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Production Equipment Reviews: Sony NXCAM HXR–NX5E Camera: (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
The AVCHD format from Sony created a fair amount of interest when it announced it at the end of 2009 and the first Sony camcorder offering to utilize this format was the HXR-NX5. Of course, as of 2015 a lot has happened in the video industry, however for those contemplating picking up one of these older cameras this review should prove helpful. Sony sent us a demo unit to see what we thought of it, particularly since we have been looking for a small palmcorder that could be integrated alongside larger offerings such as XDCAM HD 422 products within professional projects. Clearly we are not expecting a 1/3” sensor, fixed lens unit to come close to the quality of Sony’s XDCAM EX or XDCAM HD products, however, for those shots where small cameras are best suited to get action shots with ease, or areas where cameras need to be low key, or where the camera is cheap enough to be sacrificed for a particular shot, then being able to record a good amount of high quality footage on a relatively low cost system is of interest to ourselves.
Of course, for those who work in areas such as weddings, events, travel documentary and other areas that would benefit from a system that can capture a good amount of 1920x1080p data on inexpensive media on a quality camera that uses very little battery power that can fit in a small shoulder bag, has got to be worth a look.
Sony NXCAM (AVCHD) Format
Clearly following in the “Naming” footsteps of XDCAM, XDCAM EX and XDCAM HD – “NXCAM” is Sony’s latest offering in the line up. Utilising the AVCHD format, a highly efficient data compression technology - MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 enables an impressive amount of digital information to be recorded onto inexpensive media. Some will ask whether NXCAM products will be the replacement for HDV but I am not in the business of speculation. Clearly the AVCHD format utilised by both Sony and Panasonic is in its infancy while the HDV format appears to have run its course.
General Overview & Specification:
Finished in black, on handling the camera, build quality certainly appears to be very solid to the feel, the flip out monitor screen is nice and tight. While some of the switches are a bit fiddly for the larger fingered person, the layout is pretty well thought-out and easy enough to use. Most of the protective covers are good quality and should take the rigors of professional work. Clearly time out in the field is the only real measure and will show any particular flaws needing attended to in a future update.
One of the things often neglected, is the reading of an instruction manual. This camera has a fair number of features and I strongly advise the reading of the manual at least twice, and then keep it in your camera bag for reference.
I won’t go into to detail about all the fittings, you can see from the pictures we have taken what the camera layout looks like, I always feel that how a camera feels in a persons hand is subjective and is very much a personal thing. At the end of the day I don’t like palmcorders but at the same time, I don’t like using a full sized 2/3” camera laden down with accessories and heavy batteries in awkward conditions. Of course, when a camera head is on a tripod or some other type of rig then the shape of the camera usually becomes a moot point.
The HXR-NX5 records in both Hi Definition (1080/50i 1080/25p 720/50p) & Standard Definition formats (576/50i 576/25p). There are various image quality settings depending on your choice of format, for our purposes we are looking to get the best image out of the camera and one that will cut well with higher end formats such as XDCAM HD 422.
The Sony G lens is a x20 zoom with a x30 digital extender option and comes with a robust wide lens hood with a built in lens cover. It comes with Auto and Manual focus as well as an image stabilizer. The camera uses 1/3” imagers of the Exmor CMOS variety.
The audio recording system is 48kz 16 bit and you can see two XLR fittings on the handle unit. Switches to the rear of the viewfinder give you the opportunity to run Mic, Line or 48v. While the camera comes with an internal mic built into the front of the handle it also comes with a separate ECM-XM1 microphone, which is certainly quite capable of recording high quality ambient sound.
As you can see from the pictures there are a number of connections available such as Video Out, Audio Out, HDMI Out, Component Out, SDI Out and a headphone Jack. There are three Assign buttons which are very useful. There is a three position gain switch as well as three built-in ND filters. GPS is fitted for those who would find this feature useful and you also have slow motion recording. As I said, there are quite a number of features available.
As with any new piece of kit the manual should be read and re-read, we hooked the camera up to a high def monitor and all the usual “set up” requirements were checked, the menus are well laid out and once you work your way through them they are simple enough to navigate. As mentioned we were particularly interested in the highest quality format that would cut well with the professional XDCAM HD format and so we set the recording format to HD 1080/25p. We noticed that you don’t get a full screen read-out display until you insert a media card.
