Friday, 12 June 2015

Decision made: A New Camcorder for Travel and Wildlife—the Sony FDR-AX33

I have been in a quandary over how to replace my five-year old model camcorder (Sony HDR-XR550) which has served me so well. It was, I recall, one of the last hard drive/memory card models and I began to worry that hard drives do not last forever.

In the meantime I have added a Nikon Coolpix P610 with its superzoom lens and this has provided with me with full HD at very long distances with its over 1400 mm equivalent maximum focal length. However, a dedicated camcorder does offer some advantages for general use. Last year I rejected the AX100 when it appeared. Its large sensor is better in terms of video quality, low noise in low light and the ability with its smaller depth of field to throw the background out of focus. However, for wildlife ‘on the fly’ I saw that its autofocus was relatively slow and its optical stabilisation nothing special. In short it was ideal for ‘film makers’ who have control of the carefully staged scene but not for me where wildlife does what it does and the camera has to meet the needs of the scene; rapid autofocus and good depth of field go with a smaller sensor.

This year I saw the appearance from Sony of the AX33 with a smaller (1/2.33) sensor (but somewhat larger sensor than the one in the old XR550 (1/2.88)). Well, that’s not true because all I saw was the AXP33 on the Sony UK website. The ‘P’ stands for built-in projector and who on earth wants to carry around such a gimmicky addition. Only a couple of weeks ago did I discover that Sony made a non-projector version, the AX33; not only was it considerably cheaper than the ‘P’ version but it just about met all the requirements I had in mind.

A major consideration was weight and size; a low-end professional camcorder is simply too big for me. The first essential was a viewfinder. A camcorder without a viewfinder and just a screen is useless in tropical sunlight. So that was a Panasonic model of similar video specifications but no viewfinder ruled out. Sony have a big plus point in Night Shot, retained in the AX33.

I am not going to repeat the many descriptions and reviews that are available online. The outstanding feature is Balanced Optical Steadyshot (BOSS) (not incorporated into the AX100).

By comparing this new model with my 5-year old camcorder I was pleasantly surprised that the battery type was unchanged, the Sony micro accessory shoe has been replaced by a standard shoe and that zebra and focus peaking are standard.

Negative points so far are:

  • No GPS (a very useful standard feature of my old XR550)
  • In-camera battery charging (useless for travel)
  • No neutral density filtration
  • Only 10x optical zoom (although the Clear Image Zoom may well compensate to some extent)
  • The zoom lever is very close to the still photograph button
  • Poor manual (even the downloadable version is poor, with almost no explanatory information)

The Sony UK website and the manual are really short of useful information. For example, the Sony USA website has the following:

Direct Pixel Read Out
The FDR-AX33 incorporates 'direct pixel readout' utilizing the entire width of the image sensor without line skipping or pixel binning. Therefore in both HD and 4K video acquisition it can read and process data from every one of the sensor's pixels, resulting in smooth edges and color gradation giving you the incredible video from a tiny camera.

I can find no mention of this attribute either in the manual or on the UK site.

The stills are said to be upscaled by interpolation. I have not yet had a look to see how good the stills are.

My impression is that Sony have gone for connectivity features (Wi-Fi, NFC) and made the camcorder down to a price for the consumer market (I have over the last ten years or so paid £200 less for each of three successive Sony camcorders). Better for me for had Sony charged more and included GPS, a separate charger and a proper manual. Sony also make a great fuss of playback into their 4k televisions etc when all the likes of me need is an ability to capture the video into Final Cut Pro X on a Mac.

Quick trials show the 4k and HD video to be very good. I will now test it using 4k and HD recording with typical subjects under all sorts of lighting conditions at different focal lengths and with optical and Clear Image Zoom before our next big trip.

The Sony FDR-AX33 together with the Nikon Coolpix P610 seem, at the moment, to be an ideal combination for travel and wildlife.