When Sony first launched the PMW-EX1 in 2007 it caused a major stir amongst the video production community. The EX1 was revolutionary in many respects, while simultaneously holding onto the past in others. The EX1 also prompted a market shakeup that affected existing owners of existing XDCAM camcorders such as the PDW-F355. In the EX1 Sony produced a prosumer camcorder that could truly be used as a large camera substitute in many situations.
In fact it could be argued that it created a new market sector that was halfway between prosumer and fully fledged professional gear. With its three half inch CMOS sensors it had larger imaging devices than any similar camcorder on the market. This feature alone promptly elevated the EX1 to the position of being a highly desirable piece of kit. In addition the unit also featured a fully manual lens with end stops for focus, an iris ring on the lens barrel and a mechanically connected zoom control. In short the PMW-EX1 was the prosumer camcorder that many had been waiting for.
However the EX1 also had many limitations, chiefly problems of ergonomics but also a poor viewfinder and the lack of an interchangeable lens system. At the time these were of course put down to Sony wishing to limit the impact that the camera might have on its PDW range of cameras. The EX1 was after all designed and produced by Sonys' Professional division, and not the consumer one in contrast to all previous cameras of its type such as the muched famed Z1. A surprise move by Sony however took the market by storm. In early 2008 the PMW-EX3 was announced. This new camcorder was for all intents and purposes an EX1 with some very crucial bells and whistles, which blurred the boundaries between the consumer and professional lines even more than its sister unit.
The most striking difference between the EX1 and the EX3 is that the latter model now featured the ability to change lenses. Not only that, but the camera could be made to accept both 1/2" professional lenses by using a supplied adaptor as well as 2/3" broadcast glass with the use of an additional adaptor. It is also possible to use stills camera lenses from Sony's DSLR range, although the adaptor that is required to make this connection has not yet been released onto the market. It is also possible now to purchase third party adaptors for Nikon, Canon, and PL mount lenses.
One other feature that adorns the EX3 is its large 3.5" colour viewfinder. One of the most capable features of the EX1 was its large flip out LCD display. Not only was this display capable of such resolution that it could be used to focus high definition footage effectively, it was also very bright and displayed fairly accurate colour. When it came to the EX3 Sony produced an ingenious solution to the problem of achieving a very high quality viewfinder without comprimising the budget too much.
The result is that the PMW-EX3 features an optical eyepiece that attaches to the front of the same 3.5" LCD display that is featured on the EX1. This viewfinder can then be flipped out of the way or detached when the operator wishes to view the LCD bare. The result is startlingly good. The EX3 thus features one of the best viewfinders to be found on any camcorder.
The EX3 comes with one 8GB SxS card for recording footage onto. Other accessories are par for the course such as a BP-60 battery, a charger, various leads to connect the camera to televisions and computers, as well as driver software to enable footage transfer. There is nothing here that will cause any surprises.
The body of the EX3 is similar to the Canon XH-A1, although perhaps the latter is a little bit more elegant looking. The construction quality of the EX3 is perhaps not the most robust of assemblies. Everything bar a couple of switches is made from plastic, so it does tend to feel a bit cheap and hollow. The lens attaches to the body of the camera in much the same way as any standard B4 type broadcast lens by using a rotary locking mechanism.
As an extra safety feature there is also an extra locking switch to be found underneath the lens mounting point to prevent the assembly falling off should the main rotary lock become loose. This is a feature that I have found to be of great importance as I have discovered that through repeated insertions into the camera bag the rotary lock can work its way loose.
I was alerted to this one day when I picked up the camera only to find that the lens assembly had some very minor play in it. Subsequent examination showed that the lens locking mechanism had loosened and only the extra safety locking switch was keeping the lens attached! This also explained why the backfocus appeared to be out on a recent shoot and couldn't be corrected!
The EX3 is clearly aimed at shooters who require the type of versatilty that the EX1 is unable to provide. From a production standpoint, aside from the usual USB, iLink and Component ports, the EX3 features HD-SDI out, Genlock in, Timecode In/Out and a remote input. For multi camera shoots the advantages of the EX3 over its sibling are clear to see.
At the front of the camera body underneath the lens mounting point switches for the shutter, white balance, and an assignable button can be found. This assignable button is in a similar place to the secondary record trigger on full size cameras, and as a result this is the function that I have assigned to it on my camera. In terms of quality these buttons and switches are rather cheap affairs and they do not feel particularly robust. They may also cause problems for people with larger hands and fingers due to their size.
