Working in 4K UltraHD with the Sony FDR-AX1
It’s a fact of life that technology is constantly evolving. It may take a wrong turn occasionally, like the 2012 attempt at selling consumers 3D televisions, but the ship always rights itself. And it’s new destination is 4K.
I’m convinced that 2014 will be the year 4K reaches the masses, at least for content creators. Cameras that can shoot in higher than high-definition resolutions are starting to become more affordable. No longer do you need to spend a small fortune on a RED camera and hire a production crew to achieve nearly 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution.
At the 2013 NAB show, the camera that seemed to have all the attention was the Blackmagic Production 4K Camera. For a mere $4,000, you could shoot 4K. A lot of people pre-ordered this little wonder, and to be honest, I was tempted. But I reconsidered. For a camera of this style, you’d also need to invest in lenses, storage, batteries, and plenty of other accessories. In addition, I wasn’t too fond of the camera’s ergonomics. I was fearful that it would be problematic using it in a one-man crew environment, which it mostly how I operate. So, I opted to wait. I was certain that at the 2014 NAB show there’d be a plethora of 4K cameras to choose from. While I’m certain that still will be the case, I decided to get a 4K head start and invest in the new Sony FDR-AX1, a camera that shoots in 3840×2160 QFHD (Quad Full High Definition) resolution, sometimes referred to simply as UltraHD.
This new prosumer handheld camera is a perfect fit for my needs. It’s a traditionally-styled camcorder with a swivel viewfinder, rocker zoom controls, XLR inputs, and independent focus and iris rings, so shooting with it will be second nature. In addition, it records to (relatively) cheap QXD media. But it does have drawbacks.
For one, unlike the RED or Blackmagic cameras, the Sony is a fixed lens system. There’s no option for changing the lens to expand the camera’s capabilities. Also, the sensor size in the Sony is dwarfed by the others, so it’s a tad bit “light hungry,” to say the least. And lastly, the MPEG4 H.264 long-GOP codec the Sony records is limited to 4:2:0 colorspace. And at a max bitrate of 150Mbps, it’s more compressed than some of the others. But in my opinion (and for my needs), these issues are minor sacrifices I’m willing to accept.
Of course, for a little bit more money, there’s the Sony PXW-Z100. This model is very similar in style to the FDR-AX1, but it’s more of a “professional” version. It utilizes a more robust codec and has additional output and recording options. But for what I need, the extra features of the Z100 wasn’t something I was prepared to pay for.
My initial impression with this camcorder is positive. It does take some getting used to handling a “real” camcorder after shooting with mainly DSLRs for over a year, but I’m sure I’ll adapt quickly. The controls and buttons all seem to be placed in appropriate locations, and the weight is about right, albeit a bit on the heavy side, especially in the front. But I just might be spoiled after using my Panasonic GH3 Micro-Four Thirds DSLR-style camera for so long. I love the separate zoom, focus, and iris rings, and the LCD screen seems sharp and quite usable. I wish it was a touchscreen, however. I find myself instinctively wanting to touch the screen to select options. Also, I’m disappointed that I cannot flip the LCD screen flat against the side of the camera body like on the Panasonic HPX-170, but I suppose I’ll have to adjust.
Video quality seems very good. Technically speaking, it’s probably the best camera I’ve owned, especially if you factor in resolution. When viewing the 4K shots on a 1080p monitor (the only way I can see these shots currently), they look extremely crisp and sharp. Aesthetically, however, I feel my GH3, with its larger sensor, produces “cleaner” footage. But I’m not replacing my GH3 with the FDR-AX1. I still plan on using both, depending on the task. If resolution is top priority, or I need the ability to zoom (which I’m convinced is soon to be a lost art), then I’ll use the Sony. If I need to travel light or want top-notch low-light performance, then the Panasonic will be around my neck. The right tool for the right job, and this 4K camera is simply yet another tool in my ever-changing list of equipment.
Here’s a quick example of the 4K output. But please be aware that I’m sure YouTube compresses these uploads heavily.
I unfortunately shot these clips at 9dB, so they are a bit noisy. I’ll have to be more mindful of this switch on actual shoots. You can view a full-resolution screen grab here to see the quality of the images captured by this camera.
Overall, I’m pleased with this purchase. Looking at the footage from this camera reminds me of my first foray into 1080 HD with the Canon XH-A1. After years of working in standard definition, the Canon’s 1440×1080 HDV resolution was a breath of fresh air. Now, after years working with HD, the Sony’s 3840×2160 UltraHD resolution is quite a sight. But like the Canon, the general “feel” of the footage this camera produces is definitely that of a first generation prosumer camera. Looking at the video at 100%, I can see some digital artifacting and the image seems to be slightly grainy. But again, I may be spoiled after working with larger sensor cameras for so long. But until a reasonably-priced DSLR or MFT camera that can shoot 4K is released, I’m sure to get plenty of use from the Sony.
After work, I quickly ran down to Pittsburgh to grab a few 4K shots from Mount Washington to see how the FDR-AX1 handles the detail in buildings, which always was a moiré nightmare with DSLR and MFT cameras. While I’m satisfied with the quality and resolution right out of the camera, I did run this shot through Red Giant’s Denoiser to reduce the little bit of digital noise that seems to be inherent with this Sony camcorder. Denoising does add render time, but I feel it does an adequate job of cleaning up these clips. And I’m pleased to see no moiré issues.
And here’s a full resolution frame grab from the above shot.
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