January 3, 2013 Krista

Sony PMW-TD 300 3D Camera Review

In this post, Sean F. White shares his thoughts on the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera:

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DP/Stereographer Sean F. White preparing a shot on the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

In April of 2012, after hunting down and tinkering with all the integrated twin-lens/sensor cameras at the NAB in Las Vegas, I concluded that the Sony PMW-TD300 was the most viable solution currently on the market for S3D documentary series and broadcast applications (read previous post HERE).

For those not familiar with this camera, it’s an all-in-one twin-sensor, twin lens, fixed interaxial (I/A) system recording dual stream, full resolution 1920×1080 HD signals in an ENG style camera body. Full specs HERE.

Recently, I spent a week shooting with the PMW-TD 300 camera on the dramatic short “Invasion” for Parallax Film Productions based in White Rock, B.C., Canada. The script called for a combination of documentary-style news footage, exterior action scenes, lit interior sets, and one scene inside a dripping, limestone cave. All this was to be shot in stereoscopic 3D with a skeleton crew, compressed schedule and minimal budget.

The various challenges of the shoot were the perfect testing ground for the camera. Here’s a breakdown of my experience with the system:

CAMERA BODY:

The camera arrived the night prior to our first shooting day. Out of the box, the camera is familiar: lens housing, body, and viewfinder. From the lens housing and back, it resembles most ENG style HD cameras. All the controls, ND filters, menu access, audio dials, XLR, outputs, etc, are self-explanatory and intuitive. Nothing ground-breaking here, which is good if you’re transitioning from 2D doc to 3D doc and know your 2/3-inch HD camera inside-out. Everything is placed as expected and operates without resorting to the user manual. I was able to get the camera’s settings programmed and audio dialed in about 15 minutes.

MENUS:

Most of the general menu features are standard, plus a host of 3D features, which I thought were intuitive. My favourite feature was the alignment control which allowed me to individually adjust the horizontal and vertical alignment of the left and right eye signals PRIOR to any shooting. I filmed a bookshelf on wide angle from about 10 feet away and converged on the nearest subject. I displayed left and right eye on an external Transvideo 3D monitor set to anaglyph mode and zoomed in 200% to the centre of the screen. The camera’s menu allows you to tweak vertical and horizontal alignment at a sub-pixel level. I calibrated the alignment in about 5 minutes and never re-calibrated for the rest of the shoot. Convergence and fine-tune alignment will be done in post again, however this process gets you a better set of images to work with resulting in less enlarging /cropping and resolution loss in post. For live events, this alignment tool is a must.

LENS HOUSING:

Here’s where it gets interesting. The lens housing contains two 1/2-inch “Exmor” 3-chip CMOS sensors (not 2/3-inch) with two matched zoom lenses set at a fixed 45mm interaxial. I think of it as two Sony EX3′s side-by-side. What sets this camera apart from other all-in-one 3D cameras is the intuitive 3-way control dial for zoom, focus, and convergence. You can customize which dial performs what functions. I personally preferred the camera defaults of: large (outer) for zoom, middle for focus, and small (inner) for convergence. There’s a handy, accessible Viewfinder Display button just below the 3-way dial that allowed me to toggle between different 2D and 3D views. I believe you can also adjust colour per eye for best match but I didn’t perform this function since colour match was already close. What did bother me was the complete lack of a lens hood. Flare is a major issue with 3D so not having anything fit to help shade the lenses was a pain. We also encountered light rain during the shoot where a decent hood would have protected the lenses and working in tight quarters, such as in the cave, I was constantly worried about bumping or scratching the lenses and wiping moisture.

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DP/Stereographer Sean F. White with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera equipped with wireless microphone receivers and Convergent Designs Nano 3D drives on location for “Invasion” (C) Parallax Film Productions

VIEWFINDER:

At first glance, there was nothing special about the viewfinder other than the camera’s ability to toggle through a selection of views: left eye only, right eye only, L+R eye anaglyph, L+R onion skin (personally, I like the onion skin mode for setting convergence). What’s really cool is the flip up eye piece (similar to an EX3), which allows you to enable the 3D display mode and take advantage of the built-in auto stereoscopic display when you look with both eyes from about 10 inches. Voila! Glasses-free instant 3D viewing… very cool! Most of my previous 3D shooting has been rugged documentary acquisition without a video village to live view in 3D so this feature was a bit of a novelty. Historically, I always “imagined” and framed based on the math and the measurable overlays on an anaglyph display. Having auto-stereo in the viewfinder was insightful for getting a sense of the roundness and overall 3D feel for the shot. It’s also great for showing the director and other key crew to get them excited about the 3D or to make decisions based on the stereo space. I often found myself setting all the parameters for the shot with the eye piece in 2D, then flipping up the eye piece and framing in 3D with the auto-stereo mode. Somehow live 3D viewing changed how I saw the frame – for the better, I believe.

RECORDING:

The camera records 3D (two streams) internally to Sony SxS cards at 35Mbps. I cannot comment on the picture quality of these files since we decided to tap both of the camera’s HDSDI ports and record higher bit-rate to our Convergent Designs Nano 3D drives. Camera output and Nano Drive recording was flawless – no issues encountered with any settings in the camera. Upon inspecting a few test shots with a digital slate running time code, the camera synch was perfect down to the sub-frame. However, I discovered that the left and right eye files were offset by 1 frame in approximately 25% of the clips. I’m not certain if that’s an issue with the camera spitting out signal or the Nano drives recording synchronization. Further testing required here. The bottom line is that the signals are genlocked and it’s easy to match-synch frame with a slate.

