PXW-Z280 Camcorder: in-depth review

Alister Chapman was one of the first to shoot with Z280 commercially, and has toured Europe and Canada conducting Z280 workshops. Below are his first-hand impressions.

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In 2008, Sony’s PMW-EX1 transformed the way production companies worked. Image quality was comparable to a shoulder mount camcorder with new features that quickly became industry-standard. It had ND filters and high-quality switches like a regular broadcast camera, yet was small enough to make one-man-band operations really easy.

A decade later, the PXW-Z280 promises another handheld revolution

The Z280's OLED EVF provides a bright, high-resolution image and I found myself using it a lot to check focus and exposure.

A camera for the 4K world

Initially I was skeptical of the Z280 concept. I assumed cramming 4K’s worth of tiny pixels onto a ½-in sensor meant it would either be poor in low light or unacceptably noisy. What I hadn’t considered is just how good Sony’s new “stacked” sensor technology is. The new multi-layer, back-illuminated technology ensures the best possible sensitivity while allowing a greater degree of on-chip image processing to occur.

Shooters and production companies are increasingly shooting in Ultra-High Definition (UHD 3840×2160, the 4K standard for broadcast television). At the same time, HDR (High Dynamic Range) TVs are becoming commonplace, and that, too, looks likely to be a requirement for many future productions. In recent years, large sensors have become commonplace with cameras like the diminutive FS5 or the workhorse FS7 seeing a lot of use in news and documentary productions where perhaps the EX1 or a similar camera would have once been used.

But the large sensor cameras are not always well-suited to fast turn-around productions. The zoom range of the lens is often very limited. The shallow depth of field from these large sensor cameras can be difficult to work with when you are pushed for time. When you are running around trying to capture breaking news or real-time events, what you need is something quick and versatile with a big zoom range. This was where the EX1 excelled, and now so, too, does the PXW-Z280.

Real-world test

Something I shot a lot of with my own EX1 and EX1R was air shows. So, to put the Z280 through its paces, I decided to use it to shoot an air show. My role on the shoot was to shoot the preparation of the display aircraft on the flight line. A row of parked classic aircraft, almost half a mile long. There would be a lot of running around, I would need to shoot wide shots close up to the aircraft as well as long shots of them taking off some distance away, so the new 4K, 17x optical zoom would prove incredibly useful.

Like the EX1, the lens on the PXW-Z280 has 3 full-size, calibrated, control rings for focus, zoom and iris. The focus ring slides forwards for autofocus and assisted manual focus and back for full manual control with calibrated focus markings and end stops, just like a proper broadcast lens. The zoom can be controlled from the hand grip zoom rocker for smooth, highly controllable power zooms or by the zoom ring by disengaging the zoom servo motor. If that isn’t enough, then there is also a small variable speed zoom rocker on the camera’s top handle. The iris ring is also calibrated so you can turn it to whatever aperture you need or, if necessary, you can let the camera’s really very good auto exposure system take control of it.

Over recent years, shooting with large sensor cameras with limited range par-focal zooms or DSLR zooms with focus that shifts as you zoom, I think I had really forgotten just how useful a par-focal 17x zoom lens is. While shooting the air show, I was able to quickly and easily get a close-up of the pilots in the cockpit of their aircraft and then zoom out to reveal that they were sitting in a large twin engine aircraft. Then I could spin around and shoot an aircraft on the other side of the airfield taking off or landing. All of this from one spot, no need to switch lenses, no need to refocus as I zoomed in and out. It almost seemed too easy!

Electronic Variable ND Filter

The EX1 introduced user switchable ND filters to compact camcorders. The Z280 takes this one step further as it has a fully variable ND filter. The variable ND filter allows you to control your exposure by introducing more or less optical ND with great precision. It’s a real ND filter that can be controlled electronically. What this means is that you can use the camera’s aperture to determine the depth of field and then adjust the exposure with the ND filter. It really does change the way you shoot. If you use the auto ND function instead of auto aperture, you get two really great benefits.

