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Production Equipment Reviews: Sony PDW-350 XDCAM HD Camera (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
While this review was written in 2008, it was updated for 2015 and still gives an informative overview of XDCAM HD4:2:0 products.
Since buying into Sony’s XDCAM HD workflow back at the end of 2007, we were commissioned to shoot a wide range of jobs that would put an F350 camera into many varied working conditions and would test the ease of use of the Sony Optical Disc system for capturing and editing. These are my own thoughts as a camera operator, editor and business professional based on projects that cover, short film, docudrama, corporate, industrial, broadcast commercials, web tutorials, DVD and plasma screen presentations.
I should say at the outset, I am not much interested in the deep workings of technology coming from a background of manual camera systems, darkrooms, chemicals and film. At heart I am a “creative” but I am also a businessman with many years experience working within the advertising and marketing industry.
As a small company we are not brand loyal as such, equipment purchases are made on our requirements at any given time. The purchase of industry standard equipment that is part of an integrated system with international dealer support is important for maximum productivity.
The Sony XDCAM HD F350 Camera Body:
Simply - It’s a professional shoulder mounted body with 3 CCD ½” chips (1440x1080) to be used with ½” lenses, using Sony optical disc recording media. The cameraman can choose standard definition DVCAM 25mbs through to Hi Definition XDCAM HD 35mbs. The body has a lot of plastic but is well constructed at its price point; it has certainly proved capable in arduous conditions we have been filming. All the controls and switches are well placed and mirror the majority of professional broadcast camera bodies. The on-board mic that comes with the camera is adequate for general ambient sound – this has a stereo 5 pin connector. Fitting another mic will require you to trail your mic lead to one of the rear audio inputs if you do not have a 5/3 pin adapter for the front input socket. The F350 is certainly not heavy by professional camera standards, but heavy enough to make my body complain after long periods of hand holding. I also find the balance front heavy. Because of this I purchased the DVTEC ENG Rig which we now use with the heavier PDW-700.
The Fujinon XS17x5.5 BRM-M38 HD Lens:
The Hi Def Fujinon XS17 lens has a good reputation as a reasonably priced piece of HD glass – it could be viewed as middle of the road, although at around £5,000 it is certainly not inexpensive. The lens has a reasonable wide and long field of view for most jobs. I considered the purchase of the excellent Fujinon XS13 wide angle lens at around £12,000 but alas, I was not keen to pour too much money into a set of ½” lenses as we were waiting for the 2/3” PDW-700 to arrive at the end of 2008. For some situations I will attach a screw-on Tiffen UV filter to protect the lens frontal element from possible damage, but generally I don’t like any unnecessary glass in front of the lens.
Many people ask the question regarding the use of standard definition lenses instead of HD lenses. I have never tried, but others have reported more than acceptable results for certain types of work. Clearly, the higher the quality of the SD lens will produce better results. It should be noted that this becomes a trickier subject when dealing with the high resolving PDW-700 / 800 cameras.
I often like to use EFX filters (usually 4X4 Tiffen glass filters) such as Pro Mist, Diffusion, Graduation and Polarisation and for this I fit a lightweight Chrosziel Matte Box which is quick to fit and remove. We have a Fujinon 8 pin zoom controller that required the Fujinon 8 pin into 12 pin adapter lead; this is a “must” for zooming at the long end of the lens on a Libec LS60 tripod. Generally speaking I would keep the lens aperture between f2.8 and F8 and use the in-built camera ND filters when required to keep the aperture constant. While some like to discuss aspects of edge definition and chromatic aberration, I don’t see any real world issues, certainly nothing that can’t be solved by a change of angle, lighting, a quick tweak in post and so on. My remark is based upon many years of studio and location photography with high quality cameras and lenses. Given the work most of these cameras will be used for, some issues are really not worth worrying about.
We use IDX battery bricks for power and in particular the larger Endura 10 and Elite series batteries as opposed to the smaller 7 series, which under most circumstances only lasts about an hour and a bit. While you can run a camera light from the D tap connection I use a Light Panels Mini Plus with its own battery brick. Because the disc based system automatically records to the next point for recording, I switched the camera off more often than I would have done with a tape based camera, so it is surprising how long you can go without a battery change.
