Ultra High Definition Sony Handycam FDR-AX1 Review


Many of us remember making the transition from SD to HD, with its crisper look and broader dynamic range. Now 4K is here. Much higher resolution, tons more pixels, lots more detail, but is the difference in quality equal to the difference in cost? Well, maybe not yet. Shooting in 4K is one thing, but distributing and actually viewing 4K movies is quite another. Right now there is limited support for ultra high definition footage in editing software: some won’t edit it at all, others will edit yet have no options for exporting in 4K. You may be able to view your 4K movies directly from the camera (as with the AX1, via HDMI) but 4K televisions and monitors are few in number and high in cost. Your most recently purchased large screen high-def TV just isn’t going to show any significant difference between 4K movies and full HD. For that you’ll need a 4K display to fully enjoy the 4K experience.

So, is it too soon to make the jump to 4K? Not necessarily. As we discovered during the transition to HD, having all those extra pixels in post can be a huge benefit. Also, there’s something to be said for future proofing. Support will increase and prices will decrease, after all. As we’ve already seen, it doesn’t take long for the rest of the world to catch up with newer technology. 

Getting to Know You

The AX1 records 4K movies at 3840×2160 at various frame and bit rates to XQD media cards and comes equipped with dual XLR inputs and full audio controls for use with professional microphones.

It uses a fixed f/1.6 – f/3.4 Sony G lens with 20x zoom and SteadyShot optical image stabilization. 

External buttons, switches and knobs
External buttons, switches and knobs
Three rings around the lens provide manual access to zoom, focus and iris adjustments, while two buttons, labeled Zebra and Peaking, provide highly useful assist functions. With the Peaking function switched on, turn the focus wheel until the subject is highlighted with the pre-selected color (white, red, yellow or blue) indicating that the desired area is now in focus. Peaking is a great feature that works quite well for those with older eyes. Another option is found around the right side of the camera on a button labeled Focus Magnifier. Press it to magnify the image in the display then turn the focus wheel until perfect focus is achieved.

Several options exist to achieve proper exposure as well. A four-position switch engages the built-in neutral density (ND) filters. Like sunglasses for your camera, the ND filters help you get a handle on exposure by reducing the amount of light coming through the lens. The Iris button located below the ND filter switch toggles the iris control between auto and manual, allowing you to use the iris wheel on the lens to manually control the aperture between f/1.6 and f/11.0. The Iris Push Auto button is located on the palm grip on the other side of the camera and sets exposure automatically when held down. Alternatively, each push and release of the button changes the exposure more slowly, step by step. 

What You See Is…

Eager to see what all the fuss is about, we found some great shooting opportunities while driving through a nearby canyon. Panning across the mountain’s shadows to the sun drenched rock face beyond, or down the river with its alternating patches of deep shadows, brightly lit boulders and sparkling water, the AX1 really shows its broad dynamic range and ability to handle deeply contrasting scenes extremely well. Using the camera’s focus and exposure assists made it easy to get dialed in for a beautiful shot.

Driving through a tunnel in the granite mountain afforded us an excellent opportunity to check out the camera’s low light capabilities. Dimly lit by our headlights, a double row of overhead lights, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” and with zero gain, detail can still be made out at the far edges of the tunnel. Next we panned across a portion of the mountain, from a brightly lit area to an area in deep shadow. At zero gain the scene is quite dark with very little detail visible. Bumping the gain to 9dB brightens the scene a bit, bringing a great deal more detail into view. Finally, raising the gain to 18dB brightens the scene considerably, revealing the small white veins of quartz running throughout the mountain, the orangey browns of the lichen growing on the rock and even the individual blades of green grass come plainly into view. What isn’t visible, thankfully, is video noise.

Buttons beneath LCD display
Buttons beneath LCD display
Stopping at a small bridge over the river we used a sign as the subject of our optical image stabilization test (OIS). With the SteadyShot OIS turned on and zoomed all the way in we recorded several seconds of footage handheld while standing as still as possible. We then repeated the process with the OIS switched off. As can be seen on our accompanying video, using the OIS makes a big difference and creates a much more stable shot while standing relatively still. But how does it look while moving? To find out, we repeated the entire process while walking slowly toward the subject. While a very close look reveals some minor improvement, in reality, the OIS makes very little difference when walking. Of course, you do know better than to walk (or run) while zoomed all the way in, right? If not, then boy have we got a workshop for you.

Traipsing around a mountain littered with granite boulders of all sizes gave us a great opportunity to check out the AX1’s abilities with fine details and textures. Our boulders are largely white, with a multitude of tiny specks of mineral scattered throughout. Zooming in tight, we found every individual particle defined. The ridges and depressions on each surface were clearly visible, as was the faint translucence of portions of the quartz itself. We also found a small mineral spring running down the mountainside leaving an outcropping of deposited mineral in its wake. Its surface was rough and colorful with water slowly dripping here and there. We shot the scene, zoomed in as far as the 20x Sony G lens would go, then we thought to scale up a portion in post by 600 percent to get a closer look at a water droplet and were amazed by the detail captured behind it; something we hadn’t seen through the lens. This added detail shows a clear benefit to shooting in ultra high definition 4K and the flexibility it can add in the edit room.

