October 15th, 2012

Full-Frame Fever – With their monster-sized CMOS sensors, the Sony NEX-VG900 and SLT-A99 deliver big screen results for filmmakers

Posted By Neil Matsumoto

The Sony NEX-VG900 contains a full-frame sensor and accepts both E-mount and A-mount lenses (with supplied adapter).

It’s really getting difficult to keep pace on Sony cameras, which in recent years have released a virtual “Murderers’ Row” of cameras for filmmakers. Just two years ago, the NEX-VG10 was released and was branded a revolutionary product since it was the first consumer camcorder to contain an APS-C sensor. Now, Sony has clearly swung for the fences by releasing the world’s first 35mm full-frame interchangeable lens camcorder, the NEX-VG900. (And yes, this is the first video camera (both consumer and professional) to contain a full-frame sensor.)

I recently had the opportunity to shoot with the VG900 (as well as the full-frame A99 DSLR) on Sony’s DI Media Excursion in Northern California. On the trip, we captured some of the planet’s most beautiful coastal scenery, including Big Sur and Santa Cruz. I tested both cameras with a Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 2.8/24-70 ZA zoom lens.

The Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, CA shot with the Sony NEX-VG900 from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

So the big news everyone is buzzing about is the sensor. The VG900′s contains a new 24.3-megapixel Exmor® CMOS sensor that is twice the size of the APS-C sensor in other NEX cameras and is 40 times larger than sensors found in the average consumer camcorder. In other words, it’s a monster for filmmakers and is equivalent to shooting 65mm motion picture film. One of the advantages of shooting full-frame is that you’re able to use lenses at their designated focal length (with APS-C, you have a 1.5x crop). Another big advantage is the ability to shoot in low-light.

Model Shoot at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel with the Sony NEX-VG900 from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

The VG900 lets you record in AVCHD in FX (24-Mbps) or FH (17-Mbps) quality in 60i or 24p but you can also shoot 60p in PS (28-Mbps). If you don’t want to be held back by the limitations of AVCHD, the VG900 also features Clean HDMI output, which allows you to capture 4:2:2 ProRes or Avid DNxHD files to an external recorder. (It’s not clear whether the files are 8-bit or 10-bit but my best guess is 8-bit.) This is a big deal for filmmakers, especially in post.

The VG900 has a similar form factor to previous VG models – the VG10, VG20 and new VG30. Without a lens, the slim form factor is very lightweight (1-lb, 13-oz with supplied NP-FV70 battery) but shooting with the large Zeiss zoom lens, the camera did feel a bit top heavy because of its length, especially for handheld work. Like many compact video camcorders, instead of using the handgrip, I cradled the camcorder from the bottom with my right hand with my left hand on the barrel of the lens for focus adjustments.

One of the biggest improvements to the VG900 over previous systems is full manual control. On the side of the camera body, a welcome addition is having quick access to your three basic controls – Iris, Gain (ISO) and Shutter Speed. Changing your White Balance and engaging Zebra and Peaking functions is also on the side of the camera when the LCD is opened, as well as the Playback function. (When using most consumer camcorders, it’s a real pain to have to find these basic video functions within a menu system and I’m glad Sony added these features.)

Unlike a DSLR but like most camcorders, the VG900 has a seesaw lever which allows slow and smooth zooms that is more suitable for professional doc or ENG-style shooting. What’s also cool is that the camera can switch automatically from full-frame operation to APS-C mode when E-mount or A-mount DT lenses are attached. (Sony DT lenses are not compatible with full-frame.)

The LA-EA3 lets you mount A-mount lenses

Speaking of lenses, the VG900 contains Sony’s proprietary E-mount but the camera also comes supplied with the new LA-EA3 adapter that lets shooters mount A-mount lenses. The big advantage for using A-mount lenses is there are far more available with more pro features like constant aperture zooms and fast primes. Another advantage an A-lenses will give you over E-lenses are larger lens barrels, which will give you a longer focus throw (although not on the level that a professional focus puller would be working with). All in all, having two lens mounts give you a lot more options, especially with E-lenses growing by the day.

Sony’s LA-EA2 adapter runs around $350 so including the EA3 in the price of the camera package is a welcome benefit. But unlike the EA2, Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology is not built into the adapter and since the VG900 does not contain it, you’ll need to shoot in manual focus when using the adapter with A-mount lenses for motion capture. (Translucent Mirror Technology directs light to the image sensor and AF sensor at the same time so autofocus is extremely fast.) Although professional film crews would never shoot with AF, having tested Phase Detect AF on previous Sony cameras, it’s amazing to be able to track a moving subject running towards the camera. For indie filmmakers working without a focus puller, it’s a very useful tool since achieving critical focus is one of the hardest skill sets to master. Another great function on the VG900 that you won’t find on most consumer cameras is Peaking, which you can apply in various increments, as well as colors.

Because focus is much more difficult on the VG900’s full-frame sensor, proper monitoring is now one of the most important features of the camera system. Sony is offering a new XGA OLED viewfinder with an eye sensor that engages the EVF when you place your eye close to the viewfinder. Although it’s not an optical viewfinder, the EVF has super high resolution at 2,359,000-dots, which is way more than most digital filmmakers are used to. The VG900 also has a touch screen LCD screen, which I wasn’t crazy about but with smartphones and tablets, it’s a trend that is probably here to stay. For shooting daylight exteriors, you’ll definitely want to use the EVF. I also made great use of the VG900’s histogram for proper exposure.

The VG900 has a touch-screen LCD screen and a 2,359,000-dot EVF

And if you’re not crazy about the LCD screen, Sony now offers a nice 5-inch LCD external monitor, the CLM-V55, that contains 800 x 480 resolution, Peaking, a tiltable adapter, a headphone jack for monitoring sound, an innovative pop-out LCD hood, a control dial for various picture adjustments, and much more. The LCD retails for $399, which is around $100 cheaper than other monitors in its class.

