The NEX Step

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It was only a matter of time before the camcorder industry would take notice and react.

In less than two years, the HD DSLR movement has revolutionized indie filmmaking by further leveling the playing field between low-budget and studio productions. In addition, a large percentage of still photographers have caught the filmmaking bug, creating an even larger pool of filmmakers. It was only a matter of time before the camcorder industry would take notice and react.

Shortly after the 25th anniversary of the Handycam, Sony announced the NEX-VG10 Interchangeable Lens HD camcorder, which contains the same Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor as its recent NEX-5 and NEX-3 digital cameras. The APS HD sensor—which measures 23.4×15.6mm—is approximately the same size as an APS-C sensor that you’d find in most non-full-frame DSLRs. It has nearly 20 times the surface area of most consumer camcorder sensors. The camera also allows you to switch to still photography, capturing 14-megapixel JPEG images at up to 7 fps and offers Auto HDR (high dynamic range).

I had a chance to shoot with the VG10 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Although it’s pretty difficult to shoot terrible footage in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, overall, the camera was about what I expected, delivering sharp 1920×1080 full HD with “35mm-like” shallow depth of field. As soon as you look through the VG10’s viewfinder (or at the LCD), you realize the camcorder is in an entirely different class from any consumer product due to its large sensor. (At $2,000, it’s also priced outside the consumer market, although way below the high-end prosumer and compact professional camcorder market.) It’s probably safe to say that the VG10 is a new type of hybrid camcorder, targeted toward HD DSLR shooters who miss shooting with the form factor of a video camcorder or camcorder users who want shallow depth of field to create more “cinematic” images. Even the VG10’s sleek and space-age looks and menu system differentiate it from any camera out there.

Besides the APS HD sensor, the other feature that sets the VG10 apart from most camcorders is its interchangeable-lens mount, which is compatible with Sony’s new E-mount series of smaller, lighter lenses that are optimized for video shooting with silent operation and AF. The kit lens is an 18-200mm, ƒ/3.5-6.3 zoom that contains Sony’s Optical Steadyshot image stabilization. There’s also an 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 zoom and a 16mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle. Although not as quick as Canon’s Instant AF on its fixed-lens XF300, the VG10’s autofocus system is far superior to any HD DSLR’s AF function, with the exception of Sony’s new a55v/a33 HD DSLRs (see the “Alphaville” sidebar). The VG10 also accepts Alpha DSLR A-mount lenses, which includes 27 current models and dozens of Minolta and Zeiss A-mount lenses. The only downside is that the AF doesn’t work with non-E-mount lenses. For most cinematographers, this should be sufficient since manual-focus operation is the preferred practice for narrative films.