|DCR-IP7BT MicroMV camcorder: Sony digital video shrinks to the size of a bar of soap.|
DV video quality in a pocket 6-30-02
And the winner of "most technology per cubic inch" goes to...?
Holy cow. I thought DV video camcorders were getting small, but this? The DCR-IP7BT (and its slightly less packed brother, the DCR-IP5, are the first camcorders in the new MicroMV format. That's a digital tape cassette the size of a large postage stamp.
The MicroMV format allows a tape cartridge about 35% of the size of a mini-DV cassette. You can stuff about four hours worth of these into your shirt pocket and forget that they are there.
The whole camcorder fits in a box 2 x 3.2 x 4 inches (50 x 80 x 100 mm) and weighs so little that carrying it with you requires zero effort.
Front to back, lens to viewfinder, the entire IP7 is just a shade over three inches. In that small space a 10:1 optical zoom lens and miniature TV viewing room are fitted back to back. Peering into this viewfinder is enabled by pulling back the outer shell of the eyepiece. Now that inner TV is in focus. Got glasses? No problem. A small focus adjustment adapts to any eyes.
Crawling around the outer surface, you realize that Sony's video engineers have gone a long way towards consolidating controls and functions. The buttons and switches are quite small. If your hands are big, this might not be your camcorder.
Features at a glance:<<<
- Night Shot using on-camera IR illumination and enhanced ISO along with imaging chip IR sensitivity elevation techniques.
- Night Framing using a small laser projected pattern that can focus on nearby subjects (think 10 feet or so) in complete and utter darkness.
- Image size manipulation in-camera AFTER the shot has been taken.
- Image cropping in-camera AFTER the shot has been taken.
- Dual-speed zoom control.
- EVF --Electronic View Finder-- in addition to the exterior monitor.
- Dedicated buttons for Manual White Balance.
- Dedicated button for Auto Exposure Lock.
- Dedicated button for Exposure Meter type.
- Dedicated button for Self Timer.
- Dedicated button for Macro Mode.
- Manual focus-by-wire with distance read-out and instant magnification.
- Beep or Ker-chunk shutter sound (or off).
- Auto Pop-Up Flash.
- Fast power up.
- Fast Auto-Focus.
- Shutter Priority exposure mode.
- Aperture Priority exposure mode.
- Manual Settings exposure mode.
- Fast Menu overlays and recovery to shooting mode.
- EV+/- dedicated button.
- Swivel body for exterior monitor positioning.
- All-metal body.
- 58mm filter thread.
- Long-life battery (2.5 to 4 hours per charge).
- Tripod socket on centerline of lens.
- Extensive editing including Protect, Print and Delete functions.
- Ergonomic design.
- Quick review in camera mode.
And supporting all those features is Sony's own 5-megapixel imaging chip. They've designed this camera to be the perfect exploitation of that device and it shows.
I've always been impressed that most of the digital cameras these days use imaging chips from Sony and they've shown up in brands as diverse as Casio, Olympus, Kyocera, Nikon, Ricoh and Canon.
Obviously their rich history of pixels and sensors has been felt for years with their video, HD, Hi-8 and DV cameras, but the Sony approach to digital still photography draws upon that video experience in a different way.
Speed. It's all about slinging the camera from cold metal and stone into a living, observing, capturing machine. Just as it is for news video journalists and amateur videographers.
Over four years ago in 1997, I had the Sony HandycamVision DCR-PC7 DV camcorder in my hands with its 680,000-pixel imaging chip gathering great-looking digital DV video. Shots from it have gone to broadcast TV. Sony even makes a version for TV news videographers and documentary filmmakers. You see images from this chip on Survivor and never know they're not from a shoulder-mount camera weighing 20 times as much.
A video image in DV format is 720 x 480 pixels. The final image has 345,600 pixels, so what's with the 680,000? SteadyShot and oversampling. The picture from these now ancient cameras have the detail of broadcast studio cameras from the mid 1980's, and a clever scheme uses the extra pixels to pull the picture off alternate rows and columns of the chip when the camera shakes. Instant Steady Cam on a chip.
The 1997 DV camera powered up in two seconds. Sony got close to this performance with the F707. You see a picture in 1.5 seconds and are ready to shoot in 2.5. The autofocus is FAST. And silent, too. As is the dual speed precision zoom.
The big tubular thing out front is that Zeiss zoom lens. Fast f/2.0 at wide angle, it gives up about half of a stop at full telephoto where it performs at f/2.4. The zoom range is a tidy 38-190mm equivalent (compared to a 35mm camera) and the auto focus and zoom mechanisms are totally silent.
