I’m a TV guy. I’ve been shooting and editing in broadcast television for over thirty years now, and along with you have seen astounding changes in image acquisition and editing. One thing that caught me way off guard, though, was the sudden ascendance of digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) as a preferred way to capture video. The DSLR’s combination of progressive scan and shallow depth of field, made possible by much larger sensors than found in traditional video cameras, really came out of nowhere to capture a large slice of certain types of production. One place you will rarely find a DSLR, though, is in the day-to-day work that television stations do. That’s not to say that us TV guys might not want large sensors and dramatic depth of field, but few of us would – or could – put up with the limitations inherent in DSLR operation, not the least of which is the dismal audio sections that most of the cameras have. Dual-system sound may be okay when shooting a scripted production, but in the world of run-n-gun, there are rarely any dedicated audio people anymore. So why can’t there be a large-sensor camera with a good built-in audio section?
Well, finally…there is. And surprise: it’s really affordable.
The Sony NEX-EA50H may not be the exact camera I’m looking for, but as the first in the field, it is an impressive package, featuring an Exmor APS-C sized CMOS sensor. (More on sensor size here.) Sony sent me an engineering sample of the NEX-EA50H to try out, but unfortunately , I didn’t get a sample of the lens that will ship with the camera. (That’s why I’m calling this a “semi-review.”) The stand-in lens, labeled the SEL18200, is a manual zoom lens with electronic iris control (no iris ring, but a wheel on the side of the camera body) and manual or auto-focus. (I assume that the shipping lens will also feature electronic iris as well.) It is also almost painfully slow, with a wide-open iris at f3.5. Shooting indoors basically required invoking gain, which the NEX-EA50H has in spades – up to 30dB, but with increasing noise levels. Still, up to +18dB is pretty usable, although it’s probably a better idea to add light at that point.
One last, and fairly unique, point on the lens/chip combo: Since the 16.1 megapixel APS-C sensor is much larger than the 1920×1080 frame of HDTV, the camera can do a 2x lossless digital zoom in addition to whatever zoom the lens contributes. This sounds unlikely, but it really seems to work, and with a servo-zoom lens the physical and virtual zooms work in concert, both controlled by the zoom rocker on the handgrip. The Sony E-mount allows lenses from several manufacturers to be mated to the NEX-EA50H to achieve different effects.
Speaking of the handgrip, this camera is ridiculously easy on your wrist – fully loaded and ready to work, it weighs less than four pounds. That includes the Sony NP-F770 battery, which even as the small battery in the family, ran the camera for over 150 minutes. The NEX-EA50H records to SDHC cards, Sony Memory Sticks or the (optional) HXR-FMU128 Flash Memory Unit in the NXCam AVCHD codec. In my testing, the files happily played as soon as I dropped them in my Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 timeline.
If you need another codec, the 8-bit HDMI output can feed a slew of recorders, like the Aja Ki Pro Mini or Sound Devices PIX 220. In a nice ergonomic touch, the NEX-EA50H has a slide-back shoulder pad which features two tapped 1/4″ – 20 holes, which would make mounting a cheeseplate, a recorder or wireless mic mount a piece of cake (and might toss a little counterweight back there.) And there are a full spread of analog component and composite outputs as well for your monitoring needs.
The left side of the NEX-EA50H has a striking resemblance to a really shrunken Betacam, in that all the operational controls you’ll need are right there, right where they have been for about 25 years. The audio section (YAAAAAAY!) allows line, mic or mic + phantom power on the external mic jacks or switches to the internal stereo mic. The single media slot may seem a little stingy, but on the other hand, a 32Gb SDHC Class 10 card (about $30) will record between 145 and 500+ minutes, depending on HD or SD and recording quality. The NXCam recording format offers many recording quality options, including 60i, 50i, 30p, 25p and 24p at bitrates from 5 to 28Mb/sec. It’s a bit of a surprise that the NEX-EA50H actually has a step-down mode to 4:3 standard-definition recording, but if you need it, it’s there. And if you are a member of the belt & suspenders double-recording brigade, the NEX-EA50H can record to card and the Flash Memory Unit simultaneously.
The right side of the camera, although far less cluttered, is all business, featuring two XLR audio inputs and the aforementioned -and full-sized! – HDMI output. The handgrip sports the zoom rocker, a photo shutter button, a momentary iris button, and an expanded focus button that zooms into the shot at two levels so you can be extra sure your shots are in focus. If you have the HXR-FMU128 Flash Memory Unit, it attaches to the rear of the camera on this side.
I gave the NEX-EA50H to several of my shooter buddies to test out, and my long-time pal Mike Eicher made one of the best comments: “This viewfinder is a pleasure to look through.” I have to agree. Bright, colorful, with tons of information or none at all, variable peaking and zebra settings, this viewfinder is a winner. And in playback mode, paging through the various “data code” selections yields an interesting surprise: GPS readouts of the latitude and longitude of where the shot was taken. I know this isn’t unique to this camera, but rarely have I seen this feature so nicely invoked. It is unfortunate, though, that this fabulous monitor has what I can only consider an extraordinarily fragile viewing tube snapped onto it, an invitation to breakage if ever I saw one. Treat this camera carefully! (You can remove the viewing tube if you don’t need it.)
And there is one other really glaring operational problem with the camera that I’m not sure how to fix: The power switch surrounds the “roll” button on the handgrip. To prevent unintended power-ons, the switch has a green button you must depress to turn the camera on. Unfortunately, the same is not true of turning the camera off, and the power switch is far too easy to nudge “off” inadvertently. Careful, folks! Sony, there has to be a better way to do this!
I have seen the NEX-EA50H referred to as a dream camera for wedding and event photographers, and I find that assessment hard to argue with. With a minuscule pre-order price of $3600 (shipping in December,) I can see the WEVA set snapping these up in droves. However, there are several omissions that will slow adoption by broadcasters. The major one is a lack of an HD-SDI output, and while you can buy compact boxes that offer HDMI-to-HD-SDI conversion, that just adds complication to what should be a standard feature. The other glaring omission is time code in/out support, a must for multi-camera shooting. At this price, it’s a no-brainer that the NEX-EA50H will be a favorite on multi-cam shoots, and being able to sync them up via SMPTE time code seems like a requirement.
But these are manageable quibbles. To see the NEX-EA50H being offered at a street price that is essentially half of what the Canon XL1 was back in 1998 is just breathtaking, as are the images it can produce. I predict Sony will have a hard time making enough of these to keep up with the demand from shooters of all sorts that finally have their large sensor and onboard sound. And it’s about damn time! Hey Canon! Hey Panasonic! Jump in the pool, the water’s fine.
Disclaimer: Sony sent me an engineering sample of the NEX-EA50H, which is soon going home. Nothing of value has changed hands in the course of writing this review.