I decided to review both of these cameras together. Why? Well because many of the people I have met recently have been looking at both of these cameras as possible options. The price of both of these cameras is very similar, yet both cameras are actually quite different. On the one hand the Z100 offers 4K and a 20x zoom lens while the PMW-300 offers broadcast quality HD in a sort of shoulder mount design. Which to choose?
To start with both cameras are well built. They both feel very solid and well put together. I didn’t notice any creaks or flexing of either camera body. They both feel like professional pieces of kit that will withstand the bumps and knocks that they will almost certainly get. They are finished with a nice matt black finish. The Z100 appears to have a primarily plastic shell while the PMW-300 has a magnesium alloy shell. One small criticism here is that this has a slightly rough finish and is prone to marking from finger nails etc. But the marks can simply be wiped off. Of the two the PMW-300 feels just a little more substantial. Compared to the Sony PMW-200 I feel that both of these cameras feel more substantial and better built.
The PXW-Z100 design is very conventional. A handheld camera with a flip out LCD on the top of the handle and a second small drumstick style view finder on the rear of the handle.
The PMW-300 is rather different. It’s a little larger than most handycam’s, a little heavier too at almost 4kg (9lbs) and instead of a flip out LCD display features a large colour monocular viewfinder. The viewfinder is on an articulated arm that slides fore and aft on a sliding rail. The rail can be adjusted left right by about 30mm to give a small degree of left/right adjustment.
However I found it really fiddly and tricky to get at the release leaver for the left right adjustment. The viewfinder can easily be detached for travel or storage. The plug for the viewfinder goes into a recess in the cameras body and is then covered by a plastic plate that stops it pulling out.
I used the camera for a dealer event. By the end of the day at the dealer event the little plastic cover had been broken off. It’s attached to the camera via a thumb screw and a very thin piece of plastic. I suspect a lot of these will get broken. It doesn’t really affect the operation of the camera, but without the cover there is nothing to prevent the viewfinder plug from being pulled out.
The other major design feature of the PMW-300 is that the lens in interchangeable. There are two kit lenses to choose from plus adapters that will allow the use of conventional 1/2″ and 2/3″ ENG style zoom lenses. More on the lenses in a bit.
The flip out viewfinder on the PXW-Z100 is sharp and clear. It’s a 3.5″ 852 x 480 pixel screen and the colour and contrast appears pretty accurate. In common with most cameras like this however it struggles in bright sunlight. On the back of the camera there is a small 0.45″ 852 x 480 pixel EVF. Now although both of the screens are supposed to be the same resolution, I felt that I could see more detail on the bigger flip out LCD. In addition if I blinked my eyes when looking at the EVF, I would see a rainbow colour effect. This is because the EVF display is shown one colour after the other, rather than all three RGB colours together. I also found that when I got the center of the EVF in focus using the diopter adjustment, the left side of the screen was out of focus. I don’t know whether this is a fault on the demo sample I had or whether they are all like this. To assist with focusing the camera has a coloured peaking system and via a button on the hand grip (Focus Mag) the ability to zoom into the image to check focus without effecting the recordings. The peaking also works in the Focus Mag mode, so you can both zoom in and have peaking at the same time. This is just as well as when shooting in 4K, focus is super critical.
The viewfinder on the PMW-300 is a delight! It is a little bulky and this does tend to make the camera slightly lop-sided from a weight and balance point of view, but with it’s large 3.5″ high resolution 960 x 540 screen behind a monocular eyepiece it is sharp, accurate and very nice to use. It’s very similar to the viewfinder available for the F5 and F55 cameras. The monocular itself flips up to allow the LCD to be viewed easily from behind or above the camera and mirror assembly flip up so that you can view the LCD from the side. In addition you can remove the lens and mirror assemblies if you choose. There is a mirror switch on the finder so you can reverse the LCD image when using the mirror or have a normal image without the mirror. As well as the mirror switch there are controls for the brightness contrast and peaking as well as switches to turn the zebra and display overlays on and off. Like the Z100 there is a Focus Mag button on the hand grip that enlarges the viewfinder image to help with focus, but on the PMW-300 the peaking is disabled when Focus Mag is engaged which is a shame.
The Z100 has a 20x zoom lens and the PMW-300 is available with a choice of two lenses, a 14x and a 16x. Both lenses being very similar, the 16x having a little more telephoto reach (available early 2014).
