-F800 and I don’t doubt the numbers, the pictures really are very clean with minimal noise. Dynamic range is good too. It’s not in the same league as the F5 or FS7, but it’s good for a small camcorder at around 11.5 stops and highlights are handled very nicely, especially if you use a hypergamma.
In Iceland we shot in some very varied conditions from dark overcast skies to bright snow scenes with clear skies and the X200 did a really good job of capturing some really challenging scenes. On one day we were about to be engulfed by a big snow storm. I was driving down a snow covered road, it was about -10c and very windy. I glanced in the car’s rear view mirror and the sight was breath-taking. But it would only be seconds before the storm was upon us. The sky turned brilliant orange thanks to the very low sun. We had a very bright orange sky, brilliantly illuminated snow covered mountains and dark volcanic rock and only seconds to get the shot. The X200 captured it really well, no messing around making sure I had the right lens, just grab the camera from the back of the car, slam it on the tripod and shoot.
Just like the PMW-200, the PXW-X200 records primarily on to SxS cards. But as well as SxS cards you can also use SDHC and XQD cards for many of the internal codec options. Using the MEAD-SD02 you can use SDHC Class 10 cards formatted in FAT to record any of the 35Mb/s XDCAM EX codecs as well as standard definition DVCAM. For news or projects where you might need to hand off the recording media this is really useful. But I still think you should be using SxS for anything really important or whenever you want the best image quality and reliability that comes from using professional recording media. To record at the very highest HD quality settings or to use XAVC you must use the ExFAT mode along with SxS or XQD cards via the QDA-EX1 adapter. Like SxS cards, XQD cards can be formatted using ExFAT, UDF or FAT so these can be used for any of the recording modes in the X200 and offer a lower cost media option for those on a tight budget. It also means that if you have a PXW-FS7 you can use the same media in both cameras.
There are lots of codec choices in the PXW-X200. For HD you have XAVC-I, XAVC-L and Mpeg2HD (XDCAM). For SD there is DVCAM and MPEG IMX, plus there is a XAVC proxy mode for small files to use with the camera’s wifi and wireless capabilities.
XAVC-I offers the best image quality, it is an I Frame codec meaning that every frame is encoded in full. It is 10 bit 422. XAVC-L is a long GOP codec where one frame is encoded in full and then for the next 12 frames only the differences between the first and last frame is encoded. This means it’s more efficient and as a result the files are smaller saving space on your media. But to rebuild the GoP (12 frame Group of Pictures) in post production takes more processing power, so you will need a good computer to work smoothly with XAVC-L. XAVC-I requires less processing power in post production.
One of the nice things about XAVC is that in most modes it’s 10 bit. This makes a noticeable difference in post production and one of the things I found with footage from the X200 is that it grades really well. Because the camera is very low noise and because the recordings can be 10 bit you can do a lot of image manipulation before the footage starts to get grainy or deteriorates. Obviously it’s not as flexible as S-log from an FS7 but it is surprising how much better it is than 8 bit XDCAM.
The X200 has picture profiles so you can set up the camera with different gamma, matrix and detail settings to tailor the images for the type of scene you are shooting. In common with Sony’s higher end cameras it has 4 Hypergamma gamma curves that extend the dynamic range and provide a pleasing film like highlight roll off. Just remember that if you do use the Hypergammas that they are designed to be exposed around a stop darker than normal 709 for the best results. In Iceland I set up a picture profile that used Hypergamma 3 for most of the shoot. HG3 gives additional dynamic range with a pleasant highlight roll-off but still gives good low light performance. In January, in Iceland, the sun barely gets above the horizon, so light levels are very low all day, yet the camera still produced very nice images.
As well as the cameras great wired connectivity which includes both HDMI and HDSDI outputs, Timcode in/out and genlock the PXW-X200 has a comprehensive range of wireless functions. Via the supplied WiFi dongle you can stream video live from the camera or upload files via ftp to a remote server. In addition you can remove the WiFi dongle and replace it for a 3G or 4G cellular dongle to get similar functionality over a mobile phone network. This will be great for TV news saving the need for an uplink truck in many instances. It could also be used for streaming corporate events live around the globe.
For streaming or ftp applications the camera can produce XAVC Proxy files at various low bit rates from 500Kb/s to 9Mb/s. These proxy files can also be recorded on an SD card in a dedicated ‘Proxy’ SD card slot. Some of the wireless functions were not available in the firmware of the camera we had in Iceland, so I wasn’t able to test them, but on paper at least this camera should be very capable for remote and wireless operation. Even at a very basic level the WiFi dongle allows you to use a smart phone or tablet along with Sony’s Content Browser Mobile application to browse through the media on the cards in the camera and then ftp the files to a remote server or cloud service such as Sony’s Ci.
The switch and button layout of the camera is similar to the PMW-200, EX1 etc. So it won’t take users long to migrate to the X200. It has the usual 3 way switches for gain and white balance as well as a ‘full auto’ button. There is a scroll wheel and buttons for the menu as well as 6 assignable buttons. It’s a camera that most experienced camera operators should be able to just pick up and shoot with without needing to refer to the manual. The slightly fatter rear end to the camera makes space for the extra SD card proxy slot as well as the dual SxS card slots. If you are going to use SDHC cards or XQD cards then one nice feature is the ability to dual record to both slots at the same time for security. This way a single card failure would not be an issue. You can assign the record control of the two card independently to the main record button as well as the second record button up on the hand grip. Set like this you could for example have one card shooting continuously while the other card is just used to capture selected highlights.
On the top of the camera handle is one of Sony’s clever ‘MI’ shoes. This hot shoe can be used to connect lights and other devices directly to the camera. It’s best function in my opinion though is the ability to connect one of Sony’s UWP-D radio mic receivers directly to the camera. With a SMAD-P3 adapter the radio mic is powered via the camera and the audio passes from the radio mic straight in to the camera without any wires or cable. This is a really neat solution for a wireless mic system. For more conventional microphones there are of course a pair of XLR connectors.
While the PXW-X200 isn’t as sexy or trendy as camera like the PXW-FS7, it is a very capable camera. I was genuinely impressed by the improved image quality and if I was shooting more news type shoots I would definitely want an X200 in my camera bag. It’s easy to operate, fast to work with and has a great feature set. The build quality and feel of the camera is better than the PMW-200 and the extra range that comes from the 17x zoom is very nice.
I was genuinely impressed by the improved image quality…. It’s easy to operate, fast to work with and has a great feature set.
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.