Zooming is controlled with a toggle up front and --surprise-- it is dual speed for very fine framing. Sony's video experience once again. Major points awarded. The low speed lets you creep into a framing slowly while the faster speed (just press harder on the toggle) lets you jump around quickly.
The lens itself is probably one of the top 5 lenses ever to grace a digital camera. More points awarded.
But they didn't stop with quality, they gave the lens flexibilities. Manual focus can be easily configured to provide a 2X image close-up on the monitor while the front focus ring is being rotated. As soon as you stop focusing, the image drops back to normal size. Handy, that. Manual focus distances are read out in meters on the monitor.
The lens is consistent-focus. You can zoom into a subject, focus, and zoom back while maintaining focus. A whole bunch of focus options orbit this idea. The eBook will reveal all.
The grip you use to bring the camera into action varies depending on which screen, inner or outer, you plan to use. For the inner monitor, the EVF, that means similar to the way you would hold a 35mm SLR. Left hand's palm toward your face, right hand on the business side of the camera back.
Fortunately your thumbs are opposable. Everything is within reach. Getting used to the zoom toggle is a bit of a struggle. I think it's wired upside down with the bottom part of the switch zooming tele and the top part zooming wide.
If that is uncomfortable, a slightly less stable palm-forward grip works, too. Now your fingers are tempted to touch-type the buttons on the lens barrel, but they are too close together unless you are six years old.
Wouldn't it be nice if the flash popped up right when you needed it?
If you said, "Yes," then this is your camera. In Auto mode when things get dark, the flash needs no introduction to make its appearance. The rest of the time, it lives safely under its metal cover atop the lens.
Pop! It's daylight balanced and delivers exceptionally good looking images ...for an on-camera flash. Of course you can turn it off or ask it to fire in broad daylight as a flash-fill effect, on demand.
The double flash prevents use with most slave units, but the pre-flash determines exposure and that leads to very good-looking exposures (for a camera flash) without confusion. (See the flash shot in the Images Gallery.)
For the adventurous, there is a special add-on flash unit that sits on the accessory shoe and plugs into the accessory jack. It has the wonderfully memorable name, the HVL F1000. Ahh, the poetry of product nomenclature...
Competing with the external flash for use of the Accessory jack is the RMDR-1 wired remote. If the flash is being used, the remote will plug into an extra ACC jack on the flash unit.
A laser pattern projector helps you focus in total darkness. It's exactly the same as a laser pointer with a holographic pattern embedded in its lens. It projects diagonal hash marks that are in focus on everything they hit, and whenever they show up, the camera has a real good chance of focusing completely without ambient light.
In normal shooting, the laser projector shows up during auto focus in dim or dark light only when the camera feels like it needs it. You can disable it in the Setup menus, and the camera will do its best to focus without it. Vertical contrast lines help. In practice any auto focus system can be fooled, including your own eyes, but this one goes many extra steps to keep that image sharp under the most extreme circumstances.
One mode uses it in conjunction with the Night Shot viewing so you can see your subject in total darkness, focus on it using the laser mode, keep framing, then pop the shot for a color image. And all you have to do is press the shutter button half way, then all the way, to trigger the sequence.
The pattern shows up in dim light if it is allowed to. You can turn it off on the Setup mode. (No sense shooting pictures of politicians with it on, only to be wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service.)
I'm not a fan of neck straps. But the relatively large size of the F707 lends itself to shoulder carry. The Sony strap is comfortable and has a non-slip material on its underside that keeps it stuck well to my shoulder. Your shoulder may vary.
Over time, I'll try wrist strap options and see how they feel. I'm trying to give the shoulder strap a chance under a leather top coat. "Hey, buster! Yeah, you. You packin' heat?"
Straps like the one provided make me nervous. Especially ones like this that take four minutes to disengage. They extend the vulnerability of the camera to be swept from a table inadvertently, or to be pulled from your grip by any stray twig, doorknob or snatch and run artist. The chances of dropping the camera go down, but the chance of other forms of accident or mischief go up.
Another way to protect, but not carry, the camera is by using a 1~1.2 inch split key ring attached to the right camera strap link. Thread your index finger through it as you pick up the camera and you will never be able to drop it. Your finger can still do all the button presses you need. Of course, this may not be for everybody, but I'm getting used to it. The minimalist safety strap...