On the Z100 lens there are three rings, one each for focus, zoom and iris. All of these are of the electronic round and round, uncalibrated servo variety. I’m not a fan of these and this camera reminded me of why. The focus and iris control is a little sluggish so snap focus changes are almost impossible. When using the ring to change the aperture you have to go slowly to make sure you don’t overshoot. The zoom ring seemed pretty responsive and I found I could use the zoom ring to re-frame shots more accurately than the zoom rocker. The zoom rocker has quite a large dead band area where you push the rocker and nothing happens. Then you suddenly find the point when the zoom starts to move and if you’re not careful the zoom will start quite suddenly. It is possible to do slow creeping zooms, but finding the “bite” point where the zoom starts to move is tricky. Press the rocker further and you can have quite a quick zoom.
The big plus point of the lens though is the zoom range. Having been shooting with large sensor cameras and restricted zoom ranges for a few months it really was quite a revelation to get back to a camera with a big zoom range. I think I had forgotten how nice it is to be able to get a wide shot and a very long shot without changing lenses. In addition the lens is optically stabilised and this really helps with long shots on wobbly tripods or when using the camera hand held.
One thing I did note that was a little disappointing is that the aperture ramps as you zoom. If you start wide open at f1.6 as you zoom in the aperture slowly decreases to f3.2 when fully zoomed in. You can see this one stop exposure change in your shots. If you start at f3.2 or smaller then this does not happen, it only if you have the lens wide open.
The PMW-300′s lens is just like the lens on the PMW-200 and the EX1R before that. Except on the 300 the lens in removable, just like the EX3. There are two different lenses available. The one I tested was a 14x zoom and the other coming in early 2014 is a very similar 16x zoom with a slightly longer telephoto end. Again we have three rings, one for focus zoom and iris. Unlike the Z100 though these are all calibrated and have end stops. The focus ring has two distinct modes. Slide it forward and it’s a round and round servo controlled focus system. But in the forward mode the lens can be set to either manual or auto focus. Slide the ring back and it locks in to the calibrated focus scale and it is a responsive, accurate and snappy focus ring, just like a much more expensive broadcast lens. The zoom ring appears to act directly on the mechanics of the zoom lens and as a result in manual mode is beautifully fast making crash zooms really easy. In servo mode the zoom rocker has only the smallest of dead areas so finding the bite point and starting a slow zoom is easy. You can do a slow creeping zoom or a fast zoom and the control is easy. The iris ring is also fast, accurate and repeatable. For the money these are great lenses.
The lenses on both cameras exhibited similar amounts of chromatic aberration. This isn’t particularly bad, but it is there none the less. One issue when trying to make a lens sharper or higher resolution, then CA becomes harder to control. The Z100 lens is a good example of this. Remarkably sharp, but with some CA, especially out at the edges of the frame.
Lets start by saying that the laws of physics and optics will almost always mean that a small sensor with small pixels will be less sensitive than a larger sensor with larger pixels. The PXW-Z100 is at quite a disadvantage here. For a start it has a single fairly small 1/2.3″ sensor (that’s smaller than 1/2″ but a little bigger than 1/3″). Packed in to this area are 8 million active pixels. That’s a lot of pixels in a small space, so they are very small. To help make up for the small pixel size Sony have used a back illuminated sensor. Back illuminated sensors have fewer obstructions in front of the pixels so are more efficient than conventional sensors, but this advantage only goes a small way towards making up for the very small pixel size.
On the other hand the PMW-300 has three 1/2″ sensors. Sony’s EX and now PMW range of half inch cameras have always performed well in low light thanks to the larger than average sensors used, most handycams use 1/3″ sensors. The PMW-300 is no exception, not only does it have the same 1/2″ sensors as the PMW-200, EX1 and EX3, but it also has a new and improved noise reduction system. As a result the PMW-300 tends to show a little less noise than it’s predecessors. Even with +9db of gain added the pictures are still pretty good.
So just what is the PXW-Z100 like in low light? First of all let’s look at what it’s like in good light. Below I’ve included two frame grabs. One from the PXW-Z100 and one from the PMW-300. The shots were done within a few minutes of each other in good daylight. The Z100 was set to HD. Both cameras were at 0db gain. Click on the images to see them larger or at the original resolution.