1: The depth of field remains constant, even if the sun comes and goes. This is particularly useful for interviews that will later be edited, as from shot to shot the background focus will remain constant rather than changing from soft to sharp and back, as would happen if the aperture was changing during the shots.

2: You can use the optimum aperture range for the best lens performance. With very high-resolution cameras like the Z280, you never want to make the aperture too small. Closing the aperture beyond f5.6 can soften the images due to an effect called diffraction (this happens with all cameras, the optimum aperture depending on the size of the pixels). In addition, even though this is a pretty good zoom lens, stopping it down just a bit from its widest aperture of f1.9 helps get a super sharp image and increases the DoF, which makes focusing easier. I like to have the lens on a camera like this somewhere around f4–f5.6 and the variable ND filter makes it really easy to achieve this in most normal shooting situations.

Exceptional imaging performance

A key benefit of the stacked image sensor is that the sensor’s readout is much quicker than often possible with traditional CMOS sensors. So while it isn’t a Global Shutter, the readout on the Z280 minimizes skew and rolling shutter artifacts. This meant that even the spinning propellers on the aircraft being filmed looked normal. A lot of CMOS cameras struggle with this, but the Z280 performed really well.

Since that summer air show, I shot in and around a cold and wintery Montreal in Canada, both by day and at night. I also shot in Vancouver in some really dull, dreary and overcast weather. Once again, the Z280 surprised me. I estimate the camera to have an exposure rating of around 650 ISO in the standard gammas. This is pretty impressive for this type of compact camcorder and not far off the sensitivity of many large sensor cameras. Combine this with the lenses fast aperture of f1.9 and what you get is a camera that performs really well in low light. I was able to shoot at night on the streets of Montreal with no extra gain. During the day in Vancouver I was able to capture the subtle textures of the fall colors amazingly well despite the heavy overcast and very flat light.

HDR and S-Log3

While shooting in Montreal and Vancouver, I was also able to try out the camera’s dedicated HDR mode. In this mode, the camera can record using either HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma) or S-Log3. Both of these gamma curves can capture a greater dynamic range than is normally possible with conventional gamma curves (the Z280 also features Sony’s Hypergammas when in SDR mode).

Recording using HLG allows for an “instant” HDR workflow, where the images you capture will be shown with a high dynamic range on a suitable HDR TV or monitor without any additional grading or post-production being needed. What that means is that those watching in HDR will have brighter highlights and a greater contrast range than someone watching on a standard dynamic range TV. To make shooting HLG easy, by default the camera automatically applies a small correction to the HLG images for the built-in viewfinder and LCD screen via the “Gamma Display Assist” function. This makes shooting with HLG just as easy as shooting SDR with normal Rec-709.

S-Log3 is available if you want to record the full dynamic range of the camera and the ability to grade your footage in post-production. Perhaps for a production that will be finished using HDR10 or perhaps just for a film-style workflow. Again, by default, the camera converts the S-Log3 to a 709 style image for viewfinder and LCD screen via the “Gamma Display Assist” function.

I did quite a bit of S-Log3 filming with the Z280 in Vancouver to see how it performs, and once again was surprised by how good it is. You have to remember that these are quite small sensors, so it can’t deliver the range and quality that most modern large sensor cameras can. But it gets very close. There is a bit of extra noise when you shoot S-Log3 with the Z280, so a nice bright exposure will probably work best for most people. But the dynamic range is impressive for this type of camera. Thanks to the ability to record 10 bit XAVC-I, it works really well, giving a respectable starting point for grading.

The Z280’s three-chip sensor really helps it capture the subtle textures of a face, which helps to make it look real.

Audio enhancements

In the audio department, once again the Z280 brings some very nice improvements. Up front on the camera’s handle, there is a built-in stereo microphone. There are also two 3-pin XLR sockets on the side of the carry handle. Between the built-in mic and the 2 XLR inputs, you have the ability to record 4 channels of audio. Better still, the camera has not just one but two of Sony’s MI (Multi-Interface) shoes on the top handle. A typical setup might be to have a video light powered from the camera’s battery on the front MI shoe and then an XLR adapter or one of Sony’s UWP-D dual-channel wireless microphone receivers on the rear shoe. This then gives you the ability to record 2 channels of external audio without tying up the XLR inputs. So all in all you can have up to 4 external audio sources recording to the 4 audio channels.