OPERATION:

Here’s where you get your money’s worth. Basically, I was able to setup and shoot matched stereo images in a fraction of the time as our previous beam-splitter rigs and have the flexibility to adjust zoom, focus and convergence on one dial, fast. I didn’t need focus pullers, convergence pullers, rig techs, or to verify focus on each eye, check matching zoom, etc. etc. etc… I was able to shoot hand-held then switch to a tripod or a dolly in seconds – a dream. My shooting rhythm for each shot was something like this:

  1. Zoom and compose frame in 2D with the left eye displayed in the viewfinder
  2. Focus the left eye (I often used the focus-assist button on the right side of the lens housing or using the external Transvideo 3D monitor)
  3. Toggle to the onion skin display mode to set convergence
  4. Toggle to the anaglyph mode to preview the positive and negative disparity
  5. Toggle to the left eye display, shoot
  6. Optional: toggle to the 3D auto-stereo display, shoot

* I rarely ever checked the right eye unless it was raining and drops might get onto one lens and not the other. The focus synch on the cameras was spot-on.

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Director Ian Herring (left) and DP/Stereographer Sean F. White prepare a shot on the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

LENSES:

I was skeptical of the two built-in miniature lenses since quality glass of that size with matched zooming is not easy to find on the market. Since 3D favours wide angle, I was disappointed that the widest angle was only 53 degrees of view (appx 40.6 mm in 35mm photographic equivalent). Furthermore, I found that the lenses were softer on the widest angle and sharper at the midrange of the scale – nothing unusable but impossible to compare to prime lenses.

PICTURE QUALITY:

For “Invasion”, we recorded to Nano drives at 1920×1080, 23.98fps, at 140 Mbps per eye. In general, the image quality of the daytime outdoor action scenes and interior lit scenes matched what I would have expected from a Sony EX3 recorded at the same settings with the exception of the softer images at widest angle. With 1/2-inch sensors, there’s more depth of field compared to a 2/3-inch or Super 35mm sized sensor for the same given aperture and lighting. What you sacrifice in overall sensitivity with a smaller sensor, you gain in added depth often desired for 3D. So in this case, a smaller sensor is actually an advantage in well-lit situations. Where the PMW-TD 300 camera struggled was in the extremely low light of the limestone cave. Even with supplementary lighting and +6db gain, the deep blacks fell apart and visible noise was apparent throughout the image.

Again, I can’t comment on the quality of files captured on the internal SxS cards which record at 35Mbps.

RESTRICTIONS:

Obviously, because of the fixed 45mm interaxial, the camera is limited in its ability to get close on a wide angle and as a result, has a signature 3D “look” inherent of its I/A and the depth-of-field of the 1/2-inch sensor. Having worked with fixed system before, I was able to get a sense of the space and distance-from-subject required to shoot comfortable 3D. In general, I’d want the nearest subject no closer than about 6-feet away if I want to converge on them and keep faraway background objects within 3% positive disparity. Any closer than 6-feet and the subject floats in negative which is OK – sometimes… I was also pleasantly surprised how much roundness I was able to achieve in telephoto subjects with the same locked I/A. As with all 3D cinematography, the relationship between foreground and background and I/A will dictate the overall 3D depth. With this camera, it is important to be careful about when to increase distance between the foreground object and background or when to compress them to bring all objects into comfortable stereo. The built-in scales and overlay functions in the menu will assist with that.

CONCLUSION:

Overall, I was impressed with the camera both in quality and ease of use. There’s no way we would have been able to film “Invasion” in the time and budget allotted with any other system and get similar results. Although I had to adjust my framing to allow for the limitation of the fixed I/A, the combination of weight, portability and ease of operation allowed our team to execute more shots, a variation of shots, and more takes with our actors than if we had used any other system. I can’t wait to use this camera again!

PROS:
  • Fast setups and shooting
  • Size and weight
  • 3-way zoom, focus, convergence dial
  • Fixed I/A of 45 mm is a decent compromise for close and medium shots
  • 1/2-inch sensor provided greater depth-of-field
  • Auto-stereoscopic 3D viewfinder with excellent 2D and 3D display options
  • Output options (2 x HDSDI) great for external recording / monitoring
  • Audio features great for self-contained ENG shooter
  • ENG style camera body and menus = intuitive menus, no surprises
CONS:
  • - Non-adjustable I/A
  • - Low light sensitivity not great
  • - Lenses slightly soft on widest angle
  • - Wide angle not wide enough
  • - Lack of lens hood or shade
SUGGESTIONS:
  • - Adjustable I/A from 30mm to 75mm
  • - Better lens hood / shade design for the front lens housing
  • - Sharper lenses, especially wide angle please!

File 301
On the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

Sean F. White is a Camera Operator/DOP for countless international documentary projects. He is a trained stereographer and has shot and delivered 3D content with Parallax for Blowdown 3D and Battle Castle.

@seanfwhite

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