Pocket Camera Cinematic Challenge

There are certain rules when it comes to creating cinematic moving pictures. Shoot in 24 frames per second (or 23.98fps exactly). Record in widescreen formats, either 16:9 or 1.85:1 (anamorphic 2.35:1 looks really epic too). De-saturate and get some shallow depth of field shots.

I wanted to see what these rules would look like with a pocket camera as the recording device. Case subject: Sony HX9V. A pocket camera from last year with middle of the road reviews but regarded as a decent video shooter.

The biggest challenge was the small sensor. This meant making sure there was adequate light, as a lack of it would lead to noise reduction activation and a resulting super soft image. The other disadvantage of the small sensor, compared to the larger ones found in DSLRs, is the lack of shallow depth of field. Everything is focus, which has it’s advantages for sure. People definitely and defiantly overuse this effect. I’m guilty of it too. To overcome this I had to focus really close and use the camera’s good macro mode and to zoom in and switch focus locks.

Most of everything else was done on Final Cut Pro X. The HX9V records in 60 or 30 frames per second 1080p only but the 60p conforms nicely in FCPX to a 24p timeline. The added bonus is being able to slow mo any recorded scene smoothly since the editor has 60 frames to work with instead of 24 traditionally. I recorded in 16:9 but added some additional crops for a 1.85:1 ration. Finally I took saturation far down, the colors are actually quite nice on the camera, and added a slight vignette. Finally I added some slight orange, purple and teal.


Sony’s HX9V, and assume the replacement HX20V & HX30V, produces some sharp images that rival the GH2’s resolving power when there is sufficient light. There are two image stabilization modes that can be used together. One is optical, in the lens, and the other is software that when combined has a VERY smooth effect. Probably best I’ve used and similar to what a couple hundred dollar steady cam would achieve. The 16x zoom (20x on the newer HX20v) is pretty amazing as well as it effectively gives me a walk-around 24-385mm lens that fits in my pocket! Best of all you can probably find one used for a hundred bucks if you hunt around.

Sidenote: Stills suck, comparable to iPhone 4 photos.

So here are the results using a day of random shots:

See how this bite-sized camera stacks up against DSLRs 4-7 times the price.

A77 vs GH2

There’s a lot of acclaim for the GH2 and hardly any talk about the A77 with regard to video capabilities. Just scour Vimeo and discover thousands of uploaded GH2 footage compared to only a few hundred decent A77 video. I wanted to run an unscientific test to see just how superior the GH2 is, if at all. All outside shots were at ISO 160 with an ND filter, 1/50th shutter speed and 4700k white balance. Indoor at ISO 320, 1/50th, 5700k. I used an adapter on the GH2 and guessed on the aperture to match the a77 which generally hovered between 3.5 and 4. I used the Sony 16-50mm 2.8 SSM on both with the GH2 on 25mm and A77 on 27mm to account for their respective crops.

Resolution. The GH2 produces the sharpest images, almost a true 1080p. Though you can record 1080p at 60, 30, or 24 frames on the A77 it produces soft pictures that look more like 720p. Tree leaves and bricks look great on the GH2. I can hardly tell the difference on macro shots as the A77 has no trouble resolving detail there. Also aliasing is less of a problem on the GH2 and non existent when using ETC mode.

Color. I like the colors on the A77. If I had no desire to do any corrections in post the A77 would win. But with a high bitrate hack, the GH2 has a lot of latitude with what you push around in post. The new Apocalypse Now 444 hack also helps with smoother gradients. Likewise, setting the A77 to Sunset with manual white balance accomplishes the same thing.

Noise. The A77 has ISo 100 to 1600 in video mode that generally feels like a stop brighter at each respective ISo compared to the GH2. Images are clean through ISo 640. I think it’s a hair better than the GH2. However, the GH2 (with hack) can go all the way up to ISO 12800 and the noise grain looks so organic and film-like that it’s not a distraction to me. When I see noise on the A77 it’s an eyesore.

Motion. The a77 looks better in my opinion and emotes a more cinematic visual. It can record in 1080p at 60 frames per second that can be retimed for some nice slow motion. The Gh2 can record at 60 frames per second only in 720p but it pretty much looks like the A77’s 1080p because it resolves so much detail. With a wide variety of patches, it also is less prone to macro blocking so filming water in the distance won’t be a worry. Moire is almost non-existant on the GH2, can’t say the same for Sony.

Rolling shutter. On the Gh2 record in ETC mode. On the A77 record in 60p. Poof gone, otherwise it’s a small issue all DSLRs have.

Crop. 2x on the GH2 still gets nice bokeh. Video crop on the A77 (because of SteadyShot) is 1.86x but it does get 1.5x bokeh and light which is nice.

Weird Stuff. The a77 and GH2 under certain lighting conditions can produce banding in the images. Usually scrolling through different shutter speeds or getting more light will resolve it. Both are equally distracting when it occurs.

Ease of use. The A77 is by far the easiest to use. It’s a great size, good heft for handheld shots yet not heavy. Slap an SSM lens, turn on autofocus and use that great tilty screen and thats all you need. No bulky monitors. Or use peaking for manual focus. Perfect ENG style camera. It’s also weather-sealed with a magnesium alloy body so shooting in the rain or dusty environment isn’t a worry.

Pro results. With the right exposure there is no beating the GH2’s image quality unless you’re ready to invest over 3k, not including lenses. Also, while peaking is great I had mixed results. I had a green light on the Red Bull in one of the above shots but it looks more than soft, it looks out of focus. The GH2’s zoom in video makes it easy to get pinpoint focus when setting up a shot. It won’t work during record though when peaking on the A77 does. The Sony can be used for producing great video, but the limited bitrate make it less than ideal.

Misc. If money is a factor, sure the A77 is more expensive, but with the in-body steady shot all lenses are stabilized. Slap an old Minolta 50mm 1.4 or Beercan and get creamy bokeh. The equivilent lens for the GH2 with cost substantially more if it had optical stabilization. BUT since the GH2 is micro four thirds you have an almost infinite lens supply. With the right adapter you can connect just about any lens from any era. Plus with 4:3 MJPEG mode you can shoot in Anamorphic Widescreen a la Blade Runner style!

Creativity. I think the A77, since it’s easier to pick up at random and use, allows me to concentrate on the moment, composition, and other things. It’s important for a one man crew such as myself.  There’s some technical prep work that needs to be done on the GH2 and quite possibly more gear that needs to be added. (ex.I want to go to the skate park and shoot wide angle. With the GH2 if I go with a vintage lens I need a steadycam and followfocus. I can get rid of the followfocus and get a Panny 20mm 1.7 but that has no Optical Stabilization (though it’s contrast detection auto focus is pretty good). With the A77 I can turn on focus tracking and slap any lens I want on it, hand held. In this respect, the A77 might be a bit more versatile with what its able to do.

Conclusion. The A77 is by far the better stills camera. If I’m out and about with no agenda I’m taking it with me. If someone is paying for video work, it’s gotta be the GH2 because when optimized, it produces stunning images.

P.S. I lost lots of footage on the GH2 recording on a 32gb Transcend Class 10. Everything looked good in playback but the files were corrupted when trying to transfer. I had no issue with the SanDisk 95 mb/sec Extreme Pro card. Plus it turns the a77’s 12 frames per second burst into a killer feature with 8 second buffer clearing on RAW + jpeg, 6 seconds full 24 megapixel jpeg, and even less on 12 megapixel mode. It’s again even faster if put into 8 or 10fps mode.