Sony NEX-VG900: First Look

Sony NEX-VG900 Samples from Gear Jones on Vimeo.

Quick Review of the Sony NEX-VG900

I was recently working for Sony on a three day event introducing a line up of several of their new full frame and APS sensor offerings in the still and video worlds. My primary role was providing assistance for participants with any video related questions, but I also was shooting ‘behind the scenes’ videos of the various activities.

I had the chance to spend  a fair amount of time working with the new Sony NEX-VG900 full frame video camera. This is my initial impression of using the camera in quick turnaround situations over the three days and in no way represents an official opinion or review from Sony. The camera I had was a pre-release model so some items and specs may change before mass production.

The NEX-VG900 is a consumer model, but clearly, with the full frame sensor it will attract the interest of professionals. Sony has covered a lot of bases by using the same sensor in three very different cameras – the VG900, the A99 a pro level DSLR type camera and also in a very small fixed lens compact, the RX1.

While I was prepared to find the VG900’s lack of professional controls limiting, I was won over by the cameras image quality, small size and ease of use – and the controls weren’t too bad either!

Will the VG900 replace any of your pro cameras or become a primary camera? I doubt it, but at such a low price point for some astounding image quality the VG900 can easily fill the bill as a second or stealth camera.

Although the VG900 has a full frame sensor, it uses Sony’s E mount (an APS lens mount) as standard. The camera ships with the LA-EA3, Sony’s (full frame) A mount adapter, so you can easily use any of the extensive line of both E and A mount lenses. If you do use an E mount lens on the camera – it can automatically switch to a crop mode so you will not get vignetting. For the BTS videos I primarily used two A-mount Zeiss zooms, the 16-35 f/2.8 and the 24-70 f/2.8 along with the LA-EA3.

Handling

The first thing I noticed was the minuscule weight and small size of the VG900. Like many cameras this size – it is not meant for using on your shoulder and has an articulated swing out lcd panel on the left side and a viewfinder at the top rear. Both worked well although in the bright California sunlight, I was using the viewfinder in many circumstances.

With a small E mount zoom, the VG900 is practically a palm-corder. Adding the LA_EA3 and a serious piece of glass, like one of the lenses I was using, more than doubled the length and weight. However, even with the adapter and heavy glass, the VG900 was light enough to use like many other small sized pro and prosumer cams.

I had no trouble holding and balancing the camera in a variety of positions and on the small Manfrotto 701HDV tripod head I was using (on dollies and on sticks). To that end, Sony has usefully included a tripod threaded hole on the bottom of the LA-EA3 for the shift in center of gravity.

The VG900 has several dedicated buttons on the side giving you direct access to various exposure controls so you can easily use the controller wheel instead of diving through too many (or any) menus to control the iris, shutter speed and gain. This brings me to my one rather big peeve with the camera (and to be fair, many other small consumer cams).

Built in ND filters, or rather – the lack thereof.

I know its a consumer cam and designed to hit a certain price point. But a big reason for going with a full frame (or any larger sensor) camera is for that shallow depth of field. Without ND filters built in you have to resort to juggling ND’s on your lenses or drastically raising your shutter speed to keep your lens open wide enough to take advantage of the shallow DOF. Even with an ND 4 and a circular polarizer stacked on my lenses, I was still stopping down to between a 5.6 and 8 in the full sun.

A built in, two-stage ND, in my mind is a must have on pretty much any video camera, pro or not for two reasons. First, in order not to really change the way motion is captured, you want to limit your shutter speed to between 1/48 and 1/60 of a second, maybe up to 1/120 if you’re in a bind. Second, the sharpness of most lenses starts to deteriorate once you get to smaller apertures, let alone the increase in your depth of field. I don’t like stopping down much past an f/8 if I can help it. Once you take away the higher shutter speeds and smaller apertures – built in ND’s can save your bacon. ok – end of rant…

One of the features I found myself using a lot was the built in servo zoom rocker switch. I swore off digital zooms a long time ago – but now they’re back! Regardless of the lens used, up to a 2x zoom is built in and controlled with the rocker switch. I’m not sure if its the increase in quality of sensors overall, or the big full frame sensor in the VG900, but the quality of the shot did not suffer when I used the digital zoom and having a servo on a large sensor camera is like welcoming back an old friend. You could choose six different zoom speeds and I noticed the servo itself could have been a little better feathered at the starts, but the 2x range came in very handy for circumstances where I needed a little more out of the lens and didn’t have time to change.