On the side of the camera small metal switches can be found to select gain settings and white balance presets. Above them is a rotary dial to select variable framerates in progressive scan modes, although it should be noted that this does not allow for speed ramping in the middle of a shot. There is also a switch to turn calibration bars on and off for setting up the viewfinder and for post reference. Most of the other buttons available are for toggling various displays as well as to access various setup and paint menus.
At the rear of the camera there are various switches for audio control inputs and levels. I have to confess that I do find it rather finicky that the audio level dials are concealed behind a plastic flap that needs to be opened in order to make any adjustments.
The top of the camera handle is home to the playback control buttons as well as a top mounted record trigger. Also to be found here are audio monitor levels adjustments for the headphone out socket, a button to take you back to the thumbnail selection screen in playback mode, and a mini joystick that can be used for controlling menu selections. In addition there is also a handle mounted zoom control, which in practise I found to be on the small side and did not allow for very subtle control over the speed.
The stock lens has been designed and built by Fujinon, and the results on initial inspection are very good. This is in fact the same lens that is featured on the EX1 except that it is in removable form. In terms of focal length it runs from 5.8mm at the wide end to 81.2mm at telephoto, which translates to around 7.9mm and 111.2mm respectively in 2/3" lens angle of view. There is no extender available.
The lens can be operated either in full auto mode or manually. Manual operation takes two forms in that you can either operate the focus ring as an infinitely rotating adjustment as per any other current prosumer and consumer camera, or you can slide the ring back for manual operation with end stops. This means that the lens on the EX can be operated in the same way as any other broadcast lens, with focus markings on the lens barrel for more precise adjustment and shot repeatability.
It is worth noting however that when the focus ring is in this position it does not become mechanically connected to the internal lens mechanism. The focus is still servo driven, however there is no noise produced and there is absolutely no lag in response. As a result you would never have known that this was the case unless you were told. The zoom control and iris are different. They are fully mechanically connected. In general the feel of these controls is very good, certainly far above par compared to other similar camcorders. In fact the feel is fairly close to that of a full size broadcast lens, although going back to such lenses shows up how much better they are. Not that this matters too much because it is possible to mount almost any type of lens that you prefer onto the EX3.
In terms of hand holding the camera the EX3 features the same rotating handle as the EX1. By holding down a switch the lens handle can be rotated 90 degrees or so to improve wrist comfort depending on the angle that you are holding the camera. The handle also provides the primary record trigger, a focus assist button that zooms the view on the LCD to help achive critical focus, and a Ret button that plays the closing five seconds of the last recorded clip. This can also be set to show you the entire clip if you so desire. Underneath the handle is a switch to select between servo and mechanical control over the zoom.
Now for the the viewfinder. The front of this houses analogue style controls for brightness, contrast, and peaking. There is also a switch to turn zebra assistance on and off. The peaking adjustment will be of the most interest to people because it finally brings true focus assistance to this level of camera. On previous models, and indeed on other makes of camera at this level, peaking has often consisted of coloured outlines emphasising hard edges. Unfortunately the resulting helpfulness was less than stellar. The EX3's peaking on the other hand is much more effective and looks and behaves in exactly the same way as full size cameras. The only drawback is that it affects everything including the display overlay. Lastly there is a "flip" button to assist you with 35mm ground glass lens adaptors that do not invert the image. You will still record a flipped image although at least you will be able to see the image the correct way up while you are shooting.
The viewfinder assembly is mounted on a rotating arm so that it is possible to adjust the distance from the user in order to help with ergonomics. This rotating arm also enables adjustment in the horizontal direction too.
Lastly we come to the EX3's shoulder and cheek pad. The shoulder pad is a gel style affair, which makes it nice and soft. It can also be adjusted to jut out further from the camera body to assist with achieving the most comfortable viewfinder positioning for the user. In practise I am not totally convinced of its usefulness. I feel that it is a sign of the EX3's potential effect on F355 sales that Sony did not design the body with full shoulder mounted balance in mind as per JVC's semi-pro camcorders. My personal feeling is that it would make more sense for Sony to produce an EX model with similar build quality and balance to JVC's GY-HD200 and redesign the 350 series to accomodate 1920x1080 CCD chips in a 2/3" format, but retain the 35Mb/s codec. Alternatively they could update the 1/2" chips in the 355 to 1920x1080 resolution but include the 50Mb/s codec to differentiate it from the EX series, while the 1/2" chips would prevent it from encroaching into the PDW-700's territory.
The cheek pad is used mainly for support to help brace the camera when you are bracing the camera against your shoulder.