Wanting to see how the AX1 fared with bright colors, we were a bit concerned that there were no flowers to be seen anywhere, only brown dirt, gray rock and green trees. While gazing in awe at the mineral outcropping, however, we heard a rumbling and whistling behind us as a train came roaring up the canyon, pulled by a bright yellow engine. Ah, salvation! We later found a bright red fire truck parked in the snow and a lovely patch of flowers. No surprises here, colors look great, vibrant and realistically reproduced.

Media card slots and USB interface
Media card slots and USB interface
Horizontal lines and fine, intricate patterns usually lead to anomalies such as moiré (false patterns or movement) and aliasing (jaggies). We were pleased to find that panning across an expanse of brickwork and the horizontal lined siding of a large church revealed no moiré at all and very minor aliasing along some power lines. Another common issue with CMOS based cameras is rolling shutter or the Jell-O effect. Panning quickly across vertical subjects such as communications towers and telephone poles gives the appearance that they are “swaying in the breeze.” This is due to the sensor’s method of capture and the AX1 falls victim to it as well. Our autofocus test showed that the autofocus response time is adequate.

Our final test was to have a look at the AX1’s depth of field capabilities and bokeh, the quality of the out of focus portion of the frame. On both counts we were quite pleased. Our first shot is of a salmon sculpture with a brightly lit, very colorful, out of focus tree in the background, and a dark stone pillar standing between the two. The result is a sharply focused sculpture that stands out crisply against a very soft and pleasant looking background. The second shot shows our sculpture with the setting sun at its back. The waning sunlight filtering through the tree, coupled with the AX1’s six-blade aperture produces a gorgeous backdrop with beautifully soft sparkles. 


Overall, the footage captured by the AX1 is very sharp and clean with dynamic range, color reproduction (at least as viewed on non-4K displays) and other capabilities similar to many other non-4K cameras in this price range. So is it worth the bucks to run out and buy this camera? If you’ve got the pocket depth and the desire to shoot excellent footage, then sure, why not? Future proofing has its merits. It may take a little time for the consumer market and support hardware to catch up, but it won’t be long. And in the meantime you can capture in 4K, enjoy added versatility in the edit room and distribute in good old full HD. Then, when the timing is right, dust off those old projects and redistribute them in ultra high definition 4K. How cool is that? 

Sony Electronics Inc.

Tech Specs

Imaging Sensor: 1/2.3” back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS Sensor
Pixel Gross (approx.): 18900K pixels
Color Filter System: RGB primary color filters
Effective Picture Resolution: approx. 8300K pixels (movie)
LCD Display: 3.5” Xtra Fine LCD 3D wide (16:9) display (1,229k); 100% coverage; grid display (marker)
Optics/Lens: 20x Sony G lens; focus ring in AF mode; 72mm filter diameter
Image Stabilization: Optical SteadyShot
Aperture: f/1.6-f/3.4; 6-blade iris
Auto/Manual Iris Control: f/1.6-f/11.0
Minimum Illumination: 60P: 4lux (1/30 shutter speed); 50P: 3lux (1/25 shutter speed)
White Balance Modes: Auto/Onepush/Outdoor/Indoor/Color temp
Exposure Assist: Zebra Pattern display
Focus Assist: Magnified display; peaking
Recording: HD resolution: 1920×1080 60p/30p/24p/50p/25p (50Mb/s); 4K resolution: 3840×2160 60p/50p (150); 30p/24p/25p (100); 30p/24p/25p (60)
Video Format: XAVC-S MPEG4-AVC/H.264
Media Type: XQD Memory Card (2)
Audio: built-in stereo microphone, 2-step levels control; wind noise reduction (on/off); monaural speaker
Interface: HDMI terminal; DC in; HDMI out; USB (Mini-B, Type A); accessory shoe; composite video out; stereo headphone jack; XLR mic input (2); XQD card (2)
Power: 7.2V (NP-F970 battery); 8.4V (AC adaptor)
Software: Vegas Pro 12 (voucher)
Limited Warranty: 1-year parts and 90 days labor
Weight (approx.): 5.4lb.
Dimensions (approx.): 7 7/16” x 7 19/32” x 14 1/4” (18.9cm x 19.3cm x 36.2cm)


  • Helps produce 4K movies
  • Increases editing options
  • Broad dynamic range, excellent color reproduction
  • XLR mics
  • Focus and exposure assists


  • New technology not compatible with all supporting hardware/software


Contributing Editor Mark Holder is a video producer and trainer.

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