The reason for this review is not to “bench test” the camera or compare it to other 1/3” products, but to simply test the HXR-NX5 image with its AVCHD format up against a higher end broadcast camera (in this case the Sony PDW-700) to see what we have – that at the end of the day will tell us whether we will find this little camera of any use or not for our own requirements.
As already mentioned, it is important to read the manual as this little palmcorder has a good deal of image settings that can be adjusted within the menu system. I should say at this stage that, if you are not familiar with adjusting camera menus then proceed with caution. Clearly one of the simplest adjustments available are the Gamma settings and here you have the ability to choose from a number of “looks” which includes two settings for a cinematic look. For our purposes we set the camera to a fairly neutral setting as we wanted to see how much we could alter the picture in post. Unfortunately, due to time constraints we were not able to spend the time tweaking the various image settings in a bid to get the very best out of the camera, so I do believe we could have improved the picture somewhat.
Battery & Media Cards:
The camera takes the standard NP-F570 battery pack (you cannot use NP-F330) and while we did not test to see how long we could get out of the battery, it is clearly a reasonable amount of time compared to larger format cameras.
The camera has two memory card slots and one flash memory unit (HXR-FMU128 – optional extra). It is recommended to use “Memory Stick Pro Duo” media of 1GB or larger marked with “Memory Stick Pro Duo” – you cannot use the longer “Memory Stick” media type in this camera. As with most cards they need to be formatted before use (using Media Format) and you should make sure you have transferred all your images to a computer before formatting the card, as this erases all data.
I do find the little cards a bit fiddly, and I do wonder if some folks may inadvertently damage the card or the slot through incorrect insertion. The feel of the flash drive that fits to the rear and side of the body has a much more robust and positive feel. Either way we were impressed to see just how much 1080/25p highest quality footage we were able to get onto one of these little cards, and this is clearly a selling point.
Sony G lens:
Personally, I do not like fixed lenses, particularly where you have no mechanical aperture ring and a positive focusing barrel. However, the aperture ring was nice and responsive while I found the zoom and focusing a little slow. You should be careful regarding your audio as you can clearly hear the zoom motor being operated on recordings within a quite environment.
Focusing & Viewfinder/Monitor:
As I said before, the flip out monitor is well built and does not feel like its going to break easily. To aid focusing there is a peaking control in the menu and I found myself turning it down as I found it intrusive. It does however help with critical focusing which all in all was straight forward. If you have the flip out monitor screen open then the viewfinder screen will not be operative at the same time (can’t remember if you can change that in the menu settings). As with all high definition formats you must be careful with your focusing, using the popular Zoom-In / Focus / Zoom out will keep you right for most subjects. The auto focus as far as I tried it, did work well and would certainly come in handy for moving subject matter.
Skew / Rolling Shutter:
Yes, if you whip-pan the camera from side to side you will get a degree of what looks like the image bending. So much has been written on this subject that I am not going to say any more than - every technology has its advantages and disadvantages, as a camera operator it is for you to decide on the correct tool for a given application. At the present time CMOS sensors have anomalies you just get used to dealing with, and if that is not good enough for you then you need to stick with larger CCD camera types and the higher costs involved.
In Use and Image Quality:
Handling the camera is very easy; it’s light enough to hold in the hand for lengthy periods without getting wrist or arm strain which is a problem with larger cameras of a similar design. As I said, I do not favour palmcorders but I did find this little cam very easy to use, all the controls are well laid out and at no time did I feel frustrated with its size or layout. For me the only real pest was getting used to the fixed lens type, as I would inadvertently turn the focus when I meant to use the zoom.
We recorded a studio test, where we set the HXR-NX5 alongside a PDW-700 – both recording at 1080/25p. We shot a series of shots at wide, medium and close up to see how well the HXR-NX5 images would cut, and here is what we found once the images were downloaded and played back on a 23” HD monitor.
