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Equipment Review

Sony HDR-FX7 Camcorder

II'm extremely surprised by this camera. Based on the specs I should be cool to it, but I've learned to love it. For a beginner, or as a B camera, it is a winner. In fact I see myself keeping mine for a long time, even though I own several more expensive camcorders. After lugging around a Sony XDCAM unit for a few weeks its always refreshing to grab the portable little FX7 and take off on a hike.

The Sony FX7 can be purchased new for about $2,500. Perhaps the nicest feature of this camera is its size, weight, and shape. It is the perfect compromise of quality and portability. The camera will easily fit into a suitcase for that business trip or in a backback for those long hikes into the backcountry.

The 20x Zeiss lens on the FX7 is of high quality and the right length for wildlife work. Adding an extender will really get you out there to the point where camera movement and atmospheric distortion can become issues. It would have been nice for the lens diameter to be larger than 62mm, in part to gather more light, but in most outdoor situations that's not a big problem. If you do a lot of indoor work, there are better cameras on the market. I did notice what appears to be a bit of softness at the extreme telephoto range of the lens, especially when the iris is wide open, but nothing to prevent me from using it when the situation warrants.

The camera uses three 1/4 inch CMOS chips to aquire the image. The CMOS chips are much easier on battery power and seem to be the direction that Sony is going (large batteries such as the Sony F970 will last 5 hours or more with this camera). Although the chips are small by professional camcorder standards, the image quality is impressive. There is an optical image stabilization for handheld work, but you will want to turn that off for pans and tilts.

The camcorder uses mini-dv tapes only, which is a huge drawback for wildlife work. One workaround is to use an external recorder such as the Firestore FS-4 products. That way you can keep the camera running for hours if need be, and if nothing interesting happens all you have to do is hit the delete button. Another plus of those units is that some of the recorders have a pre-record cache which will let you collect the 6-10 seconds prior to your hitting the record button (assuming you have the unit configured for that). This is a great feature when you need to wait, and wait, and wait, for that bird to finally call. One note of caution on using the FX7 with a Firestore or other recorder connected by the I-link cable - it easily pulls out of the port. Sony put the 4-pin port on the FX7 and I've had it become disconnected several times, costing me what I'm sure was priceless footage. I've learned to wrap the i-link cable around the camcorder handle and check it at every opportunity, thereby reducing the likelihood of it disconnecting. As for tapes, use the Sony tapes designed for HDV work - I've never had a problem with dropped frames, even in cold weather conditions. The camera also has a Memory Stick Pro slot which can be used to capture still images. This is a nice feature should you have a chance for that one-in-a-lifetime still image.

The camera is limited in terms of frame rates and formats, with its top-end being 1440x1080 at 60i. There is no true 24p format. Nor is there any over or undercranking capability (there is a slow motion setting, but it greatly compresses the image and is barely usuable even for web distribution). So try and pan slowly and don't zoom in too tight on rapid movement and action shots.

The controls are sensibly laid out. Adjusting shutter speed, gain, iris, and other critical features is easy. There is a shot transition; however, it does not have a delay timer so you may get a bit of camera movement once you push the button to start the transition. The autofocus works very well, indeed you may find yourself using that more than manual focus. In fact, the autofocus is much better than that on some of the more expensive Sony cameras. There is also an expanded focus for fine-tuning the manual adjustments. Quickly needed adjustments, such as backlighting and spotlighting can be assigned to the four assign buttons making them quickly available (except for assign button #4 which is hidden under the fold-out LCD screen). The rear viewfinder is serviceable if not great. The LCD screen is very good and works okay even in bright sunlight.

Sony FX7 Rear Oblique View Handle Side

Unfortunately, audio is not a strong point of this camera as it does not have XLR inputs nor does it have an attached microphone holder. So you will probably need to resort to a shotgun microphone attached to the hotshoe and an adapter for the stereo-mini microphone port. On the bright side, the audio controls are sensibly presented and allow you to adjust for most needs. The camera does have a headphone jack.

One frustration from a wildlife perspective is that the camera does have a slow delay of a several seconds once the rec button is pushed, unless the camera is in Standby mode. To be fair, this is typical of many tape-based cameras. The solution is to always make sure you are in Standby mode or connect the camera to an external recorder such as the Firestore products.

The Sony FX7 is a great camera for a beginner or even a professional looking for a light and portable B camera. Granted, it has some serious competition in the HDV market including the Canon XHA1. While the Canon is better in low light conditions, the Sony is lighter and less expensive. Weighing in at only 3.6 lbs, it is a great camera to throw into a backpack and take for a long hike. Due to its small profile its also a good camera for situations where you don't want to draw a lot of attention to yourself.



IInexpensive, lightweight, small, solid, 20x lens, good picture, and sensible manual controls.


Not great in low light. Uses the HDV format which is not always readily accepted by major broadcasts such as Discovery. Tape based. Limited formats and no true 24p. No XLR inputs.

UPDATE - January 11, 2009

Sony has greatly reduced the price of the HDR-FX7s. They can now be purchased from retail outlets for about $2,000. Used cameras can be found around $1,500.


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