Sony

VG10: Jag35 Field Runner Rig Review

I picked up the Sony NEX-VG10 because it has more of an all-inclusive video camera design than going the DSLR route (Canon 7D, 60D, 550D, etc.). However, as I started using the camera I decided that a shoulder rig would add a lot of functionality to the system to stabilize the camera and to shoot in different situations (and I’ll admit so some gear lust driving my purchase decision). I opted for the Jag35 system because they offer rigs at affordable prices for people in my buying group: folks who are getting into Indy film production but don’t have a huge budget. I decided on the Field Runner because it’s under 300 USD and came with a free handle when I ordered it. I also picked up a tripod baseplate to quickly go from tripod to shoulder mount on shoots.

Shooting with the Field Runner


The Field Runner is fun to shoot with, and that’s an important point. I use the Field Runner with the NEX 18-200mm autofocus lens or something wide like the Sigma 20mm f/1.8 or a Minolta 20mm f/2.8 and stay mobile. Since the NEX is autofocus I don’t yet worry about pulling focus and haven’t added a focus follow to my camera kit just yet. With the 20mm lenses I set the aperture and manual focus as desired. I can then shoot with the rig on my shoulder, or down low from my hip. I’m currently using the Field Runner without any counter weight on the back since the VG10 is pretty light the counter weight isn’t such an issue, but I’ll probably add one in the future to stabilize the system.


On the shoulder the VG10 is very nicely stabilized, and is much better than shooting in the classic Handycam method of just holding the camera in your right hand and putting it up to your face like a tourist or last-rate pornographer. With the Field Runner the VG10 becomes a part of my body. It moves with me, rotates with my torso and feels connected to my center of gravity. In short, it does exactly what I was hoping for when I ordered it. The VG10 now sort of feels naked without the rig. I can imagine shooting without it, but don’t see the point. It’s also nice to cradle the rig in my right arm and hold it to my body, with my left hand on the front handle. I also often shoot from my hip. To do this I make the front handle parallel to the rig and hold that handle with my left hand while holding the raised handle with my right hand and then rest the shoulder pad on my hip and then pan with my body. This is a very secure was to do a low pan when needed and is very comfortable.

Mobility


I like to be mobile as a film maker or photographer (or painter for that matter). I like gear that easily moves me and packs up quickly. I can easily pack up the Field Runner with my VG10 and an assortment of lenses into my Think Tank Airport Acceleration and go without any issues. When on location the Field Runner assembles in a few seconds and I’m ready to shoot. With the optional tripod plate I can mount the rigged camera on my Manfrotto 501HDV fluid head and quickly switch from tripod to hand-held in mere seconds. I just need to swing out the front handles to allow the rig to slide onto the 501 head, but since the handles are locked down with simple twist knobs, this is very easy to do. Then when I go from tripod to shoulder it just takes a second to swing the handle back into position and lock it down and I’m ready to shoot again.

Design Issues


These are a few design issues I’d like to address that may be serious or totally irrelevant to potential buyers. Overall the Jag35 Field Runner is a good value for the money, but there are some areas of the design that need improvement in my opinion. The most serious is related more to the VG10 design than the rig, which is likely irrelevant with any another than the VG10, but needs to be mentioned. The connection of the VG10 tripod plate to the rig is very insecure, this is the heart of the rig system and should be the most well-designed and quality-controlled part. However, this is a design issue with the VG10, and not the Jag35. Now, this is has to have some context. The Field Runner is designed for a DSLR body, and I’m using it with my VG10, which has a long base like most camcorders do, while DSLR bodies are short and wide. For the VG10 you should have a long attachment area like a Manfrotto video plate, which produces a nice secure contact area on the bottom of the camera. This connection system is offered from IndySystem or Cinevate, where you can screw a long Manfrotto plate onto your camera and then just lock that into the baseplate on the rig.


To compare, I also tried the Jag35 camera plate with my Sony A900 just to see how secure it would be with a DSLR body, and it was totally different from the VG10. With a DSLR body the camera sits securely to the Jag35 base plate. With the VG10 it’s ok for basic shooting, but I don’t have faith in the attachment to my camera to forget about it, and is a primary reason I’m looking at adding an IndySystem camera plate to improve my rig setup. I also think the current design would be greatly improved by using a metal knob (similar to those on the rest of the rig) instead of plastic covered screw on the camera plate, as it would be easier to securely tighten the camera plate to the camera tripod socket.


I also found some minor misalignment issues with the connectors which hold the rods together, but this is a smaller issue and doesn’t affect the performance of the system. When the screws are tightened the rig is rigid and secure, and that is the function of the design that matters most. The optional handle could also be improved. The handle needs a lock-off screw to prevent it from rotating. As it is, the off-center handle can easily torque due to the weight of my camera and twist open when held, which is a basic design fix that should be addressed. For this reason, I always need to hold the rig by two hands to prevent unscrewing and rotation. For a rig of this price point and production volume, these design issues are more or less acceptable, and I’m confident they will be ironed out on future rig releases.

Design Update


Jehu Garcia, one of the people behind Jag35 pointed me to an updated design for the camera mounting plate to address the issue of camera-rig connection. There are two key and very welcome design improvements. First, there are a few screws in the base plate which can be screwed to contact with the bottom of the mounted camera. This then counters the tendency of the camera to loosen from the mounting plate. This addresses the torque loading on the rig-camera connection, which can occur when a follow focus is used. It can happen that reaction forces develop at the rig connection point, and these screws help resist those loads by counteracting the torque. From the design, it looks like the new plate will also improve the issue with the VG10 (and the poorly designed Sony tripod mount). The second modification is a nice big aluminum knob. This will make it much easier to tighten the rig to the tripod socket.

