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Sony XDCAM EX PMW-350 Review

Mar 8, 2010 12:00 PM, By D.W. Leitner

The beginning of a new Sony camcorder era, possibly.


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The sliding shoulder pad with quick-release rebalances the PMW-350 when lenses and accessories are changed.

The sliding shoulder pad with quick-release rebalances the PMW-350 when lenses and accessories are changed.

To tweak the balance of the PMW-350, I loosened the latch under the shoulder pad and slid the pad back and forth—per Sony, the greatest margin of adjustment in any shoulder-mount camcorder—until I found that sweet spot of perfect balance. What a difference it made! The PMW-350's low center of gravity is not yet the equal of an Aaton, but it's getting there.

The PMW-350's superb 6500K color viewfinder deserves a review of its own. (6500K is the white point of pro broadcast monitors.) If you read Leitner's Cinematography Corner, No. 3 back in October, you'll remember my excitement at the time: "Two features will leap out immediately to operators everywhere: a new ... Fujinon lens with hybrid auto/manual focus ... and a new viewfinder based on the 3.5in., 920,000-dot LCD introduced on the EX1/EX3 series. For me, viewing through it was like looking directly at a studio HD monitor. All I could say was, 'Wow ... who needs peaking?'"

Not your grandfather's viewfinder. Good enough to adjust with color bars?
Photo by D.W. Leitner

Not your grandfather's viewfinder. Good enough to adjust with color bars?
Photo by D.W. Leitner

Having now used the color viewfinder quite a lot, I stand by my initial impressions. I viewed many PMW-350 images—near, far, daylight, tungsten, bright, dark—directly on a huge 46in. Samsung LED display (exploiting the PMW-350's handy HDMI output) and simultaneously in the viewfinder. While minimal peaking does aid fast focusing, I found that dialing in any amount of peaking coarsened the PMW-350's viewfinder image and separated it from the recorded image. Alphanumeric indicators in the viewfinder also grew blown-out and garish with peaking. With no peaking at all, however, the viewfinder image closely matched the camera's output yet remained easy to focus by eye. The "Focus Mag" 2X magnification function proved useful as a check.

After 20 years of camcorder viewfinders that failed miserably to achieve fidelity to the images they were framing, never coming within miles of delivering the aesthetic experience of a 16mm or 35mm viewfinder—even black-and-white master Ansel Adams viewed hi-res color images in his optical finder!—we at last have an electronic color viewfinder that's worthy of being set up to the SMPTE RP 219-2002 bars generated by the PMW-350.

I know it's a tiny LCD screen with a generic tendency to crush blacks. I know there's no hue or color phase adjustment (we have to trust Sony on that). Nevertheless, there exist brightness and contrast knobs on the front of the viewfinder. Thankfully, in the VF Setting menu there is a B&W mode useful for adjusting contrast and setting blacks with the +2 percent and +4 percent black bars.

In the same VF Setting menu there exists another item, Color, with an arbitrary -99 to +99 range. The manual says that Color "adjusts the density" of colors in the viewfinder, and I presume this refers to chroma or saturation. Why not give us the equivalent of "Blue gun only" to facilitate this adjustment with accuracy and repeatability?

In other words, why not take the PMW-350's color viewfinder seriously, as we would any professional monitor? We've always been told, don't make critical color and exposure decisions in the viewfinder, it's not meant for that. But with a viewfinder this good, why not?

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