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Production Equipment Reviews: Sony XDCAM HD422 (a working review)

(Review update for 2015)

This review goes hand in hand with the PDW–700 Camera review so it may be beneficial to have a read at that also. We have been using Sony’s XDCAM HD format since 2007 and with the purchase of the PDW-700 422 camera at the beginning of 2009 we were keen to put it through its paces to see what XDCAM HD422 was capable of; after all, this was the system we were after from the beginning. 

The generally accepted issues raised regarding Long GoP compression are that of Banding /Contouring, Blocking, Mosquito Noise, Posterisation, Break–up and Data Corruption. As an ICE member for Sony, I have quite an extensive power point presentation giving an overview on how compression works, however, it really is a complex subject and one most people would have no real interest in. 

What is of more benefit to the professional video user is what independent professional organisations, such as the European Broadcast Union, have to say in regard to approved industry standard High Definition acquisition requirements.

Laser Quest chase through the forrest.
Cameraman preparing for fast track action with Farrari car.

Sony XDCAM HD 422 & Panasonic AVC Intra Formats

EBU (European Broadcasting Union) technical report

(Choose “Digital Compression” > HDTV Production tests)

You will find that both AVC Intra at 100mbs and XDCAM HD422 at 50mbs, have passed stringent testing using procedures set down by the EBU and that both formats are the minimum requirement for general purpose HD productions. Neither codec is viewed as being “better”. Sony has chosen one method while Panasonic another. Both companies know exactly what they are doing and both manufacture industry approved equipment to suit different needs within different working practices.

Okay, after all that, are there some subjects that really stress the Long GoP Codec? Yes… movement… lots of movement. So on that note, enter our test.


Transferring XDCAM HD422 Files to a Third Party:

As time has progressed it has been good to see the transfer of digital formats become much easier and in regard to dealing with other studios, whether broadcast, post production or footage library sales, creating a self contained QT FCP Movie file (For Mac users) in the XDCAM HD422 codec is the simplest and retains all the quality of the original footage. File sizes are also very manageable and 30 second TV commercials can be uploaded to a server with ease while longer projects can fit on a memory stick. 

Land Rover going through water. Client: Crieff Hydro Hotel
High angle of moving Land Rover Discovery

Shooting at Speed:

Probably due to my stills background in advertising photography I tend to favour 25p 1/50th shutter as a shooting style. However, for action work that you have little control over, that can be challenging indeed. Shooting high speed action with the camera inches from the ground at the Knockhill Racing Circuit was clearly a situation where motion blur could become a problem, particularly shooting with a camera that would show the flaws in less than perfect camera work. You may ask, "Why not shoot with a faster shutter speed or interlace?" Well, while a higher shutter speed introduces stutter, and for many subjects this is quite acceptable or even a desired effect such as in the opening shots of "Saving Private Ryan" and in the case of interlace which is the norm for action sports, live events and so on, I wanted to see what I could achieve. I have shot a fair bit of action stuff with the PDW–700 but I have always been in control of all the moves.

Ordering from the menu at dining table..jpg
Sony PDW-700 on crane ready for outdoor action capture

Working Out The Shots:

With an early start to the day, former British Super Bike champion – Niall Mackenzie, astride a Yamaha R1 supplied by Alan Duffus Motorcycles of Edinburgh, prepared for a day of filming where he would be called upon to work through various action shots for promotional and training material. Several days before the shoot, I did a reconnaissance of the track, looking for appropriate angles that would make for strong images. Niall was asked to wear skid knee pads so sparks would be seen flying off when his knees scraped the ground on those tight corners.

"Getting the overhead race track shots with a telehandler / cherry picker.
Camera crew checking scene with Sony 8" Hi-Def field monitor
Cameraman filming rider Nial MacKenzie on his motorbike

The PDW–700 is no lightweight and it was quite a challenge to get high quality tracking shots from various vehicle platforms that are not designed for film work. Standing in the cage of a telehandler for overhead shots, I had to shoulder mount the camera as the movement from the wind was causing a problem. The next platform was a heavy trailer, to which I was anchored with straps. Keith my AC kept a hold of me as well as monitored the shoot with a Hi Def field monitor. The trailer was only used for the straight tracking shots and close ups of the side of the bike. The second vehicle was a station wagon with the rear seats removed. I was held by a harness as well as two assistants either side, acting as shock absorbers particularly on the bends and chicanes. For many of the shots, the race champ had to ride within inches of the camera lens.