Overall I Like It


I’m a mechanical engineer by profession and a scientist by training, so you would expect I’d find and write about any mechanical design issues that I find with the gear I use. However, I can honestly recommend the Jag35 Field Runner, for the price it’s a great rig for new Indyfilm folks and those on a budget. It will be used by weekend warrior film makers and those who don’t mind a few design short-comings. The price difference between the Jag35 offerings and a similar rig from one of the pro-shops like Zacuto or Redrock Micro is nothing short of amazing, and I’m impressed that they have grown so fast and come so far in the short time Jag35 has been selling gear. They’re releasing a motorized follow focus, and they’re even making it wireless. The innovation and price point of their gear is really impressive. At one point I actually was going to start designing my own rig system and get some custom prototypes made, but once I saw what is coming out of Jag35, Habbycam, and IndySystems, I decided the market doesn’t need another rig maker in this category. Of course, the rig system in my head will be designed to be ultra-light using carbon fiber rods with a structural design optimized using Altair Optistruct, so it’s still possible I’ll do something in the future if I’m motivated enough. However, I’m more into spending my time shooting than rig designing.

NEX-VG10 Mamiya 80mm f2.8

One large draw of buying into the Sony NEX system is the ability to adapt many different lenses to the camera bodies. I picked up a VG10 to shoot video, and to use all my medium format, Contax G, and Minolta lenses on a video camera. One of my favorite lenses to shoot with is the Mamiya M645 80mm f/2.8 N, and here are my initial experiences…

Mamiya Background


The 80mm is the standard lens for the Mamiya M645 medium format camera bodies. The Mamiya 645 system has been used extensively by pro shooters for decades, and the equipment was all built to pro standards, making it a quality purchase if found in good condition. The system started out as all manual, but has since evolved into autoexposure, autofocus, and digital with the introduction of the Mamiya 645AF and 645AFD. Since the introduction of the autofocus Mamiya  cameras, the manual focus lenses have lost most of their value to digital shooters, and till recently, really only made sense to use on the older film bodies. However, a few manufacturers make adapters to mount Mamiya and Hasselblad lenses on DSLR bodies. For this reason I picked up a Cirrius adapter on eBay and some cheap used copies of the Mamiya 80mm and 150mm lenses to mount on my Sony A900. However, manual focusing sort of sucks on the A900, in particular if you shoot with old glasses like I do because you spend all your money on camera/video gear, computers, mountaineering trips, and retirement savings. If I had contacts it would be better, but at the moment I can’t accurately manual focus my A900. However, since all NEX cameras have live-view (like the A950 hopefully will have), the system makes an ideal candidate for use with my Hassy and Mamiya lenses.

Mamiya Lenses on the VG10


When used in conjunction with the LA-EA 1 adapter (Sony Alpha to NEX) I’m able to mount the Cirrius Mamiya to Alpha adapter onto my VG10 body, and thereby the Mamiya glass can be adapted to the NEX. The Mamiya lenses are nice candidates for the VG10 because they are compact and have smooth focusing action. When searching out a manual focus lens you want one with a dampened focusing ring. This means the focusing ring moves in a smooth motion, allowing to comfortable attain the correct focus. This is a big selling point of high-end glass like the Zeiss CP.2 compact primes. It should be easy to access the aperture dial as well. The focusing ring on the M645 80mm is prominent and easy to manipulate with the fingers, or for mounting a focus-follow device if desired (haven’t tried this yet on the VG10). The lens has a switch to allow full manual or automatic control modes on an M645 camera. If you put the lens in A-mode the aperture will stay open at f/2.8 no matter what. If you put it in M-mode you can then change the aperture as desired. On the VG10, you have to go into the menu system and turn on the option to allow the camera to shoot without lens attached (this only has to be once). You can now shoot in P or S mode. In P mode the VG10 can adjust ISO (if set to AutoISO) and shutter speed to attain the desired exposure. In S mode you can set the shutter speed and then allow the camera to set the exposure by automatically changing the ISO setting.

80mm Performance


The M645 80mm is a very nice lens, especially for the price you pay on the used market. The colors are great, it’s sharp, has nice bokeh, is compact, is easy to focus, everything you want in a manual focus lens. It could have more aperture stops, but that’s the only fault I see. On the VG10 it acts like a 120mm lens on a 35mm body but it only extends a couple inches from the body, much more compact than mounting my Minolta 85mm f/1.4 beast.


I’ve been shooting video and stills with the 80mm and am very happy with it so far. One video project at the moment is The Formers, a local band from Zurich that I’ve been working with. I took the VG10-80mm combo to their studio to shoot them in rehearsal (video coming soon). This entailed chilling in the room as they played with combined green and orange fluorescent lighting. I was manual focusing on the fly and shooting some stills here and there to sort of give the feeling of the ambiance of the place. I’ve also used the 80mm as a street lens, shooting grafitti, stickers, and flowers on the streets of Darmstadt. The main drawback so far is in the VG10, not the Mamiya.


The main problem with manual focus lenses on the VG10 is focus confirmation. You can focus with the live-view feed off of the LCD screen, but you can’t zoom in like on other cameras to check critical focus before shooting. This makes it difficult to hit the focus point correctly, and really needs to be addressed in a firmware update. Ideally there should be a little area on the LCD which shows a 5-8x zoom of the scene so you can fine-tune your focus. One way to compensate for this is to use your knowledge of hyperfocal distances and shoot at f/5.6 or f/8, and you can then create properly focused images. The Cirrius adapter is also a weak component of the system. The adapter is ok, it mates the Mamiya mount to the Sony Alpha, but there’s some play in the rotation of the lens when mounted, and images are soft when focused to infinity.

Summary


Overall the 80mm Mamiya 645 works very well on the VG10. The adapter from Cirrius isn’t really up to my standards, but it’s the only Mamiya to Alpha adapter I could find. Another option is to buy a Mamiya to Canon/Nikon and then a Canon/Nikon to NEX adapter, but that’s sort of expensive. I’m hoping that Fotodiox will release a Mamiya to NEX adapter in the future, as their Hasselblad to Alpha adapter is awesome and priced at a nice point. Better yet, if Fotodiox releases a tilt-shift Mamiya-NEX adapter I’d be super stoked. I’ve been lusting after a tilt-shift setup from Mirex to use my Mamiya lenses in that fashion, but that’s like almost 400 Euros. The tilt-shift thing would open up some interesting possibilities however, as I could then modify the focal plane as I want in relation to the people or things I’m shooting. Anyways, when you start lusting after more gear you know it’s time to use the stuff you have.