In the Field:
One of the first location jobs for the F350, was inside a burning building (controlled environment by the Fife Fire & Rescue Service) and due to various fire regulations we had to entrust the camera, mounted on a Libec LS60 tripod to one of the fire officers in a room that was to become engulfed in thick toxic black smoke. We monitored the situation via the SDI link to a Sony Hi Def LMD-9050 monitor outside the building. The camera had a storm rain jacket attached as water sprinklers burst into action. Our clients watched on the monitor and were much impressed with the results, so much so that the resulting footage is now incorporated into BAFSA safety presentations. Job after job, we have found that the ability to replay any clip within seconds, has been really beneficial to many of our clients, impressed at the ease of which they can review results, boosting client confidence. In general, the camera has been very easy to use, quick to set up and flawless in operation, the discs are so easy to use and really do inspire confidence.
Focusing had on occasions been a bit of a pest and I would regularly check to make sure that the eyepiece dioptre adjustment slider and the peaking control knob had not been accidentally moved. When the lens was removed for air transport I always checked the back focus, where possible on a 24” monitor. For most of our work I use a Sony LMD-9050 field monitor powered by an IDX Endura 7 battery. With the usual practice of zoom in – focus – zoom back, your eye gets used to where the sharpest point of focus is through the viewfinder. However, I must reiterate, focusing is something you cannot get lazy about, while images on an 8.5” field monitor can look fine, it can be a different story viewing back on a larger screen.
We had noticed overheating on occasions; of course you need to be aware of the little cooling vents at the rear of the top camera body handle. After having the camera covered for a fair length of time in a very warm building it was necessary to air the camera and switch off for a few moments to clear a fan warning message. On another occasion, the camera exhibited overheating without any protective cover or even a warm atmosphere, once again switching off for a few minutes solved the problem. I must make it clear, that after a year of regular use it only happened twice, and so, given the amount of times the camera was used and in the varied situations it was used, I do not consider it an issue. As far as I am aware I have not heard of this happening with the updated F335/355 models. As with any piece of equipment that requires cooling it’s best to keep an eye on it when in environments that may raise this issue.
Medium Weight Tripods, Cranes & Dollies:
One of the good things about using lighter camera heads is the ability to use lightweight rigs, saving time, money and hassle on jobs where budgets are tight. While the F350 / PDW-700 cameras are certainly not light, we do with care use them successfully on such set ups.
The Libec LS60 is a great value for money tripod but it is, without a doubt, border line for this camera set up. When zoomed out you virtually cannot breath near the camera for fear of movement, not really noticeable on an 8.5” monitor but very noticeable on a larger screen, using something as a wind break can help. Using a Kessler Crane with a fully loaded F350 is no problem, and while the removal of extraneous parts such as viewfinder c/w mic, and the use of a lighter/smaller battery helps, it’s not really necessary. It does help to remove flags fitted to a matte box, or to just use a rubber lens hood to lessen the chance of wind drag. When using a ladder dolly, if the camera has been sitting for a few minutes then you need to run the dolly back and forth to take the slight flat spots out of the rubber “O” ring tyres that develop due to the weight of the camera sitting motionless.
Handling - Exposure, Movement & Contrast:
Low light was an issue with this camera but software updates made a welcome improvement, not fantastic, but certainly better. Most of our work is controlled, we generally get to light all our scenes and so this was not usually a problem. Increasing the gain does make the footage noticeably noisier. Depending on a users requirements this could be an issue for some people. Compared to smaller shoulder mount cameras like the JVC series, the F350 is as you would expect, not so easy to throw about and once again this may be a factor for the user. The F300 series cameras are however, now aging technology, and while they are still very capable, the image quality is beginning to fall behind the newer cameras coming onto the market.
What about contrast? As a long standing studio photographer I have always found digital video and 35mm film very poor recording mediums when requiring rich detail. Certainly advances in technology continue and it’s great to see new products breaking new ground. With due care and attention the F350 handles many jobs very well; in controlled environments it is capable of recording beautiful images. In the photographs seen here, shooting in sunny France at an industrial complex, the sun had created a band of light causing blown highlights on surface areas. Unable to move the subject we erected poly sheeting to diffuse the sun, bringing the contrast back to a more acceptable level. For the events or documentary shooters it is often impossible to control situations and in those circumstances the F350 with its ½” chip set will at times challenge your skills.
