Sony HXR-NX70 – the water baby

Product introduction and operational review

Sony claim that their new HXR-NX70E is the World’s first rain and dust-proof camcorder. So what? Over the last 25 years I’ve owned and operated literally dozens of broadcast camcorders and thanks to the unpredictability of the British weather I’ve been caught out in rain showers on many occasions. Luckily, broadcast cameras are usually fairly robustly constructed and I’ve (fortunately) never had a camera fail in rainy conditions, even when the camera itself has become fairly wet, sometimes to the degree that it’s needed to be towelled dry!

So if you can get away with treating many camcorders like that, what’s the big deal with the NX70?

Take a look at this:

To truly test the NX70’s rainproof capability I created the CVP CamShower (TM) system which was attached to the tripod and generated a localised tropical rainstorm of biblical intensity under which the NX70 shot a variety of test footage. During literally hours of water torture the NX70 performed flawlessly.

Much as I thought my old broadcast camcorders were robust, I have to admit I simply don’t know of any other camcorder that could cope with even a few seconds of the treatment I bestowed upon the HXR-NX70.

It’s absolutely AMAZING!

So how have Sony managed this?

Well, the lens, viewfinder, LCD panel and all switches have been given waterproof seals and every possible point of water entry has been given a cover with integral water-tight ‘o-ring’ seal…

It is very important to note that whenever you want to subject the camera to rain or dust you MUST remove any external microphones, the included XLR input adaptor / handle module, all cables or other accessories and then carefully close all the hatches, ensuring that the o-rings are undamaged and thus generate water-tight seals – Just imagine you’re preparing a miniature submarine to dive and you won’t go wrong!

It’s worth noting that both the Viewfinder and LCD panel are fully sealed and they along with all control switches can be used as normal.

So is the HXR-NX70 a one trick pony?

Whilst the rain and dust-proof capability of the NX70 is impressive and clearly its most obvious USP (unique selling point), if you think that’s the only reason to buy an NX70 then you must think again, because it’s actually one of the best HD ‘palm’ corders I’ve ever used for many reasons…

So let’s get back to basics with a cameraman’s run through the ergonomics, core features and quality of the NX70.

The NX70 balances well in the hand and features excellent build quality. Like many Sony ‘pro-sumer’ camcorders it has a rotating on/off switch conveniently located at the rear of the handgrip on the outside of the stop/start button. I immediately fired it up and flipped out the LCD panel. The quality of the LCD panel is great – Bright enough to be daylight viewable and with 921,000 pixels it delivers very sharp images which make manual focusing a cinch. The LCD is also touch sensitive and is used for navigation of the user menus…

User Menus

Standard shoot menu with Histogram display on.
Standard shoot menu with Histogram display on.
Top menu display
Top menu display
Camera/Audio sub-menu
Camera/Audio sub-menu
Cinematone sub-menu of Camera/Audio settings sub-menu
Cinematone sub-menu of Camera/Audio settings sub-menu

 

The next thing I do with any camera is turn off all the intrusive automatic aids such as iris, gain, focus, shutter speed so that I can control the camera fully manually. The problem with most small cameras is that they simply don’t have enough panel space to accomodate the manual controls needed, so manufacturers have resorted to making much of the functionality menu-driven.

This is far from ideal because when you’re on location and scrambling to grab a special shot and need to change a fundamental setting the last thing you want is to have to delve into and fiddle around in a complicated and unintuitive menu system.

The NX70 is mainly menu-driven, however the graphical menus are probably the most intuitive I have ever used, making the process as painless as possible.

(These are far clearer and easier to navigate than the menus found on Sony’s PMW-EX series XDCAM HD camcorders!)

As shown on the adjacent image, the initial menu screen displays 6 icons for access to the following sub-menus:

  • Shooting Mode
  • Camera Audio
  • Record / Media Set
  • Timecode / User Bit
  • Edit / Copy
  • Setup

 

I’m not going to write a detailed feature on the precise contents of the menu sections as everything is very intuitive.

The only thing I found confusing is that as you can see from the image of the Top menu display, one of the menu categories is labelled Camera Audio – I initially presumed this was for Camera Audio settings and looked everywhere else for camera settings until I realised that the category should be labelled ‘Camera / Audio’ as it is when you actually enter!

As I delved through the menu I was very pleased to discover that the NX70 can be set to full manual mode, including gain settings. This is very welcome, as many cameras at this level have no manual gain control, rendering them virtually useless for shooting scenes that you want to be dark!

