The HXR-MC1 is a “camera on a rope”.
Sony’s HXR-MC1 ($2800, street price) is a “POV” camcorder, an HD single-chip CMOS camera head with 10x zoom, separated from the “main body” with controls, LCD screen, and recording media, by a nine-foot umbilical cable. You can put the camera head in unusual or awkward places—on a helmet, strapped to the underside of a bike, on the deck of a skateboard, on the hood of a car—while being able to control it and view its images on its main body in a more convenient location. You can also mount the head on a boom pole (handy for reaching over the heads of crowds), a jib arm, or on a tripod in a sensitive location, while you monitor and operate it from a safe remove.
HXR-MC1 camera head and main body attached to separate tripods.
POV cameras (or “lipstick” cameras) have been around for years, but self-contained, HD-capable POV camcorders, complete with remote recording, monitoring and control capabilities, are a bit thin on the ground. V.I.O. has a well-regarded SD POV 1.5 system ($650), and Panasonic has a two-piece AVCCAM POV camera/recorder combo ($4750 estimated list price) due out later this year, but there isn’t much available that offers direct competition to the HXR-MC1.
The HXR-MC1 is an interesting transmogrification of a consumer camcorder (most of the specs are similar to those of the HDR-TG1). It shoots 1080/60i (in the US model; 50i in Europe) and interlaced SD, but lacks any progressive-scan options. It lets you set and lock focus and exposure, but it doesn’t offer individual control over shutter speed, iris, or gain. It has a 10x zoom, but no optical image stabilization. There are no ND filters. You can’t tweak colorimetry, knee, saturation, or sharpness; you can only choose from “scene selections” such as Sunrise & Sunset, Twilight, Portrait, Spotlight, and the like. There’s no external microphone jack, nor any manual audio control. It records AVCHD at up to 16 Mbits/sec, roughly HDV quality, to Sony’s Memory Stick PRO Duo media.
According to the Sony folks I spoke with at NAB, the MC1 is a repackaging exercise, not an engineering exercise: instead of designing a new remote communications bus to connect camera head to main body, the quarter-inch multicore cable contains all the individual analog signal, data, and control lines normally conveyed between the imaging block and the rest of the camcorder in any all-in-one design. That decision allowed Sony to get this first model out quickly at a reasonable cost, but dictated a permanently-attached umbilical between head and body, and limited the length of that umbilical to nine feet: much longer than that, and the camcorder’s internal signals would need additional amplification, equalization, and retiming to span the distance.
While you might think that $2800 is a lot to pay for a repackaged consumer camcorder, the civilian version of which costs about $550, consider that consumer cams sell in the hundreds of thousands, whereas POV cams sell in the hundreds or thousands—if they’re lucky. The non-recurring engineering costs for a POV camera have to be be borne by a much lower sales volume, so per-unit prices are perforce much higher. By leveraging an existing platform, Sony can test the waters with minimal R&D efforts on their part, and thus a correspondingly lower wallet-suck on the buyer’s part. If the HXR-MC1 takes off, Sony says it’ll only be the first of the line; follow-ons may have higher resolutions, fancier controls, interchangeable umbilicals—and, in all likelihood, higher prices to pay for their development.
Interestingly enough, many of the limitations that the HXR-MC1 inherits from its consumercam progenitor turn out to have little impact on the camcorder’s suitability for its intended tasks. Action shoots where the MC1 is likely to be used aren’t typically situations that allow for detailed fiddling with camera setups; when you’re skydiving, biking, skateboarding, flying aerobatics, or doing any of the other things the MC1 is ideal for capturing, you’re not likely to be worrying about the exact shutter speed being used or trying for the smoothest, most carefully-feathered zoom. When you’re plummeting through the sky at 120 knots, or bouncing between full sunlight and deep shadow as your mountain bike careens down a forest trail at suicidal speeds, you’ll be thankful for the MC1’s 2.7″ LCD and handy controls on the main body, but you’ll probably be just as thankful that the MC1’s autofocus and autoexposure are at work to grab usable images. Its AVCHD recording may lack the relative transparency of XDCAM EX or AVC-Intra, but unless you’re pulling stills and super-slo-mo from the MC1’s clips you won’t notice those artifacts that do occur. The lack of optical stabilization may affect the camera’s suitability for camera-on-a-pole applications, but in action sports it’s less of an issue; the MC1 is designed for hard-mounting on a vehicle or helmet, not wobbly handholding.
