Want the 4K, all-in-one convenience, and reach of the non-interchangeable lens zoom of an RX10 Mark III [B&H|Amazon]; the 10-bit 4:2:2 HD, long battery life and freedom from worrying about thermal shut-down or 30 minute recording limit of the Sony FS5 [B&H|Amazon]; and a price and image quality that splits the difference? Welcome to the Sony Z150 [B&H|Amazon].
I've begun to think of Sony as the "Intel Inside" of the digital imaging world, where their sensors are found not only in their own products but in those of Apple, Nikon, Hasselblad and who-knows-who-else.
Sony: The Volkswagen Group of Imaging?
But with the Sony Z150, I'm thinking that Sony is also like the Volkswagen Group, only without the different brand names. I mean that they have become extraordinarily adept at repurposing the same technology across their own brand name products, allowing them to cost-effectively meet the needs of multiple target audiences.
The 20.1 megapixel 1" BSI sensor in Sony's Z150, for example, is found in both the RX10 Mk III and RX10 Mk II. Some of the switch gear in the Z150 can also be found on the FS5. The Super35 sensor in the FS5 is the same one as in the FS7. And again, who-knows-what-else underneath.
Yeah, that and $2.95 will get you a tall caffe latte at Starbucks. So what?
The Limits of Hybrid Cameras
By now the joys and sorrows of Sony's hybrid cameras are fairly well-known.
On the one hand, Sony offers fantastic image quality in stills and 4K footage even in low light; high frame rates in HD; great autofocus in their newest models like the a7R II [B&H|Amazon] and a6300 [B&H|Amazon]; compact and well-built bodies; and an ever-increasing array of first-rate glass. On the other hand, aggravating menus; short battery life; 30-minute recording limits; the more-than-occasional thermal shutdown when recording in 4K; the absence of a built-in neutral density filter; and 8-bit 4:2:0 output limit their appeal to some shooters.
When I tested the RX10 Mark III, I thought it held its own against the a6300 with a Zeiss Batis 85mm/1.8 [B&H|Amazon] for a family portrait shoot. I felt it gave away surprisingly little (1-2 stops) in low light performance. It gave away basically nothing in the realm of high frame rates or rolling shutter. It gave away nothing in codec specs.
And that 24-600mm full-frame equivalent Zeiss glass gave me so many options!
But the RX10 III also suffered the same limitations as the a6300, and for most of what I do the difficulty of getting a shallow depth of field with that lens and sensor combo led me to prefer the a6300.
On the other hand, when I wanted to cover a live event, neither camera would do - I switched over to the FS5, allowing me to have my cake and eat it too. The FS5 offers vastly superior battery life; built-in neutral density filter; the ability to mount fast lenses if I wanted to; and complete freedom from worry about overheating, and recording time limits.
Recently the overheating and 30-minute recording limits on my a6300 have really gotten in the way. A recent 40 minute conversation I had with cameraman and DP Doug Jensen prevented me from even considering the a6300. Multiple takes for some of my blog posts brought me up against the same issues, so that I've actually dialed back the 6300 to 1080p and switched to AC power via a dummy battery - which still doesn't solve my recording limit (yes, I know there's an app for that - to be tested).
Exploring Alternatives to the a6300
I'm looking at adding a third camera to my kit not only for these reasons, but because I'm actually starting to shoot with three cameras.
I've thought about switching back down to 1080p and getting another a6000. It still yields beautiful footage and since all of my work is distributed over the web, it's less necessary to contemplate 4K (and the attendant slow-downs in post). But the inability to remotely trigger and adjust video on the a6000 (stills only) and the continuing 30-minute recording limit have led me to look elsewhere.
And personally I love the clarity of 4K.
Rather than getting a second a6300 to complement the a6300 and a6000 I already have, I'm contemplating not so much switching as augmenting my Sonys with a Panasonic GX85 [B&H|Amazon] or the just announced G85 [B&H|Amazon] . After all, in the situations where I need it (interviews/conversations), the single biggest weakness of micro 4/3 in my book -- low light performance of the small sensor -- becomes a non-issue because I light the scene.