What’s also great is that when you change a menu setting, for example when enabling the Cinematone gamma (in the Camera / Audio sub-menu) the NX70 displays on/off buttons over the image you’re shooting and updates the ‘look’ live, so you can easily compare the image with and without the effect.

The only niggle I have with the way the menus operate is that when you are happy with a setting and select ‘OK’ the camera applies the setting and completely exits the menu system rather than taking you back to the previous sub-menu display so that you can continue setting up the camera to your liking. I’d prefer to see a ‘back’ and an ‘exit menu’ option so the user can better choose the point he/she would like to return to… This is a fairly minor feature request which I hope will be addressed in a future firmware upgrade!

Histogram

To help achieve accurate exposure the NX70 can superimpose a histogram (waveform) over the viewfinder image to help with exposure. The Histogram can be turned on / off very easily thanks to a dedicated button located just below the LCD panel’s hinge.

Sony G 10x zoom lens

The NX70 has an integrated 10x optical zoom ‘G’ lens with a focal length range of 3.8-38mm. At the wide end this lens is the equivalent of a 26mm lens on a 35mm camera, delivering impressive wide angle shots without the need for an additional (and quality reducing) wide angle attachment. With an aperture range of f/1,8 at wide-angle to f/3,8 at maximum zoom the lens is fast enough to enable some reasonably shallow DoF (depth-of-field) shots and aid shooting in low light levels.

Because the lens barrel is understandably very short on the NX70, an unavoidable problem is created: There’s only physical space for one control ring where 3 are needed for proper manual control. To counter this Sony have put a function selector switch right by the lens ring and this allows assignment of Zoom, Focus or Iris control. Of course this is not as good as 3 rings, but it’s the best compromise I have used on camcorders of this size: Good enough to enable in-shot adjustment of Zoom, Focus or Iris.

There are also buttons to toggle focus and iris between manual and automatic control.

Expanded focus

The NX70 features Expanded Focus mode which provides an electronic zoom into the image to provide 1:1 pixel mapping on the LCD panel and hence enable very accurate focusing. This mode is accessed by a conveniently located button on the bottom left hand side of the camera right next to the iris button. Thoughtfully, there is a small pimple on this button which makes it easy to identify it by touch alone, so when shooting handheld you don’t have to take your eye off the viewfinder to enable expanded focus.

In use the expanded focus allowed very precise manual focusing, however, for some reason I found that you I had to press the expanded focus button 3 times to get it to actuate.

It’s also worth noting that because the focus ring is a speed-sensitive continually rotating type you can’t define specific end points, making focus pulling tricky as the end points have to be defined visually through the monitor rather than being able to mark a definitive physical end point on the lens barrel…

Auto focus

Another feature I found quite useful is that you can use the touch screen to define a focus point upon which the camera will automatically focus.

I also tested out the camera’s ability to track focus during a long slow camera move across objects at various distances. Performance was impressive with the NX70 producing a very usable automatic focus pull without any hunting and less lag than if I’d done it manually in a live environment.

Image Stabilisation

The NX70 features conventional optical IS (image stabilisation) which steadies up/down and left-right movement, however there is also an ‘Active’ mode which incorporates a new advanced 3-way stabilisation: This enhanced IS now steadies rotation of the camera around the lens axis, another unique feature which enables the NX70 to deliver steadier handheld shots than any other camera I’ve encountered. I was never much of a fan of image stabilisation but with the NX70 the technology has certainly matured to the point where it can make a significant contribution to improving the quality of almost any handheld or ‘long-lens’ footage!

Image sensor

The HXR-NX70 is equipped with a 1/2.88″ Exmor-R CMOS sensor with 6.6 million pixels (a full HD image consists of under 2.2 million pixels). The high resolution of the sensor enables the camera to shoot not only full HD video, but high resolution still photos too. We’re not going to test out the photo capability of the camera but judging from the video quality it’s likely to be fairly impressive! It is worth noting that even though the sensor’s actual resolution is 6.6MP (Million Pixels), through some form of cunning pixel-shift method the camera can output a 12MP still image. It’s even possible to simultaneously grab high resolution still images whilst shooting HD video at data rates below 24Mb/s (Sony call this Dual Rec).

Sensitivity

With a relatively small and densely packed sensor I expected that (like most camcorders equipped with sensors of less than 1/2″) the NX70’s low-light performance would be its achilles’ heel, however I was very pleasantly surprised as it delivers excellent, low-noise images in fairly low light scenes. Even when using gain noise levels are impressively low. This is all down to Sony’s Exmor-R ‘backlit sensor’ technology which doubles the light that physically reached the sensor elements and thus ensuring a similar increase in the s/n (signal-to-noise) ratio.