But enough philosophy; at this point you’re either saying, “so what? I don’t need one”, or you’re eager for details, because, dude, the MC1 like totally rawks.
Camera Configuration & Controls
The HXR-MC1 is divided into two parts, the camera head and the main body, connected by a permanently-affixed nine-foot cable. The whole package weighs about 1 lb 1 oz dry, or 1 lb 4 oz with the stock NP-FH60 battery and Memory Stick PRO Duo loaded.
The camera head is a rounded rectangular black box, about 3.3 x 1.4 x 1.7 inches (87 x 36 x 42mm). The sides are featureless aside from the Sony logo. The front sports a flat circular port protecting the 10x zoom, surrounded by a 30mm threaded accessory ring. The top has a flush-mounted grille covering the microphone. The base has a “foot” that fits a standard accessory shoe, and the foot is also tapped for a 1/4″x20 tripod screw. The rear panel, affixed with four recessed screws, holds the connecting cable in place.
Side view of the HXR-MC1 camera head.
Top view of the HXR-MC1 camera head, showing the microphone grille.
The HXR-MC1 camera head’s underside, with shoe mount / tripod socket.
Front and back ends of the HXR-MC1 camera head.
I found the squared-off shape to be quite useful when mounting the head in weird locations; I could tell by feel when it was upright or when it was canted at an angle. Some POV cam heads have more rounded, cylindrical bodies, and they’re a lot harder to get straight and level because they don’t afford any clues to their orientation by touch alone.
The head is said to be “splashproof”, though I didn’t perform any tests to see how successful the splashproofing is.
There are smaller POV camera heads, but I’m not sure how many of those smaller heads include a built-in 10x zoom lens. The 3.2-32mm Zeiss zoom is roughly equivalent to a 35mm still camera lens of 43mm at the wide end in 16×9 mode, or 38mm in 4×3 mode. The maximum f-stop ranges from 1.8 to 2.3 throughout the zoom range.
The zoom lens sits in front of a 1/5″ type (3.6mm) CMOS sensor. It’s a ClearVid sensor using a diagonal photosite array. Sony claims an effective resolution of 2304 x 1728 with this sensor, with different subsets used for stills and for video on both 4×3 and 16×9 formats. For 16×9 video clips, it’s said there are 1.43 million effective recording pixels; this would roughly correspond to an effective array of 1594 x 897 photosites if this were a normal, horizontal-and-vertical sensor—which it isn’t, so there’s little point in pursuing this too much further: as I found testing the HVR-V1, HVR-Z7 and S270, and HVR-Z5 camcorders, ClearVid sensors punch above their weight class in terms of resolution performance, though they do have a few quirks, notably a bit more aliasing on diagonals.
Camera head and main body are permanently connected with a nine foot (2.8 meter) rubberized cable, a quarter inch (7mm) in diameter. The cable has a strain relief at either end, and comes with a velcro tie to bundle the whole thing up when it’s not all stretched out.
The cable contains a multitude of individual signal lines, and the manual warns that you shouldn’t carry the HXR-MC1 by the camera head or the cable alone. Putting too much stress on the cable (or bending it in a tight radius) is not a good thing to do.
The main body, which serves as the CCU, power source, monitor, and video recorder, is a contoured boxy thing about 3.2 x 4.2 x 1.6 inches (80 x 106 x 40mm), excluding the protruding battery and cable strain relief on the top of the body. It’s sized to fit comfortably in an average hand.
HXR-MC1 main body controls and LCD.
The front holds a small speaker, the 2.7″ (66mm) daylight-readable touchscreen LCD, a start/stop trigger and status lamp, pushbuttons for photo-snapping and display info toggling, a small zoom rocker, and pair of controls for manual operation. The MANUAL button, pressed quickly, toggles the MC1 between manual and automatic control of the currently-selected parameter, while holding it down brings up a Dial Setting menu letting you choose to control focus, exposure, autoexposure shift, or white-balance shift; you can also reset all the controls to automatic. The CAM CTRL thumbwheel next to the MANUAL button gives you control over the currently-selected manual control. There’s also a button to toggle the primary function of the camera between shooting stills and shooting video.
The touchscreen uses a plastic overlay, like a Palm or a Newton, so it can be activated by any source of pressure like a bare finger, a gloved finger, or the tap of a stylus. It doesn’t depend on skin capacitance and isn’t affected by dampness; on the other hand, it can be damaged by sharp objects like pen tips (the hard glass touchscreen on an iPhone or iPod Touch, by contrast, is nearly impervious to surface damage, but it can only be activated by a bare, dry fingertip).
