A tale of two cameras

Keith White
20 December, 2010
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Nearly 10 years ago I leapt into digital imaging with the purchase of two cameras: a Sony TRV 300E digital video camera ($8000) and a Nikon Coolpix ($2000) still camera with a whopping three megapixels. Unfortunately the faithful old TRV had begun to show its age and younger family members with their flashy gigapixel cameras made the old Coolpix look, well, old. So I was definitely in the market for replacements.

Ealier this year, Derrick Story reviewed the Sony NEX-5 camera, highlighting its many innovative features, ease-of-use and good value. He was also impressed by its HD movie capability so I began to wonder whether one new camera might replace the two old ones.

I then figured that it might be useful, for the sake of balance, to look also at a movie camera that could take high-quality stills. Because of my positive experiences with the TRV, especially with its rich colour qualities, I decided to stick with Sony. The best fit for my budget and needs seemed to be the CX350 handycam. This offered widescreen high-definition video and seven megapixel stills.

Because I do a lot of interviews I also figured I should test accessory microphones rather than relying on the built-in mics, with the attendant problem of camera noise. As I’d had really good results with a Sony accessory mic on the TRV I included in my wish list the Sony ECMH ST1 microphone for the CX and the ECMS ST1 for the NEX.

I then thought that if I recounted my experiences in the shootout it might be of some use to others faced with similar dilemmas.

Fortunately the good folk at Sony were very obliging and loaned me the two cameras and mics. On the NEX the microphone attaches to the flash mount, on the CX it attaches to the accessory shoe and has a nice rubberised shockmount. Unfortunately both operations were frustratingly fiddly for someone like me with oversized sport-deformed fingers. But I managed and it should be easier next time. Both mics record in stereo and have a switchable focus between 120° and 90°, which could be useful for my interviews with one or two people (90°) or with a larger number (120°).

One anomaly which was slightly annoying at first is that the quite small display on the CRV is touchscreen operated whereas the generous LCD screen on the NEX isn’t. Instead the NEX uses an ingenious combination of screen graphics and multifunction buttons to give access to its seemingly limitless range of features. After a couple of hours with each however I was reasonably comfortable with either system. And the CRV has finally given me a use for my left pinky.

So, after a day studying manuals and conscientiously working through the myriad of menu items I reckoned I was ready. My test conditions were pretty simple – high noon. So the Englishman and his mad dog (she’s not, really) went out in the midday sun. If the cameras could give me half-decent results in such harsh and unforgiving lighting conditions then most other scenarios should be a breeze.

From under the shade of one of the trees in our orchard and using autofocus I took a series of short movies and stills on both cameras. I also gave the zoom function a good workout – the 18 to 55 mm lens on the NEX and the 12x optical zoom on the CRV. At maximum zoom the image quality was pretty impressive on both. Because I use a tripod for most of my camera work the much vaunted steady shot functions on both cameras didn’t get a workout here.

Back in the studio the bundled Sony Image Data Converter opened up the RAW files from the NEX without any problem and gave me a good range of options to modify the image. Aperture immediately recognised both cameras and imported the high-quality JPEG files effortlessly. Importing the videos was just as easy with iMovie or in Final Cut using Log and Transfer. When you connect either camera a disk icon appears on the desktop so you can access the still and video files directly if you wish, although you have to drill down through a number of layers to find your movies on the NEX.

Both cameras claim to work well in low light situations so I ran a couple of test interviews in a fairly dark room. Both handled it well without the graininess so many cameras produce in low lux conditions. The audio was crisp and clear on both although somewhat better on the CRV. One serious drawback for me however is the lack of a headphone socket on either camera to actively monitor the audio during filming. I guess I’ll just have to trust the in-camera processing to give me a good clean audio signal which I can massage in post-production audio if needed.

The NEX-5 and the CRV350 are both great cameras which give very satisfying image and video quality straight out of the box. I’m certainly looking forward to making use of some of the advanced features when I get time. If you’re looking for a mid-range camera to do good movies and impressive stills either will probably fill the bill quite nicely. The NEX feels really good in the hand and the 18 to 55 mm lens gives a nice range of view options. The extra wide angle on the CRV is equally compelling and the 32GB flash memory coupled with a Memory Stick/SD slot gives you hours of shooting.

It’s $1049 for the NEX and $1099 for the CRV. Either mic is $199.

I’d say if you’re more into stills and RAW processing you’d pick the NEX. If you’re a movie maven then it’s the CRV.

I’m getting both. Happy Christmas to me.

2 Comments

2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. svensonx says:

    Im assuming this handycam model is USB. I borrowed a previous version of the Sony Handycam for a quick job I had to put together. Destined for the web, I wasn’t that worried about the quality and found it a total nightmare. The Sony software was not mac friendly and all the web forums responses were saying the same thing. I wish I would of checked first. I thought being Sony the cam would work on my mac easily. Sure an icon appears in the dock, but having to copy over 10hrs of footage to the desktop from buried subfolders on the handycam, it took forever. The file transfer is slow and the handycam didn’t really want to know about my mac.
    I am in the market for a cam like this, but it needs to be Firewire and very mac friendly. If I need professional footage I hire a professional, but for quick low budget stuff I would like to know what is available around the sub $1000 mark? For stills I’ll stick to the Nikon D700.
    Svenson

  2. vid says:

    Hey NEX rocks…. I have tried it. I borrowed it from a photographer friend. Its effects were superb and pictures were as clear as the professionals usually shoot. Thanks for sharing your inputs. This has just been launched here in India. Please tell me more about its effects, specially the Background effect which is mentioned here on their website http://www.sony.co.in/microsite/nex/index.html
    Please help here as I am keen on buying it, but want to learn more features before I finally lay my hands on it.

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