Sony A900 Replacement – A950 Deal Breakers

Rumors are starting to abound of an A900 replacement coming in 2011 (I think) – named the mystic A950 with a new 30 megapixel+ sensor and either a SLT or traditional optical viewfinder design. I heard this from a guy who has a brother who has a friend who works at Sony R&D and he read this rumor on SonyAlphaRumors. Having shot the past year or so with my A900, I have an idea of what the A950 does and doesn’t need. I’ve used the A900 for various needs including weddings, studio portraits, documenting the painting process, grafitti shooting, Bratz dolls, Lego animation, etc. The A900 basically rocks, and only needs a few tweaks to be awesome. What are the deal breakers on the A900 replacement?

Live View


First off, live view is a deal-breaker on the A950. Deal Breaker is a word combination that I hate to write or read (I just felt some bile erupt in my innards at the sound in my head). People throw it around on forums everyday and when you look at the crap these people shoot it’s obvious that they only care about writing useless crap on the internet. But, live view is a deal-breaker on the A900 replacement. Why? Simply because live view dramatically increases the usefulness of a digital still camera.


As a stills device the A900 is awesome, but for shooting macro images or with manual focus lenses, the A900 sucks. Yes, it has a nice large viewfinder (for a DSLR), but the cheaper cameras like the NEX5 and every other DSLR now on the market have this very basic feature of previewing the image before it’s made in real time. Getting accurate focus and framing is just more precise on a large LCD than on a large DSLR focusing screen. It’s also nice for framing an image when you have the camera above your head or down low or at a weird angle. Live view is just a great feature if implemented correctly, and it’s a critical feature to have. Live view means precise macro focusing. It means precise focusing with manual lenses. It means the ability to enable remote camera operation from things like iPads, iPhones and computers (although I think Sony also needs to release a decent SDK for this to happen). Live view helps to frame images when your eye can’t be level with the viewfinder. Live view is needed on the A950 - period.


Take note however, Live View and Intelligent Preview should both be there. Intelligent preview is used to make a temporary image which is displayed on the LCD but not saved to the memory card. I love intelligent preview for quickly checking lighting and histograms in the studio. It’s needed because live view is useless for studio photography when external strobes are used. I use intelligent preview all the time in the studio to quickly preview the scene without taking a full image. And yes, it does make a difference, I don’t want to shoot a full-sized real image and have it saved to my memory card just to visualize lighting and to check the exposure histogram. Intelligent Preview is better for images made using strobes. Live view is needed for everything else.

HD Video


Look, yes, I know and appreciate the difference between stills and video. I bought a VG10 because it’s a proper video camera, not a stills camera that needs to be upgraded to a video device. Video is needed, but not in the same sense as live view, and no, putting the 24p 1080HD video option in an A950 will not kill the new CineAlta F3 or NXCAM cameras. The Canon 5D-II and other popular video DSLRs are being used to make movies because no other device is there to fill that niche, which is why Sony released the CineAlta F3 and the new NEX NXCAM. The F3 is for high-end Indy films and professional digital cinema. The NXCAM model is for Pro video, and there’s the VG10 for consumer video. People are not going to be buying the A950 instead of the new high-end video cameras to shoot movies with. People want to shoot video with video cameras, not giant DSLR rigs that look like baby transformers and have horrible moire performance. That’s why Panasonic is selling the AF100, why RED developed the Scarlet and Epic concepts, and why Sony released the VG10 (and will be releasing the Pro-NEX NXCAM). A video capable A900 would be an awesome compliment the my VG10. Video isn’t a deal-breaker in the A950, but it needs to be there.

Non-Crippled Exposure Mode


The A950 needs the ability to autoexpose in aperture or shutter speed priority modes when manual lenses are attached to the camera. With a manual focus lens you only have the option to shoot in full manual exposure mode with the A900. This sucks and is purely a firmware issue that should’ve been fixed years ago (and could be fixed by a new A900 firmware). I should be able to put a lens on the camera, adjust the aperture on the lens, and have the camera choose the shutter speed and ISO for a correct exposure, just like I can on my NEX-VG10. Without this basic function, your ability to use the camera is limited because you have to adjust the shutter to match the aperture you use. Even my old Minolta 7D chooses the correct shutter speed for an ideal exposure with a manual focus lens attached. It’s a very basic feature and should be a function on any camera body. One reason the NEX line is so popular is that people can use whatever lenses they want on their body (with adapters). This adds to the value of the camera, and it should be the same on the A900 replacement. Focus confirmation on manual focus lenses should also exist. Sure you might need to add an electrical interface to the lens, but this is possible with Canon and Nikon and their built-in rangefinder designs. It just makes the camera better. It’s useful when manual focusing with Sony/Zeiss autofocus lenses and as well old manual focus devices, it’s not a must, but would be awesome.

Optical vs. STL Viewfinder


If the STL viewfinder works as well as an optical one does and improves the user experience, then it should be there. Currently, the A33 and A55 do not do this. With the SLT cameras (and with the NEX-VG10) it’s very difficult to use the cameras in the studio with off-camera flashes. The reason is that the electronic viewfinders try to depict the scene according to the manual exposure the photographer sets on the camera, but this of course doesn’t account for the power output of the flashes that will go off when the shutter button is pushed. The resulting live view image is a black screen when I shoot in my studio with the VG10. This makes framing the shot very difficult and is also a rather huge deal-breaker because it severely limits the use of the camera on shoots. I like having an optical viewfinder because I can easily frame the shot (even if the camera isn’t turned on). What I’m hoping is that Sony will develop a dual-system hybrid view-finder, similar to the Fuji compact camera shown at Photokina 2010. Rumors suggest this will be available on the coming NEX7, and would actually make for a very nice addition to the A950 design.