The lcd is a touch screen and is used not only for monitoring, but also for navigating and selecting various menu items. The lcd looked good enough for framing and non-critical color, but in bright sun I found it hard to see and for focus I used a combination of a peaking function and a magnify function. I really liked being able to choose which way to check focus – I found peaking useful for focusing ‘on the fly’ and having a magnify button was great for when I was locked down and had time to bump in and check critical focus. Within the menus you could chooses the color of the peaking, the magnify function was very conveniently located on a push button near the rocker zoom switch.

The VG900 has an OLED electronic viewfinder which conveniently turned on as I brought my eye to the eyepiece, even when the lcd was in use. I still needed to use the peaking and magnification for focus, but the image in the finder looked really good for it’s small size.

There were hard switches for choosing between still and video mode (I never tried the stills) and a mini hdmi jack is available for using external monitors. There were also two switches for start and stop recording, one on the back of the camera, encircled by the on/off switch, and the second on top of the camera near the magnify and zoom switches.

Overall I was very impressed with the handling of the VG900. Even with heavy glass and an audio module the camera only came up in weight equal to the mini pro cameras I already use. The size and balance seemed familiar and I got used to the camera controls quickly and was able to concentrate more on shooting than hunting through menus.

Accessories

 I thought it odd that Sony made the ‘native’ mount on the camera the E mount, but they include the LA-EA3 for using A Mount lenses and I had no trouble with using a variety of A and E mount lenses with the VG900. The camera was not able to automatically control the aperture of the two Zeiss lenses I was using, but I prefer setting the aperture manually and I was able to do just that with the control wheel located near the bottom of the camera just under the LCD. With E-mount lenses, you can go from full manual to full auto control with the press of a switch.

The VG900 has a 5.1 built-in mic, which I did not test. I used Sony’s new XLR-K1M adapter and microphone kit for adding a full professional audio control block along with two XLR jacks and a short shotgun mic. The XLR-K1M will cost you about $800, but does include the ‘smart’ shoe connector, xlr connectors, short shotgun mic and mount – so it’s a one and done deal. This module works on the A99 as well.

Recording

The VG900 will record 1080 HD video at 17Mbs, AVCHD in 24P or 60i in the ‘High’ quality “FH” setting. In the ‘Highest Quality’ “PS” setting, you can record 1080/60p at 28Mbs. We were using Final Cut Pro 7 to cut the BTS footage and we had difficulty importing our tests with the PS setting, so I shot everything at 24p in the FH setting. This was mainly an issue with Final Cut as some of the participants were shooting at PS, 1080/60p and were using other software to import and cut their footage.

The camera also sends out uncompressed HD video, without overlays, via it’s mini HDMI port.

Summation

The NEX-VG900 is a consumer cam that can fill in for pro cams in a pinch while providing full frame video in small easy to use package.

[box]Pros:

* Full frame – isolating focus in a wide shot outdoors on a sunny day is something you just can’t do with small sensor cameras.

* Small size/lightweight – even with adapters and lenses, and with an E-mount zoom you could pass for a consumer in stealth situations.

* Built in 2x digital zoom via servo rocker switch.

* Exposure & Focus controls not buried in menus.

* Pro XLR’s available when needed, and includes a nice mic with mount.

* up to 1080/60P available in cam, uncompressed HDMI out.

Cons:

* No built in ND filters.

* Control wheel could have been a little bigger for my fingers. [/box]

Any of the other things I might think the camera should have are really in the provence of pro and pro-sumer cameras. For just about $4,200 you can have the VG900, with the LA-EA3 A-mount adapter and the XLR-K1M audio adapter.

The NEX-VG900 really delivers in terms of features and results. Aside from juggling ND filters on lenses, I really enjoyed shooting with this camera and have no doubt that it delivers pro results in a consumer body.


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