Sony HVR-Z5

Alright. I know it’s 2012. No one uses 1/3″ cameras anymore. You shoot your amateur short film with a 550D, a kit zoom lens and a cheap LED panel now, end of story. None of this 1/3″ 3-chip HDV tape-based, anamorphic pixel crap any more, to hell with tapes. But anyway. Despite my sweeping statements, I quite like Sony’s HVR-Z cameras, and when you’re covering events you’ll find these cameras along with (vastly superior) Ex3s and XF305s. But the Z5… the Z5 makes me angry. I’m fine with the Z1, I’m even more fine with the Z7, but the Z5 makes me want to kill people. I want producers, and non-camera people who organise shoots and often order cameras without consulting the camera operators to know that the Z5 is *not* just a better version of the Z1.

What’s changed? The introduction of a new “G Lens” with an extremely long 20x range. This sounds great in theory, but what I really hate (this will probably become a recurring theme on my blog) is that the focus ring is no longer mechanically connected to the lens — it’s all electronic. I don’t know why they do this, since it’s surely simpler to make it all mechanical, but you can turn the focus ring around and around forever without it hitting a hard infinity stop. Turning the ring must register sensors in the camera, which in turn electronically control the camera’s focus. “Why is this so bad?” You ask. If you’re used to shooting with DSLRs and Canon EF lenses, it sounds like just another day in the park (not sure where that analogy came from). Well, there’s more to it. As you zoom in, the camera automatically adjusts the sensitivity of the focus ring so that you don’t need to turn it around as much as you would if it were mechanical. The guys at Sony really are lovely people, making sure our wrists don’t get tired when we’re zooming in to focus. I’m sure some people must love this feature, but for me it perfectly epitomises the concept of “film rage”. You can’t turn it off. There’s a lag between your turning of the focus ring and the actual focusing happening. The sensitivity of the focus ring changes depending on your focal length which messes with my mind, and my most important point is that it is completely impossible to perform repeatable focus pulls on this camera! As soon as you zoom in or out slightly, the focus ring’s sensitivity changes and you’ve lost your marks. And if you turn the ring past infinity, again you’ve lost your marks. Yes I know, it’s only a 1/3″ camera and everything should be “pretty in focus”. And I know, the Z5 is designed for documentaries and events coverage where there are no repeatable focus pulls anyway. But it’s something to be aware of, and for me, a massive deal breaker. The wonderful “G lens” also stops down dramatically over the course of its zoom range, down to f/5.6 from memory, which severely limits it in low light situations. And my last point against this camera is (I think this is correct, if not please flame me) that the zoom ring has no nib that you can grab onto to quickly crash zoom and focus. If I was shooting a documentary, I’d want the process of getting critical focus to be as fast as possible, and the slow electronic zoom ring combined with the laggy electronic focus ring would frustrate me to no end. But that’s just me.

To anyone looking at shooting short films or advertisements on this camera (there won’t be many people in this boat but it’s possible), please look at using a Z1 or a Z7 instead. You’ll have real mechanical lens control in addition to the *optional* electronic “smart” AF modes, so focus pulls will be easily achievable, and no one will want to kill anyone.

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2 responses to “Sony HVR-Z5

  1. So much rage, tsk tsk. Actually minimum F-stop for the Z5’s 20×1 G lens at full telephoto is 3.4 — not 5.6. Big difference, obviously. Also I find the servo zoom control of the Z5 much preferable to the Z7 (and about the same as the Z1, which is good), even though it has farther to travel. But, most important, c’mon ‘Rage — the Z5 is so much sharper than a Z1 (meaning no disrespect to that venerable and still-usable warhorse) that I can’t believe you’d actually advise producers to go with the Z1.

    • Hey JI
      I’ll stand corrected on the widest aperture at full telephoto, it is indeed 3.4, my mistake. However, I think you’ve failed to provide any convincing argument for why the servo zoom control is “much preferable” to that of the Z7. That’s a completely subjective statement. Like I said within this post, it all depends on what you’re trying to do with this camera. In many contexts, the fully electronic zoom and focus rings will work just fine. But if you’re trying to pull repeatable focus, the fact that all of your focus marks are lost as soon as you adjust the zoom ring is a huge problem. On the Z7, the zoom ring is mechanical, and the focus ring can be toggled from electronic to mechanical with hard stops. This allows you to crash zoom in, get accurate focus, and then pull back out to a wider shot without your focus marks shifting.
      Finally, as to sharpness, I don’t think it’s nearly as important a factor as you make it out to be. This is of course subjective, but I find the Z1 to be plenty sharp for most purposes. And if it’s sharp enough, I don’t really mind that the Z5 is sharper. I’d rather have a camera that operates the way I want it to. If you’re really concerned about sharpness, it’s probably not a great idea to shoot with a 1440×1080 camera that stretches the image to become 1920×1080 anyway. I’d be shooting on an EPIC.

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