One of the best bits about the audio though is that the camera actually has 4 full sets of audio controls easily accessible on the side of the camera. Each channel has its own rotary level control, as well as switches to select the input source, level, and phantom power settings. This is so much easier than having to delve into the menus to control channels 3 and 4, as with so many other cameras.

Media and offloading files

The Z280 has two SxS card slots. While it has been designed around SxS, it does also have the ability to use XQD cards to record most of its various frame rates and codecs as well as SD cards to record a more limited range. To use XQD and SD cards you will need adapters.

A great feature that I really like is the ability to connect an external hard drive or USB flash drive directly to the camera to offload files from the cards in the camera. It’s a simple, quick process. You can format the drive or flash drive with the camera if needed and then you can copy your files onto the external device without a computer. This will be very useful for those that need to hand off footage quickly without handing over those expensive SxS or XQD cards. This helped me out when shooting in Vancouver, as I ran out of card space. I was able to offload the rushes over a cup of coffee while on location.

Networking possibilities

Talking of USB sockets — the Z280 has a USB connector on the top rear of the camera body. This connector is designed to take a 3G or 4G cellular data dongle. The camera features a comprehensive set of features that can make use of various network connections, including 3G/4G via a standard cellular dongle, built-in Wi-Fi, or the camera’s Wired LAN connector.

The camera can stream live while recording. You can also upload files from the camera via FTP to a remote server. The FTP transfer can take place in the background while you are shooting. If the connection to the server is interrupted, it will resume automatically when the connection is re-established; it’s all very clever. If you have an XDCAM air subscription or a Sony Network RX Station, you can take advantage of the Z280’s built in Dual Link capability that allows two dongles to be used to increase the bandwidth available, improve the link reliability, or both.

Proxies, Dual Record and Remote Control

In order to keep the size of the files manageable for wireless workflow, the PXW-Z280 has a couple of different options. If recording UHD, it’s possible to record an HD subclip alongside the UHD clips. Or the camera can record even smaller proxy files as well as the main recordings. These proxies can be stored on an SD card that’s inserted into the camera’s utility SD card slot. But it doesn’t end there. As well as recording nice compact files suitable for FTP, you can also trim the files in camera without a computer. This allows you to select just the parts of clips that you want to use by trimming the start and end of the recorded footage.

Remote control options are equally comprehensive. You can log into the Z280 directly, via a local network or the Internet using a computer or mobile device. Once logged in, the camera provides a series of web pages for many key functions including exposure, filming, and playback controls. Other pages allow you to set up FTP server connections and remotely control the transfer of clips from the camera via FTP. And while all of this is going on, in most cases you can also monitor the camera’s output over the very same network connection. The network capabilities of this camera are very, very impressive.

In summary

What can I say? There is so much about the PXW-Z280 that impresses me. It offers a great set of features, huge range of recording codecs (it even has SD DVCAM, as well as MPEG HD and all sorts of XAVC options). It is surprisingly sensitive, has great dynamic range, and produces a great image for this type of camera.

Obviously, it is a very different camera from a large sensor camera such as the FS5 or FS7, so don’t expect the very same dynamic range or exactly the same image quality. But it is close. The Z280 really narrows the image quality gap that used to be quite large with previous HD only cameras or some of the 1-in sensor cameras. The 17x zoom lens makes shooting a wide range of shots quick and easy, and the fact that the lens opens up to f1.9 means you get good low light performance as well as good control over the depth of field. The electronic variable ND filter really helps with this.

It’s a great camera for those who need to work fast, be portable. For those who want great image quality without having to constantly change lenses to get different shots. The Z280 is a big step forward, both in terms of features and image quality.

Additional information

A veteran broadcast cameraman with 20 years of experience, Alister Chapman 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.