We’re in Helsinki, Finland testing Sony’s new hostile environment HXR-NX70 camcorder at the 2011 Open European Sailing Championships. Sailors representing 50 countries are competing in pre-Olympic trials in conditions ranging from sweltering calm to 30 mph gusts and rain.
If I had a truckload of new Sony NX70 cameras here on the dock I wouldn’t have to write this article–I could comfortably retire to Ibiza. Olympic coaches from every team in the world are casting envious looks on this, the first handheld, water-resistant HD professional camcorder with IP54 compliance. That means it doesn’t require a bulky splash housing or dry bag.
The NX70 has a superb, optically stabilized 10x zoom 3.8-38mm f/1.8 zoom lens. That’s roughly equivalent to a 35mm format equivalent of 26.3-263 mm. The wide angle wide end is helpful for in-boat shots, and the very long end is stable and tight enough to capture distant maneuvers and mark roundings. The single CMOS 16:9 sensor measures 1/2.88″ diagonal.
Along with US Team coaches Romain Bonnaud and Zack Leonard, we subjected the NX70 to intense spray, pounding waves, bouncing boats, hot sun, cold water and long days. One on-board Sony Lithium FV70 battery lasts about 5 hours. We have 2 spares. Use Sony batteries–our aftermarket no-name ones lasted a fraction of the time.
We packed the camera, spare batteries, filters, lots of lens tissue, microfiber cloths, Dust-Off, and Pancro Lens fluid in Patagonia’s Stormfront Waterproof Backpack. Amanda Clark, 470 Women’s Team skipper who sailed for the US in the China 2008 Olympics brought this bag to our attention–it is a good companion for the Sony NX70. Make sure you pull the zipper all the way closed, and loop its pull-strap through the supplied safety ring.
Sony’s HXR-NX70 camcorder conveniently comes with a 37mm thread on the front of the lens, making it easy to use 37mm screw-in filters. Don’t leave shore without Tiffen’s aptly-named Tiffen Video Essential DV Kit. Its soft pouch provides quick access to one of the included filters: Tiffen Circular Polarizer, Clear, and Warm UV-17. For the 4th slot, be sure to get a Tiffen 37mm ND.6 filter (cuts down 2 stops–the NX70 does not have in-camera ND filters). For really bright locations, get an ND.9 as well (3 stops). When doing water work, it’s a good idea to protect the front of the lens at all times–even with a clear filter. Clean with Pancro fluid. Rain-X on the filter helps shed water. Don’t use Rain-X directly on the Sony NX70 lens–you might damage the coating. Our most-used filter, of course, is the circular polarizer. It cuts through glare and creates glorious skies.
Ouch. Do I dare show the two pictures above? The camera we have here is a demo unit, courtesy of Juan Martinez and our friends at Sony. Will they ever lend me another camera again? One hour into the first day of shooting, I found the Circular Polarizer hits the rear of the Sony sunshade, hindering the filter’s essential rotation. We made quick work of a quick fix by attacking the plastic sunshade with a Swiss Army knife. A Dremel tool would do a much more elegant retrofit.
Why not use rods and a professional mattebox? We’re in 40 mph hang-on-with-one-hand and shoot-with-the-other conditions on 15 foot long RIB coachboats, and light weight is important. The best thing about the Sony sunshade is the design of the front flaps that close at the flip of a lever. So, when racing to the next buoy, closing the flaps keeps the front element totally dry, even in the most violent spray.
The NX70 thoughtfully comes with a motion picture style cheek-hugging rubber eyecup that works wonders keeping sunlight and spray out of the eyepiece. For humid, very hot or cold conditions where the eyepiece steams up from condensation, stock up on Lentequip Kanü Eyewear. These microfiber eyepiece covers are extremely comfortable and functional.
For shooting on the water in a bouncing boat, SteadyShot optical image stabilization in Active Mode compensates for greater degrees of camera shake. A new 3-axis shake-canceling feature electronically stabilizes and compensates for roll. I found it amazing to be composing a perfectly steady image with my right eye looking through the eyepiece while the world was madly bouncing in my left eye.