In Summary


So, basically the A900 replacement needs: Live View, HD video and non-crippled manual exposure mode. If there’s a better viewfinder design than the current one that would be great, but it needs to be better than the A33/A55 design. A rangefinder should also be integrated to help manual focusing, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

A900 Firmware Update


Sony has released a firmware update for the A850/A900 which addresses the exposure issue with manual lenses. The update includes the following:


Faster autofocus, extended the range of exposure value (EV) compensation to increased to ±5EV, exposure bracketing range has been increased to a maximum of 6.0EV (-3EV, 0EV, +3EV). The A900 and A850 firmware updates are available on various Sony support websites, including http://support.sony-europe.com/dime/DSLR/dslr.aspx.

Sony NXCAM: NEX-VG10 Pro Visions


The pro version of the VG10 has been announced and is set for a 2011 release. Sony is taking the large sensor video technology concept of the NEX, and packaging it into a camcorder form with Pro features similar to the new F3. The NXCAM will be the competitor to the Panasonic AF100, and fits in between the VG10 and the F3. I was a little under-whelmed when I read about the F3. Not because it isn’t a significant development, it looks like a kickass camera, but is way outside my price range. There will be multiple frame rate options with the F3, XLR audio inputs, 35 Mb/s 1080p video, and the recording bit rate is much better. With an add-on module you’ll be able to capture 50 Mb/s if needed (and it is needed as per the BBC broadcast standard). However, the F3 is a Pro cinema tool with a PL lens mount and a large price tag. You could shoot it yourself, but is the type of camera that works best with a small crew to handle properly. The NXCAM seems designed for a single user to exploit if needed, and is based on the NEX autofocus lens mount. The NXCAM seems to address the majority of the limitations of the VG10, like the need for multiple frame rates, XLR inputs, etc. This is all nice, but is the NXCAM an alternative to the VG10, an evolution of the design, or just some added features?

NEX Advantage


If Sony were just releasing cameras with fixed lenses or the PL mount, it wouldn’t be so exciting. However, one big advantage of the NEX system is that I can use all my Minolta-Sony lenses as well Mamiya, Hasselblad, etc. The fact that the NEX system can take basically every lens ever made is awesome and a valuable feature for film makers. It’s so awesome that I don’t mind over-looking a lot of the design faults on the VG10 body and camera design. This is also why people shoot with DSLR cameras. They’re not ideal video tools, but the ability to experiment with shallow depth of field and different lenses is just to much fun to ignore. Using the correct adapters you can shoot with Nikon, Canon, Zeiss, Contax, Leica, etc. My personal favorite at the moment is shooting with my Mamiya M645 80mm f/2.8 on the VG10. The manual focus Mamiya lenses are cheap, compact, robust, and have wonderful colors and sharpness. If you only want to shoot in manual focus mode, you have a huge range of lenses to choose from at very attractive prices. I’m adding a Contax G adapter for my awesome Zeiss lenses, and probably one for my Contax C/Y 35mm as well. Where the NEX system has an advantage over DSLRs is in autofocus. The VG10 focuses fast enough that you can shoot with it like a normal consumer handycam, but the large sensor makes even mundane flower video look badass semi-artistic. However, is this needed/wanted in a pro device? Carl-Zeiss has the position that manual focus lenses will always trump autofocus in quality, because you know exactly where your focus point is, and the lens isn’t always trying to find and correct that focus point. On the other hand, the almost-ready-to-be-released RED Epic will allow autofocus with Canon and Nikon lenses (with an add-on module). The idea though, will be to autofocus and shoot, but not to continuously autofocus all the time during shooting like the NEX has.


I’ve been shooting with the VG10 for over a month now, and basically love it. But how will the NXCAM compare to the competition? Unlike the Canon 5D-II, the Pro Sony cameras feature a 2K Super 35mm sized sensor that is designed only for video (as I understand it). The Canon cameras have image sensors designed for stills but also do video as an after-thought. The Sony chip output is supposed to output a 1080-sized image, this means great low light capabilities because the sensor is putting out 1080 video, not down-sampling from a 21 megapixel chip (like the Canon does). This means better control of moire, and a large sensor designed (and optimized) for video. If it’s possible to pull a clean frame from the progressive feed off of the video stream, then it’ll make for nice stills as well – but I think this is where the VG10 has an advantage. One reason I like the VG10 is that it’s a true convergence stills-video hybrid device. I can switch between shooting 1080 HD video and 14 megapixel stills in a fraction of a second. I can also shoot with TTL flash or off-camera strobes. Will I be able to do this with the NXCAM (does Sony think I would want to)? The NXCAM will be a Pro video camera with the NEX mount, but probably won’t be ideal as a stills capture device for someone like myself.


I really love switching between stills and video with the VG10, but maybe that’s only because I’m still so new to video. I like the ability to shoot stills because it means I can setup lights and shoot with my remote radio triggers to create lighting scenarios, which are just not realistic without a lot of extra external LED lighting equipment. I think that the release of these cameras will also push lighting technology advancements. It’s clear that a need exists in the Indy-film economy for lower cost and lower power lighting. When you have a sensor with excellent low-light sensitivity, you don’t need to setup a bunch of tungsten lights or large LED panels. I think that companies like iKan and manufacturers from China will start to fill this growing niche.

NEX Evolution


Now that the NEX line is almost fully defined, this means that new lenses are coming in 2011. At the low photo end you have the NEX3/5, with the NEX7 coming in 2011 (the NEX 3/5 were there to assess market desire). At the video end there’s the VG10 and NXCAM. You can’t release kickass bodies without adding some fast prime lenses and high-quality zooms to go with them. 2011 is the start of the real video cinema year. 2011 is the year that the tools become available to more people to tell interesting stories with moving images. For a range of price points you have access to high-quality video, many lens choices, post-processing workflows, and distribution mediums. Don’t get blind-sided by the technology. It’s all still just a collection of tools to tell interesting stories. The Last Air Bender is a great example of a high-level production with horrible storytelling. A 1080p video feed at 50 Mb/s of a brick wall is just as boring as a 640 VGA phone video clip of the same subject.