But what's been eye-opening is my convo with Doug and the footage he shot comparing Sony's 12-bit 4K RAW upgrade for the FS5 against the FS5's own internal 10-bit, 4:2:2 HD.
I first saw the difference between 8-bit and 10-bit recording when I shot footage with the FS7 . Even without pixel-peeping, I could see -- feel -- the more natural tonality and gradation on my monitor. No, for most of what I do it wouldn't matter, but gawd, it was lovely.
If I could get that in a camera that didn't give me tsuris with the battery and time limit -- and was reasonably priced -- well, that might change my calculus.
Enter the Z150.
Thanks to the good folks at Sony, I currently have a Z150 loaner. Priced at $3,299 (B&H), it splits the difference between an a6300 or RX10 Mk III. and FS5 (which, I notice, has risen a few hundred dollars to $5,749).
- It is really, really nice not to have to futz with wires or extra boxes like an audio recorder (courtesy of the multi-interface shoe and XLR inputs), nor worry about changing and dropping lenses in the heat of a moment
- XAVC-L (like the FS5 rather than XAVC-S in the a6300 and RX10 III) allows the Z150 to record 10-bit 4:2:2 HD
- Sony L-series batteries (maximum up to 6300 mAh vs. the RX10 III's 1020 mAh) last MUCH longer than the batteries in the RX10 III and a6300 -- up to a claimed 400 minutes in XAVC 1080/60i at 50Mbps with LCD on
- Recording limit is a function of card capacity and battery life only, rather than an arbitrary cut-off
- Thermal shut-offs are a non-issue
- Headphone and microphone jacks - the Z150 has both, unlike the the RX10 III and a6300
- The Z150 has a full size HDMI and an SDI port, rather than the fidgety and quickly unreliable micro-HDMI port on the hybrids
- Dual card recording (simultaneous or relay) is increasingly a big deal to me -- and probably you
- Built-in ND (not infinitely variable like the FS5) makes it hard to go back to external
- There's no radical crop factor when moving from UHD 24fps to 30fps the way there is in the a6300
- The 20.1 MP 1" sensor punches above its weight class, same as RX10 III
- The built-in lens is sharp and contrasty and covers a useful focal range (29-348mm full frame equivalent), though it's not as sharp at some focal lengths as at others - nothing to write home about if you're not delivering in 4K, where differences between it and both the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 and Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 become more apparent (but then again, only to people like you and me)
- I love the built-in lens hood (nice and deep, with a built-in trap door lens cap)
- It's really, really nice to have plenty of physical controls for the things you change most often (I'd like on or two more, rather than rely on custom mapping functions).
- It already comes with an AC port and adapter
- The tilt-able OLED viewfinder with eyecup allows shooting in bright daylight with relatively little problem, a HUGE advantage over all Sony hybrid cameras and most others (the notable exception being Panasonic's GX8)
- The tilt and swivel LCD panel is very usable in dimmer settings, but was a touch more usable outdoors - easier than the a6300's but I don't know why that would be the case other than it being slightly larger
- Good zoom controls on the comfortable hand grip on side and grip on top are easier to reach than the ring on any of Sony's power zoom lenses - I actually prefer the way controls fall to hand here to the grips on the FS5 and FS7, but then thy're designed for different shooting scenarios
- A 3/8" and 1/4" tripod socket and separate pin socket allow for better control of twisting than the single 1/4" socket of the hybrids
- When you add in the cost of a lens set to give you the kind of reach the built-in lens provides, the Z-150 is bargain-priced.