With documentary and commercial work, traveling can be a challenge and depending on the job, we try to travel as light as possible. Traveling by aircraft, we will not put any expensive small items in the hold, using Flight Cases for the big jobs and a range of Pelican cases with padlocks for general carriage. Breaking the camera down into lens, viewfinder, and body wrapped in bubble wrap, I would sometimes use a non-descript over-the-shoulder bag, as branded models can attract unwanted attention. Fortunately we usually have at least three people on our trips so we decant plenty equipment between us. Our audio engineer, Keith, favors a roll-on backpack, although he did get a bit of hassle for over packing it once.
Generally we don’t have any problems at security in European territories but we do get the odd occasion when we need to unpack everything. In regards to batteries, we carry the printed literature that comes with IDX products, proving that they are cleared for air transportation.
Dead / Stuck Pixels:
Regarding dead/stuck pixels, in my experience it happens every time I travel by air (altitude + x-ray machines?) whether its because Hi Def cameras with CCD chips have a lot more pixels and therefore run a greater risk of this phenomenon I do not know, however, it’s easily fixed using the black masking feature switch on the front of the camera body. Closing the iris down and holding down the black mask switch for 5+ seconds then letting go to allow the software to complete its cycle – repeat this 3/4/5 times depending on how stubborn the issue is.
Audio recording on XDCAM HD is industry standard 16bit 48 khz sampling. There are various options, including four channels, but most of our work means we mix down through a field mixer, such as the Sound Devices 302, plugged into the two XLR inputs at the rear of the camera. Occasionally I would use the on-board 5 pin stereo mic to record ambient sound.
Protection (during use):
I use a lightweight “Storm Jacket” when in situations that requires a camera to be covered; I am not keen on the heavy duty type covers and prefer the light weight approach. In one situation we were underground in a cave system of Lime, while dumper trucks were tipping lime rocks onto the conveyor system. That whole section of the cave became enshrouded in Lime dust (lime can etch glass) but the Storm Jacket kept the camera protected. For other working conditions I did occasionally keep the camera with lens attached, but viewfinder removed in a Pelican 1600 case.
Chromakey - Greenscreen / Bluescreen:
Colour space arguments regarding 4:2:2 v 4:2:0 aside, we do a fair deal of chromakey work for all kinds of projects and in general, we were able to get pretty good keys using the F350. Following the usual practice for small format limitations, every effort is made to control what the background foreground relationship will be, with tinting, grading and other applications helping along the way. At the end of the day, if we were required to shoot a complex piece of chromakey work for a larger budget commission, then we would not use the F350. In a nutshell, if we could get away with it… then we used it, if not… we would hire the appropriate tool for the job.
While you can connect the camera via firewire (FAM) to the computer, the very handy Sony U1 drive makes life much easier as transfer times are twice the speed of FAM. Optical disc has proved to be the natural evolution from tape, capturing via the XDCAM HD Transfer software is simplicity in itself. This is what XDCAM HD is all about; the workflow is quite simply – excellent. Recording to an extremely tough plastic encased optical disc in 1080p 35mbs (50mbs on PDW-700/F800) and dumping via the U1 Drive, importing into an XDCAM HD 35mbs timeline (with the option of rendering to an Apple Pro Res codec) and editing without the need for rendering. Our work flow took on a whole new dimension and life became so much more enjoyable.
At this present time our commercial work still ends up on standard definition DVDs, TV commercials or the web. For general DVD work and as Mac FCP users, the completed project is saved as a Quick Time reference movie using the XDCAM HD codec. For certain jobs such as TV commercials we upload our XDCAM HD QT Ref files to our server ( 20 second commercial is approximately 450mb in uncompressed standard definition while the HD QT Master file is 120mb and is superior in quality when dumped to digi beta for broadcast). For other types of work we will take the QT Ref file into FCP Compressor where it is converted for its intended destination.
The F330 / 350 use the single layer disc (just under 1 hour full 35mbs recording) and the F335 / 355 can use the dual layer disc (just under 2 hours full 35mbs recording). The disc is housed in a self contained spring loaded plastic housing that is virtually indestructible and loads straight into a top loader on the camera body. You can reuse the disc thousands of times and it will keep the digital media safe for decades. The discs are infinitely superior to magnetic tape and price per unit continues to drop making it very cheap to shoot Hi Definition material. A great feature of the disc is that you can erase clips you decide not to keep which will automatically free up space on the disc. Because discs are relatively cheap we continue to store client’s original files on disc as we did with tape.
