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Production Equipment Reviews: Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD Camera (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
Studio Scotland Ltd has a policy of maintaining broadcast standard equipment keeping in line with European Broadcast Union (EBU) requirements. In regard to those requirements the following formats have been cleared for general High Definition projects.
AVC Intra @ 100mbs and XDCAM HD422 @50mbs
In regard to the actual camera systems used, 2/3" camcorders with high quality HD lenses are the industry standard requirement for general purpose programming. Of course, today, many camera types are used across a broad range of media content and what is acceptable to a broadcaster, is largely to do with the subject matter being shot.
Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD422 and PDW F800 XDCAM HD422
Over the last few years, the industry has seen the advent of many new technologies, but choosing the correct formats and workflows have certainly got much easier. Generally speaking, the choices really come down to what works best for your requirements – Solid State, Optical or Tape (HDCAM).
If you were to read our XDCAM HD F350 review you will see that we adopted this workflow at the end of 2007 and while we used the F350 ½” chipped camera with much success for over a year, we were waiting on the release of its big brother the PDW-700.
Because there are similar features with the F300 series and PDW-700/F800 camcorders, in regard to working with XDCAM HD optical disc please also read the F350 Review.
This is not an in-depth technical review, nor is it an overview of the manual that can be downloaded from the Sony website; it's a working review from a busy company that works on a variety of project types. The PDW-700 and the PDW F800 are the flagship camcorders of the XDCAM HD422 range, and the camera many F300 series owners wanted in the first place. Not too dissimilar in outward design, size and weight to its little brother, with the larger 2/3" lens adding extra weight. Constructed in lightweight materials, the camera is quite manageable; but for those doing a good deal of shoulder mounting, the extra weight of heavier batteries (power hungry camera) will add to the strain. I have found the DVTEC ENG Rig exceptionally helpful for relieving arm and back strain.
From a purely personal aesthetic viewpoint I don't particularly like the black finish Sony has chosen as it looks a little cheap, having said that I know of others who really like the finish, so to each his own. Certainly the finish appears to be more difficult to keep free from marks compared to the F350 model. I also feel that they could have put a little more thought into some of the fittings, such as the viewfinder which is an expensive item yet comes with a very cheap eyecup. The shoulder mount pad is poor; frankly for all the extra cost involved I would have much preferred better finishing. After all, this is not a budget camera.
It's a professional broadcast 2/3" optical disc 1920x1080p camcorder shooting both progressive and interlace. The all new 3 CCD full raster PowerHAD imagers have 2.2 million pixels and resolve a sharp image. As with all camcorders today, software revisions are there to keep the camcorder up to date.
There have been various debates over the best type of batteries to use with XDCAM HD cameras due to the power spike when the camera is frequently turned off and on. Having used the PDW-700 extensively since 2009 we have found that with due care and attention our IDX batteries work out fine. For example, an IDX Endura 10 battery will last about an hour if you keep switching the camera off and on, while it will last about 2 hours if you leave it on. The 2 cell IDX Endura Elite battery lasts 3 hours with perhaps a dozen "stop starts" involved. During very cold temperatures we get about half that time with numerous short "stop starts". For very long operating times you may wish to consider the purchase of the mains unit. There are various power saving settings and it really is a question of each end user deciding what is, and what is not important. I used to use the "delete last clip" feature on the F350, and this is one item that will help towards draining the battery.
For those not familiar with the optical disc, it’s a Blue Ray style disc housed in a spring loaded durable plastic case. It can be re-used thousands of times and has an expected life span of many decades. To date, having re-used discs numerous times I can report that we have not experienced any issues such as drop-out or data corruption. With the cost of these discs dropping, they really are cheap to use. During our trips abroad, often finding ourselves working in fairly harsh environments, I just love the ease of use with the disc system. Recording at 50mbs gives us approximately 45 minutes on a 23Gb single layer disc or 90 minutes on a 50Gb dual layer disc.
Offloading the data from the disc can be via the camcorders firewire (FAM) port, or by loading the disc into the simple U1 drive unit. The larger data rate files take a little more time to transfer when using the FAM method and over prolonged use will add to the wear and tear of the optical drive unit. Certainly, for a busy studio the XDCAM U1 Drive is an absolute must and really is a no brainer.
As with any new piece of complex 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 made, such as menu setting location and format, date and time, back focus lens check, black balance, audio settings, assignment buttons set, and detail and frequency settings altered as the camera comes set just a little too sharp. We paid particular attention to make sure there were no stuck pixels, as we did get one a few days later which appeared on a job; thankfully it was not noticeable. For general work we use the excellent Hypergamma settings which are described below.
