Berlin – running and gunning with Zacuto Z-Finder / Sony HX9v compact

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Buy the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro with Gorilla baseplate

Two weeks ago I finally got my hands on the eagerly awaited Sony HX9v compact, this is a bit of a game changer for compacts because it’s image quality rivals that from a DSLR, and for the first time we have 1080/60p on a $400 compact! Usually with a compact you end up sacrificing something and you never get all the nice bits in one package – well the HX9v changes that as well. The screen is 922k dots, the same as on a high end DSLR and 3 inch. The lens is a stabilised 24-385mm (16x zoom), and the new optical stabiliser technology is incredibly effective without much of a crop.

What is the purpose of a compact camera rig? Well it is something that has got the video journalists excited and it suits my style of capturing cinematic vignettes of real life too. The Guardian’s Dan Chung and BBC man Johnnie Behiri have both picked one up but as Johnnie pointed out you really do need a way to see the screen in bright daylight and some extra stability, and that’s where the Z-Finder comes in.

There’s no live HDMI video output on the HX9v so an EVF is out of the question. There’s a lot of buzz around the Zacuto Z-Finder EVF and deservedly so – but the viewing quality I am getting from this beautiful Sony screen and the Z-Finder Pro is fantastic – same optics as the EVF actually. It’s a happy marriage and just SO much fun to use. The standard Z-Finder has been much improved since I last tried it in early 2010. The Z-Finder Pro 2.5x I have on loan from Zacuto has a mounting quick-release plate which is far better than the stick-on z-frames of old. Also with many DSLRs now finally taking a hint from the 2 year old GH1 and getting articulated screens the Zacuto mounting plate has an added advantage. It stops the weight of the z-finder hanging off the screen and avoids the issue of the screen falling away from the camera. All in all, a lot more secure for run & gun. Here’s a view of what the Canon 600D’s 1MP LCD and the Sony HX9’s 922k LCD looks like through the looking glass of the Z-Finder:

Canon 600D:

Sony HX9v:

The Z-Finder Pro is really designed for larger DSLRs and not compacts, but despite that there really aren’t many issues. Because the LCD is flush with the bottom of the camera on the Sony, it sits very low on the mounting plate and so the Z-Finder is offset slightly too high. But you can get a spacer and screw the camera into that instead so it sits slightly higher, or just gaffer tape off the top of the Z-Finder to avoid light leakage from the front. Since the HX9v’s movie mode is 16:9, you don’t need to see the very bottom of the 4:3 LCD. You do however get a bit of light leakage from the sides – the compact is rather thin and doesn’t quite back properly into the Z-Finder’s seal. But again that could easily be solved by extending the seal of the Z-Finder forward by a few millimetres. This is only an issue when you have a very bright light source (or the sun) aligned perfectly on one side of you and it beams directly into the narrow gap. Pesky sun!

The purpose of this rig was discrete run & gun without the hassle of manual focus or shallow DOF. It is a rig to grab a fleeting moment, something that can be ready and shooting in seconds.

The HX9 is so good for this I actually shot a lot of the maze section of the short above without any rigging at all, just relying on the HX9v’s Steadyshot, handheld. At the 24mm wide end of the zoom you can almost get a completely locked off shot, it remains as if it’s on rails when you walk too. A bit of jitter creeps in at 250mm-385mm if you’re attempting a locked off shot handheld – crazy I know – but actually you can get some very smooth panning movements even at the long end of the zoom, so sometimes a bit of movement is good. I’m going to post more footage to demonstrate the Steadyshot capabilities of the HX9, it really is something to behold.

The video above was shot entirely handheld, both with and without the Z-Finder / Pistol grip.

Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x on the Sony HX9 compact

Above:  Shooting the remains of the Berlin Wall with Z-Finder and HX9v

When I needed even more stability and better screen visibility I attached the Z-Finder Pro 2.5x and a pistol grip. The grip is a generic Hong Kong one and simply bolts to the bottom of the Zacuto quick-release plate. The ergonomics of this little 1080/60p gizmo is pretty good with the Z-Finder, all the buttons are unobstructed. The Z-Finder is very comfortable and padded held to the eye.