HXR-MC1’s battery and main body I/O ports.
The left side has a battery release slider and a flip-down cover concealing four I/O ports: a DC IN jack for remote power and battery charging; a mini-USB 2.0 port for file transfer, the rounded-D-shell A/V connector that Sony increasingly uses in place of the bulkier standard RCA and BNC jacks, and a full-size (!) HDMI connector.
The right side has a flip-down cover for the Memory Stick PRO Duo slot, and a small card-access LED visible even when the cover is closed.
HXR-MC1 main body, with MS PRO Duo media.
The base of the unit has a HOLD switch to disable the front panel controls (so you don’t accidentally shut the recording off just as you’re about to pull off the most amazing stunt of your life), a charging indicator, and a sliding power switch with a locking center button, which reduces the changes of an inadvertent shutoff: you can’t slide the switch unless you’re holding the button down. Nice. There’s also a recessed Reset button, just in case the internal computer gets very confused.
The back of the body has a foot for accessory-shoe mounting, and a 1/4″x20 tapped tripod socket in the center of the foot.
What’s In the Box
- The HXR-MC1 itself.
- A small, universal-voltage AC adaptor.
- A power cord for the adaptor with a two-prong plug (in the US package).
- A USB connection cable.
- A composite video + L&R audio breakout cable.
- A component video + L&R audio breakout cable.
- An NP-FH60 battery.
- A snap-on “controller hook” that clips to the back of the main body, so you can clip it to your belt.
- A “cable clamper”, a belt hook with a loop for holding the coiled camera cable. The controller hook and cable clamper let you wear the main body and bundle the cable out of the way when using the camera head on a boom pole.
- A CD-ROM with the “PMB” (Picture Motion Browser) software for Windows PCs.
- A CD-ROM with the operating manual, and the paper manual itself.
What’s not in the box? There’s no Y/C cable, nor an HDMI cable. Those folks preferring the superior Y/C (S-Video) connection over fuzzy, dot-crawly composite will have to buy an additional Sony cable to get the Y/C connector; Sony does their customers a disservice by not providing that cable in the box to begin with.
Sony tells me that in the USA, the MC1 is sold only as part of the HXR-MC1/ACC bundle, which also includes:
- An NP-FH70 Rechargeable Battery Pack.
- An AC-VQH10 AC Adapter/ two-position fast charger.
- A VCL-HG0730A 0.7x wide-angle adapter.
- A RM-AV2 wired remote control (Zoom, REC start/stop, Photo).
- A soft carrying case.
Fortunately, the HDMI port is full size, so any HDMI cable will work.
More seriously, there’s no MS PRO Duo card included. If you want to record anything, you’ll need to buy a memory card separately. One part of a good OOBE (out-of-box experience) is being able to plug a camera in and start shooting with it immediately, but the MC1 doesn’t offer this—and Memory Stick PRO Duo cards aren’t as widely available as SD or CF cards. Most DV and HDV cameras include a tape. Would it kill Sony to bundle a $12 2 GB card with the MC1?
Next: Operation and Handling.
Operation and Handling
There’s not a lot to be said about operating the camera head: you stick it on a tripod, slide it into a shoe mount, or gaffer-tape it to some unlikely location, and then leave it alone. As it is unprovided with a handle, grip, viewfinder, controls, or any other concession to handheld operation, trying to use it like a normal handheld camera is downright silly, and somewhat frustrating. I did have some fun handholding it out of a car’s sunroof and window, but really, if you want a handycam, get a handycam! Stick the head where it belongs, which is somewhere too high, too low, too cramped, or too hazardous to be suitable for attended operation, and hie thee to the main body, where the fun begins.
On the way to the main body, there’s a great big nine foot cable to deal with. I mention this because it’s permanently attached; you can’t unplug it from the lump on either end so as to be able to thread it through tight spaces. If you want to pass the cable through a hole, the hole has to be big enough to fit the camera through. Furthermore, if you start at the camera end, rigging it in place with clamps, gaffer tape, bungees, and spit, you won’t be able to pass the cable through any hole too small to pass the main body through. It’s not really a problem, it’s just something to keep in mind when you’re planning a setup. I affixed the camera to the chainstay of my Moulton New Series bicycle with the intent of threading the cable through the spaceframe up to the handlebar, but the main body didn’t fit through the gaps—so I wound up tie-wrapping it along the outer tubes instead.