So what do I see in these images? Well first of all there is a saturation difference between the two camera. The PMW-300 looks richer because it has more colour saturation. This is easy to adjust with either camera via the paint or picture profile adjustments. The next is the difference in dynamic range. The PMW-300 has better dynamic range than the Z100. Look at the highlight on the back of the blue car, the top of the street lamp on the left and the widows of the distant houses. The PMW-300 is holding these highlights much better than the Z100. Also look at the deep shadow across the grass, both cameras are handling this similarly, so the PMW-300 has better dynamic range. This isn’t really a big surprise as the bigger the pixels the better the dynamic range and the 300 has significantly bigger pixels.
Colours: The Z100 produces some very pleasing and natural looking colours straight out of the box. The PMW-300 has that slight yellow/green look that most Sony cameras have. This can be corrected or altered with a few matrix tweaks in a picture profile if you don’t like it, but as it has this typical Sony look it will match quite closely with most other Sony broadcast cameras.
Both cameras show low noise levels at 0db. The z100 is marginally noisier than the PMW-300, you can see a little more noise in the sky in the Z100 shot but it’s not in my opinion a significant difference. Sony claim 60db for the PMW-300 but don’t give a noise figure for the Z100. The Z100′s noise is a little blotch when the camera is set to HD, I suspect the blotchy nature is a side effect of the cameras built in noise reduction. But, again, I don’t have an issue with the noise levels of either camera at 0db. The Z100 is using quite a bit of noise reduction at all gain levels. As a result there can be a little bit of a difference in noise levels from shot to shot.
So while the noise is not bad, just refer back to the settings noted in the full size frame grabs. The PMW-300 is at f8 with 1/16th(4 stops) of ND and the Z100 is f6.8 with 1/4 (2 stops) of ND. Even allowing for the Z100 possibly being fractionally over exposed compared to the PMW-300, that’s a not insignificant 2 stop sensitivity difference between the cameras. This difference becomes even more apparent when the light starts to fall off. I rate the PMW-300 at approx 340 ISO and the PXW-Z100 at about 75 ISO.
So I did some further tests to evaluate the low light performance of both cameras. The first test you can see below. This was shot in my living room using a ceiling light fixture with 3 x 40w household light bulbs. I would suggest this is a fairly typical light level for a lot of living rooms at night and the type of situation that might be encountered when shooting an observational or fly on the wall type documentary.
As you can see the difference is quite striking. Just to be sure of my results I repeated the test using a chart as you can see below, both cameras at 0db and wide open.
So the Z100 is obviously around 2 stops less sensitive than the PMW-300. Can we make up for this lack of sensitivity by adding some gain? Take a look at the results below, the Z100 with +9db and +18db of gain:
This test confirms the slightly over two stop sensitivity difference between the PMW-300 and PXW-Z100. You can see that at +18db the Z100 is marginally more sensitive than the PMW-300 at 0db. 18db is the equivalent to 3 stops. AT +12db the Z100 is less sensitive than the PMW-300 and 12db is two stops.
The key thing here is to note that in a low light situation where the PMW-300 is just about producing an acceptable image at 0db, your going to need 12 to 18db of gain to get the same brightness image out of the Z100. Looking closely at the noise levels from the Z100, I would be reasonably comfortable using +9db gain if I had to, but +12db from the Z100 is too noisy for me and 18db is getting pretty grim. In addition there is some loss of contrast at the higher gain settings.
Low light is where the PMW-200 and EX1 etc have always been good performers and the PMW-300 continues this. I also decided to take a look at how well the 300′s new noise reduction circuits work, so here are frame grabs from the PMW-300 at +9db and +18db.
The noise reduction on the 300 is quite effective at +9db and if I had to, I wouldn’t be too uncomfortable using +9db of gain (I never want to use gain, but sometimes you just have to). Above about 12db however the noise reduction is less effective and also starts to reduce the contrast in the image quite noticeably.
So, the PXW-Z100 struggles a bit in low light compared to a camera with a larger sensor and fewer pixels. But then the Z100 is a 4K camera and can produce a much higher resolution image. Just how good is this 4K image as in many cases the Z100 will be used alongside cameras like the PMW-F5 or F55, both of which are capable of stunning 4K.
Well I think it does very well considering the small size sensor. The 4K images have nice contrast and plenty of detail. The deep depth of field that the small sensor provides really helps when you have street scenes like the ones below which were shot in Austin, Texas. Sometime’s you don’t want a shallow depth of field and for the kinds of applications I can see this camera being used for, I think a deeper DoF will be good.
6th Street, Austin Texas. HXR-Z100 frame grab.
Shop signs, 6th Street, Austin. HXR-Z100 frame grab.