Sony HDR-AX2000 – An IQ Exclusive Review

Sony’s latest entry into the mid range prosumer market is an interesting addition to the Sony Camera line up. The Sony AX2000 is the company’s first prosumer AVCHD camera (and little brother to the NX5U which is due to come out soon). Thanks to B&H photo, I was able to give this camera a test drive.

The AX2000 records to AVCHD format, the latest consumer level recording format, which is capable of up to 24 megabits/sec with a full frame 1920×1080 (HD) picture. This certainly is a step up from the 1440×1080 HDV format of the previous generation HD camcorders both in frame size and in MPEG compression quality. What does this mean for you? -an inherently clearer picture by having more pixels to work with.

And the AX2000 delivers.

Out of the box, the AX2000′s 3 EXMOR CMOS 1/3″ chips shoot beautifully crisp images in outdoor and well lit scenes. These 1/3″ chips deliver great images, but they lack the low light capability and shallow Depth of Field of a bigger chip camera such as the one found in the XDCAM EX series or even the full frame HD-DSLRs.

The AX2000 records onto either Sony Memory Stick Pro or SDHC cards for 100% tape-less operation. B&H sent over a 32 gigabyte Memory Stick Pro and even at the highest quality setting I would be able to record 3 hours onto a single stick. Add another stick in the second drive and you can shoot a full 6 hours without having to offload. And coming from the XDCAM-EX where SxS cards cost a fortune, these memory sticks are relatively cheap at less than $200 per 32 gigs.

Transferring to the computer is also a snap. Sony bundles some content managing software with the camera, but it’s not necessary. Just pop in the card into a card reader (or if you have a Vaio like me, there’s already a slot for it), browse for the Stream folder and there’s your video – each shot is it’s own clip. No playing back and capturing – you’re ready to go.

That’s enough about the tapeless workflow for now, let’s get into how this camera works. I’m not one of those “shoot it on auto” types – I like to get in and get my hands dirty and mess with all the buttons and features.

Sculpting your Image

The AX2000 ships with a nice 29mm to 590mm “G” Lens for an effective 20x Optical zoom. Coupled with the SteadyShot system, the AX2000 is comfortable to shoot with even at full zoom.

Screen Grabs from the AX2000

The lens cap on these Sony cameras has always been a bit of engineering that I like to show off. The mattebox (which can be removed) has a built in shutter system that closes at the flip of a switch. No more losing lens caps ever again…

Moving back on the barrel, Sony has included three control rings. The first is the Focus, followed by the Zoom, and the Iris ring. All three rings are servo controlled, meaning you aren’t mechanically controlling the lens, but moving a controller which electronically moves the lens. The iris ring is a welcome addition – previous models had wheels and other doohickeys to control the iris, but the iris ring is a bit more intuitive. I do wish they would have put a different set of grooves on the iris ring though. Often I feel around for these rings and it is easy to mistake the zoom ring for the iris ring.

The servo mechanism for the zooming is a bit on the slow side when fully engaged. You’ll never be able to do a whip zoom on a servo controlled zoom, but a little quicker response would have been nice.

Aiding outdoor shooting, the camera sports 3 built in Neutral Density levels – one more than the standard 2 levels found on other Sony cameras.

White balance functions as it did with the previous generation of Sony cameras. A switch toggles between one preset (either Outdoor or Indoor which can be set in the menu) and two customized White Balance settings. Unfortunately you can’t get in and dial in a specific White Balance Temperature which is a nice feature on high end cameras.

Another new feature to the Sony line is the addition of -6db gain. Negative gain suppresses video noise at the expense of the overall image brightness level (the opposite of positive gain which increases brightness at the expense of video noise). Shooting in the -6db creates virtually noiseless blacks.

To further sculpt your image, you have the option of creating 6 different picture profiles that allow you to tweak the gamma, color, White balance shift, detail level and skin tone levels. You won’t have quite as much control as you would with a top of the line camera, but at least you have some control here.

To help aid in finding that ultra critical focus, Sony has an expanded focus button that zooms in on the viewfinder to help you gauge your focus. The Expanded focus has two settings – a standard zoom and a black and white zoom to help you visibly make out the shapes.

My favorite focus feature of all time is an electronic aid called Peaking. Peaking highlights what’s in focus in your viewfinder with an electronic color outline. When your eyes get tired, peaking assures you that what you want in focus is, indeed in focus. At first I was disappointed as I couldn’t find a peaking button on the camera (there is a zebra button), but I’m happy to report that the AX2000 does indeed have a Peaking feature buried in the menu. For such a useful tool, you think they would put it on the side as a button.

Hope is not all lost though – there are 6 buttons that can be custom assigned to specific camera functions (peaking being one of the time).

Audio – the other crucial half of the Picture

One of the reasons I first went with Sony back when I decided to get my first prosumer camera was the professional level XLR inputs. Sony continues the tradition with 2 XLR inputs. These inputs can be set to Line/Mic/Mic+48v for phantom powered microphones. I especially like the little plastic flap that covers the input settings.

