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Sony XDCAM HD PDW-F350: First Impressions

From The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents Sony XDCAM HD PDW-F350: First Impressions



Timothy DuncanTimothy Duncan
Nashville Tennessee, USA

©2006 Timothy Duncan and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
In this prosumer hd dv camcorder review from The Creative COW Magazine, Timothy Duncan discusses his first impressions with the CineAlta-branded XDCAM HD PDW-F350, along with the PDW-F70 recording deck. Sony's XDCAM HD F350 is an optical disc-based variableframe-rate camera that shoots in both HD and Standard Definition DVCam.



Recently we were given the opportunity to work with a prototype of Sony's newest HD camera, the CineAlta-branded XDCAM HD PDW-F350, along with the PDW-F70 recording deck. Clearly, the XDCAM HD PDW-F350 is targeted to compete with Panasonic's VariCam and is Sony's variable-frame-rate HD camcorder. In testing it, our main goal was to see if the F350 could actually replace Varicam rentals for us - which were happening often enough to warrant a purchase. We were ready to buy one when our local Sony rep heard the news and brought us the new PDW-F350 to test before making a purchase. To be honest, I just couldn't see a high end HD production company like ours using a half-inch CCD economy HD camcorder - especially one that records in MPEG2. So which way did we end up going? Read on....

We have shot several projects using the HDW-F900 CineAlta HDCAM but our lighting director and several other LDs I know, prefer the color reproduction of the Varicam. With the right lighting and care, the Varicam can produce stunning results and our lighting directors say it is much easier to light for and that it more closely matches the human eye. In our case, the Varicam has been sufficient for most of our music video business, where we have and use both HDCAM and DVCPro HD studio decks in-house.


WHAT IS XDCAM?

XDCAM is an optical disc-based production system that boasts the ability of random-access of your files both in the camera and deck, as well as MXF file transfers via 1394 or Gigabit Ethernet. MXF is the Material eXchange format which allows metadata to be associated with the audio and video material for improved workflows. For more information, see: www.pro-mpeg.org.

This meta-data gives the ability to find and organize footage based on many different criteria. Besides jumping instantly to every individual recorded clip, you can jump to every place on your disc where the audio peaked over a certain amount, for example, or to every shot on which video gain was turned on. For the non-linear editor, this can save hours of logging and searching. These are just two examples out of many.

Video is recorded directly onto 23 Gigabyte optical discs. In the days ahead, theses discs will grow in capacity, and Sony is committed to making any new XDCAM gear backwards-compatible so that anything shot today with the current discs will work in the next generation of XDCAM devices. The only incompatibility now is with IMX-recorded XDCAM. Only DVrecorded XDCAM can be played back with XDCAM HD devices.

Sony XDCAM HD PDW-F350
Sony's new XDCAM HD F350 is an optical disc-based variableframe-rate camera that shoots in both HD and Standard Definition DVCam.

XDCAM HD uses the same PFD23 Professional Discs as the first generation XDCAM cameras. This means savings for the end user since this disc is readily available and there is no need to pay for a "new" type of disc. The XDCAM HD cameras record 4 channels of 16 bit, 48-kHz uncompressed audio and record 1080 video at 59.94i, 50i, 29.97P, 25P and native 23.98P.

The cameras are switchable between MPEG HD and standard definition DVCAM. The MPEG HD uses MPEG 2 Main Profile at High Level encoding with a long GOP (Group of Pictures). This delivers excellent picture quality at low bitrates. HD MPEG recording is user selectable from three settings: HQ, SP, and LP modes. HQ records 35 Mb/sec variable bit-rate with an approximate recording time on the PFD23 Professional Disc of over 60 minutes. SP records 25 Mb/sec HDV with a recording time of 90 minutes. LP records 18 Mb/s variable bit rate with approximately 120 minutes of record time which is the longest of any HD camcorder currently available.

Not only does XDCAM record the full resolution video and audio, but a proxy recording is also made at the same time allowing faster access for onlocation logging and offline editing. Proxy Data can be accessed via a standard PC with the free PDZ-1 Proxy Browsing software.

