The wow factor
My slight disappointment was replaced by "Wow" when I first pulled the camera from the FedEx box. This camera is really little. Somehow the pictures of it on the Web didn't really convey how small it is. Without the external mic adapter, picture a camera about the size of a regular burrito-without guacamole. I im-mediately began to plot my review. A camera this size has POV written all over it, and the thought of getting 1080i HD images from a variety of conveyances got me excited. Putting this little 2 lb. guy on a helmet, or in a small underwater housing, or mounted on a bike frame didn't seem like much of a problem.
Let me be clear at this point. The image quality of the A1 (or the bigger and more expensive Z1, which has three CCDs) will never compare side by side with the full-sized HDCAM cameras, but more and more these small, cheap HDV cameras are providing acceptable B-roll and alternative angle shots to the productions that I work on. If anything, the A1 should be compared with the Z1, and in that realm it is awfully close. Except under low-light situations where the A1 shows quite a bit more noise in the shadows, this one-chip wonder is almost identical in image quality to the Z1, which has a terrific picture to begin with. In a pinch, I would have no problem cutting shots from the A1 into a show shot with a Varicam or HDCAM. Especially if using a small camera is the only option.
Picture quality and operation
I am not a video engineer by any stretch, but Sony claims it is able to achieve this improved picture by using a CMOS chip, which allows more light to hit the photo-sensitive portions of the pixels. This improvement also eliminates the vertical smear when the camera is pointed at a point-source light. This feature was once reserved for only the most expensive cameras and was developed by NASA for the Hubble telescope. A nice bonus of CMOS technology is it uses less power than CCD chips, so the little "M" batteries last longer. Another improvement is the use of an Enhanced Imaging Processor (EIP). This gives you, well, an enhanced image! I'll take Sony's word for it. The A1 makes a remarkable picture and I won't even say for a little cheap camera.
Operation of the A1 is also a breeze, except for a few minor quibbles I will get into later. I have never been a fan of menu-driven camera operation. I am more of an old-school, flick-a-switch guy, but Sony has made navigating the menus as easy as possible for guys like me. The new on-screen menu display is a great improvement over the old PD or Z1 button/scroll design. You can really rip through the pages, and by programming the P-menu function with as many as 28 frequently used menu items, you can almost avoid the deeper menus altogether. Bars, timecode, and zebras are all instantly accessible on a few menu pages. Much easier to deal with than the Z1's multiple menus and assign buttons. More than one assign button would be nice, however.
Underwater and on wheels
The LANC also worked great in an underwater housing I used to get some great surfing shots of fellow cameraman Dennis Warsen. The "Beach/ski" setting in the Program AE was useful in preventing the auto-focus from locking in on the drops on the underwater lens cover. I used to think that this was mostly just an auto-exposure feature, but I guess it prevents the auto-focus from adjusting to close images. Nice idea! There are large underwater housings for full-sized HD cameras, but I am sure anyone who has used one will appreciate the ease of using a small camera and housing, especially on the surface in heavy waves.
The next test was a little Marin County mountain biking trip with my old standby camera helmet, which has seen little use since 16 mm "gun camera" stock has become so hard to come by. The Steady-shot feature helped smooth some of the bumps, and being able to screw on a wide-angle adapter off my old PC110 helped add to the effect. Not only are the lens adapters a standard size, but the A1 takes a regular M-size battery. Anyone with a consumer-style DV camera will more than likely be able to use many of their accessories with the A1.
I normally try to use manual camera functions when I shoot, even with these smaller auto-everything cameras. Sony gives you plenty of leeway in choosing auto or manual on the A1, and it is easy to switch back and forth. For most of the POV shots, I chose to use the auto settings just to see how they responded. Exposure control seemed quick and accurate, and having an instant Backlight button on the lens eliminated dark faces against a bright background. The auto-focus seemed really slow, however; so slow that I avoided using it at all. I found it much quicker to focus using the lens ring or LANC control than to wait for the auto-focus to do its job. The auto-focus function on the Z1 is a lot more responsive.
This brings me to a small quibble with the viewfinder display on all the Sony prosumer cameras. Unless the manual focus is set on infinity, the distance indicator in the viewfinder changes from the meter setting to the little hand icon a few seconds after focus is found. For my purposes, it would be far better to be able to know where the lens is set throughout the shot than to merely know that I am in manual focus-l already know that!
The exposure lever on the A1 is an improvement over the knob on the Z1, but it takes a little getting used to. I found it is better to briefly bump the lever than to press it and hold it. A bump will give you about a half-stop correction per bump, whereas fully pressing it will completely open or close the iris. Of course all these problems would be eliminated if Sony could someday (please) eliminate the horrible nonstop focus ring and lever/knob exposure controls altogether! There is a reason God made lenses with f-stops, focus marks, and infinity stops: they work. I want a show of hands from all those camera-folk who would pay a premium for a small camera with real lens controls. And while we are at it, how many would like real 24-frame progressive scan instead of the Sony CineFrame mode? For more information on CineFrame, see Adam Wilt's analysis at www.adamwilt.com/HDV/cineframe.html.
Two cameras in one
With that off my chest, I want to tip my hat to Sony for a cool feature not found on the larger Z1. Using the 1/3-inch imager, the A1 is able to capture 3 megapixel still shots on a cheap memory stick, thereby shrinking your airline carry-on camera bag to a small fanny pack. Think of it, an HDV camera with balanced XLR mic inputs, and a production still camera to boot. For guys like me, it is a bonus to be able to get comfortable with the vagaries of one camera and not have to reacquaint myself with the focus-zoom-iris of another.
Although 3 megapixels is not enough for full-page blowups, it is plenty for almost any other location still shots you might want. Other things I liked about the still camera feature is that it will record images in a lot of different formats, including full 16:9, and it also will do a nice time-lapse onto the memory stick. We used this feature to great effect in the stands on opening day of the 2006 Oakland A's baseball season. Most of the normal video camera functions work the same when shooting stills. To shoot using shutter speeds slower than 1/60 second, you switch from camera mode to memory mode.
There of course will never be the perfect camera (or mousetrap for that matter), but this little guy seems to fill its share of gaps. It is small, light, unobtrusive, and easy to use. I would prefer to use a less-compressed format than HDV, but with all the Z1s being used on all kinds of shows, it seems that productions are dealing with the format's obvious shortcomings. While the A1 lists at $3,100, a quick online search shows street prices below $2,000. For a shooter, having such an affordable half-pint baby brother to the Z1 available seems like a pretty good idea. And its high-quality output means the "Z" wouldn't always have to be the "A" camera, either.