Exmor-R sensors explained:

 

 

The more light that falls on your camera’s image sensor, the better. A big problem with conventional sensors is the grid of fine wires that runs across the light-sensitive surface of the sensor, carrying tiny electrical impulses to and from each pixel. These wires are essential, but in ordinary cameras they partially obscure light that’s falling on the sensor itself. Less light getting through means that signals have to be boosted electronically by the camera. This introduces ‘noise’ that you see as fuzzy, grainy pictures. It’s most obvious in low light when signals need boosting more strongly. Exmor R™ CMOS Sensor technology uses a clever design that hides these electrical wires around the back of the sensor. With more light falling directly on the sensor, there’s less boosting needed with weak signals. That means less image noise – and natural-looking, lower noise images, even when illumination levels are low.

 

Recording, media and data rates

The HXR-NX70E has a staggering 96GB of built-in solid state memory and can shoot full HD (1920 x 1080) at 25p, 50i and 50p frame rates. You can select a variety of data recording rates and these range from 5Mb/s (HD LP mode) to 28Mb/s (HD PS 50p mode). The highest quality per frame mode is 25p HD FX (24Mb/s) and even using this setting you get over 8 hours recording (or you’d get 40 hours at 5Mb/s) to the internal 96GB of solid state memory, so most users are unlikely to ever need more – But just in case you do need more, or perhaps just the convenience of removable media there is a card slot at the back of the camera into which you can insert either SDHC (Class 4 or higher) or MS Pro Duo media. It is a simple setup menu change to switch recording between removable (card) media and the internal 96GB memory.

For our evaluation I set the camera to a frame rate of 25p in HD FX recording quality mode.

Audio recording & I/O

The NX70 records audio as HD Linear PCM / Dolby Digital 2ch, 16 bit, 48 kHz, so in reality the quality is limited only by the source fed into the camera.

There is an internal (and clearly rainproof) stereo microphone that’s OK for general ‘atmos’ sound but I would always recommend using the XLR input module in conjunction with a superior microphone wherever possible. The XLR input module is built in to the camera’s detachable handle assembly. It features dual XLR mic / line inputs with independent attenuation switches and rotary gain (volume) dials. In addition you get independent low-cut filters to counter bass rumble from wind, aircon systems etc… Another handy feature is that you can route input 1 to record on ch1 and ch2 simultaneously, eliminating the need to perform the task in post production if you are using a mono microphone as a camera microphone.

All in all, audio is well catered for on the NX70.

Picture quality

I’m not a broadcast engineer, so my evaluation of the HXR-NX70E’s picture quality is based on practical use and visual evaluation only.

For a compact handheld camcorder, the HXR-NX70E packs an impressive punch in the image quality department. During my limited time with the camera I shot a variety of real-world scenes with results far better than expected.

Whilst the images don’t have the same contrast handling or depth of field properties of far more expensive niche camcorders like the PMW-F3 or the NEX-FS100, no-one in their right minds would expect them to! The NX70 is an incredible all-round performer producing great images with ease.

If you are careful and use the telephoto end of the lens combined with a wide aperture you can achieve pleasant shallow DoF (depth of field) effects to help emphasise the in-focus elements of your scene.

I was impressed with the accuracy of the colour

Here are a few still frame-grabs of actual recorded footage:

MIG welding during construction of the CVP CamShower (TM)
MIG welding during construction of the CVP CamShower (TM)
Leaves in the rain (Thanks to the CamShower (TM)!)
Leaves in the rain (Thanks to the CamShower (TM)!)
It is possible to achieve a shallow DoF even with a small-sensor camcorder!
It is possible to achieve a shallow DoF even with a small-sensor camcorder!
Bluebells
Bluebells

TeleMacro mode

TeleMacro is one of the NX70’s most impressive features.

Macro lenses allow a camera to focus on a subject very close to the lens in order to achieve a higher magnification level. The issue with most cameras is that in macro mode they can only focus on close objects using the lens’ shortest focal length. TeleMacro changes all this, allowing the NX70 to focus on a subject around 300mm from the lens even when using the longest focal length of the lens. The results are so impressive that anyone interested in shooting macro images would probably buy an NX70E for this feature alone – Just take a look at these images and you’ll see why:

Nettle leaves - Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode
Nettle leaves – Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode
Dandelion flower - Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode
Dandelion flower – Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode
White poppies - Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode
White poppies – Shot using HXR-NX70E in TeleMacro mode

Smooth Slow Recording

This is another great feature which allows the NX70 to record at a frame rate of 200 fps for a short burst. To achieve this the NX70 caches the burst of frames and then writes them to memory at normal speed to give a file that plays back as a smooth slow motion recording. In this image quality is reduced, however the feature is great for generating super smooth slow motion playback of high speed action.