Filming track action from van pulled trailer - Knockhill Raceway
Closeup of Niall Mackenzie on his R1 superbike

The PDW-700 422 Camera:

For those interested in XDCAM HD cameras see the PDW–F350 and PDW–700 camera reviews below. The 24 bit audio is very good on the PDW–700 and for this shoot we used a Rode NTG–2, with deadcat, as an onboard microphone, setting the levels during pre–tests. As mentioned previously, shooting 1080 25p at 1/50 requires careful filming techniques to avoid exaggerated motion blur on the actual subject matter. This proved to be quite a challenge given the type of camera platforms being used to shoot from. With the branding decals razor sharp on the bike, this compounded the challenge to make sure that excess motion blur did not ruin the shots. 

Tracking action with rider Niall Mackenzie poping a wheelie
Motorbike tracking (on bend) action capture

Here you can see a number of screen grabs from the camera. While a wide angle lens would have been a great bonus particularly for the low extreme close–ups, I only had the Fujinon HA18x7.6 BERM–M58B to work with. Most of the tripod trackside shots were shot at the far end of the lens to help give a more compressed look, although a longer lens would have been nice to have had to hand. I did on occasion use the x2 extender on the lens but, in this instance, I was not overly enthusiastic about it. Hi Definition focusing is totally unforgiving, the HDVF–20A viewfinder is very good indeed, but where possible the image was double checked on a field monitor. The aperture was kept at about F8 to try and compensate for tricky focusing with all the tracking shots set to wide zoom and infinity – the background blurred naturally. For the trackside shots I could have done with a focus puller to pull off some nifty moves but, due to circumstances, there was no time and we were not set up for it. For tracking the bike around corners the best shots came from setting the camera at an apex where the lens focusing was equidistant to the bike as it travelled in an arc on an inside corner. This enabled me to concentrate on composition and keeping pace with the machine.

Unfortunately, the weather was very unsettled, causing issues for both rider and cameraman. Polarisers and enhancers are some of the filters I use to keep detail in the sky but, in this case, only an enhancer was used for two shots where Niall spun the rear tyre. As if by the second, the lighting was going from one extreme to another with a very bright low sun striking the circuit and then dense dark clouds the next. The Hypergamma menu setting number 2 was used, giving a dynamic range of 11 stops which really did an excellent job of tackling the lighting issues; it's also a great base for colour grading at the edit stage. Keeping camera weight down on the vehicle shots, battery power came from the smaller IDX Endura 7 batteries while trackside shots were powered with the larger and heavier Endura Elite. We had prepared to use a fill light on the bike on the tracking shots with 2 LED panels in a bank arrangement but, due to weather, working conditions and time, we had to drop that… which was a bit of a disappointment.

Rider low on the bike track action
Tilted front shot of superbike on the run

High Definition is Most Unforgiving:

Since its purchase in 2009 I have used the PDW–700 for numerous projects in various countries in diverse environments but I still remember this job as quite a challenge and I would have liked more time to experiment with different techniques. The camera is very sharp (even with detail turned down) and, for subjects with sharp graphics and lines, it is most unforgiving if you are anything but spot on with your focus. I like the camera a lot, the Hypergamma settings are very good, it's easy to focus, it's quick to use and it handles difficult lighting situations fairly well. Course the camera is a pretty heavy beast and I have devised my own way of hanging / pivoting the camera to enable me to get the low action shots but keep control. I also use my EngRig which is a great little tool for relieving arm and back strain. I shoot progressive most of the time because it's what I prefer but, for those unfamiliar with that shooting style, you do have to be careful how you shoot, what angles you choose and so on, otherwise you will end up with a lot of unwanted motion judder on pans, tilts or blur. While it's easy to check your shots on the flip out monitor, by choosing your recorded clips and replaying, for work like this you really need a larger monitor to make sure everything is tack sharp. 

shooting bike clocks with Sony PDW 700 and DV (ENG) Rig
Wide shot of cameraman filming stationary bike and rider with Sony PDW 700 and DV (ENG) Rig

Here is a 45 second clip of some of the highlights of that day. The clip is graded and I have deliberately crushed the blacks and clipped highlights because I prefer it to a clean image for this sort of subject. It's funny, I remember so often shooting 5"x4" fine grain sheet film for product shoots only to distort them by blowing highlights, differential blur focus via lens board / film plane movements and so many other tricks to degrade the image and here I am doing it with the 700. And that is the point really; the quality is there to either have the image nice and clean or as a foundation to distort as one pleases. 

Click image below to watch this Yamaha R1 Movie

Nial MacKenzie -- Yamaha R1 -  422 Test for Studio Scotland

Nial MacKenzie -- Yamaha R1 - 422 Test for Studio Scotland

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