Most non-linear editing packages support XDCAM standard definition and by the time you read this, most that currently offer support will have announced their new level of support for XDCAM HD. In some cases, this support is absolutely stellar, allowing editing to begin instantly on proxy video while the full-resolution files are copied to your system in the background - automatically updating from proxy to full-resolution while you continue to edit.


REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE

When I first looked at the specs on the XDCAM HD, I have to admit that I was more than skeptical. On paper, it looks like a glorified HDV camcorder recording only 10 Mb/s more than HDV and with only 1/2" CCD imagers. Sony even positions it as "between" the HDV entry level and highend HDCAM. So how could this camera possibly deliver high-end images without MPEG2 artifacting? Could the color reproduction be as pleasing as the Panasonic? Why would anyone want to start out with MPEG2 video instead of higher quality? We set out to find the answers to these questions.

We put this camera through a barrage of lighting conditions and did our very best to break the compression over two days of shooting. We tried every possible combination of frame-rates and recording modes - especially in low light with lots of gain and tons of panning at all speeds. We even tried maximizing the detail and then doing quick pans/zooms on outdoor shots.

Much to our surprise, we could not make this camera produce artifacts while recording at the HQ 35 Mb/s rate. The video images from this camera were stunning. And although the color was flat out of the box, we were able to tweak the settings to get what we considered very much a match to the Varicam - but at higher resolution. The extra 400,000 pixels per CCD are clearly evident in this regard.

Since the video is recorded at 4:2:0, we wondered how it would chroma-key, so we tested that, as well. We compared green-screen recordings in our studio of Varicam and XDCAM HD. We compared four things all captured into our NLE system at 10 bit uncompressed via HD SDI: Varicam from videotape and Varicam captured directly from the camera HD SDI output (live, not from tape). XDCAM HD recorded to disc at HQ (35 Mb/S) and directly from the camera HD SDI (live and not from disc). The XDCAM HD video was clearly much easier to key even after going to MPEG 2, than the Varicam footage. Our concerns about 4:2:0 colorspace were summarily dismissed. For our testing software, we used After Effects 6.5 and Boris Contiuum Complete, my personal choice.


PDW-F350 VS PDW-F330

Sony has two XDCAM HD camera models, the PDW-F330 with an MSRP of $16,800 and the PDW-F350 with an MSRP of $25,800. Both ship without the lens.

The main three things the F350 has that the F330 does not is "over cranking" and "under cranking," HD SDI ouput, and 5-pin balanced XLR output.

"Over-cranking" and "undercranking" allow you to record from 4 to 60 frames per second in 1 frame increments. Sony calls this "Slow & Quick Motion" and this feature can produce crystal-clear results. The over- and under-cranked footage is automatically played back in whatever recording mode the camera was in during the recording (23.98P, 25P, 30P, 50i or 60i). For example, you can set the camera up for Slow Motion at 60fps but in a record mode of 23.98P. When you play this back, either in the deck or camera, the 60fps is played back at the 23.98 frame rate giving incredibly clear and smooth slow motion at 40% right in the camera or deck – no need to set this up in post production. The camera that we tested was the F350, so we were able to test both the Slow and Quick Motion in a combination of speeds and capture modes. To say we were impressed is an understatement.

The second main difference is HD SDI. The F350 has HD SDI output built into the camera. Both cameras have Gen-lock input, HD/SD Analog Component Output, Front Stereo Microphone Input and XLR Audio Input (2ch), SD Analog Composite Output, and Timecode Input/Output. The third difference is the five-pin balanaced XLR connector which can be used with an adaptor cable to split into two separate standard XLR connectors.


SLOW SHUTTER

Both cameras offer a slow shutter mode which is reminiscent to me of the old VX-1000, but without losing any resolution. The accumulated shutter can be set from 1 to 64 frames. We actually shot in an almost pitch-black room at the maximum 64 frames. Only seeing movement every 64 frames is not something we would use on a regular basis, but we did get some very artsy results by doing some swish zooms and pans.