Super night shot mode

In this shooting mode the camera emits an Infra-Red (IR) light source from a tiny LED light located adjacent to the lens, switches to monochrome (black and white) and exploits the CMOS sensor’s great IR sensitivity to deliver great see in the dark video. In testing I found that I could shoot a subject 2-3 metres away in total darkness for that ‘most haunted’ look!

Pricing

Pricing is not confirmed yet, but we expect a list price of just around £2,900+VAT.

In summary

The HXR-NX70E is a must-have camera, worth its money for the rain / dust proof capability alone. I’d buy one just for the amazing TeleMacro feature – It’s that good. That aside it’s a great all-rounder and as such an excellent backup or B-roll camera for a professional user whilst also being compact enough to use unobtrusively in delicate situations where broadcast grade images are required but a full crew with a camera the size of a small planet is not: Take off the NX70’s handle and you can look like a tourist and avoid unwanted attention.

The HXR-NX70E isn’t a replacement for the popular tape-based HVR-A1E – It is so much more on every level.

We like:

  • Full manual control
  • Rain & dust-proof capability
  • Excellent sensitivity
  • Great lens
  • Intuitive menu system
  • TeleMacro mode
  • Great night shot mode

We don’t like:

  • The fact that it’s not shipping yet!

6 thoughts on “Sony HXR-NX70 – the water baby

  1. Thanks for this review. It’s the only actual review I can find on the HXR-NX70.

    I got mine two days ago and it seems to be a pretty amazing camera. The active camera stabilization is so unbelievably good …I don’t believe it. Really cool.

    The one thing I can’t find, and assume that it doesn’t have is ‘detail level’ (Is there one?). I like to put mine to -7 to get the hard edge off. I haven’t shot with it enough to know if it’s going to be a problem.

  2. I have just received mine and I am very impressed. I am using automatic exposure most of the time, with manual focus so have the best of both worlds.
    I find the sensor to be rather contrasty and would love to be able to reduce the contrast somewhat, if I can find a setting for that. It is a very user friendly camera and I love it more each time I pick it up.

  3. This looks like a fantastic camera for the money!

    Just wondering which tripod would you recommend for it… would a Manfrotto 504HD be ok or is this camera too light for it?

  4. Thanks for the detailed review. I’m seriously considering buying this cam. I have some questions:

    * Rocker zoom problems – lots of people complaining about hard to control zoom speed, zoom too fast, no incremental feel to the control. Sony acknowledges the problem (I called the Pro tech support group), but can’t promise a fix. I would love to see some sample footage and also your opinion regard the problem.

    * I’ve heard that the HXR-NX70U uses the same optical stabilization as the CX700V, which was rated as much poorer than the HDR-CX550V (which I own). Have you had a chance to compare it to other cams?

    * autofocus problems – I’ve seen some vids showing serious auto-focus problems with this cam. Not sure if they are worse than the CX-550V, or how easy they would be to correct with spot or manual.

    Really agonizing over this purchase. My belowed CX550V was just damaged beyond repair, so I need to make a decision soon.

    Thanks!

    Steve

    1. Whilst all cameras with what I’d deem to be micro zoom controls and integrated zoom lenses exhibit a ‘stepped’ zoom motor control, During testing I really haven’t noticed the other issues you raise, so in order to allay your concerns the best option is to come to CVP for a hands-on demo. You can call us on 01527 854222 to book this at your convenience.

  5. I know this is rather late to be adding a comment, but I have only had my NX70 for a few days.
    I rate cameras primarily on image quality and good ergonomics. I always shoot in manual mode and take little notice of gimmicks like face/smile detection, although I’m sure these have their uses for some users. I was intrigued however by the smooth slow motion recording. When I tried this, the user manual describes setting a start and end trigger, but fails to tell you how this is done. Does anybody know the technique of using this mode? I.e. do you just press the Start button and let the camera buffer 3 seconds, or can you press Start to record normally, and then use this Start Trigger at the point you want slow mo recorded? Some help on this would be much appreciated.
    Finally, the NX70 is an awesome camera giving me truly natural colours (how our human eyes see colour rather than the over saturated Disney effect), with pin sharp focus and virtually no chromatic abberation in the most challenging shooting situations….I am so happy with this camera!!!

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