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Sony NXCAM – Great News For Documentary Work

By on Nov 20, 2009 in Blog, Video | 5 comments

Sony_NXCAM_CamcorderThe introduction this week of the new NXCAM format is really great news for anyone producing a wide array of professional video product, and notably for documentary producers. The camera combines capabilities found in other manufacturer’s (often more expensive) products and the result is a flexible, high-performance full HD camera. When I started blathering on about how thrilled I was that Sony had taken this step, peers and staff asked the same question over and over again – “Why?”

The initial model (unnamed as of this date) in the NXCAM series does a number of really important things: It records AVCHD full HD 1920×1080 material (in all variations of resolutions) and as such, is easily compatible with other cameras, including as one example, the Canon 7D hybrid still/video camera. It utilizes a relatively new type of glass, and although fixed to the camera, this lens, called a G-Lens, delivers excellent optics, no doubt a result of Sony’s purchase of Minolta. And, the camera is ideal for the wide variety of production requirements a documentary requires.

In our situation, we’re interested in the best tool for a variety of situations. That means we’ll shoot portrait interviews, mount a camera on a moving vehicle, hang from a helicopter, and so on. And, if we’re doing all of these things, it also means we’re shooting a lot of material (hours vs. minutes). If you’re making a film, you’ll work from a shot list, and the shooting ratio may be 3:1. In our documentary work, we’re going to capture reality as it occurs, and then weed out the footage that isn’t essential to telling the story. The result is often 30:1 or higher. That’s right, we may shoot 30 hours of video to get a one hour show. In fact, for a documentary we did in Australia that covered two weeks of a cross-country race, we shot more than 100 hours of video. The final product was a broadcast-ready 44 minutes.

Sony-NXCAM-driveThe AVCHD format is ideal for this type of work. And, being able to record to a flash drive that mounts into the camera is fantastic. There’s no box attached to a shoe that gets in the way of moving the camera about. It snaps into place. You can record literally hours of material, and then, using USB connectors, transfer the files directly to your PC or Mac.

There’s more to like as well. The imagers in the camera are native 1920 x 1080. The imagers in other cameras in this class are typically 720p and upscale to 1080p. This is really important and becomes even more so when you discover that the camera will output a full HD 4:2:2 signal via the built-in HD-SDI port while shooting. That type of flexibility allows us to integrate this camera with other, far more expensive cameras.

It’s difficult to capture a strong, clear image if you can’t see what you’re doing. The NXCAM shown off by Sony offers a 1.2 million pixel 16×9 display using backlit LED technology. The Panasonic HMC-150, by comparison (same compression system, similar price, etc.) has a display with approximately 210,000 pixels in a 4×3 display that is letter-boxed. What? To use the Panny (which has great images), you really need to add an external monitor, or you’re going to be disappointed with the results. Sony avoids that extra complication. Add-on monitors are terrific if you’re on a tripod and locked off. They don’t work if you’re jumping off a fire engine and following firefighters into a smokey building. Sony resolves that problem with not only the flip-up external monitor, but the built-in viewfinder as well. You can learn more by watching the intro video produced by Sony.

So, as we envision some of the production work we’re scheduled to produce this year, the Sony NXCAM fits in really well. We can shoot portrait interviews using prime glass on our Canon 7D. We can match that (remember, same codec) with footage captured “in the field” with the Sony NXCAM. And, we can edit in both PC and Mac NLE solutions without drama. No tape. No fuss. Oh, by the way – there’s more to like as well. Because we shoot on location, as documentary producers, we are careful to log everything we shoot. Now, with the NXCAM, there is GPS data added to the metadata of each file. Whoo hoo! So, the next time we travel 2,000 miles across the Stewart Highway in Australia, we’ll know where each shot was captured. And, if we decide to shoot in a studio, we can lock multiple NXCAMs together, thanks to the new (if proprietary) timecode in and out connectors.

The only bad news is that the camera isn’t available yet. Hey Sony – want some remarkable footage of firefighters saving lives? How about the California coast and wine country? Or, how about some footage of the latest sports cars being testing on windy country roads at speed? If so, get us an NXCAM ASAP. We aren’t asking for a freebie. We’ll own it. Love it. And we’ll tell the world.