Sony Handycam NEX-VG20 Camcorder Review$2,199.00
Manual focus on the VG20 is controlled using the camcorder's attached lens, which will likely be the 18-200mm E-mount lens if you bought the camcorder as a kit. There is large, ribbed lens ring on the lens (as is the case for most lenses) that allows you to control focus with your fingertips.
While this lens ring is fantastic for making precise focus adjustments, we don't like the location for the manual focus switch. This button is found on the side of the camcorder's body, just in front of the memory card slot, so it's not easy to reach while your using the focus ring. We wish the focus button was in a more approachable position much closer to the lens, as this would allow easier switching between auto and manual focus control
When setting focus, the VG20 has peaking controls and an expanded focus zoom function to assist you with getting the correct focus. Peaking is controlled through the menu system where it can be turned on and off, intensity can be adjusted (high, middle, low), and colors can be changed (white, red, yellow). The expanded focus is engaged by a dedicated button on the right side of the camcorder, which is easily accessible with your pinky when you grip the camcorder in your right hand.
The NEX-VG20 has the big three exposure controls—aperture, shutter speed, and gain—as well as a basic exposure adjustment option and an auto exposure shift (AE shift) setting. This amount of control is excellent, and it is exactly what we expect to see from a camcorder in the $2000 dollar price range. The only setback is the method for setting these controls, as the VG20 relies on a small rotating dial near the front of the camcorder rather than a large ring or control knob.
All of these exposure controls can be set during video recording, and the "manual" button in front of the control dial allows you to set these controls on the fly. Holding the button in for a second or so brings up an on-screen menu where you can choose a particular control you want to adjust (from options of exposure, gain, iris, shutter speed, AE shift, and white balance shift). Inside the LCD cavity are also dedicated buttons for iris (aperture) and shutter speed control, as well as a Program AE button that allows you to revert all exposure settings to auto when pressed.
Two tools, found in the menu system, are designed to assist with exposure adjustment. The Zebra feature overlays a striped pattern on areas within the frame that are overexposed. The patterns can be set to display at 70% or 100% thresholds, with the 70% setting more useful for properly exposing faces and skin tones and the 100% setting better for evaluating overall exposure levels. There's also a histogram function available that displays a live graph of the light levels within a given frame.
Sony keeps things fairly simple on the NEX-VG20, so you won't find an extensive set of color controls or precise image modes on the camcorder. Certainly nothing like the Picture Profile settings you get on Sony's professional camcorders that give you control over things like gamma, sharpness, knee point, black levels, etc.
But there are two white balance presets (outdoor and indoor), a manual white balance mode (one push, just like on other Handycams), and a white balance shift setting. There's a Cinematone feature that slightly alters the gamma curve to enhance the color and brightness of your image (providing a more film-like aesthetic in the process). Additionally, there are three "spot" adjustment settings: spot focus, spot meter, and spot meter/focus. These modes allow you to tap the portion of the screen you want to focus or expose properly, making them easy-to-use controls that mix manual and automatic adjustment (they're also found on all of Sony's current Handycam lineup).
The thing is, the NEX-VG20, like any good prosumer camcorder, doesn't really need a special auto mode to succeed. The brilliance of the camcorder lies in its manual control options, and it's likely that is the very reason you'd be using the VG20 in the first place. No dedicated auto mode lets you pinpoint the controls you want to set manually, while leaving other controls under auto control.
Those who are hoping to rely on the VG20's automatic functions may come away disappointed, however. The camcorder doesn't focus as fast nor as accurately as a traditional camcorder, and if you go outside of Sony's E-mount lens family there's no guarantee that the autofocus mechanism on the camcorder will even work properly with the attached lens. Auto exposure was handled with more accuracy than focus, and the camcorder did a decent job when we shifted between various lighting conditions. The color temperature changed a lot when we shot under mixed light with the auto white balance turned on, so if you don't want that kind of color shifting you should lock down a manual white balance or use one of the two preset WB options.
The VG20's prominent built-in microphone is one of the big advantages the camcorder has over a regular digital camera (like the Sony NEX-5N). The mic records 5.1-channel Dolby surround sound, but it can also be set to record 2-channel audio instead. There's a wind noise reduction filter in the camcorder itself, but the VG20 also comes with a real physical wind sock that you can put over the built-in mic. You can also control the audio levels in the menu system, keep tabs on the audio with an onscreen level display, and you can use an external mic via the 3.5mm mic jack on the camcorder's handlebar.
In-camera editing features are not a huge part of the NEX-VG20's repertoire. The camcorder has the ability to divide video clips and grab still images from videos, but that's about it. You can, of course, delete videos and photos through the playback system as well.