I should say that our test was quite a tough one for a 1/3” camera as we were using only 1 Arri 650w shot through an opal diffusion screen with no fill on the other side of the face. We wanted to see how well it would handle the highlights and the shadows. We lit the greenscreen background with LED panels to see what kind of key we could achieve and what level of colour bleed may find its way onto the foreground subject.
Placing the footage from both cameras into an Apple ProRes 422 HQ 1920x1080p timeline and putting them side by side revealed exactly what we expected. The PDW-700 image was of course superior in every way, once again we are not expecting a 1/3” sensor camera to compare with a broadcast 2/3” camera, however, the close up images from the HXR-NX5 were very good indeed, to the untrained eye the footage displayed on a 23” HD monitor would easily pass when cut with wide or medium shots from the PDW-700. Of course that is on a 23” monitor, the differences would become more obvious the larger the viewing screen.
Both cameras where white balanced but they clearly did not match; the HXR-NX5 displayed a distinct magenta tint, which once again, could be altered within the settings menu.
Of course when you place two similar images as still frames, side by side on the monitor, the difference is clear to see, however, as already stated, using this camera to capture particular action scenes or awkward scenes would cut well with higher end formats and that was one of the reasons for our test.
While we would not use a camera of this type for greenscreen work we thought it would be interesting to see what could be achieved. Bearing in mind the limitations of the camera type, we set up a test that should both be a challenge and should be easy to get a key. As long as challenging subject matter is avoided and careful attention is paid to the keying edges and the lighting involved, then the results are quite acceptable for web or small screen DVD work.
Sony sent us a software disc for PC use, which we duly loaded onto a laptop and within minutes we were viewing the clips we had shot. However, we work on Mac’s and that requires the AVCHD clips to be converted into the Apple Pro Res 422 codec. It’s a straight forward process, we simply opened a new Final Cut Pro project and set the sequence settings to Apple ProRes 422 1920X1080 25p HQ (1920x1080/25p is the format we shot in) go to File and then Log & Transfer, as soon as you connect the media card via a reader plugged into the Mac via the USB port the clips are automatically listed in the Log & Transfer box window. Click on the clip and then click on the convert button – it does not take long, and the completed file appears in your Final Cut Pro bin ready to be dropped into the timeline.
Working with both XDCAMHD422 and NXCAM in the Apple ProRes 422 timeline was faultless and quick.
Colour grading needs to be done with care; once again it’s not the format that’s the problem here, but the limitations of 1/3” sensors. The better highlights, shadows and exposure have been controlled, then the more latitude you will have to manipulate the image. Once again we would not personally use this camera if we knew we were going to be doing colour grading. That’s not to say you can’t, it’s just that the introduction of noise would become too much for our requirements.
Putting the Test in Perspective:
Would we be interested in this camera – for our type of work, probably not, if using a small palmcorder of this size we would be more inclined to use an EX1R. However there is no disputing that the HXR-NX5, properly set up, is very capable of being used to cut 1920x1080p footage with higher end pro HD camera formats.
I can of course see other applications that would suit this camera well. With its ability to record in SD and HD 1920x1080p onto inexpensive media, easy to use, light, low power consumption, very easy to transport and simple to transfer data onto your laptop and edit, this will definitely find a fan base.
I suppose the next question will be, when will this format find its way into a larger chipped camera body?
This particular camera is now aging and any prospective buyer would do well to weigh up the pros and cons of purchasing older technology at this level considering the raft of new products that exploded onto the shelves over 2014 and who knows what delights 2015 will bring. Once again, I will state that a prospective buyer must read the instructions thoroughly to get the best out of this camera. It really does have quite an array of features and there are quite a few warnings that must be heeded to avoid loss of data or what could appear to be a malfunction.
The camera is solidly built and feels comfortable in the hand, its ability to record 1920x1080/25p HD footage onto inexpensive media cards with little battery draw is clearly a selling point. Editing the material was straight forward and as our tests revealed, with due care, the footage could easily be cut with higher end formats.
As with any camera purchase, it is always best to go and take a product for a test drive as everyone's needs are different.
Stewart Menelaws (Director of Photography)
You can read some more in-depth reviews on XDCAM products by choosing from the review links below.
"You can also read interviews Stewart has done for "The Producer magazine".