Keeping pace with Sony cameras is getting difficult, as in recent years the company has released a "Murderer’s 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 camcorder (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 SLT-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 24-70mm 2.8 ZA zoom lens.
So the big news everyone is buzzing about is the sensor. The VG900 contains a new 24.3-megapixel Exmor® CMOS sensor that’s twice the size of the NEX system’s APS-C sensor and is 40 times larger than sensors found in your typical consumer camcorder. For filmmakers, it’s the equivalent of shooting 65mm motion-picture film. One of the biggest 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.
The VG900 lets you record in AVCHD in FX (24 Mb/s) or FH (17 Mb/s) quality in 60i or 24p, but you also can shoot 60p in PS (28 Mb/s). If you don’t want to be held back by the compression limitations of AVCHD, the VG900 also features Clean HDMI output, which allows you to capture 4:2:2 ProRes or Avid DNxHD files, depending on your 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 who want to do more grading work in post.
The VG900 has a similar form factor to previous VG models: the VG10 and VG20. Without a lens, the slim form factor is very lightweight (one pound, 13 ounces with supplied NP-FV70 battery), but shooting with the large Zeiss zoom lens, the camera did feel a bit top-heavy for handheld work. Like many compact video camcorders, instead of using the handgrip, I cradled the camcorder from the bottom with my right hand and set my left hand on the barrel of the lens for focus adjustments.
One of the biggest improvements to the VG900 over previous VG 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 functions within a menu system, and I’m glad Sony added these buttons.