AF is good for a compact (although obviously not up to prosumer camcorder or ENG standards in terms of speed or reliability), and what helps here is a simple press of the d-pad softkey that activates AF tracking. The tracking spot appears in the middle of the screen, and cannot be moved. The idea is to move the camera so that the object you want to lock focus to is centred, and then when you move the camera or frame the shot the AF keeps track of that part of the scene and locks focus to it no matter where it is in the frame. You can use it like a semi-manual focussing aid. The only other manual control is exposure compensation and this is very important on the HX9v. There’s a trend in digital capture as sensors get more and more sensitive for dark areas of the image to be held onto incredibly well with little noise, but for highlights to blow very suddenly. The dynamic range of the HX9 is actually ok, but it’s concentrated at the lower end so best practice with this camera is to almost always underexpose, sometimes by as much as 2ev to protect highlights, and then boost the shadows and mids in post.

Editing 1080/60p is about 2-3x more demanding than 24p since there are more than double the frames – double the data. I have a mixture of frame rates in this project. It’s all shot at 50p on my PAL HX9v. A 50% slow-down in Premiere CS5 gives me 25p slow-mo. For some shots where I wanted even slower motion I used Twixtor which works even better with 50/60p than it does 24p because it has double the frames to work with and interpolate between.

I also used Twixtor at 10% normal speed to take some jitter out of certain handheld telephoto shots which I wanted locked off, so it acts a bit like Warp Stabiliser but without the huge crop.

Of course 50p goes perfectly to 25p if you want the cinema look, without slow-mo. Just conform it in Final Cut Pro. Although bare in mind that the HX9 will usually shoot at a high shutter speed in daylight and you can’t override that manually, so you lose a bit of cinematic motion there. With 60p on the NTSC model, that goes to 24p pretty well too although purists would say it doesn’t exactly, it looks good to me. On the PAL version there is also a 1440×1080 25p mode which records to standard MP4 rather than AVCHD. Although horizontal resolution is slightly less in this format you don’t really notice a loss in detail. That mode is 30p on the NTSC model.

AVCHD on the HX9v is recorded at the highest current spec – PS mode at 28Mbit. There’s a little bit of compression but it’s pretty good. The higher bitrate goes toward storing so many extra frames, so it is not quite as clean as the AVCHD 24Mbit 24p on the GH2 in terms of compression, but again for a compact it’s in a different league!!

Above: Size comparison, from left to right. Sony WX7, Sony HX9V + Zacuto Z-Finder Pro, Canon 600D + Zeiss 85mm F1.4

The lens on the HX9v is given Sony’s highest designation – G. Same as the top end DSLR lenses. It is certainly the best lens I’ve ever used on a compact. Despite it’s extreme range, distortion is well controlled, it’s sharp and corner sharpness is much better than on credit card sized compacts with their smaller optics like the IXUS series. Though you do get some vignetting / light fall off at the mid-range of the zoom which is noticeable on very evenly lit scenes, like shots of the sky for instance. Unfortunately the lens isn’t always 100% stable whilst you zoom in video mode, and it can shift the image sometimes. It doesn’t happen all the time but you don’t get a smooth flow from 24mm to 385mm and make sure you have an external dual system audio recorder on you because the onboard mic pics up a lot of lens stabiliser and zoom noise, which is to be expected from a compact really.

Battery life is good – better than the average compact despite the monstrous image processors delivering 16MP stills, 43 megapixel panoramas and 1080/60p video, all the whilst powering a 922k live view and LCD. The battery is almost the same capacity as the one in my Canon 600D DSLR, despite being half the size. Good effort Sony.

How does this compact compare to a high end prosumer camcorder for run & gun, documentary and journalism? Well it is certainly smaller and more discrete. People think you’re taking holiday snap shots with it, not video. You can take it into places where video cameras aren’t allowed, like Longshan’s Temple in Taiwan. The lens is better than on most prosumer camcorders too. In the Potsdamer Platz Sony centre in Berlin, I tried a £1200 prosumer camcorder on a professional Sony video editing reference monitor, and the HX9v. The prosumer camcorder had more purple fringing than the HX9 and wasn’t sharper. Also the 24mm wide angle is not very common on camcorders, and they don’t do as good stills with the amount of manual control you get on a high end compact. The HX9’s raison d’être is to be pocketable, quick to use, easy to focus. Otherwise, I would use my GH2 especially for low light. The HX9’s lens is F3.3 at best and it has a small 1/2.3″ chip.