On the side of the camera, your audio controls are safeguarded by another flap. Here you can turn on and off the on board camera microphone and control the audio levels. Also added are the nice looking rubber caps that cover up the XLR inputs.

And I really do like the re-engineered clasp for the boom mic holder. The previous generations had a screw on cap – the AX2000 has a locking clasp. I’m not sure if it’s better per se, but it feels cool.

Under the eye piece is a toggle that allows you to control the way you monitor audio in the headphones. You can choose to listen in on only channel 1, only channel 2 or go with a stereo mix of channel 1 and 2. This is a great feature if you’re only recording to one channel and you don’t want to hear that channel coming out of one ear the whole time (it gives you ear fatigue – I’ve been there).

Playback and Editing

Admitedly, I’m not well read on the AVCHD format. This camera is my first experience with AVCHD. What I’ve seen is impressive. It’s not a high end capturing platform, but it is visually better than HDV which I’ve been working with since it became widely adopted.

This camera offers 3 levels of recording quality: FX (highest), FH, and LP (lowest and only available when shooting 60i). The AX2000 can record in standard 60i, 30p and the coveted 24p (in lower settings there’s a 24p that uses a 4:3 pulldown in a 60i stream – I recommend avoiding this kind of frame rate gymnastics). There are also Standard Definition settings available in either academic 4×3 and widescreen 16×9.

Features that’s become almost universal in the solid state camera world but seems to be missing here are overcranking (recording for slow “motion) and undercranking abilities (recording fast motion with time lapse at the extreme end). The AX2000 does have a “Smooth Slow Rec” feature which records a burst of a few seconds and plays them back as a slow motion take. Unfortunately you are limited to using 60i as your playback frame rate and you cannot record for more than a few seconds at a time.

Because this is a CMOS camera, you will experience the rolling shutter artifact from time to time. It’s hard to create the infamous “jello effect” but the rolling shutter is quite visible when there are camera flashes going off.

One feature I feel is sorely lacking on this camera is an instant replay button. On my EX1, I can quickly review the last take with a push of a button. To review a take on the AX2000, you have to pull up the Visual Index and scroll over to the last clip and hit play.

Imported over from the consumer lines is the touch screen LCD. On one hand this provides a handy graphic interface in which to interact with clips. On the other hand, you’ll end up smudging your viewfinder with fingerprints. Personally I would rather have skipped this feature entirely.

Also lacking from the set of features is the ability to control the time-code. This may not be so important in the tapeless world, but having control over time code is useful when working in a multicam environment.

Random other things

The back panel of the AX2000 has a break out panel that reveals a few video out options. Included are RCA (Yellow, White, Red), a component out, USB, a charging port, and a mini HDMI port. Unfortunately Sony doesn’t include an HDMI mini cable.

The Battery sits pretty far in on the AX2000 – in the picture above, I’m using the F960 battery, which is one of the bigger batteries, and it barely comes up to the back edge of the camera. If you’re a Sony Prosumer user – chances are you’ll already have a collection of these batteries already lying around.

With the AX2000, Sony continues with the tradition of building in cameras with some of the best LCD viewfinders around. Having worked with other cameras with lousy LCD viewfinders, I find a good solid viewfinder essential for finding critical focus.

Sony has ported over a somewhat consumerish feature into the viewfinder – the LCD touch screen. Now being able to navigate quickly with a touch of the screen is a cool feature to show off but in the long run it just encourages you to smudge up the screen with fingerprints. In my book, I’d much rather have a clean un-smudged screen.

In a Nutshell

The Sony AX2000 is a fine camera. In this world of HDSLRs and extreme gadgets, we’re always looking for what’s the next ground breaking thing… well there’s nothing ground breaking about the AX2000. But it is another step forward for a maturing technology  that is the HD camcorder. The Sony AX2000 is a great fit in the event, documentary, and wedding video fields

Pros:

  • Solid Optics
  • 3 steps of ND Filter
  • -6db Gain greatly reduces video noise
  • Almost everything is laid out as expected
  • Intuitive Iris Ring
  • Professional XLR audio Inputs
  • AVCHD Format feels like capable recording format and allows long recording times
  • Relatively Cheap Memory cards
  • Lots of neat little hoods and caps over switches and inputs
  • Uses standard Sony NP Batteries

Cons:

  • Servo controlled Zoom and Focus feel a bit slow
  • Lacks Timecode Controls
  • Lacks Over/Under Cranking capabilities found on similar Solid State Cameras
  • Touch Screen encourages screen smudging
  • No 720p capability
  • Lacks an “instant replay” capability

You can purchase the items featured in this review from our trusted sponsor B&H Video. We don’t recommend B&H because they our are sponsor, they are our sponsor because they are the only store we would ever recommend.

Items from the review:

You may also want to check out these Accessories:

Other Cameras from Sony