For shooting in 24p, the VG900 has a new CinemaTone Gamma preset that will give you a little more control during color grading. Most filmmakers will ignore the camera’s Picture Effects but the CinemaTone is a feature that might make the VG900 a good selling point for video shooters. Sony describes the Gamma setting as “film-like”, so does it have a RAW, S-Log or Canon Log-like look? I did a test with CinemaTone both on and off and although subtle, the CinemaTone did look a touch flatter and film-like, although it’s probably not going to increase your dynamic range like you would with Technicolor’s CineStyle Picture Profile for the 5D Mark II. I would also not compare it to S-Log or REDCODE RAW. But like Canon Log, since it’s just a filter, it’s not going to have any effect on the size of your file. Although it’s nice to have, I wish the Sony engineers would have pushed CinemaTone a little further to increase dynamic range. But I would still recommend using it over the Standard Look because it definitely has more of a cinematic look.

Sony NEX-VG900 – CinemaTone Gamma setting Off from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

Sony NEX-VG900 – CinemaTone Gamma setting On from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

Like the VG10 and VG20 camcorders, the VG900 contains the excellent Quad Capsule Spatial Array Microphone that has four omnidirectional capsules that supports stereo or 5.1 channel surround. You can also manually control your audio levels (31-steps), with visual confirmation shown by an audio level meter on the LCD and there’s also a headphone jack for monitoring.

For even more control and the option of using professional quality shotgun and/or lavs, the VG900 offers a new Multi Interface Shoe which will provide compatibility with the new XLR-K1M adaptor kit that adds a high-quality mono shotgun mic and two pro-standard XLR connections. This now goes beyond the capabilities of any DSLR on the market for single system sound. The K1M is a great piece of gear and the Sony ECM-XM1 mic is from their professional audio line so the sound quality was quite good. The XLR connectors locked tight to the cables and the control dials once set, are protected by a flip down screen. My only beef with the system is that the microphone comes as a package with the adapter and you cannot purchase the adapter by itself. The system runs $799.99, which is pretty steep if you already have a good shotgun microphone so hopefully there will be enough of an outcry forcing Sony to offer the K1M and XM1 as separate packages.

Oh, did I mention that the VG900 can capture 24.3-megapixel stills with RAW support?

The retail price of the VG900 is $3,299.99. Yes, this is expensive for a consumer camcorder but the VG900 is not your everyday consumer camcorder. I wouldn’t go far to say that the VG900 should replace your NEX-FS100 and certainly not the FS700 but being in the same price category of a Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800, the VG900 should be a no-brainer if you’re using your camera primarily for motion capture.

The A99

Well after four years, Sony has finally updated its flagship full-frame a900 by releasing the new SLT-A99. Like the VG900, the A99 camera features a brand new 24.3 MP full-frame image sensor but unlike the VG900, the A99 brings a unique dual phase-detect AF system – a first for digital cameras.

The Sony SLT-A99 contains a 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and has the first dual AF system

The A99 contains the same sized Exmor CMOS sensor as the VG900 (35.8 x 23.9mm) and has 14-bit RAW output and a normal ISO range of 100-32000. According to a couple of Sony executives I spoke with, the Exmor HD CMOS sensor on the VG900 is geared towards motion capture while the A99 is geared towards still creation and to be honest, in looking at video footage between the two, it was nearly impossible to tell the footage apart.

The A99 is the first full-frame DSLR to offer Full HD 60p/24p, as well as full-time continuous AF Movie mode, which lets you easily track moving subjects. Like the Nikon D4 and D800 DSLRs (and the VG900), the A99 offers Clean HDMI output and uninterrupted ‘dual-card’ (SD or Media Stick) recording using both of the camera’s media slots. There’s also a new multi-control dial on the front of the camera body to enable quiet settings adjustments during shooting, including ISO, shutter speed, aperture and more.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium shot with the Sony SLT-A99 from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

The A99 also has new and improved audio features, such as an audio level display and adjustable audio record levels, and a headphone jack for monitoring. Like the VG900, the A99 contains the multi-interface shoe that provides balance audio input for the optional XLR-K1M adapter kit. There’s also a bracket you could attach via the 1/4-inch screw at the bottom of the camera, which enable you to use almost like a handheld rig. With the K1M and the bracket, you have yourself a nice digital motion picture camera system.

The A99 with the XLR-K1M audio system and mounting bracket

Again like the VG900, since the A99 is full frame, monitoring is essential. The camera offers the same Tru-finder OLED EVF with 2,359,000 dots for super high resolution. There’s also a 3-way tiltable 921,000-dot Xtra Fine LCD monitor and a Peaking function for focus.

A previous criticism of Sony DSLRs is the inability to capture video in full manual mode. You were able to manually control your aperture and ISO range but once you hit record, your shutter speed defaulted to automatic. Sony has smartly fixed this for the a99. Just remember to have your lens set to manual focus before shooting.

The camera offers Picture Effects, which I still find a touch gimmicky for video but for video shooters, an essential feature is the Neutral Creative Style, which lets you dial down your contrast, Saturation and Sharpness to give you a little more leeway in post. This would be equivalent to the CinemaTone Gamma setting for the VG900.

The retail price for the DSLR is $2,799.99. In my opinion, the A99’s full-frame sensor, Phase Detect AF, full manual control, Clean HDMI, the K1M adapter (sold separately), place the A99 at the top of its class for video shooters.

Big Sur at sunset shot with the Sony SLT-A99 from HDVP Magazine on Vimeo.

For more info on the NEX-VG900 and the SLT-A99, please visit www.sony.com.

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