Conclusion

When you pair it with the Z-Finder, the HX9 is a serious tool for pros. There’s no doubt about it. It’s capable in the right hands of getting one decisive moment after another with aplomb. Frankly you should be ashamed if you miss it, such is the coverage of the lens, the stabiliser, the screen, the Z-Finder and the AF system – it all adds up to a real beast for journalists, artists and documentary makers. It has even more stealth factor than a DSLR, certainly more than a video camera. It has a better lens and stills mode than a camcorder, and it’s pocketable. The Z-Finder makes for perfect handheld video. No need to set up sticks, a shoulder rig, or adjust anything – it just works.

I feel there’s going to be an explosion of interest in high end compacts like this as people cotton on to the benefits of one for certain types of work, and it will be good to see some miniature Zacuto products to go along with it, like a pistol grip with remote shutter trigger release for example.

I had tons of fun with this combo, felt really creatively inspired by it and captured stuff I would have missed with more elaborate setups, so for that reason it is a perfect accomplice to my DSLR and lovely manual focus lenses. Just bare in mind it is still a compact with a small sensor so for most work on set, like narrative dramas you are best of sticking to the aesthetic of interchangeable lenses and large sensors.

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About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.

16 Comments

  1. I’m interested in this camera, does it still have the recording time limitations in pal? and is there a way to get around them like buying from Hong Kong?

  2. philiplipetz on

    Have a HX9v, very impressed with the ACT stabilization. Been playing with the high ISO video mode, and the other special video modes. Andrew do you find that the color balance changes in these modes, not WB but the intended saturation and gamma curves? Trying to find the best curve for editing so I can intercut it with my Canon XF100 and GH1(3)

  3. gene_can_sing on

    The Z-Finder 2.5x is a GREAT product. When you need to work light and don’t want to use a monitor with Focus Assist, the Z-Finder is so crucial for focus. EVFs are nice, but really difficult to focus with since the image is so small. I figure that I nail the focus about 30% better using that Z-Finder than just the LCD when in a rush. The Sony sounds really cool. Might just have to pick one up for my next surf trip.

  4. gene_can_sing on

    Hey Andrew,

    Quick question for you on the 16x 24-385mm zoom lens. How can we gauge the Field of View when compared to the DSLRs? Does the 385mm FOV look the same as the 1.6x crop of the Canons? Or does it look more like the 2x crop of the GH2s? Or is it it’s own thing where 385mm is a super zoom where you can basically see across the Pacific Ocean since it’s obviously a smaller chip?

    Just asking because I’m going on a trip and need to pick up a few surfing shots for a current film, but I don’t want to lug all my gear for 5 or 6 shots. On the 7D, I shoot with a 70-200mm + 2x tele-extender for a 400mm zoom (or about 640mm at 1.6 crop).

    Also, is the 16x zoom clean? Is it an optical zoom? Or is it a crappy digital zoom?

    Thanks for any help. I already have the Z-Finder, so it would be nice marriage of the 2.

  5. 24 – 385 is already the 35mm full-frame equivalent! The actual HX9V lens is something like 4 – 68mm. If you want more reach, the HX100V has a Carl Zeiss zoom with a 35mm full-frame equivalent of 27 – 810mm and has pretty much the same features, but is bigger and more expensive. Apparently you can also use the manual focus ring in the HX100V’s video mode too, though it moves jn pretty big digital steps.

    The 16x zoom is all optical. There is extra digital zoom if you want though. Hope that helps!

  6. Manual focus on the HX100v – that’s useful to know. May check that out as well, although the larger size puts me off, Sony may have sneaked a few more extras in there. These small chip compact and bridge cameras are starting to do great video. They could do good low light too if it wasn’t for the megapixel craziness. Having the circuitry of the CMOS backside now actually allows for larger pixels, because there’s more room on the chip (not taken up by circuitry).