For practical purposes, an accumulated shutter of 16 frames is about the maximum you would want to use. Based on what you are shooting, it can make a huge difference in the clarity and perceived light levels of the subject matter. But if you are in a very low light level situation, you can increase this shutter slightly and get dramatic results without gain and without noise.

Combining this with the Slow and Quick Motion available on the F350 caused one of our producers to begin planning to use this effect in one of our upcoming videos.

Interval recording is another feature on both models. This is well implemented allowing you to record from 1 to 6 frames every second, or any interval up to every 24 hours with an optional pre-determined end time. For example, you could set the camera to record 1 frame every three hours for a week - provided of course, the camera had power for that time period. Interval recording is another area that passed our testing revealing no visible artifacting at the HQ setting.


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE F350

The camera is very small compared to the F900 and Varicam that we have been accustomed to. It is light weight, but well balanced over the shoulder with a battery pack on the back. The controls are easy to access and the flip out 16x9 3.5 inch LCD screen is a big improvement over the first generation XDCAM camcorders. I especially liked being able to flip the LCD upside down, then snap it back flush into the side of the camera when using the camera on a tripod.

I also liked the audio meters which are an overlay in the B&W viewfinder and on the LCD. There aren't any other audio meters on the camera.

The camera was very easy to use. There are some features that I don't think are necessary, such as auto-focus - provided you have a lens that supports it - and "EZ-Mode" which completely puts everything in automatic mode, as if the camera were a prosumer camcorder. It doesn't hurt anything, but I'd rather have the "EZ-Mode" button as another user-configurable button.

There is an optional lightweight power supply that mounts to the camera via a V-mount battery plate. This allows you to use the power supply and to connect a BP-L60 or BP-L90 battery and charge it to 85% capacity while using power from AC. Because of the extreme noise of the fans, this power supply is too loud for production use.

The most impressive thing to me about this camera outside its resolution, was the very low level of noise in the blacks. There was also a lot of detail in the blacks. Like other Sony cameras, you can totally customize the gain from –3 db all the way up to 42db and assign three settings to the gain switch: Low, Medium, and High. There are also user definable switches on the camera which almost anything can be assigned to via menus. During our testing, I assigned one button to put the camera into 42db gain mode and even then there was no visible artifacting or patterning at HQ.

Sony's new XDCAM family of products
Sony's new XDCAM family of products

We shot several things at 12db just to see how well the camera and MPEG compression would handle it. Once again, we were surprised and pleased with the results. The F350 at 12db of gain has less noise than the Varicam at 0db, and arguably even less noise than the Varicam at –3db. Because of the more noisy blacks, we would always try and light for –3db when using the Varicam. Color reproduction held up really well at 12db as well. There were several presets available in the color matrix, including Cinelook and HiSat. If you are familiar with the F900, then you'll be right at home with the menu settings in the F350 which also allows complete customization of your settings as well as storing and recalling those settings via a memory stick.


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE F70 RECORDER

This deck is small, yet efficient. It comes standard with HD SDI, realtime down-conversion to SD SDI, and 1394 with real-time down conversion to DV. The deck is menu driven with a 16x9 3.5 inch LCD screen. The deck can be used simply like any other Sony VTR, with RS-422 control, or it can be used as an external hard drive to your non-linear editing system. At first, I was a little confused as I searched to find the system mode settings in order to switch to 23.98P mode. If you've ever had to switch out an F500 HDCAM deck to 23.98P, you know how daunting it can be the first time. The F70 Recorder was much easier. Not only does the deck output in 23.98 mode, but it can convert the 23.98 to 59.94i (if needed).

I really like the way you can see the video clearly during shuttle instead of the digital look such as with HDV. Here's another example of Sony innovation: anytime you shuttle, the proxy file is used and then when you stop or park, it switches back to the full-resolution file.

At the time we tested this deck, the PDZ1 browsing software was not yet available for XDCAM HD so we did not test the proxy browsing features. Likewise, none of the NLE software we have in-house had anything ready for testing either, so we captured from HD SDI and RS- 422 control. We have a mixture of Mac and PC systems.


