Sony Handycam NEX-VG900 First Impressions Review
Despite it's $3000+ price tag, the NEX-VG900 is still a Sony Handycam. So it has a lot of features that are geared towards the novice videographer in addition to your standard manual controls. Exposure and focus controls can be set to automatic, and we found the autofocus mechanism on the camcorder to be as quick and as accurate as the NEX-VG20 we reviewed earlier this year. This continuous, quiet autofocus system is one of the significant advantages of the VG900 over Full Frame video-DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark III or the Nikon D800. Video controls, both auto and manual, are at the forefront on the NEX-VG900 (it is a camcorder, after all). So, unlike video-DSLRs, you don't have to wade through the hundreds of still image settings to find the video function your looking for.
When we reviewed the NEX-VG20 camcorder, we found ourselves missing the presence of an easy-access zoom rocker that we could control with our fingertips. Zoom on the VG20 was only adjustable on the lens, as the camcorder wasn't equipped with any kind of zoom motor or toggle.
Zoom forward to the NEX-VG900 and you'll see Sony addressed this exact issue. A new zoom rocker exists on the right side of the camcorder, in a perfect spot for you to access it with your index finger during hand held shooting. What makes this feature possible? Sony's new power zoom lens, which comes as the kit lens with the NEX-VG900. This lens has a zoom motor inside it, so when it's connected to the VG900 you can control the zoom with the camcorder's rocker. You can still use the old fashioned zoom ring on the lens as well, but the advantages of an easy-access zoom rocker are many.
The camcorder has six different zoom speeds that are selectable in the menu system, and if you don't have the power zoom lens attached to the camcorder the zoom rocker will still function with digital zoom. One caveat: the power zoom lenses Sony made available are all E-Mount lenses at this time. Using the power zoom lens means you won't be able to take advantage of the VG900's Full Frame sensor. The sensor will utilize its APS-C crop mode, just as it does when any E-Mount lens is attached to the camcorder.
Manual focus, of course, is available on the NEX-VG900, but the quality of the focus depends on the lens you have attached. You make use of the focus ring on the attached lens to manually focus, and a dedicated button lives on the left side of the camcorder to switch between manual and automatic focus. As we said previously, the autofocus on the VG900 is one of the camcorder's best attributes (with the kit lens). The focus was quick, quiet, and more precise than the systems we've seen from competitors.
For adjusting exposure, the VG900 has three dedicated buttons for iris/aperture control, shutter speed, and gain/ISO. These buttons existed on the NEX-VG20 as well, but Sony smartly moved them outside of the LCD cavity. This makes them available to users without having to open the LCD panel.
Something Sony didn't fix, however, is the lowly adjustment dial on the left side of the camcorder that is used to make exposure changes. This dial isn't that large, so using it to make fine adjustments doesn't allow you to get precise control. Again, as with focus, the exposure controls available to you on the NEX-VG900 depend on the lens you have attached. Some lenses won't work with auto exposure (especially if you're using an old lens with an adapter), and some will require you to change the aperture by rotating the aperture ring on the lens itself. This isn't an issue with any of Sony's E-mount lenses, though.
For gain/ISO control, we'd like to see a set of switches that give you the option of programming three different gain settings than can be changed on the fly. This is the kind of thing you see on pro camcorders, and videographers will often set the switches to three different levels: one with little to no gain (for bright, outdoor light), one with some gain (for medium low light or mixed light), and one with a significant gain boost (for low light situations).
Other Manual Controls
Sony talked about some new picture effects on the NEX-VG900, but we doubt that's the kind of thing that will win too many people over. We didn't actually get to see a list of the new effects, but hopefully it includes options that aren't basic digital effects that you could easily add in post. It's also safe to assume the VG900 is loaded with all the controls and features that are present on the NEX-VG20 camcorder, which you can read more about here. Inside the LCD cavity area are dedicated buttons for zebra patterns, peaking, white balance presets, and auto exposure controls. More controls are found in the menu system.