The overall look of the footage:
Of course what I am about to say is completely personal and has nothing to do with the camera’s abilities. I don’t like the overall look of the Sony F300 series footage out of the box, it looks flat, electronic or course compared to the organic look of Panasonic and therefore requires “setting up” to get the best out of it if you want a pretty image from go. As a digital photographer, grading stills comes with the job; digital video is no exception, although most camera systems can be tweaked to produce a more favorable look. While I created a number of custom scene files in the camera menu I did not use them in working practice. Setting the camera to capture the greatest amount of detail for post manipulation is usually my preference. Filters are the obvious way to change the “look” and feel of a project. For some jobs I use diffusion and pro mist filters amongst others, as they still give a nicer feel than any post effect I have ever seen and, of course, polarised images cannot be replicated in post. At the end of the day, we are in a changing world where everything is manipulated and peoples' perceptions of what looks good and what doesn’t is in the eye of the beholder.
It can be very rewarding and great fun working on creative projects, but as a business, we should be making money. Sony XDCAM HD optical disc has without a doubt increased our productivity at the right price point. Having used other camera / hard drive technologies that have cost us time, money and a great deal of aggravation, never at any point have I felt we cannot trust the Sony disc system, it is a solid performer, letting me get on with the job in hand. A nice touch is the delete last clip feature, and this has been great at getting rid of duff takes, helping to get more out of a disc, let alone unnecessary time spent sifting through useless takes at the edit stage. Checking clips on the set or location are a breeze and can be viewed using the thumbnail system viewed on the pull out monitor (not much use for anything else other than composition) or a larger monitor connected to the camera. Should you suddenly need to start shooting again, just press the record button and you’re off… simple. In fact there are so many nice touches to this system, such as cache recording where you can leave the camera on (not recording) and if the action starts before you are ready all you do is start the camera recording and it will record the last 30 seconds while it was sitting idle – now that is a neat trick, not only useful for capturing things like lightning strikes but also for changing discs without interrupting the cameras operation.
Working abroad away from home base, you can download your footage into a laptop (must have Sony XDCAMHD Transfer software loaded – a free Sony download) and send back low resolution “Proxy” files via the internet. This enables your editor to work quickly and piece together your footage while a courier wings the optical disc to him/her which they then upload once received. The low resolution edit is replaced with the High Resolution master files. Because the discs are cheap there is no need to be concerned about handing them over to a client compared to the unhappy thought of letting go of expensive solid state media.
XDCAM HD is now widely accepted by major broadcasters around the world and many crews have been using the F300 series cameras although these have been getting replaced by the PDW-700. The European Broadcast Union (EBU) lists XDCAM HD422 as an industry standard for Hi Definition projects.
There is one subject I am always a bit hesitant to remark on but it is a reality of life. Image is an important key in any successful business (in most cases at least) and turning up with a camera that looks not much different than the one your “new client” uses to film family holiday trips may raise an eyebrow. This can become a more important issue when you have been contracted to film dignitaries, such as Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the case pictured above. For shoots like these, consistency of results and solid dependability are paramount, you don’t get a second chance. As a commercial camera, the F350 is a professional piece of equipment that looks and acts like it means business; enough said.
We had a problem with the F350 right out of the box, but it sorted itself out – a software glitch. As part of the package came something called Sony Silver 2 Year Support and I had to call them twice, once for the camera and once for the U1 Drive. The support was quick and our questions were answered satisfactorily. Just to show impartiality, we also had problems straight out of the box with a brand new JVC camera which was eventually sorted – again a software glitch. This is one reason, as a busy company we prefer to purchase through an official dealer. In both cases of camera purchase we were offered replacement cameras within 48 hours. Many jobs down the road and dozens of discs later we had no problems whatsoever with our F350 and it still looked as good as new the day it was traded-in for Sony's flagship XDCAM HD 422 PDW-700 (Go to our Review).
As mentioned earlier, the F300 series 1440 x 1080 optical disc cameras are aging technology and purchase should definitely be based upon getting a good deal on one. Much depends on your particular needs and business model, certainly, in the right hands these cameras are more than capable of beautiful images, the optical disc is a joy to work with, particularly if you find the costs of solid state media restrictive. Now with 1920 x 1080p the standard, this will be a consideration in the front of most people's minds and may be the factor that will deter purchase. I can tell you that the 1440 x 1080 scales up very well indeed with little in the way of any real issues.
I hope you have found this review informative and that it will help you make informed choices.
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".
Studio Scotland Adopts XDCAM HD
A Country Retreat on XDCAM HD
Cable Guys go XDCAM HD
The Daniel Project shot on XDCAM HD