DOWNSIDE

Like Sony's HDCAM decks and cameras, you have to "reboot" in order to switch modes back and forth between 23.98 and 60i/30P. Once an XDCAM disc is formatted - either in the camera or deck - you can only record on it in that mode. For example, if you format in 23.98 mode, then you can only record on that disc in 23.98 mode. Playback in the deck or camera is the same. You must reboot in the mode that you need the playback. For example, if the deck is in 23.98 mode, you cannot playback a disc recorded in 59.94i without a menu change and power off/on. You can choose to output in 23.98 mode or to convert the 23.98 to 59.94i.

Another thing missing is a wide range of lenses because there aren't a lot of 1/2" lenses yet to choose from. Fujinon overnighted their new 1/2" HD 18x5.5 ENG lens to us for a look. Although we were happy with it, our preference is a Cinema style lens. If you're willing to add a 2/3" to 1/2" lens adaptor (approximately $700), then the choices are opened up as there are many lenses readily available today. You will have a longer focal length by a factor of 1.37 with the adaptor. If you can wait, there will be a new range of 1/2" lenses announced at NAB by both Fuji and Canon, including wide angle and 2x extenders.


PERSONAL COMMENTARY

I guess I just don't get the P2 thing. So you have to pay $1400 for about 8 gigs of storage, then you transfer the data to hard drive instead of digitizing. So far so good - except for the extra $1400 for solid state media. But now after your project is edited, what do you do for backup? You certainly wouldn't keep it on the P2 media, since it's main purpose is a temporary storage, so you have to buy hard drives and put them on a shelf somewhere indefinitely or output to some type of video tape.

Why would you want to have to carry a laptop and hard drives around with you in the field to keep transferring from P2 continuously? With XDCAM, a 23 Gig disc is comparable to the price of one DVCProHD 60 minute tape (under $30). So, you have a backup of your data on a very inexpensive disc. Need to re-edit that project in six months? No problem, because you have the original media in your library.

Just about everyone who edits currently, has a workflow in place for labeling and archiving video tapes for future retrieval. You simply use the same method for the XDCAM discs, except you can even control much easier the "selects" you wish to keep on disc. Plus print to tape is now obsolete because you merely print to a file and copy that file right onto an XDCAM disc giving you a completely tapeless workflow.

I think Sony has really done well with the design of this product. I have liked XDCAM since the first time I used it in May of 2004 while on an airplane at 30,000 feet. That's another article. The fact that you can use the media as if it were video tape, or mount it like a hard drive is just brilliant. If your NLE doesn't yet support MXF file transfers, then you can always capture it the old fashioned way with RS-422 control and HD SDI, optional component, or via 1394 down-converted to DV. Once Sony releases the optional PDBK-102 HDV MPEG card (slated for June at an MSRP of $2,000) then you can output anything from the deck as an HDV stream via 1394 and for the record deck, you can also capture as HDV. I'm especially interested in this option for client dubbing, as most everyone now has an HDV camcorder or deck. Plus, I can foresee a great service offering to ingest client's HDV tapes to XDCAM HD or maybe even to convert from P2.


CONCLUSION:

In our testing, the Sony camera exceeded our expectations and beat the Panasonic AJ-HDC27F Varicam in every possible way, including the price of the recording medium. We were so impressed that we have ordered the PDW-F350 camera and PDW-F70 recorder.

After working with this camera and carefully analyzing the recorded video from it, I think it's fair to say that with the proper glass in front of it, and with a professional lighting director, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and it's big brother the F900 - except that the newer camera has less noise. Matter of fact, I'm predicting the only way to tell the difference is to look at the cameras physically. Even though the F350 is considerably smaller, it packs a clean picture. The other way to tell is that the CineAlta logo for XDCAM is in silver lettering, while the F900 is in gold. I truly believe the days of paying $100K for an HD Camcorder are now over.


Timothy Duncan Timothy Duncan is one of the brightest minds in Creative Cow. His knowledge spans a wide range of tools and processes and we are proud to have him as a part of the Cow Team.



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