The Sony FDR-AX1 & Your 4K Future
COW Library : Sony Cameras : Douglas Spotted Eagle : The Sony FDR-AX1 & Your 4K Future
The next revolution in video production is coming, but in truth, it's already here. It's merely reaching a point of critical mass (at the production side). 4K has been around for years, first introduced around 1987, and notably used on feature films as early as Peter Jackon's "King Kong" (shot, edited, archived in 4K) in 2004.
One might expect all those pixels in one place would make a mess, and even if you already believe that 4K is going to be big, you might wonder what to do with 4K footage right now. Let's first take a look at the camera in action for some answers.
Sony have just released the FDR-AX1 camcorder, and in this review, we'll take a first look at the camera. First off, the camcorder offers multiple framerates at multiple bitrates. 24p, 25p, 30p, 50p, 60p are all available as framerates. Acquisition resolution is 3840x2160, at bitrates of up to 150Mbps. The camera also acquires HD; we'll keep the focus in this review on 4K.
The camera is quite similar to the NX5 and other cameras in its class, in terms of button layout, etc. Thankfully, Sony did not generate a new battery design for this pro-sumer camcorder; those upgrading from earlier DV and HDV camcorders will be pleased that their F series batteries will still be useful. The camera comes with an NP F970 battery in the box. The camera isn't a battery hog, yet a charged spare is something you'll absolutely want to keep in the bag. Battery life may be spared by using the EVF as opposed to the display.
Memory however, is different. SD cards cannot manage the data rate required for 4K streams, so Sony has opted for the standard XQD card format (used by other manufacturers for media acquisition, these cards may be found at most electronic stores) for storage. The cards cost around $200.00 for 32GB of storage; plan on around $60.00 for 16GB. You might also expect a bit over an hour of record time when recording at 60p, 50Mbps, and roughly 30 minutes of record time on a 32GB card. I'd recommend springing for one 64GB card as an accessory at the time of purchase.
Two XQD slots are available, SD slot can be used for HD video.
The camera records in XAVC-S format. This is a highly compressed format, suitable for news, live production, and high-end hobbyist use. It can easily interface as a B-roll camera alongside its professional big brother, the Sony PXW-Z100 ($6500.00 retail). The codec, coupled with the 1/2.3/8Mp imager, makes for a very fine picture whether acquired in 4K or HD. The smaller imager will not make for a super shallow depth of field in 4K mode, so if super-shallow is part of your shooting style, don't toss that HDSLR just yet.
However, while some poo-poo the idea of a relatively small sensor on a 4K camcorder, the image remains quite sharp through its range – particularly given the price point. The image certainly softens past f5, yet is impressively managed at small apertures.
On the subject of imagers; how does it perform in low/no light? The answer is "Better than I expected." In the early days of HD, we frequently discussed how cramming a lot of pixels close together on a small imager made for poor light sensitivity. Now, we're cramming more pixels onto a relatively small imager, and doing so will always create limitations. So I've pushed the camera as hard as I could, mostly to see what kind of noise the imager would introduce. In this video, you can see as much as 18dB of gain inserted, and the blacks remain fairly clean, colors still have a little pop, while all the way down to 0dB, the image isn't useful at all, yet it is clean and does allow for some push in post.
The DSP in the camera is impressive, with a powerful DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) algorithm. The camera will provide a usable image in all but the most dark scenes. Very dark areas with no access to additional light may prove challenging, yet the camera does perform much better than one might expect. I was pleasantly surprised at what the camera offers. The camera was kept hand-held, as I wanted to see how the XAVC-S codec would hold up in low light with jittered movement.
The camera induces some noise; not nearly as noisy as expected for a small imager in a no/low light scene.
The camera also offers in-camera cine-modes. I'm not a fan. However, for the high-end hobbyist who wants a consistent image from the camera vs. providing post-processing for the "film look," this can be a useful feature. The camera can be tweaked, however, to provide better imagery in low light, bright light, and indoor/outdoor scenes.
This is a more realistic test of the camera, shot at midnight with only small LED lighting on the edges of the buildings.