HXR-MC1 main body mounted on mini-tripod head attached to handlebars.
HXR-MC1 camera head gaffer-taped to the chainstay.
What the camera sees from that vantage point.
The main body is where all the action is controlled, monitored, and recorded. Its 2.7″ LCD shows about 92% of the image, roughly the safe-action area, and has a resolution of 960×220 pixels, which sounds a lot worse than it is: in practical use, it’s usually sharp enough for on-the-go focusing, at about 300-350 TVl/ph. While that’s poor by most standards, for a camera best run in autofocus in most situations I didn’t find that it was a hindrance. Even the lack of focusing aids—peaking, focus-in-red, expanded focus, etc.—didn’t bother me (most of the time) because I wasn’t in controlled, focus-critical situations where I had the time and luxury of carefully setting my focus.
The screen is reasonably uncluttered, with icons in three corners to bring up the main menu, the options menu, and to toggle the MC1 between recording and playback operations. Status indicators for recording format, remaining time, manual settings (such as they are), and the like sit around the edges of the image. You can remove most of the overlays (except transport status, manual setting status, and the zebra-on indicator) with a single push of the DISPLAY button. That button, pushed when the camera is off, brings up a battery-remaining display, so you don’t have to switch the unit on just to check the battery.
There is a zebra display; it can be switched on at 100%, at 70%, or turned off as desired.
The zoom rocker offers fairly smooth control, though the slowest speed of about 20 seconds end-to-end isn’t slow enough for a finely feathered ease-in or out. Mind you, this camera isn’t likely to be used in situations requiring a slow zoom in the first place. At full speed, the zoom traverses the range in a mere two seconds, so quickly framing up a shot isn’t a problem, and with a little practice I was able to move smoothly into and out of high-speed zooms with too obvious a bump on either end of the move.
CAM CTRL can be assigned to focus, exposure, AE Shift, or WB Shift, simply by pressing and holding the MANUAL button.
Pressing and holding the MANUAL button brings up this menu.
The CAM CTRL roller is reasonably good if you’re slow and deliberate with it, but trying to focus with it in a hurry is frustrating: the control has a highly nonlinear action, taking a single thumb-flick to traverse the entire focus range when full wide, to anywhere from 15 to 30 such flicks at full telephoto (with the low number coming from slow flicks; apparently the wheel’s encoder is overwhelmed by fast motion). As with many consumer cameras, using any of the manual settings is best done as a “set and forget” function, not as anything you’ll want to perform while recording is in progress.
Fortunately, the MC1 offers two “spot” functions, spot meter and spot focus. Engage these modes as needed, then simply touch the screen at the point where you want the camera to set exposure or focus. The camera will set the appropriate parameter and then leave it alone, so you can bypass the fiddly thumbwheel altogether for fixed-focus and/or fixed-exposure situations.
I set up the MC1 in my back yard, the better to spy on some hungry birds. I soon realized two things: I really, really wanted a remote-control pan/tilt head, and I really, really wanted a proper focus control. I shot more out-of-focus bird clips than I would have expected; autofocus tended to hold onto the crisp, contrasty background even when a bird wandered in front of the lens, and manual focus attempts usually had me getting focused about the time the bird wandered off camera.
Backyard birding: oh, for a remote pan/tilt head!
Once I started working with the camera instead of against it, my luck improved: I enabled the “spot focus” mode. Spot focus took between one and two seconds to lock in, but at least I could keep pointing out birds to the camera, and it would focus on them instead of on the background.
In most of my tests, though, I found that letting the camera set focus and exposure automatically gave me the most consistently pleasing results. Even when cycling between sunlit and shaded stretches of road, autoexposure kept contrast and brightness under control—and kept the action visible—while my fixed-exposure tests kept the image more cinematically consistent, but sacrificed the moment-by-moment viewability of the action when the lighting changed radically.
Here’s a short demo clip; you’ll need QuickTime, and browser plugins enabled:
(I normally don’t post clips, because the required compression compromises quality, but here it’s appropriate. While you shouldn’t study this clip for specifics of fine detail rendering and camera compression artifacts, do notice (a) autoexposure varying the shutter speed to maintain the picture, and the sky blowing out in places; and (b) how little that matters given the nature of the shot. Also note the quality of the ambient audio, the flare off the polished metal, and the stability of the image.)