I first saw the NX70 at Sony’s Atsugi R&D Center in March, and wrote, “Now you can shoot from your Zodiac inflatable RIB in spray and rain without a bulky underwater housing or spray bag. This camera has not been tested yet for salt water, but if you wash it in the shower or under a garden hose (set to spray, not firehose velocity) with fresh water, it should be fine. The camera’s IP54 compliance is similar to the image stabilized binoculars you’re used to using. It is not meant to go underwater.
The area of the Baltic where we are now has a low salt content of only 6 – 8% from all the river and snow run-off (compared with 35% for most oceans). Saltier tests will have to wait until next month: the Olympic Trials in Weymouth, England.
In addition to the sailing community, the Sony NX70 will be the darling of 40 million boaters, fishermen, waterskiers, kayakers and other water enthusiasts who need a spray-proof camera with high power zoom and excellent image stabilization.
Being sand resistant, the NX70 should be perfect for trips to the beach or retracing Lawrence of Arabia’s route. Anything that opens is sealed with O rings: flip-out mini monitor, battery compartment (conveniently beneath the monitor), SD card slot, and all the external connectors. The camera comes with a detachable handle with 2 XLR audio inputs, audio controls and shogun mike (supplied)–same as the NXCAM 35. The audio module and shotgun mike in the top handle is not waterproof—take it off or wrap it in a plastic bag before heading out to sea or into the Sahara.
Here’s our path from land to sea and back to post. Camera is set to HD recording at 60p. A warning tells us that this precludes simultaneously shooting 12.3 Megapixel still images (4672 x 2628). There’s a separate Still Images button to do that at 60i or 24p, but we’re here for the 1920 x 1080 60P full HD recording at 28Mbps. The Sony-only .mts files are HD MPEG-4 AVCHD format compatible. At the moment, it’s pretty Windows-centric, but I’m sure the Mac majority will come up with good ideas soon. The camera comes with a Windows disk for data wrangling, but we’re on a Mac, so here’s our plan:
We record directly to the internal 96 GB internal memory. That’s enough for 2 or 3 days of shooting and easier to wrangle on the water than SD cards. At the end of the day, plug in the external power supply and connect a USB cable from the camera to the computer.
Create a folder on your computer with the job title. Inside that, make a folder for each day of shooting or “camera roll,” e.g. “Day One.”
Turn the camera on. Select USB Connect on the NX70’s touch screen display. The camera shows up on your computer’s desktop. On a Mac, it disconcertingly is called “NO NAME.” Open “NO NAME.” There will be 3 or 4 folders: AVCHD, AVF_INFO and MODELCFG.IND. If you’re grabbing stills, there will be a DCIM folder. Drag all 3 or 4 folders from the camera to your “DAY ONE” folder. If you’re going to shoot again today after downloading, call the next folder “DAY ONE-Part 2.”
The actual video .mts files live deep down in the AVCHD folder, in the folder called “STREAM.” All these files are an insidious plot on the part of an IT engineer to be able to write arcane software plug-ins just so we can see our sequences. In the future, my vote is for one file per shot that can be seamlessly viewed on Mac or PC.
Peter Crithary of Sony came to our rescue with the suggestion of Clipwrap to make viewable Quicktime files. We’re rewrapping to Apple ProRes 422 and Avid DNxHD 145, with audio converted to LPCM. Create a folder on your computer with a matching name for the rewrapped files — something like: “DAY ONE-ProRes” and “DAY ONE-Avid.” These files will open seamlessly in your NLE.
On the Windows side, you can use Sony’s supplied DVD containing Content Management Utility.
After downloading (it takes about 20 minutes to move a 20 GB day of shooting to laptop, and about two hours to rewrap with Clipwrap), copy your files to an external drive. I’m using two 1 TB Firewire bus-powered drives. One will go to the editor. The other stays with me as backup.
After checking that all the data is safely wrangled, the scary moment comes when we select FORMAT from the camera’s touch screen menu. Note that file numbers revert back to zero. That’s why it’s important to keep each day or “camera roll” separate.
The Sony HXR-NX70 is compact and lightweight rain and dust-proof camcorder weighting about 2 pounds. Its 96 GB internal memory holds about 8.8 hours of continuous recording at 24 Mbps. It has an SD slot. It’s intended not just for Olympic sailing coaches and expeditions to the desert. The fact that it can shoot almost anywhere makes the NX70 a wonderful tool for any documentary or news crew.
Price is around $2900, and it’s available now at a camera store or sailing coach boat near you.