The shoulder carry wins in my eBook. And the preferred method is to carry the camera under any outer coat. No sense signaling everybody that you are about to take their picture. The coat protects and limits the swing of the camera and with the strap adjusted to the right length, you can bring it up to eye level easily.
...and I use the safety ring.
Button, button, where is that button? Over here, no, over here. Ah, here it is. The outside of the lens has 6 buttons and the number of controls divided between your thumb and index finger of your right hand are 17. That could have been a problem had the Sony Ergonomic Olympic team been so on the ball.
Your index finger has only four controls to encounter but these do a lot. The shutter, of course, and the EV+/- buttons are logically joined via a geared wheel that selects things by rotating and confirms choices by being pressed downward. I've seen this on my video equipment, and it's a very swift way to make choices and lock them in.
The Night Framing and Night Shot options are selected with a sliding switch on top of the camera. Jumps between choices are virtually instantaneous on the monitor, making operation logical and quick.
Your right thumb works everything else. Menu, review mode and text overlay on/off buttons line up in a row. A switch selects between EVF and monitor. Since there is no optical viewfinder, you must use one or the other. Of the two, the exterior monitor uses the most power.
The King of the buttons is a five-way selector button that is part four way joystick and part push button. It chooses quick review, flash type, macro and self-timer most of the time and does double duty as a scroll control in magnified review mode.
Your thumb kicks the camera on and off with a momentary toggle that extends from the base of the Master Mode Dial. It selects Manual, Shutter, Iris and Auto exposure modes, Playback, Movie, Set Up and SCN, or Scene, functions.
A dedicated button initiates EV+/- adjustments, and a clever geared wheel rotates and pushes for scrolling and ratifying choices. It sounds complicated but it is well thought-out and ergonomically sound. You will learn it in no time.
The exterior monitor is COATED! Yay! A deep blue anti-reflection coating keeps the glare out. But unlike earlier Cyber-shot cameras, this one doesn't work in sunlight doing the reflective image trick. Aw. Well, with the EVF, you don't need outdoor viewing at all.
You have control over the brightness of the light source behind each of these view screens separately.
For bright outdoor use, elevating the brightness of the EVF makes it quite well suited to your daylight-adapted eyes. The miniature TV screen in there works great in bright sun and is detailed enough to deliver all menus and icons into your eye.
The monitor can fool you. Its image can look better than it will on your computer screen, especially with underexposed images. (Never fear, the coming iNovaFX Photoshop Actions for the 707 will retrieve underexposed images and even extend camera exposure usefulness into the ISO 1600 realm. But I digress...)
Sony includes a Macro mode, but the smallest practical field of view is only about 1.2 inches (3cm) wide. Its sweet spot is at the wide end of the zoom, not a great place for flat field, undistorted, macro performance. The sweet spot extends about a quarter of the zoom range.
At full zoom, macro focus works the 0.9 meter range. Just arm's reach away from the front element. The field of view is only 7 inches wide (18cm), but the focus field is flat and quite undistorted. Moving the zoom to mid way, close focus shrinks the distance to a comfy 0.07 meters. Field of view has shrunk to 2.25 inches wide (about 55mm).
It will be useful for many things, but not the extraordinary macro performance of the Nikon Coolpix line.
Still cameras have grown a motion picture component. It was inevitable. Movies are only a stream of still images, after all. But the trend toward acquiring motion scenes with digital still cameras blurs the lines, so to speak.
The movie modes of the 707 include a very high quality image and sound mode plus several lesser modes including one called "Clip Motion" that has virtually nobody excited. Largely through unawareness.
Here's a ClipMotion image made from 10 (the maximum) controlled "frames". You may find a way of using this for web pages. It produces an animated .GIF file right in the camera, and embeds into html pages easily.
To edit a file, you will need Photoshop and ImageReady or another animated GIF editor. The default time for ClipMotion files is 2 images per second. Editing inside the camera isn't available.
To date, I have heard of nobody using it other than this demo. Clever, though. With Adobe's ImageReady, you can, of course, make these sorts of animated GIFs out of any images you choose, add timings to individual frames, optimize the output and post them on the web.
IR shooting in Night Shot mode lifts the IR filter from in front of the imaging chip. It gets great IR, but insists that it is an Auto Exposure Mode camera with the lens wide open and the shutter speed locked out from exposures briefer than 1/60 sec!
Manual exposure doesn't work with Night Shot. If you cover the lens with a nice IR filter, you can shoot outdoor IR photos with the F707, but there is no way to turn off the IR illuminators under the IR filter. They tend to glare off the filter surface.
