Sony DSR-PDX10 3-CCD DVCAM Camcorder Review
by Ignacio Rodríguez de Rementería
The following is Part One of a hands-on report of the (NTSC) Sony DSR-PDX10 DVCAM camcorder.
This is the first time I've had to spend a lot of time with a three CCD DV camcorder. I am not a professional videographer or video engineer, so I will not be comparing the PDX10 with high end ENG cameras, and there is no hard core technical data like resolution tests and the like. I an audio engineer, reinventing myself as a part time videographer. I will be using the PDX10 for documentary and corporate video and perhaps some weddings and things like that.
The other DV camera I own and have operated extensively is the Sony PC3, with one CCD and a Carl Zeiss lens. I have become quite used to the PC3 and love it in spite of its weird form factor, useless hand grip, lousy stereo mic which points upwards, bad pixels and jaggies. I have briefly used other good quality single and 3 CCD cameras, so I am not easily impressed. And I am impressed... image and audio quality are very good. The camera is easy to operate. Stabilization, automatic exposure and focus all perform well. The main things I do not like about it are battery charging and duration, physical balance and the manual. I experienced some vertical smear on very extreme high contrast and some noise in low light, but these problems can be kept under control with good shooting practices in normal conditions.
As was to be expected, the PDX10 is light years ahead of most single CCD cameras. Taking a walk around the neighborhood on a sunny midday revealed a much better dynamic range and faithful color reproduction of sky and skin, as compared to the PC3. It does seem to have a certain tendency towards red. Some friends had warned me about Sony cameras doing this , but I seem to like it. If you don't, you can try compensating this with the white balance shift parameter in the custom preset menu. Automatic exposure worked well, specially after I brought AE level one step down in the custom preset menu. I also used this menu to set color up one step, and tones continued to look natural, at least on my TV. Another step up and color took on an enhanced look which might be usable as long as no human skin is in the frame. Jaggies on diagonal edges seem much less than with the PC3, even before using the custom menu to decrease electronic edge enhancement, which also helped
produce a less 'video' looking image.
I had the chance of seeing the image from a PDX10 and a PD150 side by side. The result surprised me. To me the image from the PDX10 looked better, tone seemed more natural and noise was lower in normal light conditions. Don't let Sony know though, we do not want the price of the PDX10 to go up (although dropping the price on the PD150 would be nice)! If you're working in low light conditions you will probably prefer the PD150. Otherwise, I don't see a reason for buying the more expensive older model.
The only problem I have been able to detect is some degree of vertical smear with a slight blueish cast, apparent only under high contrast and with an over exposed background. Similarly, white vertical lines can appear when you have bright lights over a dark background. Playing around with the shutter speed can help diminish vertical smearing. A contrast reducing filter might help. There is no internal ND filter.
Connecting the camera to my PowerBook using a 1394 cable (not included) revealed a perfect full frame image. The PC3 had a few non usable lines in the top area of the image. Other cameras I have used (noticeably the Canon XL1) do not generate a full DV size image and leave black bars on the left and right edges. Also, the model I received has no bad pixels either on the flip-out LCD or in the viewfinder, at least none that I could detect. Similarly and what is much more important, turning up the gain and slowing the shutter in low light conditions revealed a perfect image (if somewhat noisy and line-doubled), which means the CCDs are also high quality. Doing the same thing on my PC3 (and other similar cameras I have tried) shows stuck bright pixels. Note that this is not a camera sent to me by Sony or the dealer for review, it is an off-the-shelf model.
Image stabilization seems smoother and more natural on pans than on the PC3. I have read contradictory reports about the PDX10 having optical or electronic image stabilization. Whichever, the result is very nice.
I was surprised by the apparent quality of the lens. It's not a Carl Zeiss lens but internal reflections are very low and contrast and clarity are quite good across the whole zoom range.
Now here is a strange little thing which seems somewhat confusing: the PDX10 is advertised as having native 16:9 capability. And indeed setting it to 16:9 via the appropriate menus gives you pleasing images which at least to me look as good as 4:3 images. As expected from a camera having a 16:9 CCD array, the image has a wider angle of view in 16:9 than in 4:3 at the same zoom setting. But here is the strange part: when you switch the camera to "memory" mode (photo mode), the image has the same angular width as in video 16:9 mode! And now for the strangest part: in photo mode, the image also has a taller angular height! So there are a bunch of pixels on the top and bottom of the CCD array which are not being used for video. Could it be that Sony crippled 4:3 use of the full CCDs just so we all believe the camera has a 16:9 native CCD array? I have no problem with chips being 4:3 or whatever aspect ratio Sony wants, as long as they have a high enough pixel count for both 16:9 and 4:3 images. I asked Adam Wilt about this and he wrote the following answer: "According to Sony, the chip is oversampled in both 4x3 and 16x9 mode and my own tests would so indicate." Using more
pixels could lessen artifacts and reduce noise, which leaves us with a question for Sony: why not use the full million pixels for 4:3 video and get an even better image?
With DSP being such an inexpensive thing today, I wonder why these little cameras don't do other processing too. On my wish list is motion blur (not the line doubling "trail" kind), de-interlacing (like most low end Canon models), separate shadow/midtone/highlight HSL color balance and noise reduction, luma transfer function control (as on the Panasonic AG-DVX100). On the analog side: 16:9 to 4:3 letterboxing and switchable setup
would be nice. Note by setup I mean the real thing, not the nonstandard "digital setup" provided on the PDX10, PD150 and several other Sony models.
Read the second half of Ignacio's review.
Back to the Sony DV / DVCAM User Reports Menu
Written by Ignacio Rodríguez de Rementería
Thrown together by Chris Hurd