Shooting a video nowadays is as common as let’s say a change of underwear. Well, that wasn’t quite the metaphor we were looking for but hey, you’ll understand where we’re going with this, right ? That’s why we have put to the test a beast under the camera’s for serious video enthusiasts, the Sony AX100 (CX900). This gem is, yes, a videocamera. What !!!??? No, don’t run away in abomination !!! Videocameras are still around and not only for perverted, old men with weird facial hair wearing sandals and white socks. In fact there are some quite strong arguments why you should still be using a videocamera instead of (video)shooting from the hip with your cell phone in one hand, a Margarita in the other hand or using a tiny (yet vintage looking) system camera for that matter.
It’s going to be rough but let’s start with the first argument why you should (or could) still be using a videocamera or handy cam: video is about movement and movement has to be controlled. With that in mind, some appliances are better suited than others to handle moving, shaking or even worse: trembling. Your cell phone will, but not as much as you’d like when you look at your video on a 27″ screen. Your system camera/DSLR will (from time to time) but it’ll often try to stabilise your video with image stabilisation built into the camera lens. Lens stabilisation however was originally intended to stabilise photos one at a time or in the most demanding situation let’s say a burst of fifteen shots… but often lacks the technical force to let’s say stabilise HD video at 50 fps or 60 fps. In fact, when shooting video, what you do is taking pictures at 50 or 60 photos per second. Image stabilisation in the lens at that moment just won’t cut it. No, sir (or ma’am) !
A second argument that rules out 95 % of all mobile phones, point-and-shoots, system camera’s and DSLR’s for shooting decent video is that they all miss crucial features to control the sound of your video. What ? Did they never tell you that the quality of a video is for more than 50 % determined by decent audio ? Any of the former mentioned appliances therefore can’t be properly categorised under ‘video centric’ if they don’t have AND audio recording capabilities (microphone in/XLR) AND audio monitoring capabilities (headphones out/XLR) AND audio monitoring controls which you can actually (live) control through the, let’s say, touch screen of your camera or through some buttons on your camera. So there you have it: let’s rule out most of the photo thingies out there that take pictures (with video on the side) nowadays but lack those essential audio controls.
Third argument: shooting video with a ‘photo centric’ camera, a photo camera for that matter, at times can be very clunky, awkward and unecessarily complex since you’re trying to emulate a ‘video centric’ system on a ‘photo centric’ system. It’s like trying to win the 24 hours Le Mans endurance race with a tricycle. Before you have everything you need to get the job done like in a videocamera way, when using ‘photo centric’ systems you’ll have a rig with handle bars, an audio recorder mounted on it, add-on smooth zoom levers, … A complete construction build around your photocamera that’ll make you look like a transformer (80’s style) and will scare off people from miles away. Goodbye spontaneous video ! We don’t say rigs are for the rig-minded 😉 but there’s a purpose for everything. If you’re an arty filmmaker with lots of budget and time on your hand you’ll have plenty of headroom to put your DSLR gear on tripods and such, use sliders and other accessories, let assistants measure everything out and finally get it right. But if you’re a guy or girl that wants to shoot a story in a hurry but with attention for quality and post it on the web as quickly as possible your DSLR won’t get you there. As a run-and-gun videographer you’ll have to have tools that are powerful, compact, versatile and quick to operate.
Enter the Sony FDR-AX100 (CX900). Take it in your hand and it immediately feels like a thing made for video. Even with the camera off, you feel it is already stable squeezed in your hand which fits neatly into the grip on the right side of the camera. Some might call it a little bit bulky, we call it semi-professional grade stuff that doesn’t look like a Play-mobile toy and gives your the sturdiness you deserve to make nice video. Moreover, a 29mm wide angle lens and a 12 times zoom give you plenty of flexibility to get your subjects (people, buildings, plants, dogs/cats, …) where you want them to be. A 1 inch sensor combined with a 2.8 – 4.5 diafragma in the heart of the FDR-AX100 enables the needed headroom for a nice bokeh or shooting in low-light conditions although in very challenging lighting conditions professional DSLR’s will certainly perform better in that department. But: the performance of the AX100 in ‘darker’ conditions is surprisingly good, a lot better than most of the video-stuff out there (in its price range that is).