Darmstadt Street Stickers VG10

I had a few hours to chill in Darmstadt and took my Sony NEX-VG10 along and shot with the Mamiya M645 80mm f/2.8 lens. This is the fabulous combination of the latest consumer video technology (the VG10) with an old guard lens of the film days (the Mamiya 80mm f/2.8 N). I didn’t find much graffiti in the city but there are a number of stickers and street art. What’s it like shooting manual focus on the VG10 with an old guard manual focus beast? It could be better, but the Mamiya 80mm is a sweet lens, and now my favorite to take along on the streets with the VG10.


Sony CineAlta PMW-F3K Pro Camera Announced

Sony has announced the PMW-F3K and F3L pro level camcorders to the CineAlta line of awesomeness. They feature PL-lens mounts and Super35mm sensor sizes, along with 35 Mbs recording. The camera targets the pro-on-a-budget line of buyers, but is not priced to compete with the Panasonic AF100.  Everyone knew this was coming, as Sony was showing a 35mm full-frame camera at NAB 2010, the only question was when (and for how much).


The F3K offers a nice mix of frame rate features, much like the AF100. It records in 23.98P as a native format, which can be over-cranked to get slow motion effects with fast moving objects. Frame rates are selectable from 1 – 60 fps in 720P and from 1-30 fps in 1080P modes. The wonderful selection of frame rates I wish my VG10 had. Other high points are the recording format, which is in Sony XDCAM, very nice for dropping into a non-linear file editor. There’s also the possiblity of , 10bit 4:2:2 HD-SDI output for hybrid recording possibilities, allowing with content to be recorded the internal memory and on an external device (uncompressed form).


A big question now is, where will a pro model of the NEX-VG10 fall? Phillip Bloom reported on his blog, Tentative pricing from Sony Europe is €20,700 (US$28,850) for F3K (with lenses) or €14,500 (US$20,195) for the F3L (without lenses) model – no where near as cheap as the AF100. Estimated shipping date is January 2011. So not cheap am afraid!


This high price-point places the camera well outside the NEX line. It gives room to offer a NEX Semi-Pro camera at about 3000-6000 USD (which would be in line with the AF100). Of course, the NEX is supposed to be aimed at consumers, not Indy film makers who probably don’t care about auto-focus and adapting Sony Alpha lenses to their video camera, hence the PL lens mount. However, everyone who can create a rumor is suggesting a Pro version of the VG10 will come out in 2011.  I think the desire for such a camera exists. The Canon 5D-II DSLR video craze started things, but Sony is the company heading in the right direction with the NEX camcorder concept. It’s the most versatile design, allowing use of all camera lenses in the form of a camcorder, which also works well as a stills capture device.

Sony NEX-VG10 User Review

Editor’s Note: This is a user review of the Sony NEX-VG10 camcorder. It has been written mainly in a window seat on the TGV express train between Basel and Paris L’est. It is a User Review in the sense that I’m just a guy who likes to use camera and writing technologies as storytelling tools. These are my experiences with the VG10 so far. This user report details why I got the camera, what I use it for, and what I think of it.

Background


So, of all the video camera options out there, why did I get a VG10 in the first place? Well, I’m basically a stills photographer with movies in my heads, and the time was right for me to start experimenting with video – and the VG10 fit the bill, offering the critical features I was after. I started shooting stills with a Minolta 7, and then moved on to a 7D, eventually to a Sony A900. Presently, I have a nice collection of Sony Alpha-Minolta mount lenses. I love bokeh, and wanted to start taking moving pictures. Those goals would be easiest to attain if I just could shoot video in a similar manner to the way I do photography. The VG10 allows just such a bridge, while integrating quite well with my current photography tools. Using the LA-EA 1 adapter I can shoot video with all of my Minolta lenses with aperture control (but with manual focus) and as well I can use my Sony F58 flash or Elinchrom Skyports for shooting still images with on-board or external flash. A firmware update is coming to also enable autofocusing with Sony SSM/SAM lenses (with the LA-EA 1 adapter). Plus, via third-party adapters I am also able to shoot with nearly every lens I own. This includes my Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 medium format beast and Contax G glass. Oh, and I’m an admitted Gear Whore, so why wouldn’t I want to buy this cool new toy?

Why Not Just Buy a HDSLR?


I asked myself this a lot. There are many options for video DSLR (HDSLR) cameras or mirrorless designs like the Sony NEX 5 or a Panasonic GH-1 or GH-2 to shoot video with. However, these are all built around the concept of using a photo tool to shoot video. Since I already have an awesome collection of photo tools (Sony A900, Contax G, Fuji GA645, etc.) I figured it was better to do the opposite, and buy a video tool, which can also be used to shoot still images. No other camera I’m aware of at this time includes autofocusing and audio (with a good microphone) recording in one video package. All the current video DSLR or mirrorless options require an external mic for decent audio, and generally extra rigs are required to make them useful for shooting. I’ve played with many of them in the store, and always came away with one main thought, “these would suck to shoot video with.” Afterall, that’s why a whole industry is exploding along side the SLR video revolution, providing things like focus-follow devices, camera cages, external monitors, microphones, shoulder supports, etc. – because the current devices are inadequate for shooting video and recording audio out of the box.

Design Overview


The VG10 is designed as a consumer grade video camera with interchangeable lenses, this makes it totally unique in the world (at the time of publication). It’s designed well, with a nice sort of futuristic body including a handle on top where the microphone is integrated. The handle can be used to hold the camera at waist-level and to pan in different ways. You can do this with a video DSLR as well, you just need to make or buy a cage and handle first. On the left side the viewing screen will flip out and then on the side of body are the various controls. Here you can pick shooting mode, review images, manual exposure settings, etc. You can use the screen or the integrated electronic viewfinder for framing during shooting. This is nice because you can shoot from a number of different positions and comfortably frame the shot. You can buy the camera with the NEX 18-200mm lens, which is optically stabilized. You can also shoot with basically every lens ever made via the appropriate adapter. This makes the camera attractive to owners of any camera system, even Leica users can put their lenses on easily. With its APS sensor, the camera delivers a high quality still or video file. Additionally, due to the sensor size you can have wonderful bokeh (defocused element of the image) in your images or video. The VG10 is often criticized for being rather expensive for what it offers feature wise, but if you price out the body, lens, body design, TTL hotshoe and microphone separately, it offers an acceptable value. What follows are my user views of shooting stills and video with this new funky video-camera.