The camera lacks any sort of image stabilization, but I didn’t find this to be much of a deficit. My handheld out-the-window shots were a bit wobbly, but this actually added to the immediacy and excitement of the images. Any time I hard-mounted the camera to a vehicle (bicycle frame or helmet, car dashboard, airplane glareshield) the lightness of the camera coupled to the solidity of the mounting surface meant that there was no noticeable vibration imparted to the image. Indeed, the impressive stability of such images, even when hard-mounted to a vibrating surface, may be in part due to the fact that the MC1 doesn’t have any image-moving stabilizer to be shaken around.
Like many of Sony’s recent CMOS cameras, the MC1 offers Smooth Slow Rec, which shoots at 4x normal speed for 3 seconds (thus, 12 seconds in playback) It uses a very coarse, aliased, and artifact-heavy compression for the capture; as with other Sonys offering this feature, it’s best used sparingly, for special effects. Smooth Slow Recording lets you choose to record the three seconds after you press the record trigger, or before; you can set it up to grab “what just happened” instead of what will happen, a great boon when shooting unpredictable events.
Stills may be grabbed while shooting video by pushing the PHOTO button; in such cases, the still will be a grab of the video frame in the current aspect ratio. Still resolutions are 2304×1728, 2034×1296 (16×9), 1600×1200, and 640×480. You can also push a button to turn the MC1 into a stills-only camera, in which case the normal START/STOP trigger is used as the shutter release.
Note that there’s no headphone jack on the MC1. If you want to monitor audio, you do it through a small but effective speaker on the main body.
You switch the camera to playback mode by touching the icon in the lower left corner of the display. The camera shows you clip thumbnails organized by shooting date. You can set magnification to se two rows of three thimbnails, or three rows of four. Two tabs on the bottom of the display let you choose either stills and video. Simply touch a thumbnail to play its clip; icons around the screen perimeter provide transport controls: play/pause, previous/next clip, high-speed scan (in play mode) or slo-mo (in pause mode). The camera will play forward in slow motion showing every frame, but in reverse it only shows frames at half-second intervals; presumably these are the I-frames in each compression GOP (group of pictures).
The HXR-MC1’s playback thumbnail display. The camera’s component output cable is attached on the left.
You can hide all the overlays by pressing the DISPLAY button. Pressing the button again, or touching the screen, brings the overlays back.
The camera has a “Film Roll” function, used to set “subclips” at fixed intervals within a continuous clip, allowing quick navigation of thumbnails. There’s also “Face Index”, which grabs thumbnails whenever a face is detected in the scene (though glasses and hats are said to give it trouble). You can then ask the camera to display the index of detected faces; touching a thumbnail starts playback of the clip containing that thumbnail.
You can also divide a clip at a selected point, allowing you to “top and tail” a long clip and throw away the bits you don’t want. (Clip division occurs on GOP boundaries, so don’t pick a frame within half a second of the images you need to keep, lest the nearest GOP boundary fall within the section of interest.)
You can zoom into stills during playback up to 5x, and pan ‘n’ scan by touching the part of the image you want centered. Zooming into video clips isn’t provided.
Sony’s PMB (Picture Motion Browser) software is for Windows only (XP SP3 or Vista SP1, with DirectX 9.0c or later); it supports importing clips from the camera, simple editing, and writing them to Blu-ray. Mac support consists of a webpage that describes importing stills. I found that connecting the MC1’s USB port to various Macs let Final Cut Pro 6, iMovie 08, and iMovie 09 see the clips recorded on the camera’s MS Pro Duo card with no extra work or software needed. Likewise, Aperture saw the MC1’s stills. (The MC1 was happy to talk over USB on battery power, unlike the Canon HF11 and HF200 AVCHD cameras I’ve used recently. Sony is to be commended for allowing USB connections while on battery power, since it’s frequently useful to be able to suck clips off a memory card in the field, far removed from an AC outlet.)
Next: Menus and Performance.
Most features and functions of the camera are accessed through touchscreen menus. Indeed, when I first fired up the camera, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use it; in true male fashion, I ignored the operations manual in favor of just pushing physical buttons. Only by accident did I finally touch one of the icons in the corner of the screen, which caused a menu to appear, accompanied by a rich orchestral crescendo from the modestly-named “beep” function (you can probably guess that I don’t work with a lot of consumer-level camcorders: now-common niceties such as touchscreens and polyphonic aural feedback throw me for a loop!).