- Most of the cons revolve around the fact that the Z150 has an integrated lens - surprise! - but these may not be cons at all, depending upon your point of view:
- Like the one on the RX10 III, the lens is relatively slow and has a variable aperture (it quickly gets slower and darker as you zoom in, meaning you'll have to make adjustments as you zoom unless you go full auto, and you'll be pushing the smaller sensor into higher ISOs with lower dynamic range and more noise - though the differences may be smaller than you think, depending upon the focal length at which you're shooting, distance, and how wide open you really want to go)
- It can't give you nearly as shallow a depth of field as the APS-C sensored a6xx- series and even less compared to the a7X series especially because it's combined with the 1" sensor, but you can compensate for that to a certain degree by backing off and using a longer focal length
- It's not as wide at the low end as I'd like (I prefer 24mm full-frame equivalent, which the RX10 III gives you) nor has as much reach (348mm full frame equivalent vs. the RX10 III's 600mm - a big difference)
- Autofocus is OK, but not stellar as on the a6300
- The Z150 is bigger and heavier than hybrids, though still not bad
- No S-Log (well, I can't find it, anyway) -- not a big deal for events, but as potentially the third and most expensive camera in my kit (and capable of the 10-bit 4:2:2 Doug Jensen says is a baseline requirement for even using log, more on this coming), this is a potential deal-breaker because it limits my ambition
- The menu button and the four way controller surrounding it on the top handle are more difficult to use than I'd like-- I wish they were more raised and distinct
- Minimum f/stop is f/11, though with ND and the smaller sensor, I don't think this is much of an issue
- The remote app is not as flexible as it should be as we close out 2016 (I want total control, including audio levels; I want to see focus and exposure assists; basically, I want the identical image that's on the viewfinder or LCD)
- The menu system, I've come to conclude -- like all Sony menus -- leaves room for significant improvement (on the other hand, use it often enough and it's not a big deal)
- WiFi and streaming are still ugly for someone like me
Here's the thing: the footage is great.
I have to confess that I have more issues with my own incompetence than IQ differences between the a6300 with primes and the Z150 with its integrated lens, as long as I don't push the limits of the smaller sensor or the glass. This is especially true when viewing footage on the web.
In other words: at the same aperture, shutter speed, comparable profiles, etc. -- and not above ISO 6400 -- the Z150 gives away almost nothing in the real world to what is presently my favorite camera in that same real world, the a6300.
Then again, it's three times the price of an a6300 body and just over twice the price of the new a6500 body (I already have the lenses I want). On the other hand, adding just one lens -- Sony's FE 90mm f/2.8 macro in this case -- to the cost of these two bodies essentially erases that price difference. Sure, the 90/2.8 is sharper than the built-in lens but c'mon: you'd have to buy a PILE of very expensive prime glass to beat the built-in lens of the Z150.
And it's not the only game in town.
Closest Z150 Competitors
Just to complicate things, there are three competitors uniquely suited to take on the Z150.
Panasonic's Just-Announced UX 180
In much the same way that Panny's just-announced FZ2500 can be thought of as its response to Sony's RX10 Mark III, the Panasonic UX 180 with a configuration very much like the Z150's -- right down to a 20.1 MP, 1" sensor -- is nothing so much as Panny's improved version of the Z150:
- its lens goes wider (24mm full frame equivalent) and longer (480mm full frame equivalent) than the Z150's
- image stabilization is more sophisticated, relying on a hybrid optical/electronic 5-axis approach
- it shoots up 60fps in UHD vs. the Z150's 30fps
- the app appears to be more complete (though going wireless requires the purchase of a separate wireless module, the AJ-WM50P, $159.99
- it supports dual-codec recording (UHD and FHD at the same time on two different cards)
On the other hand, the UX 180 is priced at a slightly higher $3,495, and when you add in that wireless module you're looking at and extra $355 over the Z150 to go that route.
Sony's Own NX100
There's little that separates the NX100 from the Z150, the primary difference being the absence of a 4K recording capability. My bud Doug Jensen over at Vortex Media goes into more detail but sees such a close relationship between the Z150 and the NX100 that his latest tutorial series covers both. As I keep saying, I consider Doug's tutorials required viewing if you're considering these cameras. And the reality is that when you down-res 4K into a 1080p timeline, the differences narrow dramatically.
Which is why I like to edit things in 4K, even if it wreaks havoc on my time management.
And Then There's the Panasonic UX90
The UX-90 is the UX180's little brother ($2,095 at B&H), but unlike the 1080-only Sony NX100, it also shoots 4K.
What the UX-90 gives up for a price 1/3 less than that of the UX 180 are primarily the UX180's 60fps in UHD and a shorter throw zoom (15x vs 20x, though both share the same wide end).
Pretty interesting, yes? Panasonic is bracketing both sides of the Z150.
Who's It For?
