Sony PMW-EX3 Review
Sony go after the low-budget independent filmmaker and wildlife filmmaker markets with the all-new PMW-EX3 solid-state interchangeable lens camcorder. Nigel Cooper spends the day with one in Belgium.
It is no secret that I’m a massive fan of Sony’s XDCAM HD Optical Disc System and the SxS system. I personally own an F350 and have spent 4 months using an EX1 solid-state camcorder too. This review is not going to be incredibly long or extensive, simply because I’ve already done a very extensive review on the PMW-EX1 (see under the camcorder reviews section). The PMW-EX3 is the latest addition to the EX family, and it is basically an EX1, only in a new semi-shoulder mount design and with ‘EX-Mount’ half-inch interchangeable lenses. So for this review I’m basically going to concentrate on the differences between the smaller EX1 and this new EX3.
The PMW-EX3 uses all the same components as the PMW-EX1; same 1920x1080 half-inch CMOS chips, same circuitry, same 35mbps codec, same features. So the picture quality from the PMW-EX3 is identical in every way to pictures taken using the PMW-EX1. If you want to read more about the image quality of these EX series camcorders, read my comprehensive review on the EX1.
The first thing you will notice about the PMW-EX3 is its shape. People (myself included) are comparing the shape to that of Canon’s famous XL series camcorders, with the wedge/chainsaw ergonomics at the back end. Sony has designed the camera in this way to help make shooting more comfortable. Due to the extra weight of this camera, as well as the extra weight of larger lenses, it has been designed and shaped as a ‘semi-shoulder’ mount camcorder, just like Canon’s XL H1. The EX3’s extendable shoulder rest sits at the front/top of your shoulder. This makes holding the camera much easier than the ‘out front’ method you would use with a Z1 or EX1. It takes away a bit of the weight, though you still have to firmly support the camcorder with your right hand. It also aids in stabilizing the camcorder too as it is not being held in mid-air. The shoulder rest/pad can be extended away from the EX3’s body by about 1.5”, this is done by pushing in a small metal device on the base of the camera toward the back. Once out, it locks in place. To push back in, simply push the metal device in again on the base of the camera.
Overall I found the semi-shoulder mount system of the EX3 to be much better than the Z1, EX1 ‘out in front’ design. Weight is better distributed and stabilization is greatly improved. However, I found my right forearm to be angled back at an angle so my hand was almost touching my shoulder. This felt a bit uncomfortable for me, but this is probably because I’m used to a full-size shoulder-mount camcorder were your forearm is more vertical. It’s been a while since I owned a Canon XL1 so I can’t comment on how they compare. But from my vague memories I think they are roughly the same.
UP YOUR NOSE
If you have never heard of the ‘up the nose’ look, you are about to be educated. We’ve all seen the 6-oclock news on the box. How many times have you seen a pack of journalists and cameramen flock towards the exterior courtroom steps on the street to get an interview with some famous, or infamous… probably hundreds. The camcorders used for these ENG events vary, Sony’s DSR570 and DSR450 are favourites, and at the low-end of the spectrum Sony’s HDV Z1 camcorder is even being used on occasion. When watching these news stories, it is blatantly obvious which shots were done on a Z1 (or other similar ‘out in front’ style hand-held camcorder). This is because most Z1 type shots suffer from what is known as an ‘up-the-nose’ look, when used in ENG shooting situations. Because the Z1 is a hand-held camcorder, cameramen often make the mistake of holding it at chest height when doing reporting jobs hand-held, this results in the up-the-nose look due to the camcorder not being on the ‘eye-level’ of the person being filmed, instead, because of the slightly lower shooting angle, the lens is looking slightly up the subjects nose, which looks amateurish, and just plain bad from a compositional point of view.
The reason for this short lecture in ENG journalism, is simply to let you know that the new PMW-EX3 does not suffer from ‘up-the-nose’ compositions, due to the fact that it is not held at chest height, instead, it is at the same level as full-size professional shoulder-mount camcorders so you are on the same eye-line when filming people in a standing position. So not only is the EX3’s image quality good enough for ENG broadcast, but the compositions are too.