Shooting Stills


Like I said before, one reason I bought the camera was to be able to shoot with my current lenses. To shoot a still image, you press the still/video toggle button on the back of the camera to access stills mode. Then you press the button on top-rear of the handgrip to shoot an image. All exposure controls are accessed on the control pad behind the video screen. I started by shooting still images to get comfortable with the camera and its user interface and interaction design before getting into video. Since it has a hotshoe, I pulled out my Elinchrom Skyports and started taking images with my external flashes and studio strobes. I had a planned shoot in my studio to produce some send card photos for some models, and I shot with the VG10 along side my A900. The VG10 doesn’t support the RAW file format (but the NEX 3/5 do) but in the studio the exposure is well controlled, and these images would probably not look dramatically different if shot in RAW. Note to Sony: please add RAW file support, it’s easy to do with the firmware update and enough people want it. I like having the RAW option because it allows more freedom in editing. This is one advantage the video DSLR products like the Canon 5D-II have over the VG10, top quality still image quality alongside video capability.

Still Images


Despite the sort of weird feeling of shooting stills with the VG10 (due to its ergonomics as a video device), the file quality is top notch.  Plus, I’m starting to like shooting from the hip or a little low while using the angled viewfinder. I processed the still images from our model session with Adobe Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS3. The lighting was provided from two Elinchrom BxRi 250ws strobes in softboxes left and right, with fill reflection coming from LastoLite TriLite reflectors setup in front. My Skyport radio trigger slides into the Sony hotshoe via an adapter and I just fire away as normal. The only problem shooting in the studio is that the brightness of the LCD screen is tied to the exposure of the scene, and as such it goes totally black in the studio because the modeling lights on my strobes aren’t providing enough light when I input the manual settings. You get to see the person for a second when you hit the focus and take a picture, but it’s difficult to frame the person correctly. Maybe there’s a way to turn off the LCD exposure matching feature (another firmware fix?), but I haven’t found it yet. This issue is also a problem when using the new electronic viewfinder on the Sony A33/A55 SLT cameras with studio strobes as well. If it’s like that with the coming A77, I won’t be buying one. It really kills the functionality of the camera for off-camera lighting. One thing I would really love is if you could shoot video and then just press the photo button and shoot an image. Then I could just use the modeling light on my studio strobes to light for video and also take a high quality still image when the strobes fire, but this isn’t possible. All in all, the VG10 takes good quality still images. The main limitations are no RAW, no stills while shooting video, and framing difficulty when using manual exposure and off-camera lighting.

Shooting Video


I’m currently using the VG10 for a couple of different video projects. These include, live band footage, Lego stop-motion animation, and screwing around in my apartment.


The VG10 is a Handycam, and as such it is made to shoot video easily and quickly. There’s a large video button on the back of the camera, you press it, and video recording starts. However, it’s only nice when the camera up at shoulder level when your thumb can easily press it. The camera is also designed to be held at waist level and as well by the top handle. So why is there only one big button in the most inconvenient place at the back of the body? And why can’t we use the still photo button to shoot video with? You can force autofocus using the still image button to focus during video recording, but it should allow video start/stopping as well. Even better, there should be a button at the front of the body to allow more natural use. Even better still, I would like some buttons on the handgrip to allow easy manual control of speed and aperture, but that’s probably not happening in a Handycam.

The Formers


My first video experience with the VG10 was at the Formers gig at Zak in Rapperswil-Jona. Zak is a nice small venue, perfect for live music and a little head banging. I shot stills with my A900 and had the VG10 hanging off my shoulder to shoot with as well. The 18-200 isn’t a very fast lens, the maximum aperture is 3.5 at 18mm and the stage lighting alternated between darkness, green smoke, red, etc. It was a good place to see how the camera does in low, unpredictable light. As it is a Handycam, I just pointed and shot, without paying attention to anything like audio levels, exposure, etc. I missed focus a few times because I was accidentally pressing the photo button, which held the focus in the wrong point. If I had just pointed and let the camera do the thinking it would have worked out better.


Adapting Lenses


In my apartment I’ve started playing around with different lenses. One of my favorites is the Sigma 20mm f/1.8 from my film days. It needs to be rechipped and currently the autofocus doesn’t work on any of my digital bodies. However, the main reason to use this lens is at maximum aperture, and that’s what I did while filming my small toy collection. A 20mm lens is a very nice focal length on with the APS-sized sensor of the VG10. It’s moderate wide, and high-point of the Sigma lens is that it has macro-level close-focusing capabilities. You can focus down to a few centimeters with this 20mm lens, very unique in the imaging world. However, filming by hand with such a setup is not easy, and it’s wetting my gear acquisition appetite for a dolly to accurately frame, focus, and have smooth camera movement during the shoot.


I bought a Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 about a year ago, along with a Fotodiox Hassy-Sony adapter to mount it on my A900. Since I wear glasses and the A900 has no live view, the lens doesn’t work so well with that setup. There’s no split-screen to manual focus with the A900 so when I use and focus in through the viewfinder I always focus in front of whatever I’m shooting. However, using the Fotodiox adapter along with the LA-EA 1 I’m able to put the Hassy glass on the VG10. Now I can focus using liveview for stills or video with the Hassy. This creates a sort of badass combination with very nice bokeh and 1080 video, perfect for video documenatry videography and looking cool. I haven’t used it much, but plan to as soon as the proper project gets started.

Audio Quality


My only other experience with gathering audio is with my Zoom H4. I know what good audio sounds like, just like I know what good wine tastes like, but I’m no expert in the area when it comes to highlighting nuances like the difference between MP3 and uncompressed audio. I just know what sounds and tastes good. The microphone has four omnidirectional elements, which allows the system to filter out unwanted background noise and such. As far as I’m concerned the audio quality rocks. I pointed and shot the Formers, didn’t give a thought to the audio levels and the audio came out sounding awesome. No mess, no fuss, no needing to audio sync the sound and video feeds in post-production (like with a HDSLR), I’m very happy with the audio quality on the VG10.

