The Sony Z1 – a cameramans perspective (I wrote this in 2005…)

Z1 cameras – A Cameramans Perspective  (November 2005)

By Stephen Foote – Lighting cameraman

I am writing this as I will not be able to attend the meeting on Friday.  What I write here is only my opinion, but I hope that some of my observations about using this camera will prove useful to those who are interested.

Stephen Foote – background

I am a professional Lighting Cameraman/DoP with 23 years experience working in Broadcast Television.  My background is film, 35mm and 16mm, and I have been shooting video since Beta SP came in – around 1992 (ish).  I have worked in all areas of film and television: features, TV drama, commercials, corporates, and predominantly documentary film making.

I have recently shot Z1, for Panorama, on a four camera, 7 day mini OB.  I have also shot a day using it on a more tricky confrontational interview.

The Z1 – overview

The Z1 camera is a natural progression from the PD150/PD170 family of DV cameras.  It can shoot in DVCAM and HDVCAM mode.  It is a small and very portable camera and costs around £3000, and it produces noticeably better pictures than its PD150 predecessor.  Like the PD150, the camera has two methods of viewing images – one through a viewfinder mounted on the back of the camera, the other being a flip out screen on the side of the camera.  The camera also has numerous buttons with varying functions, some of which can be assigned via the multipage menu system.  The camera does have a manual and automatic function for sound, iris and focus.  It does not have interchangeable lenses

Wishing to be objective about the use of this camera, it has advantages and disadvantages, from my own point of view as a professional cameraman:

Advantages of the Z1

The camera is lightweight and very portable, and can be used to get certain shots that cannot be achieved by larger camera, such as shoulder mounted DVCAM or Digi Beta cameras.  You can hold it at arms length or above your head, for instance.  The picture quality is better than a PD150, and the overall sharpness and colour saturation seems to be much improved.  You can shoot in DVCAM or HDVCAM mode.  It is an ideal camera for use in hostile situations, for covert filming, filming in confined spaces (like a car) and in areas where the use of a large camera can be obtrusive or dangerous.

I would consider it, like a PD150, to be a useful tool to be used and carried in a cameramans equipment package.

Disadvantages of using the Z1

There are many practical problems associated with the use of this camera by a cameraman such as myself – I will try to explain them, but I an assuming the reader has a reasonable knowledge of camera work:

  • When used manually (which is the normal approach, as I would want to be in control of the camera, rather than vice-versa) the iris control requires a lot of turning to get to where you want it to go – you can’t just tweak it to from f5.6 to f16 – which you may want to do often for instance when panning from a through window shot to an interior, you have to turn the knob a lot to get a similar result – it is also in apposition where it is easy to knock.
  • The focus control, again in manual, has the same problem, you can tweak the lens by 1/2 cm and it will go from 0.3m to infinity, or you can do the same move more slowly and it will go from 0.3m to 0.4m.  This lack of predictability, based on the speed you rotate the lens barrel is a real problem, particularly when you are filming actuality at wide apertures (ie most of the time).  In autofocus mode, the lens hunts and does not follow focus quickly – particularly on the long end of the lens, which renders it largely useless.
  • The lens is not long enough – you cannot get big close ups of even fairly close objects – faces in an interview are fine, but not a BCU of a pen on paper!  The lens also has quite a distant close focus distance, which limits its use considerably
  • The viewfinder(s) – (yes both of them) are difficult to see, and lack resolution to be able to identify critical focus! There are electronic aids within the camera settings which can assist with this, but that is all they do – assist.  That’s not good enough for me.
  • Everything on the camera is menu driven, so if you want to switch sound from internal mic to XLR you have to go through the menu to do it.  This is slow – indeed last week on a shoot in Zurich, we could get NO sound into the camera from an XLR – we spent 20 minutes trying to figure it out, before re-setting the camera twice via a micro switch – good thing we weren’t in a hurry!
  • The buttons are easy to knock accidentally – I have found the camera changing shutter speed between shots, menus suddenly popping up on the screen and so on.  There is a method to lock the functions – but that includes the iris too! Not much use really.
  • The audio inputs and outputs – XLR’s headphones, video out, are all in very exposed places, and do not appear robust.  In everyday, rough and tumble situations these are very likely to fail – but in a destructive manner, they are likely to break bits off the camera, literally, to a point of no return “early wrap boys!”.  Cameras really do need to be pretty bullet proof, like the equipment a soldier may use.  No difference.
  • There are problems with the timecode from our recent multi-camera experience – four identical cameras running together, synced with a timecode slate, did not hold sync together!
  • The camera is awkward to hand hold at eye height for any amount of time, this forces you to shoot from below the eyeline of the subject, which is unflattering and gives the impression of the person being dominant.  You also, because of the focus issues already mentioned, have to shoot stuff wider rather than closer.  I personally prefer shooting tighter rather than wider (on legs or hand held), since it makes for more interesting shots which are easier to cut.
  • When used hand held, the camera is difficult to hold steady, and if any refinements need to be made to even focus or iris settings, the camera wobbles!  Forget any other things you may want to set whilst hand holding – like checking audio on individual channels whilst shooting – you simply can’t do it
  • The Z1 is 2 stops slower than DSR450 or Digi beta cameras, which means you will have to put more light into a scene where a conventional camera wouldn’t  – and there is no ability, one man op, to mount a top light and radio mics onto the camera for those Ptc’s being done outside Westminster on a dark November afternoon.


The camera is very slow to use.  If you are in a hurry, which is often, you can’t just pick it up confidently knowing that everything is switched to the right setting.  It has to be endlessly checked, via the menu system (with its numerous sub-menus).  Larger cameras can be checked rapidly by scanning switch positions.

The thing is not intuitive, its regressive (even compared with a PD150 which is actually more user friendly).  It lacks precise control and all the things that a skilled cameraman needs and you can’t change lenses!

The type of shots that you can get are limited by the range of focal length, and the cameras focussing abilities – the camera operator is very limited in the types of shot that can be achieved, which leads to a loss of style.

I would also be worried about looking stupid whilst on the street.  That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but a lot of times people take you far more seriously if you have a big camera with you – having a big camera is a positive advantage!

The camera is ideal for camera operators with little experience; in many ways, the camera can help them, however, they will ultimately still  have the same problems that experienced operators have.  At the end of the day this is a consumer camera which has been dressed up to look as though it is professional.

My experience on this camera has always included working with a sound recordist, and I can see a whole host of problems looming on the day that I have to use this as a one man crew.  A lot of those problems will be technical problems associated with the desire to shoot the best pictures, with the best sound – only to be let down by the inadequacies of this camera.  This is a problem not unique to the Z1 – all the competitor cameras have similar drawbacks.

The combination of the disadvantages I have outlined will lead to lost shots, more unusable shots, and inevitably even higher cutting ratios than those being experienced using “conventional” cameras.  I suspect that the material will also need more post production to rectify sound and exposure problems.

I appreciate the need to embrace and use new technologies as they become available, but I do not feel that the Z1 is a viable alternative to a camera such as a DSR450 or Digi Beta.  As a professional cameraman I want to have control of the camera, I want to dictate what it does, and I want to work to the highest standards that I can achieve.  The Z1 does not allow me to do this, but, as I mentioned earlier, this camera is a useful tool to carry.

In my opinion the Z1 should not be considered as a mainstream camera for use by highly skilled “craft” cameramen.

~ by Stephen Foote on April 20, 2010.

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