We all know that the EX1 has fixed built in lens like the PD170 and Z1 models. The EX3 is the first EX series camcorder to feature an interchangeable lens system. Sony is calling this new half-inch mount the ‘EX-Mount’. Although it is half-inch, it is not the same half-inch mount that Sony’s full-size XDCAM camcorders use; however, Sony are including a half-inch B4 mount adaptor with the EX3 so you can still use professional half-inch lenses from full size half inch XDCAM camcorders if you choose. The EX3 comes with a standard lens, this is basically the same as the lens that is built into the EX1, only with the new EX-Mount on the back so it is interchangeable.
Sony has informed me that Fujinon are going to be manufacturing a wide-angle zoom lens in the dedicated EX-Mount specifically for the EX3. This will be good for corporate videographers and wedding videographers who often need to film in confined spaces.
35mm lens adaptor manufacturer Letus, are also making an adaptor to allow their Letus Extreme 35mm lens adaptor to be fitted directly onto the EX3 bypassing the lens altogether. This means the picture quality will be superior, as it will only be using the 35mm lens fitted to the front of the Letus Extreme.
So why would you need a camcorder with interchangeable lenses, as opposed to a built in lens like the EX1?
The chances are if you are a corporate or wedding videographer, or just a keen hobbyist, the chances are that you will be happy with the built in zoom lens of the EX1. However, if you are an independent feature filmmaker, or a wildlife videographer, or even a corporate or event videographer who wants variation, the interchangeable lens system will be indispensable. Independent feature filmmakers will need to use 35mm lenses for depth-of-field purposes, whilst wildlife filmmakers will need long telephoto lenses.
You will need to ask yourself what kind of productions you do and if you need extra wide-angle or extreme telephoto lenses, or 35mm lenses. If the answer is no and you are happy with a standard zoom lens, then save yourself £1,500 and buy an EX1 with a tripod and some lighting equipment instead. Or perhaps you will like some of the other features that the EX3 has over the EX1. There is a little bit more to the EX3 than just the interchangeable lens system; read on.
Apart from the interchangeable lenses, the second most important thing you will notice about the EX3 is the viewfinder. Sony has decided to ditch the somewhat questionable quality viewfinder from the EX1 and do an incredible Monocular viewfinder conversion job to the LCD screen instead. The LCD screen on the EX3 is identical to the superb LCD screen on the EX1, only this one has a special coating on it to improve the viewing image quality even further when it is being viewed through the monocular lens. This design is what Canon use on their famous XL series, only Canon’s screen is microscopic in comparison and the resolution on the XL viewfinder is nowhere near that of the EX3, in fact the EX3 viewfinder is in a different league altogether. Sony has done what Canon should have done many moons ago.
When you flip the monocular lens out of the way the EX3’s LCD viewfinder can be viewed just like the fold-out LCD screen on the smaller EX1. The quality is just as superb and unlike most other fold-out LCD screens, this one CAN be used to adjust focus and even exposure. I found that viewing the LCD screen directly (not through monocular lens) it is good enough for focusing purposes, and you can press the ‘expanded focus’ button on the handgrip to aid further. The expanded focus option zooms in on the image on the LCD screen and stays zoomed for 5 seconds to allow critical focusing. It only zooms on the LCD, and does not affect the recorded image. After 5 seconds the LCD image reverts back to normal automatically, or you can press the button again before the 5 seconds are up to revert to normal beforehand. For the record, the monocular can be totally removed, as well as being flipped up and out of the way. You can even get a good idea of ‘white balance’ using the LCD also, not for critical white balance, but for a general check it is fine.
vWhen you flip the monocular lens down in front of the LCD you can then put your eye up to it just like a regular viewfinder. Viewing this way has to be seen to be believed, it is incredibly sharp and seriously high-definition. If you think the LCD screen looks great when viewed naked, the monocular takes it one step further, if that is possible, adding that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’.
Checking exposure on this new LCD/Viewfinder is also very possible indeed, something that was not really possible (not for serious applications anyway) in the past with LCD screens. The EX3’s LCD screen can be viewed from various angles with little change in contrast and brightness, making it ideal for setting/adjusting exposure. The EX3 (like the EX1) also has an exposure histogram that can be turned on/off. It shows up at the bottom/right corner of the LCD screen and can be used to aid when adjusting the exposure. The histogram works incredibly well. You aim to get the spike in the exposure to the general middle position as a rule of thumb, depending on the light. You will get used to how the histogram works after a few hours of shooting.
Another great feature of this newly designed viewfinder on the EX3 is that it has dials on the front for Peaking, Contrast and Brightness, as well as a Mirror Image switch, Display Batt Info and a Zebra switch. This design is more in keeping with that of a full-size professional viewfinder. Because of this, setting up and calibrating the viewfinder to ‘Bars’ is easy.
