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Sony NEX VG10 review - DSLR or camcorder?

Updated on May 7, 2013
Sony VG10 camcorder
Sony VG10 camcorder

Over the past couple of years, video enabled DSLR's have put a shallow depth of field 'filmic look' into the hands of low budget film makers and videographers that would have cost 10 times the price several years ago. There is now movement among manufacturers to release video cameras with the large sensors and interchangeable lenses that enable this. The Sony VG10 is the first to be released, combining video camera and DSLR technology.
I've been holding off on the DSLR craze partly as I prefer the ergonomics of a dedicated video camera and partly from the 12 minute filming limit on DSLR's making them less useful for events and gigs. The Sony VG10 certainly corrects these issues and a lot more though also throws up a few problems. This is my experience in the first week of using this camera which might shed light on your decision to buy.
Firstly this is a $2000 consumer camera, It's not aimed at the pro market and can't be expected to contain everything we'd like. But with interchangeable lenses and a depth of field that needs some thought to work effectively it's clearly not the best point and shoot camera for the family holidays. So who's it for? This query, pondered in a few articles has questioned Sony's marketing strategy. Well for me it's perfect. I regularly use a Sony A1 (similarly priced) as a small, highly portable second camera that I can use on jobs and take on trips where I don't want to lug around a big and expensive camera though I want enough pro features to be able to shoot quality video wherever I end up. Throwing the background out of focus on interviews and shallow depth of field cutaways is something I often try for on my Z1 with difficulty. It's a breeze on the VG10 and the pictures look great. An on board, quality stills camera is a big plus too. This is the use I'm expecting from the VG10. Here is my list of likes and dislikes. A firmware update is due in mid November which may address some of these issues.

Sony VG10 interchangeable lenses
Sony VG10 interchangeable lenses

VG10 Likes

The overall ergonomics of the camera, I like. The supplied 18-200mm lens makes the camera front heavy though a heavier battery can compensate for this. The top handle makes carrying easy and allows for low shots.

The onboard mic is good though some people report it picking up handling noise. The 4 mic array seems to create a stereo sound with heavy bias towards the front. I like this subtle directionality for general use and often find externally mounted shotgun mics too directional. It comes with a nice furry windshield.

No recording limit like the DSLR's. Limited only by the size of the card. Currently up to 64gb (6 hours at the highest bit rate 24mb/s)

Image stabilization on the supplied lens. Makes for good handheld work.

Autofocus on the supplied lens. I was keen to try this out for steadicam use where manual focus is impossible. It's pretty good although a bit slow and when I tried using it for steadicam tracking shots in a sunny park, the camera often opted for the background rather than the subject or would vary it's choice of focus. It works better with less contrast backgrounds or moving around a static environment. Pushing the photo button down when in autofocus forces a refocus which can be useful although this doesn't happen in manual focus mode which is when I'd like to use it most. Autofocus is available on all the Sony E mount lenses (3 so far and more coming next year) and A mount lenses after the November firmware update.

HDMI out. This is useful for quick playback on a TV monitor or can be used to plug in a HD monitor when recording. It does however, turn off the viewfinder and onboard LCD screen which is most annoying. I've heard the HDMI out is pre compression making it potentially possible to record onto nano flash or another device and bypass the AVCHD compression which would benefit grading and compositing. The fact that the HDMI input negates the LCD and viewfinder however, means that you'd have to find another way of monitoring such as through a HDMI splitter or something. Maybe Sony wants to make this difficult for us to separate this from a more pro model they intend to release or maybe there's another reason. Maybe it's fixable via a hack or firmware update. I tried recording direct from the HDMI to the input of my Mac's 'black magic intensity' card. The picture didn't noticeably benefit and the moire patterns and rolling shutter were still visible although these are apparently products of the CMOS chip rather than the AVCHD compression. Presumably you'd see great benefits in green screening and grading though.

Still photos. The 14 megapixel stills are pretty good and for me, having this onboard is a big plus and saves me taking a stills camera on trips. 7 f/s bursts and auto HDR are useful functions. You can't take a still while in movie mode like you can on the Canon DSLR's although it's reasonable quick to change mode. Stills are JPEG only, no raw, which is fine for me though professional photographers may not like it.

The operating system's actually not as bad as I was expecting from a small camera. The absence of touch screen menus is a good thing although a touch screen focus would have been nice. Many of the systems defects are going to be corrected in the November firmware update including assignable functions to the scroll wheel/button.

External microphone input. Stereo mini jack only but at least it's something.