It's clear that the Z150 is a live event or interview camera - though weddings often demand shallower depth of field shots (rightly so, in my book) than the Z150 can easily do. Amazingly (to me, anyway), the Z150 probably would have worked as well or better for me than the FS5 when I covered a presidential rally earlier this year, at about half the price when you add in Sony's 18-105mm lens. It's just about ideal for covering a trade show, like the upcoming PhotoPlus Expo and NAB East in New York - except if you want to shoot stills. Can you imagine? No worrying about batteries, no worrying about cables or separate recorder for audio -- and all things considered, not that heavy.
These things make the Z150 a very interesting, very good camera.
It also works well if you're covering amateur sporting events, speeches, sermons, ground-breaking ceremonies, even small documentaries -- I think the Z150 is hard to beat. Ditto for landscape stock footage, though at that point you might want interchangeable prime lenses, 10-bit 4:2:2 4K, even RAW. Suddenly a Blackmagic URSA Mini becomes more interesting, that at$2,995 without lens or viewfinder - the EVF alone adds another $1,495 to the full tab -- it also becomes much more expensive.
The Bottom Line
In the end, the Z150 is a differently tuned RX10 III in another body style. That makes it an all-in-one package with great zoom range, over-performing sensor, and all of the other goodies that a pure video shooter wants with none of the overhead a hybrid shooter needs.
And it's a heckuva lot easier to shoot outdoors and at low angles than any hybrid camera with the possible exception of the Panasonic GX8.
When I shot my latest video post on the Secced Reach Plus 1 tripod kit, the Z150's freedom from my a6300's 30 minute recording limit, thermal cut-off and Pez-sized battery life was simply wonderful. In fact, if you shoot events on a regular basis where 8-bit 4K or 10-bit 4:2:2 HD is needed but shallow DOF and ultimate low light performance is not, well -- I would take a long hard look at the Z150 as a very credible alternative both to the FS5 and an a7s II.
I was going to write that with all of this said, the Z150 isn't for me. But as I spend more time with it my take has evolved to "not-for-me-for-now" or even "could-be-for-me-if-I-had-the-budget" - which is personally shocking.
I don't fit the likely Z150 shooter profile. I'm typically not an event shooter (the primary exception being trade shows or a one-off political rally), and for my commercial work and blogging I still want shallow depth of field and the ability to shoot stills.
When it comes to image quality, I prefer my a6300, but less than I imagined if I'm brutally honest with myself. I'm convinced that the a6300/a6500 has the best APS-C/Super35 sensor for video in Sony's lineup all the way through the FS7. While all else being equal I can see the difference and prefer 10-bit 4:2:2 HD to 8-bit anything, I doubt my clients or viewers would notice the difference watching YouTube -- especially when my prime glass is sharper (again, I don't want to make this seem more than it is: the lens on the Z150 is plenty sharp for most things).
On the other hand - gawd, the convenience and freedom from worry when using the Z150 are powerful. If it were the size of the RX10 III and priced the same way, it might actually become a no-brainer.
But oh, crap -- I have to face it: if I'm going to spend $3,300 of my own hard cash, I can't walk away from the sensor on the a6300 in 4K. I can't. Want to, Can't. Need to. Can't. My mid-2012 MacBook Pro with FCPX -- even with Thunderbolt RAID -- is begging me to.
Can't walk away from awesome primes, either.
For now I think I can get past the overheating, recording limit, much trickier outdoor shooting, and remote (app) limitations of the a6300 and a6000 -- and stay within budget -- by:
- going to a Panasonic hybrid as a B-cam in well-lit scenes;
- waiting to see if the just-announced a6500 will get a recording limit removal via firmware update (it appears that they've licked overheating at least in the menu - we'll see);
- making my videos shorter, my takes fewer and/or limiting myself to 1080p (not likely);
- putting a dark cloth over my head when shooting outdoors; and/or
- limiting myself to two cameras for now (OK, that one. And I'll continue to be really cranky about all the rest).
All of which doesn't change the fact that for many, the Z150 is a very compelling package. Check it out.
As is so often the case, just a quick shout-out to the good folks at Sony for making the Z150 loaner available.
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