Video Codec and Frame Rates


As a newby with video production, I am totally new to the video formats, codecs, frame rate issues, and other topics concerning indy film making. The VG10 shoots AVCHD in a 1080 50i/60i wrapper, but the actual frame rate is 25 or 30 fps (depends on where you buy it). Unless someone (maybe someone like me) hacks the firmware (like was done with the GH-1 by someone else), it’s super unlikely Sony will release an updated firmware that allows  variable frame rates. This is due to the design philosophy of the Handycam.


A user should be able to pick up and shoot a Handycam without ever thinking about the details. You can’t even pick an ISO setting for shooting video (but you can when shooting stills). That’s the way consumer Sony video products are, and it will probably stay that way. I would like the ability to change frame rate, but at this point it would just be for experimentation, due to the fact that I’ve read on many internet forums that 24p is what people use to shoot movies because aesthetically it looks better. I’ve also read that AVCHD is a horrible format and it isn’t as good as other options like H.264 or something else. However, since I still don’t really know what I’m doing it doesn’t really matter too much, but eventually I will have a clue, and then I’ll think about going to Panasonic with the GH-2 or AF100 if I really get into video production and Sony isn’t offering what I want (I have no brand loyalty).


So dear Sony, give me variable frame rate and different video codecs or I’ll look to another system or try to hack the firmware (but first I would need to learn how to hack).

In Summary


All in all, I like the VG10. I’m not a technology apologist or a Sony fanboy. I point out when technology sucks and praise the successes I see. I’ve shot stills in the studio and video in a dark venue and the camera performed well. The VG10 fits the bill for what I want right now in my video life. It’s a camera I don’t have to think much with, uses my current lenses, gives me high quality video and audio, and is portable and adaptable for stills as well – and it fun to use. This “bill of features” will change for sure as I learn more about video production and accordingly demand more from my video camera.


Although I bought the VG10 to be an all-in-one device, I’m looking at designing a cage for the VG10 and also adding a focus follow at some point to improve manual focus capabilities. One glaring design flaw is the tripod mount. The mount on the VG10 is one of worst I’ve ever seen – on any camera – ever. It’s basically a small piece of metal, that doesn’t really connect too well to the inner body of the camera. Some people on the Vimeo VG10 group are already talking about modifying the mount to make it usable (yes, it really is horrible). The tripod mount on the LA-EA 1 adapter is much more robust, and I like to use that with tripods. One other design suck is that the tripod mounts on the LA-EA 1 and the VG10 are not level with one another, making it difficult to adapt heavy lenses to the front and improve the rigidity of the system. But it is a consumer body (now I’m starting to apologize).


The VG10 is basically a “feeler” product from Sony, it’s a test to see what consumers want. It’s made for the consumer market, but it’s prosumers who are really going to be using this camera. The future track of the VG10 can be directed along the right path if Sony gets the proper feedback. It’s in their interest to create products people want to buy. After all, Sony changed the NEX 3/5 firmware when consumers became vocal enough and demanded more, so there is hope.

Future Projects


Thanks in part to my  VG10 acquisition, the video bug is really starting to bite. I have ideas on deck for shooting promo videos of my paintings from 1 Day of Art Copenhagen and as well integrating video shootings into the normal portrait shoots I do. This will be sort of an experiment in using viral web movies to connect the intent of the artist with the viewers, and create dynamic as well as static content during shooting sessions. With the paintings, it’s also a way to explain to myself what my subconsious was doing while I was painting. Elevating the Web Portraits Zurich project is also burning in the back of my mind. I’d like to do some short interviews with the next people I shoot for that project to to present more about the person behind the technology. I like it when technology not only inspires me to buy more shit, but also fills my head with bundles of energy to head out and do new projects (or reimagine old ones), and to engage in ideas and storytelling methods I hadn’t considered before and, as a result – make life jus a little bit more interesting.



Sony A900 – First Impressions Sony A900

Ethan_IMy photography-digital-imaging-hobby-obsession has started peaking in the past few months. After putting up some profiles on Model Mayhem and Stylished I started getting requests for Time For CD (TFCD) shoots. So I figured: Hell, why not try out a Sony A900? Why the Sony A900? Well, I have a Minolta 7D, and all my lenses will work with the Sony DSLR line. Plus GraphicArt in Zurich rents the A900 as well as the A700 and all the Zeiss and G lenses. I started out renting the A900 and 24-70mm Zeiss zoom, and since picked up a body, a flash, and a Sigma 70-200 HSM zoom. What follows is a first impressions user review of the Sony A900, used in my apartment studio and around Winterthur and Zurich for location shooting.

Why the Sony A900?

Here’s my DSLR history. I started with a Canon D2000 from eBay, decided I like the DSLR concept, moved on to a Minolta 7D (I own the Minolta 7 film camera) and basically did nothing but shoot with the 7D and expand my lighting kit. Why? Because for basic shooting a 6 megapixel camera is all you need. If you have one then keep shooting with it, only camera freaks feel a constant need to upgrade. I saw little need to buy a new DSLR, in particular I saw no point unless the new camera was significantly better than my current one. I’ve been unimpressed with the results of the Nikon D300 files as compared with those from my 7D, so why consider the A700 (which sports a similar sensor). But after shooting with the Sony A900 for a weekend and seeing how much resolution and shadow texture (dynamic range) I could get with the thing, it was a natural reaction to look at my bank account and pick up a body of my own. So to get it straight, I bought the A900 because I love the colors and shadow detail.