Low light filming. The 18-200mm kit lens has an F stop of 3.5 when fully open which is not great for low light work. Faster lenses are available however, that make this camera work well in low light.

VG10 dislikes

Moire and rolling shutter effects. These are problems I'm told are associated with the CMOS chips and are common to DSLR's as well. I can live with them but would like a solution. The Panasonic AF100 to be released in December has apparently solved some of these issues.

No power zoom. Clearly more difficult to implement on DSLR lenses than small chip video cameras. The supplied lens focus ring is a little too stiff to zoom without shaking the camera when handheld. No lever control on the focus ring either. I'm told the Sony E mount 18-55mm lens is a lot smoother.

No manual audio levels. The auto works well but it would be good to have a manual option for pro work.

No XLR inputs.  Would need an adapter or beech box to use XLR mics. This is however, meant to be a consumer camera.

No zebras. There's a histogram for judging exposure but zebras would be much better. Maybe to be included in a firmware update.

Fixed frame rate. Many people are missing the 24f/s option for filmic looks especially the NTSC users who are stuck at 30 f/s. Mine's a PAL camera recording at 25 f/s which is fine for me.

No ND filter. You can achieve a nice shallow depth of field in sunlight by using a low aperture and very fast shutter speeds to get correct exposure although high shutter speeds can create unnatural motion effects. An ND filter is a better option and I use a variable ND from Light Craft Workshop which I picked up for £80. It works well and provides an easy and ergonomic way to adjust exposure when aperture and shutter speed are fixed.

No time lapse recording.


Conclusion

Overall, I really like this camera. The Canon 5D mk2 has a bigger sensor and an even shallower depth of field which still gives it an advantage in some situations. The VG10 sensor is comparable in size to the Canon 7d which is about the same as 35mm film. The main advantages it has over the DSLR's are the unlimited recording time and the ergonomics. The autofocus lens is also a plus. The DSLR market may decline over the next year with the launch of this and the Panasonic AF100. If your main priority is shooting stills with video as secondary, then a DSLR is obviously still a better choice. If the lack of Pro features is going to be a frustration then you may be better waiting for the Panasonic or a pro version of the VG10 which Sony may well release next year or anything else that may be in the pipeline from other manufacturers. The Panasonic AF100 looks great though is over double the price. The VG10 would also make a good second camera to the AF100. It's a great little camera and offers a more cinematic way of shooting than other video cameras in this price range. For events where I really don't have time to be thinking about focus though, I'll probably still be using a Sony Z1 or EX1.

Sony VG10 promo video

VG10 sensor

VG10 microphone

Accessories

This camera functions best with a few accessories


1. Battery - The supplied battery gives a couple of hours though the Sony FV100 battery for about $100 gives a generous 5 hours and the extra weight helps to balance the front heaviness caused by the lens. Beware of buying Sony copies even though they're half the price. Some may work though the one I tried didn't.


2. ND filter - In bright sunlight you'll need an ND filter if you want to play with a shallow depth of field and keep motion looking natural. I use a variable ND filter from 'lightworks' (Lightworks Fader ND mark 2) which costs about $120 and works well (and a lot cheaper than the Sing ray vari ND). The variable filter allows you to keep aperture and shutter speed fixed at the optimum settings and change exposure on the fly by simply swiveling the filter.


3. Other lenses - I've so far only used the kit lens but this is one of the big benefits of this camera. Most DSLR lenses are supported via adapters. The Sony adapter for alpha lenses at around £150 allows autofocusing (with the V2 firmware update) though the autofocus is slower than on E mount lenses. Cheaper adapters  at around £40 don't support autofocus.


4. Memory cards - Anything above class 6 SDHC cards. I opt for 32gb cards though 64gb ones are available. I feel uneasy about having more than a couple of hours of video stored on one card in case anything happens to it.

5. LCD hood - I picked up a hood which fits the LCD screen for about £15 from Prestons (UK) which makes the screen a lot easier to see in bright sunlight.

6. Follow focus - I haven't used one on this camera but am looking into buying one. They make on the fly focusing easier.


Any tips and accessories you have on the VG10 please include in the comments section


VG10 firmware update

The firmware update (Version 2) has just been released for the VG10 and can be found at

http://esupport.sony.com/US/perl/swu-download.pl?mdl=NEXVG10&upd_id=6231&os_id=49

for PC users and

http://www.sony.co.nz/support/download/428778/productcategory/cam+camcorder

for mac users.

It now includes autofocus for the alpha range of Sony lenses but not much else. The promised changes to the operating system haven't been implemented which has creating some annoyance in VG10 users.

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