After seeing HD video footage for the first time, it didn’t seem like it could get much better. The image was so much sharper than standard definition. Then 4K came along and is starting to change everything again. Seeing 4K video for the first time is a breathtaking spectacle in much the same way that seeing HD footage was so many years ago. 4K and Ultra High Definition video has at least four times as many pixels as 1080p HD footage and that brings in a big set of challenges for all facets of video production, although, we saw many of these challenges during the transition from SD to HD.
When HD video first came on the scene, there were a lot of hurdles that needed to be overcome in order to adopt it as a standard. The prices of HD capable cameras were much higher than SD recording models. The HD recordings took up a lot more storage space than footage recorded in SD. By definition, with HD material you are working with nearly six times as many pixels as you were with SD material. Computers needed to be upgraded, software needed to be updated, and you needed to set aside that much more time to render your final product. Also, in order to get the most out of HD material, the end user needed to have an HDTV for viewing.
This was a big transition that happened over more than a decade and we are about go through a similar transition as the 4K era is ushered into our lives. The great news is that even if the rest of world is not quite ready for 4K, with the Sony PXW-Z100 XDCAM you can start your transition now and get ahead of the curve while also improving your existing HD workflows. The PXW-Z100 is a new 4K camcorder that takes advantage of this new hi-res format while staying at a price that is competitive to most HD camcorders in its class and throws some new tricks into the mix.
Sony is not a stranger to the professional camcorder market and this fact really shows with the design of the PXW-Z100. It is nearly identical to its less expensive sibling, the FDR-AX1, with the most obvious, the XDCAM logo proudly stamped below the glistening “4K” emblem on the side. The PXW-Z100 records cinematic 4K (4096×2160), 4K UHD (3840×2160), and HD (1080p) video on XQD media cards. It uses the standard XAVC codec rather than XAVC-S used by the AX1. XAVC is an intra-frame 4:2:2 colors pace codec that runs between 90Mb/s and 600Mb/s, depending on resolution and frame rate. This higher quality codec needs lots of storage space and higher read/write speeds, so the S series XQD cards are recommended for 4K recording. There is also an SD card slot that prepares the PWX-Z100 to support the lower bit rate XAVC-S codec in a future update.
Most of the controls are on the left side of the camera body in addition to three rings that control focus, zoom, and iris. There are six buttons that can be assigned to custom functions including zebra stripes, focus peaking, SteadyShot and several others. Below those are a three-step ND filter switch, a toggle for selecting manual/auto focus, and a small flip-down door that accesses the manual audio controls. Towards the bottom are three-position switches for setting up gain and white balance settings. There are also buttons for toggling manual/auto operation of the iris, gain, white balance, shutter speed and an override automatic switch to quickly set all functions from manual to automatic in a video emergency.
The back side features slots for the XQD and SD cards, battery pack, Wi-Fi module, as well as composite and HDMI video outputs. The PXW-Z100 features a 3G-SDI output, and TC I/O. The handgrip has a LANC remote connector, variable zoom rocker, and buttons for focus magnification and momentary automatic iris. The placement of each button feels great and the camera feels pretty balanced when using the handgrip. One unusual feature is a small fan on the back of the handgrip side, it is very quiet and was unnoticed during operation. The viewfinder integrated into the handle tilts up and down and looks fantastic, as does the hi res 3.5 inch LCD panel that flips open into a multitude of positions. On the front of the handle, there is a built-in omnidirectional stereo microphone as well as a microphone holder that sits over dual XLR inputs with separate audio settings.
While the headline feature of the PXW-Z100 is 4K recording, there are many other factors that contribute to a camcorder’s performance. Fortunately, the PXW-Z100 has a decent list of features that all add up to a solid video experience.
All recording is done through the built-in Sony G Lens which features a 20x optical zoom and can be controlled by the zoom ring that surrounds the lens barrel or either of two variable zoom rockers. The lens provides a very sharp image with little noticeable distortion. The zoom rockers are smooth and easy to operate and the ring is great for moving quickly through the zoom’s range, although there is a bit of lag due to the “fly by wire” system used by the zoom ring rather than a physical connection. The focus and iris rings are also easy to operate and have the right amount of resistance for precise control. Automatic focusing is fairly accurate most of the time, but like many autofocus systems, should not be relied upon for critically important shots that have lots of foreground/background objects in the frame which could confuse the autofocus system. The automatic iris and shutter speed settings perform very well, even offering advice on when to enable one of the three built-in ND filters when the iris is towards the end of its range. It also has SteadyShot optical image stabilization with several available settings which makes a huge difference when operating handheld at the far end of the zoom.
The sensor on the PXW-Z100 is 1/2.3-inches in size and doesn’t capture as much light as a larger sensor, but the color reproduction is still very good and a shallower depth of field can be obtained by zooming in on your subject and moving the camera further back. When recording in the 4K modes, the amount of detail absorbed by this sensor is mind boggling. When playing back the footage at a 1:1 zoom, every little detail can be seen. Every hair, every drop of water, every pine needle, every leaf, every blade of grass can be picked out with clarity that manages to far exceed HD video. The dynamic range is pretty impressive as well, showing lots of contrast between lighter and darker areas. While the sensor doesn’t excel in low light environments, it holds its own against other camcorders with similar sensor sizes and the gain can be increased to pull in more detail, if necessary. The noise is not very apparent until you go greater than 9dB, then the noise could become an issue.
4K might seem a long way off, but it will be the new standard before you know it.