A “Home” menu is selected by touching the house icon in the upper left corner of the screen; this brings up a tabbed selection of several menus, some of which have several pages. Each menu item may also have several pages once it’s selected. An “Options” menu is called up from an icon in the lower right screen corner; it likewise offers several tabbed submenus of varying depth and complexity.
The Tools tab of the HXR-MC1’s “Home” menu.
Page two of the MOVIE SETTINGS submenu.
The ostensible division is between system-wide settings in the “home” menu and mode-specific settings in the “options” menu, but from an operational standpoint the divisions can seem arbitrary and capricious. For example, “Auto Slow Shutter” appears in Home > Toolbox tab > Movie Settings, while “Color Slow Shutter” is in Options > Camera3 tab. I’m sure that after continued use the menu traversal becomes second nature, but it can take a bit of hunting and poking to set up the camera if you haven’t memorized things beforehand (mind you, the same is true for the RED ONE with its three separate menu systems).
Among the various menu items:
- Auto Slow Shutter – Sets shutter speed to 1/30 in low light.
- Color Slow Shutter – shutter speed / frame rate varies in low light, as slow as about 1/4 second (8 frames recorded for every one captured).
- Guideframe – Display two horizontal and two vertical bars in the LCD, like a tic-tac-toe grid, dividing the image according to the “rule of thirds”.
- Zebra – Display zebra above 70% or 100% brightness, or turn zebra off.
- X.V.Color – turn on wide color gamut in HD recording modes.
- AE Shift, WB Shift – bias auto exposure lighter or darker, and white balance towards red or blue tones.
- Spot Focus, Spot Meter – You can touch a point on the screen and the focus or exposure will be set to those found on the subject at that location. (These are touch-to-set, not touch-to-track; focus or exposure is fixed at the time of the touch.)
- Beep – Enable or disable polyphonic melodies whenever a button is pressed. Seriously, calling this a “beep” is like calling the selection of alerts and ringtones on an iPhone a “beep”. I’m waiting for someone to compose a “Toccata and Fugue for Sony Camera Beep Melodies”.
- Widescreen – Set SD recordings to use a 4×3 or 16×9 aspect ratio.
- TV Type – Set up letterboxing and pillarboxing as needed for 4×3 or 16×9 TVs.
- Digital Zoom – Set a 20x or 120x digital zoom.
- Control on HDMI – Lets you use the transport buttons on your Sony TV remote control to operate the camcorder when it’s connected via HDMI.
- Scene Selection – Presets for twilight, candlelit scenes, sunrise & sunset, fireworks, landscapes, portraiture, spotlit scenes, beach, and snow scenes. These settings bias exposure, color, and in some cases focus, as appropriate.
- White Balance – Continuous auto white balance, or indoor, outdoor, and manual white balance (using a white card).
- Fader – Black or white fade-ins and fade-outs.
- Old Movie – Turns the image sepia and drops the frame rate to 15fps.
- Picture Effect – Turns the image B&W, sepia, or “Pastel”, an amusing effects in which the luma level is set to a flat 50%, but chroma and edge enhancement are untouched (see image below).
- Zoom Microphone – Causes the built-in mic to become more directional as the image is zoomed in.
- Mic Reference Level – Toggles the mic sensitivity between Normal and Low settings, the latter useful in loud environments.
A rack of gear and an iPod Touch seen in “Pastel” Picture Effect mode.
The lens focuses down to 1 cm (under 1/2″) in wide angle, and 80 cm (just over 2.5 feet) in telephoto. There’s a Tele Macro mode that zooms the lens to full telephoto and allows focusing down to about 14 inches; focusing is somewhat slower than normal, especially distant focusing, because the normal operation of the zoom and focus groups have been subverted to the cause of macro focusing. Zooming the lens wider cancels tele macro mode.
The aperture is a diamond-shaped, two-leaf system, which gives a diamond-shaped bokeh on out-of-focus subjects as well as an X-shaped flare on specular highlights. Aside from that, the optical system is quite clean; I could get some green and magenta ghosts when shooting directly into a light, but the lens’s multicoating does a very good job of suppressing internal reflections and flare.
The lens has a 10x optical zoom, or up to 120x when using the digital zoom. There’s ample room on the telephoto end for most anything you’d try to shoot with this sort of rig, but I found that I could have used a wider wide angle. Fortunately there’s a 30mm threaded ring for attaching wide-angle adapters and fisheye lenses. Sony offers 0.6x and 0.7x adapters, and Schneider Optics has some interesting lenses with 30mm adapters, too.