The front of the lens is threaded for 58mm filters and you would think, "I'll just get a nice 1A and protect that puppy," but both of the Night modes suffer from the reflections just one layer of glass causes. The IR illuminators and laser focus pattern projector all shoot from right next to the lens and inside the filter thread.
For ultra clean work, you will have to solve the brightness and glare issues. The eBook gets into this quite deeply.
If you shoot at night and NightShot is a possible option, take all filters off the camera.
The Sony DSC-F707 has no Contrast control, no Saturation control, no Best Shot Selector (BSS), no 5-zone focus selector and no intelligent hot-shoe. If you really need features like this, see the Nikon Coolpix 5000.
Burst-3 mode, which is a very fast three-shot motor drive emulation, solves the idea of BSS for me most of the time. One of those three images will be clear if I have taken steps to stabilize the camera as much as is practical. Saturation control is handled in Photoshop, and the auto focus system of the 707 is easy to work with. Using the wire-connected Sony flash unit has proved easy and accurate, as well.
Sony's design attitudes show up in the darndest places. They have, for instance, in-camera editing operations nobody else can touch. You can shoot an image at full size, decide later that it isn't worth keeping full size, copy it to a down-converted smaller format, and blow the original away, thus freeing up lots of storage space and keeping the image at an appropriate size for your needs --all inside the camera! (Emphatic redundant emphasis provided redundantly!)
You can rotate the image so verticals play as verticals on the review screen. When you zoom into them, they jump up to larger size for close inspection. At full zoom in, you are inspecting only 20% of the width and height of an image.
As you zoom into closer views of an image in Play mode, you can see the image in more detail. But if you stop, cropping a new composition, you can save that new crop as a separate file. Of course, the saved file will only be smaller than the originals, but it's one of those "why didn't somebody think of that before," sort of ideas.
And if memory space gets precious (I knew I should have bought more memory gum!) you can go back to shots that were made at highest quality and re-save them at the intermediate compression setting. Then blow away the original. Voilá! More room. You could do the reverse, as well, --save the image in a new file at lower compression-- but that wouldn't do it any good.
The AF Lock freezes the exposure, pops an icon on the view screen and holds it till the cows come home--or until you make the shot. It's a hold/release toggle. You should play with the idea enough to get used to it, in case you ever inadvertently lock the exposure and can't figure out why the shot came out wrong.
The two-speed zoom is a great idea. In-camera framing gains a huge degree of refinement with it. The Manual focus is precise, consistent throughout the zoom and makes controlled tripod or studio shots easy to nail.
The image chip is Sony's own ICX282AQF Super HAD (Hole Accumulation Diode) imager. It has a total sensor array of 2658 x 1970 sensors yielding a 2560 x 1920 pixel image. Red, Green and Blue primary color sensors are used in a Bayer Color Filter Array (CFA) pattern to capture the shot.
Pictured: The Bayer CFA. If each of the color-topped sensors were an inch across (25mm square) the image area would be 160 feet (49 meters) wide by over 210 feet tall. The side of a rather large office building.
The image area diagonal is a nominal 11mm but the nomenclature for an image this size is the so-called "2/3-inch" format. That's a throwback to the days of vidicon tubes, but it's significantly larger than the previous generation of 3.14-megapixel imagers.
Notice from the chip's spectral response (right) that the red sensitivity and even some of the green filter's sensitivity extends off the right side of the chart, rising as it leaves. That's infrared territory. You can't see any color off the right of this visible spectrum plot, but that doesn't mean the image sensor in the camera can't.
Both the Red and (to a lesser degree) Green sensors show considerable sensitivity to infrared, but the camera clamps down on this phenomenon with an internal filter that absorbs IR light, so the sensors can do their job in the visible spectrum.
That's to be expected. But the camera flips this internal filter out of the way in NightShot mode. Then it turns on the dark red IR illuminators and lets the chip sensitivity float all the way up to ISO 2500, if need be. With the filter in place, the plot looks like this graphic. With the filter out of the way, that Red sensor goes way off the chart. Suddenly, your camera is a super-sharp night vision scope that can remember what it sees.
The testing reviewers consistently see 1800 or more lines of detail in the image in the short dimension of the frame. The same image will define around 2400 lines in the long dimension.
That's a measure of the number of alternating zones of either white or black the imager will show before the pattern fades to gray. Notice that this is different from film MTF tests that measure line pairs.
