Extensive field report with the Sony VG10 camcorder, and footage by Luminous Landscape

Luminous Landscape, who are predominantly a stills photography website have always struck me as knowing their stuff to a remarkable degree when it comes to video, with a hybrid photographer / videographer approach. So when Sony invited them out to Yellowstone Park to test the VG10, what they disclosed is incredibly detailed, and offers a new insight into what the first large sensor consumer camcorder is really like, even though it has not yet been released.

Check out the footage over at Luminous Landscapes – it looks very smooth, well scaled from the 14MP sensor and sharp.

Here is my take on it…

Sony brought some actual camera engineers to the shoot at Yellowstone, to enlighten the assembled press on all kinds of technical details we usually are not privy to in the mainstream media. The VG10 is built around the NEX 5 and the first unfortunate news is that it shares a similar Playstation style graphical user interface. The one on the NEX mirrorless came in for a lot of critisism, and having tried it myself I must admit that to navigate some pretty graphics and require 5 button presses simply to change ISO is not what a good menu is.

There are other obmissions on the firmware side because of the focus on an imaginary ‘consumer’ named Joe Bloggs! The VG10 lacks zebras, or even a focus confirmation. Needlessly, RAW stills mode is removed – maybe technical, but probably an attempt at distinguishing the consumer stills camera and video cameras just enough so that the most comitted (and rich) have to end up buying both, even though they are essentially the same inside. The VG10 shoots 25p in Europe (on the PAL version) in a 50i wrapper just like the GH1 sans hack. But where the GH1 had 24p on the NTSC model, Sony decided they liked the look of 30p in a 60i wrapper better because Joe Bloggs told them it was smoother!

Sony’s design omissions leave it a somewhat flawed product that makes one have to wonder as to what the engineering and marketing folks at Sony in Japan were thinking when they put together this product’s feature set.

Happier news is that the VG10 ups the bitrate to 24Mbit from the 17 of the NEX 5 and does not suffer from moire and aliasing (the image processing pipeline is built around video and not around stills).

As you can tell from the sample footage, audio is superb from the built in mic. You won’t need to buy a Zoom H4N, because the one included is just as capable. Unfortunately Joe told Sony not to put any complicated audio levels or manual control in it. Not even the option.

The camera takes SD cards as well as Sony’s MemoryStick. A nod to standardisation that took Sony 10 years to implement!

The EVF has a very comfortable rubber eye cup, much like the Zacuto Z-Finder. I’ve found the DSLR eyecups to be less than ideal for video, when moving the camera around. The one of the GH1 for example is far too small, and it’s uncomfortable for any extended usage over around 30 seconds or more!

The LCD can swivel like on most camcorders, but strangely cannot face forwards.

The 18-200MM kit lens is supposed to be very good, with excellent stablisation. But I think Panasonic have by far the most pleasing strategy with regards lenses. They may not have very many, but let’s look at the facts a minute.

• Panasonic had their silent video optimised zoom lens out a full 18 months before the competition.
• Their 20mm F1.7 pancake is a far better proposition than Sony’s 16mm F2.8 (and the Olympus 17MM F2.8). Although 16MM on an APS-C sized camera is nice and wide (24mm equivalent).
• Panasonic’s lenses are smaller
• Their Lumix 7-14mm wide angle is one of the best wide angle lenses in the world (although it is very pricey!)
• If the rumours are to believed, the 12-75MM F2.5 HD OIS will be a mega piece of glass.

As you can see Panasonic have the better AF video lenses, and with the AF100 they will also have a better video camera, albeit at a much higher price. The choice is yours! What Sony do have up their sleeves though is that the new (optical) Active Stabilisation in the 18-200MM is supposed to be very very good indeed, and a big step ahead of Panasonic’s. Sony have always been ahead of the game in Steady Shot terms and they have done it again with the VG10’s kit lens. No body only option by the way, according to Luminous Landscape.

So now we have seen video cameras in DSLR clothing, here is a DSLR in video camera clothing! It shoots 14MP stills just like the NEX 5 and it puts in a very reasonable performance even at ISO 1600 in terms of noise.

Overall Luminous Landscapes gave the VG10 a thumbs up, and on the whole so do I. But it’s an expensive camera – around £1700 worth with the 18-200MM kit lens. The stuff they have added does not quite add up to the price hike over the same core kit you get inside the NEX 5. You are paying somewhat for the fact that right now this is a unique product, with very little competition.

Generally my take on the VG10 is that it’s an excellent video camera let down by a few silly firmware omissions and the fact that DSLRs are better value for money. Such a shame! It needs a hack to open it up to that larger audience of filmmakers, enthusiasts and professionals rather than just the rich tourist or family man. Someone at Sony isn’t doing their market research properly. Canon get it, and that’s why the 5D Mark II has 24p via an update and even the low end 550D has 24p with full manual control. Not everyone just wants an expensive point and shoot with pleasing image quality. Most want to go deeper and the VG10 is just not allowing them to do that.

Yes, it’s true that you won’t need to spend extra on a Zacuto Z-Finder for the VG10, but in my book a DSLR with the Z-Finder is just as capable and usable a video camera but for half the price. Also for the kind of shooting I like to do, the stealth factor of DSLRs allows me to get some very natural shots whereby by-standers are not distracted or playing up for a video camera.

Don’t forget to check out the source – Luminous Landscape’s VG10 field report