We all know that the EX1 has an overcrank/undercrank variable frame-rate feature for slow and quick motion, but it has to be accessed via the menus, which can be time-consuming, and a bit of a pain if (like me) you use it all the time. The new EX3 has moved this feature out of the menus, and directly onto the body by means of a push button dial. Now all you have to do to change the frame-rate is simply push and hold the Frame dial in for 3 seconds (the 3-second system is done for safety reasons, in case you press it accidently), it will then light up with a funky blue ring light around it to inform you that you are now in variable frame-rate mode. Then it is simply a case of turning the dial and setting the frame-rate as desired, the frame-rate is displayed and can be checked via the LCD screen display. Like the EX1, the EX3’s variable frame-rate can be set from 1 frame to 60 frames per second in 720p mode, or from 1 to 30 frames per second in 1080p mode. The Frame dial cannot do ‘frame cranking’ like a proper film camera, that would be asking just a little too much, and it would probably put Super16mm film camera manufacturers out of business too.
Apart from the semi-shoulder shape design, interchangeable lenses, new superb viewfinder design and variable frame-rate dial on the outside, there are a few other little differences also.
The audio dials have a plastic door cover, which prevents accidental change in audio levels. Other features over the EX1 include professional BNC connectors for timecode in/out and genlock in, as well as the usual HD/SDI out. There is also an 8-pin connector for studio operation camera contro. You can adjust shutter for instance, but no focus or zoom control (lens control is undertaken on the Fujinon lens connector as per the EX1). This 8-pin studio connector is meant for camera engineers to use in conjunction with a camera op, it does not have 'VTR' control though. this controls many features of the lens such as exposure and white balance etc. The rear end of the EX3 looks much more professional due to all these BNC connectors, as opposed to the rather bland rear end of the EX1. Other connectors have been moved to the side of the camera. The SEL/SET push/dial and the CANCEL button have been moved from the back and put in a more convenient place on the left side. The PICTURE PROFILE and CAMERA/OFF/MEDIA buttons have also been moved from the rear end of the camera to the left side. With the STATUS and MENU button also along this same row on the left side, all related buttons/dials are now on the same side of the camera making operation less fiddly than the EX1.
On the right side of the EX3 we now have a BNC MONITOR OUT, an S-video output connector and phono outputs for AUDIO OUT CH-1 and CH-2, as well as a COMPONENT OUT and USB; the latter is now very easy to get to, unlike the EX1, which requires some rather awkward fiddling around under the hand grip. The audio select inputs and audio level dials on the side of the camera also gives the EX3 a more professional feel. This makes the EX3 the most versatile HD camcorder in its class.
There is also an additional hotshoe mount to the rear of the handle of the EX3, as well as the one on top of the built in stereo mic. The rear one is designed for the PHU-60K SxS Professional 60GB HardDisc Recorder. While I’m talking about the PHU-60K hard disc recorder, I’ll also mention that the SxS card door works in a slightly different way to the one on the EX1. To open it you have to push it up a few millimeters, then open it out like a door on hinges; as opposed to the slide-only door on the EX1. This has been designed with the PHU-60K in mind, as the PHU-60K hard drive plugs directly into the rear card slot B.
I was surprised at how light the EX3 actually is. I thought it would be considerably heavier than the EX1, but it is only slightly heavier. The overall build quality of the EX3 is identical to the EX1. It is not as robust as the Canon XL H1, which for me is one of the better-built prosumer camcorders out there. The EX3 also doesn’t feel as solid and chunky as JVC’s ProHD camcorders such as the GY-HD111E. Both the Canon and JVC models are more ‘metal’ in build and feel, you can clearly see and feel the metal construction. The EX1 and EX3 on the other hand look and feel plasticky in comparison with no metal (externally at least, internally is a di-cast aluminum chassis) in sight. If the Canon XL H1 and JVC GY-HD111E produced the same image quality of the EX1 and EX3 I’d recommend them over the Sony’s any day, but sadly they don’t.