In The Field and Image Quality:
Our PDW-700 has been in regular use on a wide variety of jobs throughout the UK, Europe and The Middle East and the following remarks are based on those experiences. From the scorching heat of the Negev desert to the high humidity deep underground caves of Jerusalem, from an icy Scandinavian winter to the dusty mountainous vineyards of Bordeaux, from filthy construction sites to ground scraping high speed tracking shots, and on the list goes. Our PDW-700 looks as good as new and has performed without fault. I generally keep my lightweight “Storm Jacket” cover to hand as this has played a major part in keeping the camera in excellent condition.
The image quality is excellent and detail is very good indeed, skin tones are pretty good, depending who you are shooting and the lighting conditions, skin tone should be judged using a high quality monitor. The PDW-700 handles low light environments very well with very little noise in the blacks. We were in a number of locations that were extremely dim, in one case even our LED lighting was prohibited and I had the camcorder menu set for maximum exposure, the lens wide open and the gain up to +12db – the image was a little noisy but considering the extreme circumstances the images captured are excellent, had that been a lesser camera I would have wept, particularly with the costs involved with the rights to film the scene in question.
A favourite video camera test for me is the iconic panoramic scene of the City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, shot from the adjacent Mount of Olives. With its endless clutter of sandstone coloured buildings it’s a job for a film camera. Shooting that scene with the PDW-700, gave the most impressive results and the images are so full of detail. I have always shied away from wide vista shots using video cameras because of the obvious lack of resolution and detail, but the 700/800 cameras have changed all that.
The HDVF-20A Viewfinder and Focusing:
At first it took a little while to get the pull out monitor, and the viewfinder to give me a useable representation in regard to what I was viewing. The HDVF-20A viewfinder is very easy to use with a useful zoom focus assist feature which I have assigned to one of my assignment buttons. Focusing is critical with this camera, with its high resolving power and detail level it will show up sloppy focus work in a heartbeat. I regularly zoom in to the subject, focus and zoom back to composition, where possible I always use an HD field monitor. Due to the critical focusing, particularly for movement shots I decided to fit a focus puller and that has really helped with the more creative style shots. Redrock Micro Focus Puller Review.
For those with the budget, the colour viewfinder model is very nice indeed, I tried one of those out at a Sony training day and it is certainly a great improvement on the HDVF–20A, however, such luxury comes at a price. I have also used an HD Marshall monitor rigged to the camera with its “sharpening” focusing aid but I have to say that I actually found it much quicker to use the HDVF–20A viewfinder.
Traveling With the PDW-700:
I held off purchasing a suitable soft case for the camera because I literally had no time to see what was available. However, after a number of trips abroad with the camera c/w lens, viewfinder and rails attached – which stopped the lens from getting a knock from underneath – all wrapped in bubble wrap, I was desperate for something a bit more user friendly.
After much consideration I opted for the Porta Brace Carry–On 23” model. Now here is the important bit. The website only lists the F300 series cameras as suitable for this bag and suggests the larger 28” bag for the 700/800 which would be unacceptable as carry–on, on just about every airline. Having measured the PDW–700 c/w lens and oversized rails it fits with ease into the 23” model. I dropped the company a note to say they should put the 700/800 cameras on the list because for those of us needing to carry the camera onto the plane in one piece, the 23” bag just scrapes through. At present 22” is the norm for many airlines. The only real hassle is the armour cover for the viewfinder; it is wider than the stipulated size, however the rest of the bag is thin enough – Just don’t let them weigh it… :-) Just out of interest, the bag manufacturer “Petrol” makes an inflatable carry–on bag for broadcast cameras, a very nifty design, however, its usefulness out-with aircraft carry-on makes it a tad expensive.
Dead / Stuck Pixels:
Regarding dead/stuck pixels, in my experience it happens every time I travel by air (altitude + x-ray machines?) whether it's 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 balance feature switch on the front of the camera body. Closing the iris down and holding down the black balance switch for 5+ seconds, then letting go to allow the software to complete its cycl. Repeat this 3/4/5 times depending on how stubborn the issue is. I must warn you that a stuck pixel is not noticeable on the 700s viewfinder or pullout monitor; in fact even our 8.5 monitor did not show one particular stuck pixel until viewed on a larger monitor back at our studio. As a matter of course when traveling without large monitor facilities I black balance the camera 3/4 times. I have been informed that at least one F800 owner has had course to return their camera on a number of occasions due to dead pixels that could not be fixed using the black balance switch, so I would suggest due diligence particularly if purchasing a used camera in a private sale with no warranty.
Hypergamma & Colour Grading:
The excellent Hypergamma menu settings are found in the Paint Menu under Gamma > Gam Table (HG). There are 4 choices, and after testing all 4 settings we decided upon Hypergamma 2 for general workhorse duties – this setting gives an excellent image that can be graded to suit. The detail from light to shade really is very good, up to 11 stops latitude. With detail switched on, and set to –19 and Frequency set at 20.
Colour grading Hypergamma 2 in FCP Studio is very good indeed, so much better than the 4:2:0 35mbs colour space and data rate. You are able to increase contrast, colour saturation, induce colour tone and tints without fear of degrading the image with noise or banding, in fact, as long as your initial footage has been properly exposed then you have a fair bit of leeway to get creative.