This beast doesn’t hide what it has came for to the party, making terribly good video. You have different modes to choose from: classic AVCHD (28 Mbps), XAVC-S (Sony’s proprietary codec at 50 Mbps) or, yahoooooo, 4K video and all that in different formats fitting your mood of the day onto one (and the same) SD card. Isn’t that the greatest thing ? For basic video operation (panning, tilting, zooming) the AVCHD codec is just right on the AX100. For the XAVC-S format however, by times things seem to get shaky (or rather shuttery). Especially when panning the rolling shutter effect is omnipresent (and that isn’t a good thing). Check it out on a big screen afterwards an things get even more painful. The solution ? When filming in XAVC-S mode only take steady, static shots an let your subjects create the movement. Everything fine ! Start panning and ouchie, … the AX100 ‘rolls it shutter’ … The solution ? When panning go veeeeery slooooowly and everything will look fine, also afterwards on a larger screen. Is it due to the read-out of the sensor or related to the codec ? We don’t know really, but it is bothersome for sure. When performing static shots however on, let’s say, a steady positioned tripod the AX100 (both in AVCHD and XACV-S mode) generates some of the cleanest and crisp imagery around. Kudoos Sony !
The zoom/focus ring on the FDR-AX100 is a very nice addition which enables some artistic liberty such as smooth focus pulls and such. Moreover, an adjustable ND filter switch enables to control lighting conditions when shooting for example on a clear and sunny day. The zoom lever sits nicely on top of the AX100 but nevertheless we felt ourselves struggling with it every now and then in order to get a smooth zoom. The lever on for example the Sony CX740 (which moves from left to right or right to left) feels more responsive when handling it in a delicate way. The lever on the AX100 by times doesn’t seem to react when zooming an then suddenly fires up to heavily leaving the zoom shot practically unusable. In other words: it takes some practice to ‘feel’ it while operating. Another thing we liked less: the focus magnifier button is in a very awkward place making it practically unusable.
The tilty/flippy touchscreen of the AX100 feels very comfortable and is recognisable for peeps who’ve used Sony videocamera’s before. On very bright days however, you’ll be forced to use the onboard electronic viewfinder, which by the way is excellent, to get your imagery right. It is sharp, it is big and you have a diopter button on it to adapt it to your sight. Goodbye crummy electronic viewfinders which almost give you an ‘eye hernia’. (that doesn’t actually exist, does it ?) And then there is the optical image stabilisation, which should rank in the top 3 of absolute must haves for every videographer that wants to make serious videos. When the AX100 came out, some people complained that it lacked the balanced optical steady shot (with mechanical correction through a ‘floating’ lens inside the camera housing) in some of the former Sony videocamera models but that argument doesn’t hold its ground. The video generated with the active image stabilisation (a menu choice) on the AX100 is just perfect. And we mean: steadicam like quality. Ok, we might be overdoing it a notch but it is really great. Moreover, what you don’t get with the (software controlled) stabilisation inside the AX100 is the ghosting of the movable lens as with Sony cameras that have the so craved for mechanical balanced optical steady shot (for example the CX740). That’s because of the fact that the ‘floating’ lens inside the camera is still moving after you stop a tilting or panning movement. Huuraaah for the AX100 ! Oh yeah, before we forget: this video beast also takes pictures and the quality of the pics is excellent. They come out very vibrant, fresh and full of colour and therefore will make many DSLR or system camera blush. Ok, you don’t get the focus flexibility of a DSLR but hey with some practice you’ll even find solutions for that on the AX100. Moreover, the 16:9 picture format (you can choose other formats too, independent from the actual mode you’re recording video in) is perfect to show your still masterpieces on let’s say large screen HD TV or slip into your videos. Moreover, on board Wifi and NFC connectivity make the FDR-AX100 a videocamera that fits the needs of every contemporary, demanding videographer.
Conclusion: the FDR-AX100 is a lovely and humongously versatile tool for every serious (amateur) videographer who aims at creating crisp and vibrant imagery. It takes some time to overcome some of its flaws like the not always easy to operate zoom lever, rolling shutter during panning movements (if not familiar with the behaviour of the camera), awkward placed focus magnifier button and the fact that you cannot use arty lenses (like on a DSLR) to name a few. But once you’re beyond that point, you’ll find a videocamera that knows the score and is unbeatable in its price segment. If you’re a run-and-gun style kinda guy (or girl) this is your stuff because you’ll be able to record in a plethora of formats and sizes and do it in a way that gives you satisfaction overlooking the result. You’ll get the FDR-AX100 for about 1.999 € and its little brother the CX900 (which is identical to the FDR-AX100 minus the ability of recording 4K video) for 1.500 €.
* Very clean, crisp imagery
* 4K mode, HD mode (both XAVC-S and AVCHD) on one and the same (high-speed category 10) SD card
* On board buttons to control almost everything (iris, shutter, gain, focus, zoom, …)
* Sturdy feel
* Image stabilisation best in class
* Excellent workable focal length
* All-you-need audio capabilities
* Intuitive and responsive touch-screen
Could be better:
* Not always easy to handle zoom lever
* Rolling shutter for standard panning movements (especially in XAVC-S mode)
* Touchscreen difficult to gauge on clear and sunny days
* Awkward placement of focus magnifier button