Sony EA50 Review

The NEX EA50 with Metabones & Canon 50mm

The NEX EA50 with Metabones & Canon 50mm

The Sony NEX-EA50 is an odd fish.  Or is it?  It’s a camera seemingly full of contradictions and for many people, including me, it has largely flown under the radar.  I recently had the chance to spend some quality time with it and was surprised by what I found.

I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with fellow cinematographers about loving the DSLR look but hating the ergonomics.  We’ve all seen the rigs that people put together to make a camera designed for another purpose more functional for shooting video.

This really hit home one day when I needed to rush out and take some stills.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to see what the quality of the stills was like from the EA50.  While the quality turned out to be quite good, the experience was not.  It made me realise in very tangible ways why stills cameras are a different shape to traditional video cameras. The EA50 is essentially the guts of a DSLR built with the form factor and functionality of a video camera and that turns out to be something very interesting. The rumour is that the sensor and electronics is largely based on the NEX 5N and this would make a lot of sense as the chip is APS-C sized and the camera uses the E-Mount lens system.  Although the EA50 does have a mechanical shutter in stills mode so it might actually have more in common with the Alpha DSLRs.

The APS-C sensor is an interesting point because Sony differentiates between it and Super-35mm but the EA50’s sensor is closer to Super 35mm size than the sensors of many other cameras on the market that are sold as “Super 35”.  I think a big part of this for Sony is separating sensors that have been built for video and those that have been designed with the first priority being stills.

So although it is coming from a stills design, the sensor of the EA50 is very much in line with what the motion picture world thinks of as 35mm. Apart from this, the EA50 is all video camera.  It has XLR audio inputs with phantom power and proper manual level controls and along with a headphone connection and audio level displays it is perfectly capable of recording professional sound with no fuss.

The shape of the camera’s body is elongated with an integrated shoulder pad.  Because of the small size of the unit, this should pad can slide backwards beyond the length of the camera to get slightly more conventional ergonomics.  Another useful feature is that the top of the shoulder pad when it’s extended has several mounting points that could be used for counter-weights or an external recorder or even a director’s monitor that would mean the director could be standing directly behind the camera while the operator uses the viewfinder.

The viewfinder is an interesting point in itself.  Essentially the same as the 3.46″ LCD and extended Loupe as on the FS700 the EA50 benefits enormously from having it positioned in the logical spot for a video camera.  I quite like this viewfinder design.  The loupe reminds me of the extension viewfinders on film cameras and it makes operating both handheld and on the tripod very easy and comfortable and makes it a breeze to clearly seeing the picture when operating in a bright environment.  The viewfinder can flip up to quickly see the LCD or can easily be removed altogether to reveal a fairly standard  flip out screen.  In either screen or viewfinder mode it rotates through 270°

for easy high and low angle shooting.  With the loupe removed the screen folds flat against the camera body making it significantly more compact for packing.

The EA50 usually comes packaged with a kit lens which is an 18-200mm zoom.   This is the same lens that is supplied with the FS700-R which is essentially one of Sony’s stills lenses but with a servo zoom motor and rectangular lens hood.  The first drawback of this lens is that wide open it doesn’t maintain a constant aperture, varying between f3.5 and f6.3 through the zoom range, which is also not very fast. When I’ve used the FS700 I have all but ignored this lens.  However, the form factor and functionality of it on the EA50 make it a completely different proposition.

The payoff for this aperture compromise is a huge zoom range in a very small and lightweight package. Although it is front heavy even with this light lens, the overall weight of the camera is so slight that even just having the shoulder pad resting on my shoulder gave it enough balance that I was comfortable shooting for extended periods of time handheld to an extent that I’ve never been able to to with an SLR shooting video.

On more than one occasion I took the camera for a long walk, spending several hours wandering around looking for shots and then shooting handheld.  Even after hours of not putting the camera down, it was still no effort to pick it up and get some more shots.

Between the light weight, the shoulder rest, the extra stability of using a viewfinder and the lens’s optical image stabilizer, it is shockingly easy to get good, steady handheld shots, even when zooming in. The zoom can be operated manually or by the servo motor which is controlled by a fairly conventional zoom rocker, except that it is located on the camera rather than the lens.

Another really interesting feature is that this zoom control can also be used to “zoom” the sensor.  Because the SLR sensor massively over-samples for HD, Sony has made it possible to zoom in on the sensor while still having more pixels than needed for full HD.  While there are other cameras that allow you to crop in on a high res chip, I’m not aware of another one that allows you to do it in shot. Sony describe it as lossless digital zoom and I think in digital terms that is pretty accurate.  The big caveat with this is the lens you’re using.

With the kit lens the results are surprisingly good and this gives it an effective range 18-400mm in a single shot, whilst handheld in Super 35, which I can’t think of doing any other way.  At the long end of this, it is possible with some effort to get useable shots while handheld.  Again, this is very surprising and although they’re not rock-steady, they are watchable which is more than you expect from a handheld 400mm lens!

A feature that I used a lot is the push-auto iris.  For run & gun type filming this means that you can instantly get the iris in the ballpark and then quickly fine tune your exposure for example, when moving from full sun to shaded areas. Another upshot of the digital zoom is that it makes it possible to zoom while using a prime lens.  I tried this with a number of prime lenses and while it does feel very odd at first, it does work and turns each prime into a very fast, lightweight 2:1 zoom lens.  I also tried the EA50 with the Metabones adaptor to use Canon EF & EFS SLR lenses and this worked very smoothly.

The EA50 records in the AVCHD format which is an implementation of the h.264/MPEG4 standard at around 24 mbps.  While this is a consumer level spec it does hold up surprisingly well in post.

Frame from EA50, with Cinematone Gamma & vintage Zeiss 50mm

Frame from EA50, with Cinematone Gamma & vintage Zeiss 50mm

The big disappointment for me is that the EA50 has only “Cinema Tone” gamma and neither “Cine Gammas” nor “S-Log”.  Although S-Log would be tough on the highly compressed 8 bit recording, at least some sort of extended gamma like Sony’s Cine Gammas would be very useful. The Cinematone gamma is an entirely different beast, with rich shadows and gentle highlights it is essentially a graded image straight out of the camera.

There’s plenty of room to correct colours and a little room to correct the middle of the exposure range but not a lot of room to change the extremes of the dynamic range. In a sense though, this is the essence of the camera.  It produces beautiful, cinematic and filmic images without the need for any LUT’s or post manipulation and in return the user gives up a little of the scope to do those things.

The EA50 on the shoulder with the 18-200mm

The EA50 on the shoulder with the 18-200mm

For shooting weddings, concerts or corporate events it provides almost all of the advantages of a DSLR with a sophisticated “rig” except that it’s in one piece and works straight out of the box.

In many ways the EA50 is anything but an odd fish..  except for the fact that it runs so contrary to current trends in camera design, it makes perfect sense.

I hope that Sony continues to run with this combination of light shoulder mount cameras and large sensors.  Something like the feature set of the FS700 in a body like the EA50 would be very exciting and fill a niche that is yet to be addressed by anyone else.

There’s also a lot of potential for the Sony EA50 as a training camera because it has enough professional features that it’s possible to get great pictures and sound but with latitude that requires a bit more precision and thought from the user.

It’s also a great camera to use, both on the shoulder and on the tripod.

 

In the video below footage from the EA50 is intercut with existing material from a variety of film & digital cameras.  We have added a super at the bottom-left of each shot identifying the source.  This project was graded in DaVinci Resolve 9.

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