Having completed a number of projects recently, particularly work out in France, the graded footage looked stunning on a large screen. We shot a great deal of sunset/sunrise, backlit toned filter scenes – once graded it looks very beautiful, very romantic.
Hypergamma 4 is the more filmic looking (for want of a better word) – once again the latitude from light to dark areas is really quite excellent. We are not using this setting for anything at present but in our studio tests we used a very moody lighting set up and coupled with a gentle softening filter the image on a 1920x1080p screen looked very nice indeed. In this case we switched the Detail setting off.
We tried tests with various filters such as Black Pro mist, and while we have used those successfully with other camera types, we did not like the results. Whether the extra resolution of the 700 coupled with the HD lens was showing up the physical make up of the Pro Mist filter I am not sure. For certain situations I am sure such a filter would still have its uses, but as far as we are concerned it will most likely never be fitted to our PDW–700 again.
While we regularly shoot successful chromakey work using XDCAM HD422, I would say that we have not done anything that I would consider a real challenge for the codec, so for those interested in using this codec for something a little more complicated than general head and shoulders shots I would run some tests. Of course, even the simpler set ups do require great care or you will give yourself a lot of work at the post stage. We have a 46” Sony Bravia monitor for client viewing which is very helpful for showing chromakey errors.
Fujinon HA18x7.6 BERM-M58B Lens:
There is much debate over the use of standard definition lenses on HD cameras, of course those who have already bought into expensive broadcast 2/3" SD lenses lenses will not be keen to replace those. We chose to purchase the High Definition Fujinon HA18x7.6 Lens with x2 extender, which the Sony dealer recommended, and having nothing to compare it to means I can't really comment. What I can say is that the lens exhibits a noticeable softening at the edges (edge definition) when set to wide or at the end of the telephoto. When I say noticeable, it clearly depends on the subject matter and for most situations it’s not an issue. The PDW–700 and F800 resolve a great deal of detail and will show up dirty lens or filter glass so do beware. While I do use the extender for certain scenes I feel that the picture quality is definitely degraded, course for certain situations like news this will not be an issue.
Audio recording is very good quality and all the usual professional audio features are in place with of course the provision to drop a Sony wireless RX unit into the top rear of the camera body. Since you don’t get a mic with the camera and if you have no intention of purchasing a suitable Sony mic, its important to note that the front input connector is a stereo 5 pin affair so you will either need a 5/3 pin adapter or you will need to trail your 3 pin XLR cable to one of the rear sockets. We got a 5/3 pin adapter with our camera but I did hear of those who did not. While of course the Sony wireless unit is a nice bit of kit we opted for a Lectrosonics unit and we did experience a few issues getting it to match properly. You can read more about that on our Lectrosonics review.
Sony PDW F800 XDCAM HD422:
The PDW–F800 made its debut in late 2009 and is to all intense purposes a PDW–700 with a few more bells and whistles. Designated with the Cinealta F – telling the viewer it’s aimed at cinematography, drama and corporate style productions. The main differences for most folks are the addition of under and over–cranking, image flip for those fitting 35mm adapter units, colour correction filter wheel and a nifty focus aid. One former PDW-700 owner, now F800 owner reported to me that skin tones were much more accurate on the F800.
Convergent Design NanoFlash:
This little unit created quite a stir when it first came out and certainly has its advocates. Basically the NanoFlash is a little box of tricks that when connected to the PDW–700 / F800 you can increase the data rate from 50mbs to180mbs and more although tests show that 100mbs is the "sweet" spot. The extra data further enhances the clean image and reduces banding particularly in challenging sky scenes. Another great feature is the fact that the unit records this data to cheap solid state media making this incredibly cheap to operate. Capturing in the XDCAM HD422 long GOP codec continues to keep the files easy to edit without the need for brute processing power. While there are quite a few more features of interest, we decided that for our general production work it has no value. From my own point of view, I require my studio to be able to turnaround high quality products in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of hassle and that means keeping the workflow as simple as possible. For high quality production projects the PDW–700 and F800 models do not need any help from add–ons.
Of course, it all depends on the type of business, your business model and whether you purchase, lease or rent camera equipment that will determine your choices. Certainly, the PDW–700 and F800 have become very popular and are used on productions around the world day in and day out. We have now used the PDW–700 extensively on various project types and in some pretty harsh conditions and we have not had one glitch.
All in all, having decided on XDCAM HD422 as the format of choice for our varied needs, the PDW–700 and the XDCAM HD422 codec are everything we wanted in an HD workhorse system. The PDW–F800 made its debut in late 2009 and is to all intense purposes a PDW–700 with a few more bells and whistles. Sony recently added the PDW-850 to the range.
It’s a rock solid system that delivers.
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".