The peaking feature on this camera, coupled with the focusing system is the best I've seen in this class of camera. While the autofocus is fast and quite stable, my preference is manual focus with peaking to indicate the point of focus. I love that feature with this camera, as out of focus shots show up very quickly in high resolution.
The lens offers focus, manual zoom, and aperture/iris control on the barrel.
Schools and newcomers to 4K (or HD) will appreciate the full-auto mode on this camera. While not a feature the average pro will use, the fully automatic mode provides an impressive image straight out of the box.
In the below image, I let the camera do its thing set in fully automatic mode. The resulting non-processed image is very good. The camera is zoomed approximately halfway in, for an aperture of f5.6.
ARE YOU READY FOR 4K?
Like anything else new, it will have its detractors, yet taking the stance that 4K isn't a standard, or won't be a standard is simple ignorance. 4K is here to stay as the next standard, and while 4K delivery isn't ready for prime-time broadcasting, that doesn't mean it should be ignored. 4K production has occurred every day for the past several years, and delivered as HD. This will continue for some time to come.
4K offers some tremendous opportunities even for HD delivery, as it allows for re-composing frames in post. 4K downscales to HD very nicely, not unlike 35mm delivered in HD.
Original squirrel shot. This guy wouldn't hold still, so I shot it more wide than I preferred.
The recomposed shot is more attractive.
It's not just about recomposing shots. It's about having more information with which to create better work.
For example, the squirrel seen above was shot very quickly, white balance was set to indoor, and the image needed to be pushed quite a bit. Highly compressed HD (AVC) would not have allowed for so much 'push' before falling apart. The additional resolution allows for greater flexibility, as does the greater gamma of 4K.
4K also allows for the future-proofing of projects. While it is certainly true that most projects cannot be/will not be delivered as 4K masters, if there are project files, source files that may be used for stock, or future editorial, these files will be available in the future.
Is your edit suite ready for 4K? It may not be, but it is likely the software is ready to handle the huge file throughput. Chances are that either storage or CPU horsepower is the biggest block for most users.
Whether 150Mbps, 600Mbps, RAW files, or whatever the source may be, 4K is a lot of data to push through drives and CPUs. Some producers/editors feel a need to continue creating DI's for 4K, while others have the will to push through the storage and CPU limitations that their system may present.
Various editing software packages will manage 4K very differently. As seen in the two screenshots below, Adobe Premiere CS6(316) and Sony Vegas 12 provide very different results with the application of the same filters to the same footage.
Having plenty of storage and having a fast throughput system are important, particularly when working with lower compression formats, such as XAVC or RAW files. XAVC-S (The AVCHD of 4K) decodes quite well on a reasonably fast machine. 10 or 12 bit 4K will be a struggle for an off-the-shelf editing machine, yet 10bit 4K from the Z100 plays back at full frame rate on my dual quadcore E3 machine, with one color correction filter applied.
With a single color correction filter and Curve filter applied, Sony Vegas Pro 12 provides frame-accurate playback (source is 150Mbps XAVC-S from the Sony AX1 camcorder).
Premiere Pro CS struggled with playback (no GPU acceleration) as indicated in the red segment above. The clip has a color correction filter and a curve filter applied.
If native resolution display is desired, obviously a 4K projector or display monitor is needed. The playback device may be as simple as the camera itself (some applications can print back to the camera) or devices such as the RedRay, PS3/4, or playback from a computer system over HDMI 1.4 or 2.0 (note that HDSDI does not support 4K over the SDI pipe).
Android devices already support 4K playback, but it's important to note that none of the supporting devices have 4K displays available.
The FDR AX1 is a powerful step forward in the 4K evolution, given that pro-sumers have access to a moderately priced camera that delivers professional bang for the buck. While it's not the perfect go-to in all situations, it is a very affordable camcorder that will act nicely as a secondary cam for HD shoots, a toe in the water for 4K production and the associated learning curve, and a means of getting into the game early without having to lose a right arm (or any fingers). Kudos to Sony for pushing the envelope ahead of their competitors. For what it's worth, after having spent a few days with this camcorder, I've ordered one for myself, to be used in a wide variety of settings (including aerial photography).