How does it stack up to film, everybody wanted to know? While you can shoot film with the lowest ISO, highest acuteness formula and get "better" results, the issue is nearly moot.
An ink jet printer is now the trusty tool of professional film photographers. And they shoot film mostly to digitize before printing. Any print that is fed 200 or more pixels per running inch of paper will appear to be of exceptional quality. This camera needs no scan, delivers clean, sharp images and makes prints so tight that full-page ads can be made with it.
With 1920 pixels to start with, 1800/1920ths is about 94% efficiency. Meaning that Sony has achieved a good solid 'A'* rating in image detail.
*US grade schools use an A B C D F(ail) report card system. A = the best.
From example images shot side by side with the Nikon CP5000, the Sony image seems a tad too colorful, as if they had been more concerned with "vivid" and less concerned with "accurate".
Nikon remains the measure of accuracy in compact digital cameras, but the 707 is probably the most accurate Sony model yet.
One can knock down the chroma in Photoshop easily and make images from the Sony camera that are virtually identical to the Nikon shots, but on prints, the issue is moot. There, the slightly rich Sony image does nothing to detract from the printed result.
Of course, a lot of that depends on how tweaked one's printing processes, viewing screens and computer colorimetry settings are. There have been a relatively high number of user grumbles that the Reds from the 707 are too saturated. The review camera, manufactured in October, 2001, shows rich color, but not as strong as the complaints seem to indicate.
Both of these cameras (Nikon 5K and Sony 707) produce more realistic, life-like color than any film I've seen. And why not, they both are direct scans of the real world.
The red Che flag is in the middle of a major labor strike in Rome, Italy, this past March. The flags were --piercingly-- brilliant red along with the hats many strikers wore. This image was shot on the fly from a moving bus (!), packed with standing riders (!!), through a closed window (!!!), and is only sharp because the camera used a 1/500 sec shutter speed. But the reds? No problem there. At least not with the color red. Nor were any of the images shot with or without the window in the optical path. That flag was about as intensely red as anything you would ever need to capture, short of day-glow colors which actually fluoresce. Of course, if it looks too red on your monitor, then there's your answer. These are the original values. Only size and crop were needed to bring this shot to this page.
While the dynamic range of the 707 seems to be extraordinary, looking more like film than other cameras in its class, one strange phenomenon seems to have affected a relatively high percentage of individual samples. It shows up as a darkening along the left side of the image and is virtually impossible to see in most shots. Still, if one shoots a totally blank subject, such as a pure blue sky or blank white light box, the left side of the image will be somewhat darker than the right side.
In tests of the review sample, this showed a consistent approximately 11% darker left edge when compared to the right edge. That's a small portion of a stop, but we will send the test camera back to see if Sony's Repair Department can even it out.
Images shot at elevated ISO accumulate grain and noise. Elevated ISO is derived by amplifying the signal from the chip along a specific response curve and light objects show less noise than mid tones and shadows.
A special Twilight Scene mode elects to do a noise reduction gathering of long exposure images. It combines a dark frame with the gathered image and uses any light pixels in the dark frame as a template to fill in the image. From making the iNovaFX filters I know how easy it can be to get this wrong or marginally right. The Sony DSC-F707 gets it very right.
+ On the plus side...
- Operational speed
- Fast start up.
- Fast auto focus.
- Fast zoom/slow zoom.
- Instant access to functions with dedicated buttons
- White balance.
- Manual white balance.
- Meter type.
- EV +/-.
- The huge list of features that let you make pictures under nearly all situations
- Laser Hologram focus assist.
- Manual focus ring.
- AE lock.
Then there is the big lens, the image quality and the ergonomic layout of the seemingly large number of controls.
Plus all the clever in-camera editing options.
- On the minus side...
- Lack of image quality controls such as contrast and chroma.
- Lack of a daylight IR image function (so near, and yet, so what).
- No intelligent hot shoe.
- No true B&W mode.
- Childish "special effects."
- Odd left-side darkening.
If you want a long lens zoom 5-megapixel camera, this one is very hard to beat. I don't know of a camera that can touch it, dollar for value.
So many great and intelligent features, so few excuses in its layout and function. Image quality is far above average. Go to a camera counter and touch it for real. If this camera doesn't float your boat, a smaller, lighter, wider-zooming 5-megapixel camera is available from Nikon.
More will be here as the REVIEW is added to. Check back soon.
PS: As experience grows with this camera, so will this review and the Sony eBook. Coming soon to a website near here.
© 2002 Peter iNova. All rights reserved. Do not replicate or link to images without permission.