Having said that, it is no worse than Sony’s own Z1 or Panasonic’s HVX200. But if Canon and JVC can do it, why can’t Sony and Panasonic; after all, Sony and Panasonic are the leaders in the Broadcast sector. Considering that the EX3 comes out of the same factory as Sony’s professional DigiBeta models, I would have expected a little bit more in the way of external metal parts and overall build quality. That said, you don’t hear of that many broken Z1’s, so I’m sure there won’t be any issues with the EX1 or EX3 models in years to come. Like the EX1, the EX3 is built around a tough di-cast aluminum chassis so there should be no real problems using it in the field. I must confess to being the fussiest guy on the planet when it comes to build quality. If I pay £6,000 for a camcorder, I expect it to feel just a little bit more substantial than a Fisher-Price toy (though as any parent will know, Fisher-Price toys are indestructible and are made out of very good quality tough plastic; they just don't break). This is one reason I prefer my F350 XDCAM camcorder. Although the picture quality of the F350 and the EX3 are identical, at least when you pick up an F350 it feels like a serious piece of kit and you are inspired to get down to some serious shooting. Whenever I pick up a ‘Z1-type-Plasticam’ camcorder, it all feels very lack-lustre to me and I’d rather go back to bed.
If you own a PD170, VX2100, Z1 or a HVX200, you will feel right at home with the build quality of the EX1 and EX3, like I said, I’m just a fussy bugger.
NOT SO GOOD BITS
Although Sony has informed me that the Camera/Off/Media switch has been redesigned, it is still just as fiddly to use as on the smaller EX1 i.e it is too easy to turn the camera into Media mode when you think you have turned the camera off. The same applies to the ND switch on the camera body. Trying to set it to position 1 is a nightmare, it flicks straight past the 1 position into position 2, you have to grip it with your fingernails and try and ‘nurse’ it into the middle position. My tip here is to not cut your thumb and index fingernails for two weeks before a shoot; you’ll need them. The SEL/SET wheel is still way too small and sunk back into the camcorder’s body, making it difficult/fiddly to scroll through the menus; I’d much prefer to see a dial more like the ones Canon use on their EOS 40D and EOS 5D digital stills cameras. Most of the controls (with the FRAME dial being the exception) are too small and tricky to use; the words ‘Magnifying Glass’ and ‘Tweezers’ spring to mind with regard to some of the tiny switches; AUDIO SELECT switches for example. As for the BARS/CAM and PICTURE PROFILE buttons, you almost need a pen or pencil tip to push these buttons; that is how tiny they are. The ASSIGN 4 button is still impossible to find and use by touch, you have to flip the camera upside-down with the base towards you and lens pointing skywards; very awkward indeed, especially when there is in fact enough room to put this button next to the other 3, where it would make more sense. Finally, the buttons for ejecting the SxS cards are just too small and they don’t pop out enough. Again, you almost need the tip of a pen to eject the cards. Even when the SxS card does partially eject, it’s only by about 4mm, so you almost need a pare of tweezers to grab the tiny bit of card that is sticking out to be able to remove it, I often found that when trying to grab the SxS cards, I accidently pushed them back in by mistake.
At £5,995 inc vat the PMW-EX3 represents incredible value for money in terms of the superb image quality it produces, the same can’t really be said of the overall plasticky feel to the camera. When you pick it up, it doesn’t feel like you are holding a piece of kit that cost £6,000. If superb image quality for ‘full’ broadcast applications is what you are after, the EX3 makes the grade with ease. In fact the EX1 and EX3 are the only camcorders in their class (compact non-shoulder) that actually meet full broadcast requirements. Unlike the HDV format which can only be used for ‘no more than 30% of the total programme length using approved HDV camcorders, maximum 1 minute contiguous footage’ with Discovery HD (Silver Level) for example, the EX1 and EX3 can be used for 100% of the coverage of the programme (after some acceptance trials for Discovery the EX1 is accepted as Silver). This is a first for a camcorder of this small size and price.
UPDATE: 23rd May 2008.
This is a cut/paste from my number one contact at Sony UK.
It’s been a long wait, but officially ‘Discovery Channel’ in the US has given the XDCAM EX PMW-EX1 the all important ‘Silver status’.
This is the FIRST compact camcorder to be awarded this status meaning you can shoot 100% of your programme production with EX for supply to the HD channel. It’s a true indication of just how good this camera is!
We are still waiting written notification, but I think you’ll all agree this is great news!
Obviously with EX3 on the horizon with the same spec, this too will also meet this ‘Silver status’
For further details visit www.sonybiz.net/ex
©2008 Nigel Cooper
Product: HD Camcorder
Reviewed by: Nigel Cooper
Review Date: 03-05-2008