  7. On DSLRs I use it as a focussing aid. On the compact it is more a stability thing, and allows better screen visibility. I couldn’t have shot in bright daylight without it really. Not to the same degree of accuracy. And it goes well with the pistol grip too. Highly impressed!!

  8. No 29min limit on my PAL HX9v, bought in Berlin. This is significant… Maybe Sony have a deal to avoid the extra tax or discovered a loop hole. I can get over an hour of AVCHD on a 16GB card.

  9. I have not noticed any major differences but colour profiles are one area I need to explore more of. The soft snap picture profile is available in video mode, and I think that just keeps aperture at F3.3 and uses the digital ND and shutter to get the correct exposure. The camera is quite mysterious in some ways… I don’t know if the lens lacks an aperture like previous models do (and some of Casio’s compacts inherited the same aperture-less Sony tech). I don’t know if the built in ND is electronic or optical. It’s hard to tell whether stopping down the lens results in a deeper depth of field in video mode since it’s all automatic and it hides the info from you. I’ll find out, need to explore further into this amazingly technological compact.

  10. gene_can_sing on

    Thanks for the tip on the HX100v.

    Can you put ND and Polarizing filters on these cameras? If they can’t take filters, how do you guys cut down the light? This is important for me, because I’m hoping to do a few surfing pick-up shots in bright sunlight.

  11. Full auto, you don’t need to worry about exposure. If you want optimal shutter speeds for a bit of motion blur, you need a DSLR with full manual controls, then you can use NDs and keep the shutter at 1/50.

  12. Dear Andrew, thanks for this well written review!

    One small correction, on my little Sony THERE IS a mini HDMI output. When connected to a EVF it is possible to monitor the picture until you press the REC button, then the signal is cut to the external device (EVF).
    It will also be interesting to find out “what is happening if a Ninja or alike are connected to the camera”, Will it be possible to record the clean signal without pressing the camera record?….

    Will try and answer my question soon….

    All the best and keep up the good job!

    Johnnie

  13. Yes you are right. It cuts off during recording, and defaults to playback mode when you first plugin, but it does give a very clean 1080p HDMI signal of some kind. Would be good to try it with a Ninja for sure.

  14. SimonRuschmeyer on

    Dear Andrew,
    thanks for the post, i am spechless!!!!
    I think this combo would be awesome for travel videography! I Went on a trip through Canada last summer with my 7D and to be honest i sometimes felt a little lazy setting it up. This looks like the perfect solution for me!!!

  15. Utterly unbelievable. Great track by the way. Absolutely a great travel video camera, but it’s so much more.

  16. Andrew- After watching these sample videos on the HX9v I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I have been looking for a camera to compliment my 5D stuff for general use as a static camera, one that doesn’t need those mega bokeh and shallow DoF shots, but a nice sharp and quick HD camera I could cut to that didn’t look bad and had a longer than 12 minute record time.

    When I saw how clean these images were coming out on video I was actually floored to see how much clearer they looked than the side-by-side 600D shots! I ran out and got the very last one at my local store today. The battery is charging now and I can’t wait to try it out.

    What a nifty little tool to setup some quick and wonderful shots! It’s sad the codec they used on this $349 camera seems to rival that of the Canon 60D and heck the 5D and that’s pretty sad to say.

    NO, the chips are no comparison. I’m just taking about the software processing of the shots alone. I know this little guy won’t do awesome in low light, but in general light stuff it appears to be amazing.

    I still can’t believe I went out an bought a cybershot camera to use alongside my 5D Mark II, hahaha! I’m a very open-minded guy though and not easy to dismiss when it comes to what my eye sees vs a spec. When I told my photographer friend about my purchase he sounded less than enthusiastic about it, but he speaks in photos and doesn’t understand much on the codec processing issues.

    Hey, you sold me, Andrew! Thanks for the awesome samples and the details on your using this camera! I think this little guy will become a hot little item when word really gets out about what this little hidden gem can do at that price level!

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