Alexandra_I.jpgThe A900 in the Studio


My first experience with the A900 was shooting Alexandra in my studio. She found me through Model Mayhem and we worked out a few concepts. Here I used the A900, the 24-70mm F/2.8 ZA SSM (SAL2470Z), two Elinchrom BxRi studio strobes as well as a Kacey Beauty Reflector with a Sunpak 383 flash and sometimes the Lastolite Trilite reflector kit. The Zeiss-A900 combination really leaves little to be desired. The resolution and color produced with this combination are simply fantastic, and almost exceeded my expectations (on can never be satisfied with camera gear). One major problem with the Minolta 7D is focusing. I have a number of image with a model against a wall where the camera focused on the wall instead of the model. The resulting image would of course be slightly out of focus. This doesn’t matter much for web stuff, but affects the image quality and provides less image information for post-processing work. Compared to the 7D the Sony A900 has very accurate focusing, in particular when used with a SSM (Sony Super Sonic) lens. The focus point can be controlled using a joystick on the camera, and is very useful when composing. There’s no need to “focus and recompose” as you can just move the focus point where you want. The Sony A900 is the only camera to sport a function called Intelligent Preview. Basically with Intelligent Preview you take a preview image, you can view it on the camera LCD for a few seconds, and make any adjustments necessary. On other cameras you just take an image, so at first I thought “who cares?” The face is, for light checking and shooting with the popular Strobist techniques, Intelligent Preview is a very useful feature. It allows you to fire the strobes and check exposure very quickly without filling up your memory card with test images. And when the full RAW images are 35 Megabytes in size, the Intelligent Preview feature actually saves you a lot of time and storage space.


No camera can produce an image without light. For the lighting, the Elinchrom BxRi flashes were triggered via the Skyport radio system and worked flawlessly. I hooked the Skyport camera trigger up to the A900 using a hotshoe adapter from Gadget Infinity, which enables connection of a standard 1-pin flash to the Sony/Minolta flash mount. The power of the BxRi flashes can then be adjusted directly from the camera. This is ideal when you don’t have an assistant and have a number of lights set up. There’s nothing more annoying than standing around while the photographer fiddles around with lighting equipment.


Alexandra_I-2.jpg


And what is the result? Perfection mon ami, perfection. The tones and colors from the A900 are fantastic. I shot Alexandra in a few different sets against green, red, and grey backgrounds. This included everything from a yellow dress to posing with a Katana and a severed Barbie head necklace. During the pre-shoot brainstorming stage I remember I was thinking something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if she was hunting Barbie dolls in the jungle and then cut off their heads and made a necklace?”


Margarita_I.jpgThe A900 on Location


I was contacted by Margarita via Stylished (she’s also on Model Mayhem). I wanted to do some photography in an urban environment, so we headed to the old industrial area of Winterthur and moved around the old Sulzer industrial-area-turned-hip-living-area. For this shoot I used the Sigma 70-200 HSM and a Sunpak 120J with a Kacey Beauty Reflector. I always use the TR-II battery pack with the 120J, as I can shoot almost all I like without worrying about battery life. I also had a Sunpak 383 with my Orbis ringflash adapter for added fill when needed. Margarita and I did a few different sets in the Sulzer parking garage and then outside. The A900 and Sigma combination was very nice. The Sigma includes an in-body ultra sonic motor, giving fast and accurate focusing. The 120J and Kacey dish is my favorite location lighting kit. Margarita posed against concrete walls, walked around the old industrial space, and contrasted quite well with the steel framework of the place.


Many people say you don’t need the 24 megapixels of the Sony A900, and this is probably true for me as well. However, more important then sensor count is the full-frame 35mm sized sensor. This means you’re able to use the bokeh qualities of your lenses the way they were designed to be used. In the Sulzer garage you have sunlight filtering through the roof and wall windows, I balanced this with my strobe and opened up the aperture of the Sigma lens to get fantastic background blur – an ideal portrait setup. I grabbed the super bokeh frames and then posed Margarita against the steel columns. I placed the Kacey dish just out of the frame to light Margarita’s upper torso and the steel column. Light fall-off from the Kacey dish was as fantastic as ever. Every time I use it I’m happy I bought it.


Margarita_I-2.jpg


The Amazing A900 Files


I’ll be honest, I gag every time someone says something like, “I take real photos, I get it right IN-CAMERA and never use Photoshop.” The images I see in my head can rarely be captured in-camera. Many times they are, but like my paintings, the final image only starts with what I capture in-camera. The ability to manipulate your images in the post-processing stage depends heavily on how much information you’ve captured in-camera. So if you have a 24 megapixel image which isn’t focused properly, the shadows of the image will have poor definition and you’re limited in how well you’ll be able to manipulate those shadows, limiting your vision with Photoshop. The RAW .ARW image from the A900 are beautiful. You can shoot in normal or cRaw, the compressed .ARW format. The uncompressed RAW files are like 35 Mb, and the cRAW are like 24 Mb. Good money says you won’t see much difference between the two formats, and I’m shooting everything in cRAW at the moment. Now, I bought the A900 to get significantly better shadows texture and dynamic range than I was achieving with the 7D. Am I happy? Yes – fuck yes, I am ecstatically over-joyed with the shadow texture and post-processing ability of the A900 RAW files.


But beautiful files eat up a lot of CF card space when you’re like me and only have 1 and 2 gigabyte cards. But given how cheap these things are, I plan to be shooting with 4 or 8 gig cards with the A900. During shooting I copy the A900 files to my HyperDrive Space, then hook that up to my Mac Quicksilver 2002 G4 and copy the files using Adobe Lightroom. Basic adjustments are done in Lightroom, then choice images are exported to Adobe Photoshop to achieve the vision then fine-tuned again in Lightroom before final export to Flickr or for printing. I’ve been told you can just shoot JPEG with the A900, but I can’t figure out why. If you’re shooting JPEG with the A900 you probably don’t need the camera and should sell it to me at a good price so I can have a backup body.


So…


Is the Sony A900 a sweet camera? Yes. Should you buy one? Yes, if you want a fine camera which produces fantastic files, has a speedy focus, handles really well. I kept my Minolta 7D for a long time, and I plan to keep on shooting with it, but I also plan on shooting with the A900. The 24 megapixels are over-kill for many applications, but when you want the fine shadow textures and ability to mainuplate the light of an image, the Sony ARW files are heaven to work with in Photoshop and Lightroom.