The built-in omnidirectional stereo microphone performed as expected with a decent auto-gain system in place on both sound channels. The PXW-Z100 also includes a Sony ECM-XM1 shotgun microphone that can be mounted on the built-in mic mount on the front of the handle grip. The ECM-XM1 provides reduced background noise and a noticeable increase in clarity when using it to capture dialog taking place directly in front of the camera. Both microphones are able to pick up button clicks on the camera body, so be sure to avoid those operations during recording if you are in a quiet environment. The headphone jack used for monitoring works very well and has no latency issues. We also really appreciated the ability to change the headphone monitoring from stereo mix to channel one or channel two with a small hardware switch near the headphone jack instead of having to dive through menus to change it. There is a small built-in speaker for playback, but the headphone jack can also be used if more fidelity is needed.
The PXW-Z100 has an extensive list of features that can be accessed via the built-in menu system. The menus are very easy to navigate with the selection wheel and are laid out in an organized fashion. There are plenty of advanced functions that can be enabled including flicker reduction, zebra stripes, focus peaking, timecode management, frame rates, video output settings, and many others. For creating image presets, the paint section lets you configure several parameters of the image including the gamma curve, knee, and black levels. One of the more useful features is the slow and quick motion which lets you record from 1-60fps at 1080p and conform that frame rate to 24/30fps for slow-or-fast-motion video clips. Another unique feature involves the included Wi-Fi module that can be installed in the camcorder body. Using a tablet or mobile phone, you can connect to the camcorder wirelessly to gain control of the zoom, focus, iris, recording controls, and several other parameters. There is a slight amount of latency during adjustments, but it is pretty minimal and could even be used as a wireless follow focus in the right conditions.
The PXW-Z100 uses the XAVC codec, operates at a very high bitrate and takes up tons of storage space, but on a three-year-old laptop, it played back smoothly. There are only a few editing programs out there right now that can handle XAVC, but the ones that do, work with it flawlessly. Being an intra-frame codec, XAVC is also very robust. Some footage we shot of raindrops creating ripples in standing water showed no signs of blockiness or artifacts like most inter-frame codecs do. Keep in mind that due to the high bitrate, you will need lots and lots of storage, and it has to be very fast as well. As an example, recording at 4K UHD, 60fps will provide only six minutes of footage on a 32GB XQD card.
One of the biggest benefits of editing with 4K footage is that if your final delivery is still 1080p, you can crop down to as little as 25 percent of your 4K shot and it will still be 1080p. For instance, this allows you to have a single, medium shot of an interview subject, then cut to two or three different levels of closeups from that single medium shot. This is one example of how 4K can help you now, even if you are not delivering in 4K yet. Your final 1080p deliverable will also benefit from the increased detail and color space captured on the PXW-Z100. In fact, scrunching 4K footage down to 1080p has the effect of increasing your color space even higher than 4:2:2, which can help if you are keying the footage or performing lots of post-production work.
The PXW-Z100 does a lot of things, and it does them very well. It can shoot in 4K and HD using the brilliant XAVC codec, so it’s great for the studio, and it’s small and versatile enough to be used for run and gun productions out in the field. The camera controls are easy to find and the settings menus are simple to navigate. 4K might seem a long way off, but it will be the new standard before you know it. If it fits into your budget and production style, definitely keep the PXW-Z100 on your short list. The sooner you jump on board, the sooner you’ll be able to start taking advantage of all the goodies and benefits that 4K has to offer.
Sony Electronics Inc.
Format: XAVC 4K/QFHD/HD Intra 4:2:2 10-bit MXF
Storage: (2) XQD Slots, (1) SD Slot for future use
Sensor Type: Back-illuminated“Exmor R” CMOS
Size of Sensor: 1/2.3 inches
Pixels on Sensor: 18.9M (total) 8.8M (effective)
Maximum Resolution: 4096 x 2160
Shutter Speed: Auto/Manual 1/3 – 1/9,000 sec
Lens f Stop: f/1.6 – f/11 auto/manual
Optical Zoom: 20x servo/manual
Focal Length: 4.1-82mm (30-600mm 35mm-equivalent)
Image Stabilization: Yes, 2 modes
ND Filters: Clear, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64
White Balance: Preset (Outdoor 5600K), Manual A/B, Auto
Gain: 0, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27 dB, Auto
Viewfinder: 0.45 inch Color VF, 852 x 480
LCD Monitor Size: 3.5 inches
LCD Monitor Resolution: 852 x 480
Frame Rates: 23.98p/25p/29.97p/50p/59.94p 4K/QFHD/HD
Inputs: LANC remote, Timecode In, DC Power
Outputs: Composite A/V, 3G-SDI, HDMI 2.0, Timecode Out
Microphone: Built-in omni-directional stereo mic, Sony ECM-XM1 mic
Audio Input(s): (2) XLR-type 3-pin, line/mic/mic+48V selectable
VU Meters: Onscreen meters with no dB markings
Manual Audio Level Controls: Yes, 2 Channels
Headphone Jack: Yes
Speaker: Built-in Mono
Memory Card Included: No
Wireless Remote: Wireless Control via WiFi Module
External Battery Charger Provided: Yes
Battery Type: 7.2V Sony InfoLithium L Series
Onboard Video Light: No
Accessory Shoe: 1 Fixed/1 Removeable Cold shoe
Dimensions (W x H x D): 7.4 x 7.6 x 14.3 inches
Weight: 5.42 lbs. (body only), 6.42 lbs. (with inc. accessories)
- Affordable 4K with pro features
- Robust XAVC codec
- Decent included shotgun mic
- Well-designed camera body
- Small sensor size
- Newer software needed for XAVC codec
- Expensive memory cards (XQD)
Adam Vesely is a videographer/director of photography and still photographer.