Due to the semi-shoulder mount design the EX3 does not allow for comfortable free holding operation out of the box. The only way to achieve any degree of hand holding comfort is to purchase one of the many shoulder mount addons that are avaialble for the camera. These devices usually achieve a better balance for the camera by enabling the use of full size batteries. They quite often include the ability to mount to a VCT-14 tripod plate too which makes for a much more solid base from which to work. I will cover such addons and accessories later on in the article.
When you turn the EX3 on the first thing you notice is that it does take a good few seconds to be ready to shoot. I'm not sure why this type of problem plagues newer cameras since the software is loaded from ROM, which should be very fast! Once the camera has booted up a press of the record button starts things going instantly. One of the great things about tapeless recording is that you no longer have to worry about waiting for the tape to get up to speed, although the lack of any mechanical sound as found on tape and XDCAM disc based cameras when recording starts means that you need to double check that the recording indicator has appeared.
Operating the audio can be a bit of a hit and miss affair. In the default setting of display the audio meters do not have any indication of Dbfs level. A quick cycle through the "Status" button displays on brings up a much larger audio level display complete with Dbfs indications. However this shown right in the middle of the LCD and as a result it interferes with the visibility of the picture composition. Another limitation is that there is no way to change the calibration tone level. It is locked at -20dbfs and so could cause minor issues for operations that prefer audio to be referenced at -18dbfs. A minor point, but one worth mentioning.
Lastly the EX3 provides no way to disable the audio limiters. This is a major ommission in my opinion considering that the EX3 is fully intended for use in professional environments. As a result of these limitations the EX3 is not the sound operators friend. The only way to avoid harsh compression at the top end of the volume scale is to make absolutely sure that your peaks do not reach anywhere near the top.
Luckily the audio cicuits are quiet enough to allow you a fair bit of room to bring the volume back up in post.
At this price level it cannot be expected that audio will be perfect, however with the complexity of the picture profile menus that are available on the EX3 I would have expected far more in the way of fine control over the audio.
As I mentioned earlier the viewfinder is fantastic. When the viewfinder hood is lifted up you can view the LCD much like the Z1. Colour is fairly accurate and you can be sure that what you see on it is a fair view of what you will see when you get back to the editing suite. With the peaking adjusted correctly it is very easy to focus with it. The EX3 also features a maginifcation feature too to assist with focus if this is not enough.
I generally find that exposing with the EX3 can be tricky. It is quite sensitive to over or under exposure. Setting up the viewfinder with bars to your current lighting conditions is extremely important in this regard. Some people prefer to turn the zebras off, but I think this is a mistake on the EX3 unless your viewfinder is precisely set up.
As per the EX1 the EX3 contains many menu setup items. The configuration adjustments available on the EX cameras is well on par with any other broadcast camera. Included in these options are different gammas, including the famed Cinegamma options. Two of these are based on the Hypergammas from the F900R and its ilk, which means that the EX3 can capture a huge contrast range as a result.
I have been using the EX3 for around a year now, and each time I am amazed at the quality of the picture that comes from it. The body has also held up remarkably well considering some of the places that it has been. The stock lens is great for most things, and is remarkably sharp even on full wides. A little more telephoto would be nice, but hey, can't have everything at this price point. Colour rendition is very good, although as some of you may have read on various forums there appears to be an IR issue that makes some black materials appear brown. This is an issue that affects Red and cameras like the F23, so it is by no means exclusive to the EX cameras.
As I mentioned earlier the handheld ergonomics and weight distribution of the EX3 are not brilliant. The original release of the camera only had one tripod screw point on its base, which made a tripod plate essential. This has now been revised on current models to include two screw points, but I still feel that a tripod plate such as the one from VF gadgets is a good investment. It transforms the feel of the camera on a tripod, and allows some form of proper shoulder rest.
On my camera I have also added a battery adaptor which allows me to use Anton Baeur batteries. Using Dionic 90's I can get around 6 hours of running time. The observant will point out that I could just buy the larger native EX batteries and get the same result. However I already had the Dionic 90 system from my PDW-510, and the heavier weight means that the camera is much better balanced in general use. The downside is that with a matte box, the tripod plate, and the Dionics my EX3 is almost the size and weight of a full size camera!
Overall the EX3 is a great investment. It allows you to delve into HD without making too much compromise with image quality, while also giving one heck of a lot of versatility with lenses. I'd go so far as to say that no matter what your main camera is, an EX1 or EX3 would be a valuable addition to your toolkit regardless.