The image loses about a stop as you zoom from full wide to full tele, and in the last 10% of the zoom range there’s a bit of vignetting, but neither is objectionable in normal operation. Distortion is admirably low: a very slight bit of barrel distortion fully wide, a tiny bit of pincushion in mid-telephoto, but never enough to be noticeable unless you spend your days shooting test charts.
The quality of the digital zoom is about at good as it can be; there is no obvious blockiness or artifacting, but the resolution of the image drops as you zoom in farther: consider that at 120x, or 12x the optical zoom’s limit, the image is upscaled from a 160×90-pixel center section of the original image!
Sony’s slantwise-oriented ClearVid CMOS sensor does a creditable job. It’s nothing to write home about (after all, it’s a 1/5″ single-chip consumer camcorder at heart), but it’s not too bad. The MC1 renders a fairly standard video image with about 8+ stops of latitude, including an auto knee that kicks in around 95% brightness. Compared with pix from high-end cameras, the MC1’s image is a bit contrasty and its highlights tend to be a bit clippy, but this is not unexpected. Very fine, pixel-wide detail sometimes shows red/green moir©, an artifact of its single sensor and color mask.
On test chart zone plates, the camera resolves something like 650-700 TVl/ph, with the aforementioned chroma aliasing quite noticeable. Detail extinction (aliased or otherwise) occurs around 800 TVl/ph.
1:1 detail of DSC Labs CamAlign MB-SW, 16 Mbit/sec “FH” recording mode, transcoded to ProRes on capture.ChromaDuMonde chart the vectorscope pattern was an almost perfect hexagon, though it tended to be shifted up on the R-Y axis, favoring reds and magentas over cyans and greens. Rendition of real-world subjects was pleasing overall, if a bit on the saturated side.
There’s a bit of sharpening visible in the images; fortunately it is not excessive.
The camera lacks ND filters, so in bright light it shortens the shutter time and closes down the iris. That’s fine for a lot of material, but again: what you see is what you get, and you’d better like it because you can’t change it through the menus. If you don’t like it, of course, you can add external ND filters.
As to the tweakability of contrast, knee, sharpness, shutter speed, iris, and color? Fuggedaboudit! You can’t tweak diddly-squat. Whaddya want from a consumer-cam menu system anyway? You wanna tweak image parameters, go gaffer-tape your EX3 to the underside of your bike. See how you like them apples!
Purists, shaders, DITs, and the like may argue with me, but for this camera’s target applications, I think Sony has set up an acceptable “look”. Yes, I’d like more adjustment, but for the kind of footage this camera is designed to capture, I had no problems with the way the camera rendered the picture.
Of more concern for the cinematically inclined is the fact that this camera records only 1080/60i (or 480/60i in SD mode). It does not offer any progressive-scan modes.
The camera uses Memory Stick PRO Duo or PRO-HG Duo media, smaller than plain old Memory Sticks and just slightly smaller than SD cards. AVCHD bitrates in HD are 5, 7, 9, and 16 Mbit/sec; these are called LP, SP, HQ, and FH. FH is 1920×1080; the others are 1440×1080. All recordings use 4:2:0 color sampling.
An 8 GB card will hold 55 minutes of FH-quality HD, or between 140-185 minutes of LP quality; the camera can use MS Pro Duo cards up to 16 GB in capacity (note: Sony just released a 32 GB MS PRO Duo card; it may also work, but I haven’t tested it).
I found the FH-mode pix to be roughly equal to HDV quality in terms of artifact level. Lower bitrates were lower in quality, as you might expect, with the most noticeable drops in quality occurring in busy, high-motion scenes—exactly the sort of thing you’re likely to shoot with this little camcorder.
There are also SD recording modes consuming 3, 6, and 9 Mbit/sec, recording an MPEG-2 program stream. SD can be shot in either 4:3 or 16:9 using “conventional MPEG-2” program streams (.mpg files). I didn’t test these modes in any detail.
The camera comes with an NP-FH60 battery, which is good for about 100 minutes of continuous HD shooting, or 160 minutes of HD playback. If you stick with SD, add about 25% to those times. Optional batteries offer up to six and half hours of record time.
Next: Conclusions and more info.
