February 14th, 2013 by Stephen Pritchard
When it comes to its lower-end professional camcorders, Sony is not afraid to be a little different.
The company’s NXCAM range, based on the AVCHD recording format, already comes in a wide range of shapes and sizes. With the exception of the NX5, a “standard” camcorder with three, 1/3 inch sensors, the NXCAMs are unusual, perhaps even a little eccentric, in their design and ergonomics.
There is the NX30E, a tiny, compact camcorder with a single sensor, but a built-in projector. There is the all-weather NX70, and the 3D NX3D1E. Then there are the modular, Super35mm, cinematic camcorders: the FS100, and the more recent NEX-FS700. To that, Sony has now added the NEX-EA50EH.
In some ways the NEX-EA50EH is the most unusual of all. Based around a single APS-C format sensor — smaller than Super 35mm, but the same size as those in DSLRs, such as the Canon 7D, or Sony’s own Alpha 77 – the NEX-EA50 adds an interchangeable lens, a removable viewfinder loupe, and an extending pad at the rear for shouldermount filming.
To this, Sony has added two XLR inputs, an HDMI output, as well as the usual AV connections, and a single card slot for either a Memory Stick HG Duo or SD card.
Despite its features, though, the camera is fairly lightweight (1.7kg, body only) and broken down into its parts, it will fit into a relatively small backpack.
With Sony’s ever-growing range of camcorders, it can be a tough job to work out where each camera fits in, but there are some clues in the names. The NXCAM label denotes the recording format, essentially AVCHD but with some tweaks, such as uncompressed audio recording. The NEX designation, on the FS100, 700 and NEX-EA50, though, refers to the cameras’ lens system.
The EA50, along with its Super35mm counterparts, uses the Sony e-mount lenses. These are the same as those used on the NEX5 and NEX7 compact stills cameras, and on the VG20 and newer VG30 consumer camcorders – though they are “vanilla” AVCHD, not NXCAM, cameras. Of course, there are already plenty of add-on adapters for the e-series lens mount, so film makers are not restricted to Sony’s glass.
The EA50′s distinctive shape drives a lot of its ergonomics, and will largely determine how practical it is for day to day use. The FS100 has been criticised by film makers on this score, despite plaudits for its image. The EA50 improves on some elements of the FS100, especially through a more conventional viewfinder location (on the left), and better handling for handheld filming. The extendable shouldermount or stock adds a huge amount of versatility for working without a tripod, and is a better design than the extending pad on the larger PMW-EX3. But from some angles, with its long, thin body but small lens, the EA50 looks almost retro.
The detachable viewfinder loupe, similar to the FS100′s, saves space for packing and is essential for shouldermount filming. But it took a while to find the retaining bracket to allow the loupe to be tilted out of the way to use the LCD screen, in a similar manner to the PMW-EX3′s viewfinder.
Another ergonomic issue is the choice of buttons positioning and lens controls. The 18-200mm kit lens supplied with the EA50 has no manual aperture ring; the aperture has to be controlled from a thumb wheel on the camera body. There is, though, a manual focus ring and zoom on the lens, as well as a zoom switch on the lens, and a rocker on the camera body.
Beyond that, the gain and white balance switches will be familiar to anyone who has used Sony camcorders before, and there is a bank of switches for peaking, zebra, face detection and histograms in front of the audio controls and memory card slot. In some ways, it would be better to have the audio controls on the same side as the mic connections, but it’s a minor drawback. Image stabilisation is controlled via the main menu, however.
The overall finish of the camera, in tough but lightweight plastic, is in line with that of the FS100 or recent models such as the PMW-100. The feel is not quite as solid as the Z1 or NX5, but it seems robust enough.
There are, though, some professional features missing. There is no HD-SDI (nor legacy Firewire connection). The camera records timecode, but there is no timecode in/out, or genlock. And there are no neutral density features. The timecode and SDI connections might not be essential for many projects, but ND filters are always useful to have, and may well be missed by some buyers of the EA50.
The EA50 is pleasantly easy to use, especially for “run and gun” videography, where being able to use it on the shoulder really adds flexibility. But this is not a discrete camera. Unlike a DSLR or small camcorder, the EA50′s form factor does draw attention.
We found resistance to filming in areas where the PMW-100 went unnoticed. Also, using any camcorder on the shoulder rather shouts “professional” or “news crew” to passers-by. For other applications, such as social videography or events, though, the camcorder’s shape and size has more advantages than disadvantages.
In our fairy brief outdoor filming tests – limited by poor light and weather – the EA50 produced pleasantly sharp images, and good colours. Autofocus generally worked well, and face detection, though by no means flawless, could be a useful aid for social or wedding filming, presumably one of Sony’s target markets. The optical image stabiliser worked well.
In use, though, the camera felt weighted to the front, making it harder to hold it stable on the shoulder as would be ideal. The fact that the lens has lacks the grip of an ENG lens does not help. A larger battery or counterweight would help to balance the EA50 rather better.
And, although the e-series lens has a pleasant, smooth zoom action, it seems a pity to marry such a large, and capable sensor with a slow lens. At the long end, the 18-200mm unit only opens up to f6.3. This limits the light reaching the camera, and its ability to achieve a shallow depth of field. It would be fascinating to see what the camera could do with a good prime lens, or even a fast zoom of the type Panasonic now sells with its GH3.
That is not to say that the EA50 is poor in low light: as our video tests show, quite the opposite is true.
The camera handles a range of lighting conditions well, even in auto mode. Testing it in available, artificial light indoors, images were still quite clean at high gain levels, and certainly compare favourably to cameras such as the NX5, even with its rather faster lens. Anyone buying the EA50 hoping for DSLR-style bokeh will be disappointed, unless they have also budgeted for primes or lens adapters, but there will be plenty of other users who prefer the ease of use, AF, and long reach of the bundled lens.
The camera handles a range of lighting conditions well, even in auto mode.
This makes it hard to say exactly who should buy the NEX-EA50. Film makers striving for the cinematic look might be better served by the FS100, and those making documentary or reportage pieces, the NX70, NX5 or the 50mbps, PMW-200.
But none of these cameras have the versatility of the NEX-EA50: they either lack the interchangeable lenses, the sensor, or the practical ergonomics. The FS100, in particular, is really not well suited to handheld filming without some kind of rig.
And none of these cameras, except the NX70, compare favourably to the NEX-EA50EH on price. At around £2200 plus VAT, the EA50 is something of a bargain for a pro camcorder, and if its lens is suitable, a cheaper option than the higher-end DSLRs. It really is a lot of camera, for not much money.
The next few months will determine whether the NEX-EA50 becomes a mainstream camera for non-broadcast video work, or is destined to be an interesting curiosity.