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Autumn Light and the Sony PMW-500

Veteran director and videographer Chuck Fishbein has shot on every type of camera, in every type of format – for documentaries, music videos, interviews and live performance videos for promotion, broadcast, DVD release and the Internet.

So it takes a lot to get him excited about a new technology. He was one of the first shooters in the U.S. to have a chance to try out Sony's new PMW-500 camcorder, and he took the camera in and around New York City in mid-autumn. His results -- even though he only had three days to test it -- were so successful that he promptly asked for another opportunity to work with the camera.

New Jersey side of the Hudson River

The seasons have changed and the skies will be red and gold in their fall display. I am up before the dawn on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River waiting for the sun to rise over Manhattan. I don't want to waste a minute of the autumn light.

I was able to produce more imagery The sun rose over Manhattan

The sun rose over Manhattan in a burst of glory and I was in the right position to catch it peering out from behind the silhouetted buildings. Although I was shooting directly into the sun, there was still significant detail in the black and dark grey areas of the PMW-500's image.

I love filming Manhattan

I love filming Manhattan in the darker hours: sunrises, sunsets, the streets illuminated by neon and taxi headlights. All quite magical to me and lucrative in stock footage sales, as well. The PMW-500 managed to suppress digital noise very well, allowing me to shoot under these conditions.

PMW-500 small high-resolution monitor

Fishbein has been a Sony XDCAM PMW-EX1 and EX3 user since both cameras were introduced and notes that much of his initial opinions about the PMW-500 are based on comparisons to those cameras. "Both the EX1 and EX3 have delivered terrific images with quite amazing quality," he said. "In the same breath I'll have to add that each camera has some definite limitations. The first time I played with the PMW-500, a lot of those limitations evaporated."

Since he was familiar with the XDCAM workflow and the SxS card format from his time with the EX cameras, he found the PMW-500 easy to use out of the box.

"Most of the basic features of the camera, like the white balance, gain, color bars and audio controls are in the same place that they've been on pretty much every pro camera I've used," Fishbein said. "So, getting up and running was a breeze. This was a good thing because I had very little time to learn a new system. The camera's menu was easy to navigate and worked very similar to that of the EX3. Some settings were new to me, like the hyper-gamma choices, which might be familiar to those who have used the PDW-700 or PDW-F800, but they were new to me."

Fishbein is used to going out on a shoot with a full complement of gear: a depth of field adaptor, one or two still camera lenses, several SxS cards, batteries, perhaps an additional adaptor to use his Nikon lenses directly on the camera and, recently, a Nanoflash to cash in on the higher bit rate that can be achieved directly off the HD/SDI output.

"That's a lot of stuff to carry around without an assistant and a pack mule," he said. "Most of this was unnecessary with the PMW-500 since I was able to produce more imagery simply by having less gear on hand to worry about."

He found that changing frame rates and formatting cards appeared at the top of the menu rather than at the very end: "This was important to me as I am often shooting for different clients and need to change from 24P to 30P or 60i fairly quickly."

He added: "The camera is very light and well balanced and I found I only needed two Sony 95 V-mount batteries to cover me for an entire day. I used the strap to hoist the camera over my shoulder, grabbed my tripod and was ready to go."

As far as depth of field, "or lack of it at wider settings was significant compared to the EX cameras and I attribute that to the larger sensor, but I usually had to stop down to at least 5.6 to get decent edge sharpness on the panorama shots," he said. "Having 3 ND filters built instead of two was also a plus as I did some slow shutter shots of traffic flow while it was still fairly bright out."

The SxS card format delivered the in-the-field benefits he was used to, and more. "The supplied 64 GB SxS card, held around 129 minutes of full 4:2:2 / 1920x1080 HD at 50 Mb," he said. "I utilized both SxS slots using one of my own 32 GB cards. I've been using the SxS cards with great success and zero problems. Any issues that I've had were caused when I neglected to make sure that cards were seated properly in the camera."

"Often, I will try to anticipate the action of the subject I'm following and I will leave the camera rolling rather than miss the shot," he added. "With two 64 GB cards I would be able to shoot for over four hours without replacing the media and unlike tape, with SxS cards, you're not throwing away money when you discard unusable footage later. And although the media was capable of operating for even longer periods at 35 Mb, I wanted to take full advantage of the additional quality 50 Mb will provide."

During his time with the camera, he recalled one shot that had him following a high-speed ferry out of the shadows and into the sun reflecting directly off the river and the image held beautifully. "This is one of the reasons I had been looking forward to using this camera again," he said. "Once set properly, even under relatively poor lighting conditions, the blacks remained black and noise free.

He was also impressed by the camera's color characteristics.

"The camera's color, if I can call it that, was bold and accurate," he said. "In bright sunlight most decent cameras will perform adequately, but this camera provided excellent results in sun, shade, dusk and dawn."

One thing he noted about the PMW-500 was that it took some time to get used to its black-and-white viewfinder. "So, at first I was a bit reliant on the small high-resolution monitor on the rear/operators side of the camera, eventually getting used to the black and white finder," he said. "The fact that the monitor turns completely around and lies flat against the camera made it very easy to check the composition while on a tripod or in situations like time lapse or slow shutter where I didn't want to bump the camera."

As a business owner as well as a video professional, Fishbein is always looking for new ways that he can grow his business. "We needed to address the limitations we have been facing with our current gear," he said. "Finding a camera that is an all-in-one solution is difficult and usually quite rare.

"My clientele and work varies from rock stars to theme parks to operating rooms, and feature films, television programming and documentaries worldwide," he added. "The reason I requested using the camera again was to capture color of autumn in New York, both in its blaze of glory and in its most subtle tones. I was very happy with the results I achieved with the PMW-500 and it will be difficult to use a lesser piece of gear."

Click here to see footage from Fishbein's shoot.

Chuck Fishbein, Director/Director of Photography

Crazy Duck Productions, Inc.

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