This isn’t the usual sort of camera; the HXR-MC1 is a very specialized beast. If your days consist of cameras on sticks or on the shoulder, shooting interviews, dramatic two-shots, and the like, the little MC1 won’t interest you. But if your shooting tends towards more radical views—action sports, odd angles, viewpoints unachievable with conventional camcorders—then the “camera on a rope” configuration has definite possibilities. The HXR-MC1 excels at making tough angles easy. With the camera head separable from the main body by up to nine feet, oddball camera positions with full monitoring and control are possible.
For auto-everything (or set-it-and-forget-it) shooting, the MC1’s consumer heritage is no drawback; the controls it provides are adequate to the task, autoexposure and autofocus work well, and the ability to lock and manually set exposure, focus, and white balance means that you can override the MC1’s tiny brain when you need to.
Shooters wanting more manual control, though, may be disappointed; the fiddly CAM CTRL wheel makes rapid and certain adjustments difficult. Its slowness tweaking focus at telephoto is particularly galling, since (a) you want to zoom in the most critical focus anyway, and (b) by the time you’ve manually set focus, your subject has strolled off. I found that spot focus was a better method than manually focusing whenever time was of the essence.
Imaging performance is decent, if not exciting: the HXR-MC1’s parent is a rather nice consumer camcorder, but the MC1’s pix won’t be mistaken for those from an EX1, and while its image quality approximates that of a good HDV camera as it comes out of the box, the MC1 lacks the image adjustments that let you tweak that HDV camcorder for even better pictures. Fortunately, the sorts of action shots where the MC1 shines are those where the delicate nuances of image rendering take a back seat, so the lack of fancy image tweaks and the limits of its chipset are much less important than they would be in a conventional production camcorder: the MC1’s images are certainly good enough that no one is likely to notice their limitations.
What sets this camera apart—literally—is the nine-foot cable between the head and main body. The ability to stick the head in awkward locations (helmet cam! bike cam! flying-wires-on-a-biplane cam! under-the-car cam!) while still holding the screen, controls, and recorder in your lap / on your handlebars / someplace where you can see ’em is what gives this camera its singular purpose.
Look, either this camera makes sense to you and your shooting requirements, or it doesn’t. If you’re excited about how it can enable you to see things in a different way, I don’t need to convince you to take a look. If, on the other hand, you’re wondering what all the fuss is, so be it: this camera isn’t for you.
I don’t see many folks buying this camera as their primary shooter; it’s just not suited for the daily grind of news, drama, and documentary work. But if you have need for its special talents, there’s darned little out there that does what this camera does for the price.
And if $2800 seems too steep for you, consider renting one: I just Googled “HXR-MC1 rental” and got over 3,000 hits. Rental houses understand your pain, and many already have this little guy in their inventory.
- Small, splashproof camera head.
- Compact, easy to use main body.
- Autofocus, autoexposure well suited for typical applications.
- Reasonably high resolution images with reasonably few compression artifacts.
- Shock-resistant solid-state recording media.
- Nearly two hours recording time at highest bitrate with 16 GB card.
- Sunlight-readable touchscreen LCD.
- Touchscreen-driven spot focus and spot meter.
- 1/4″x20 and shoe mounts on both head and main body.
- Full-sized HDMI connector.
- Simultaneous clip and photo-capture capability.
- 70% or 100% zebra display.
- No manual shutter speed, iris, or gain settings.
- No built-in ND filters.
- No image-processing tweaks other than preset Scene Selections.
- 60i recording only (50i in Euro models); no 30P, 24P.
- Finicky and inconsistent manual focus control; no peaking or focus assist.
- No headphone jack.
- No media included in package; you’ll need to buy at least one MS PRO Duo card.
- No image stabilization.
- Main body isn’t splashproof or water resistant.
- Fixed cable can complicate camera mounting in constrained places; limits distance between head and body.
- Multicore cable carries multiple analog signals; probable “weak link” if stressed or abused.
- Wide angle isn’t very wide.
- Consumer-grade image pipeline lacks resolution, latitude of higher-end pro camcorders.
- No manual audio gain.
- HDV-quality compression (at best quality) doesn’t allow artifact-free slo-mo, still frames in quality-critical applications.
- Y/C cable is an extra-cost option.
David Leitner’s review: http://digitalcontentproducer.com/cameras/revfeat/review-sony-hxrmc-0209/
VASST’s tests on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksbpslVBk84
An amusing “Powers of 10”-like test: http://www.vimeo.com/4500588
Discussion on DVInfo.net: http://www.dvinfo.net/conf/digital-video-industry-news/144664-sony-hxrmc1.html
Discussion on Helmet Camera Central: http://helmetcameracentral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=269