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Having covered all of the previous generations of interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) here on CNET Australia, it's now time to turn our attention to interchangeable lens video cameras. This is the Sony NEX-VG20, which looks and feels every part the professional video camera, following on from the company's first model, the VG10. The twist is, of course, that the lenses can be swapped in and out.
Using the same 16.1-megapixel APS-C Exmor sensor that features on the NEX still cameras, the VG20 should theoretically deliver equivalent image quality. The physical sensor size certainly helps in showing off some wonderful shallow-depth-of-field effects that can be achieved by using a relatively wide aperture on a mounted lens, giving a level of flexibility that regular fixed-lens camcorders just can't achieve. The Australian/PAL model of the VG20 shoots at 25/50p in full HD.
Ergonomically, the VG20 takes a little while to get used to, but once in use for a few minutes, the button configuration starts to make a lot of sense. For example, there are two record buttons, one located in the standard configuration with the power switch, and the other at the front of the camcorder just before the lens mount. Depending on how you hold the VG20, this dual approach is ideal; grasping by the handgrip on the right side makes your thumb fall easily to the first button, and holding by the top handle makes it simple to use the second.
The kit configuration of the VG20 comes with an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 image-stabilised E-mount lens, though the body only is also available. Weight distribution with the 18-200mm is a little top heavy, and does accentuate any shake when shooting handheld. Even with image stabilisation active on the lens, a little shaky movement is perceptible, if not anchored down with a tripod.
The optional LCD field monitor can connect to the VG20 via HDMI. In use, it's bright and incredibly useful for composing shots on a larger screen without being limited by a an electronic viewfinder or smaller LCD screen.
The 3-inch touchscreen flips out from the camcorder body, and can rotate around its axis. Even though this is a camcorder first and a stills camera second, the VG20 borrows more than just naming pleasantries from the NEX camera range, grabbing a very similar menu structure and graphics. The touchscreen is easy to use, and options are reasonably well placed. The sole gripe we had with the interface was that there wasn't an obvious, easy way to exit playback mode, such as pressing a shutter button — instead, you had to exit by closing each and every menu.
Underneath the flip-out touchscreen are a couple of important buttons; namely, the manual focus and settings jog-wheel button. Sitting beneath a flap on the top handle are a hot and cold shoe for mounting a range of accessories that either do or don't need to talk to the VG20.
Exposure controls for adjusting shutter speed and iris are located behind the screen, although adjusting the settings on the jog dial to attach an accessory, like the LCD field monitor, is difficult when the bracket is mounted.
Pressing the extended focus button next to the second record button by the lens mount will bring up a screen with increased magnification, so you can focus precisely. Rather than having to hold it down, it will stay activated until you switch it off or begin filming. The VG20 has a range of options available for onscreen display, including peaking and zebra guides, a histogram, audio levels and a guide frame.
Provided with the VG20 in the box is a range of accessories, including a dead cat windshield cover for the microphone, an eyecap, a charger and battery covers, as well as cables (though no HDMI). Additional accessories available include an E-mount to A-mount lens adapter for AU$499, and an LCD field monitor that connects via HDMI for AU$499. The VG20 shoots to SD/SDHC/SDXC or MemoryStick Duo/Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo cards.
The VG20 delivers excellent video performance. Colours on video images are bright and punchy, with a rich saturation that accentuates any scene perfectly. With the cinematone setting switched on (in the following test videos), the scene is given a more cinematic feel with a slight warm tinge, almost reminiscent of a light sepia sneaking through. It is, of course, able to be turned off if you prefer to do your colour correction and grading in post-production. There's little to no clipping on bright highlight areas, and the image has excellent dynamic range, which makes sense, given the shared sensor with other NEX cameras.
Still images can be shot in either RAW or JPEG format, and the VG20 is no slouch, able to grab up to six frames per second in burst-shooting mode. Naturally, due to the form factor, using the camcorder as a stills camera is a little tricky, especially when trying to measure performance statistics like start-up time (the camera always begins in video mode, requiring a switch to photo mode). Shutter lag is on par with other NEX cameras at a very respectable 0.3 seconds between shutter press and shot capture.
Autofocus with the 18-200mm lens is efficient and smooth, achieving focus within two seconds of moving the camera onto another object, though it's definitely not as quick as on fixed-lens camcorders.
One possible disadvantage for semi-professional videographers is the lack of XLR inputs, meaning that 3.5mm or the built-in microphone is the only way to capture audio directly on camera. That said, the supplied microphone does an excellent job of capturing clean, crisp audio with excellent definition, and captures in 5.1-channel surround sound.
Like plenty of other digital SLRs that you might be considering for their video capabilities, the VG20 does suffer from some degree of rolling shutter and moire. However, Sony's shift to progressive video recording (rather than interlaced on the VG10) does improve many of the issues on the VG10, like the aliasing problem.
Exposure: 1/80, f/5, ISO 800
Exposure: 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 400
Exposure: 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 640
Exposure: 1/60, f/4.5, ISO 100
Given the price of other large-sensor, interchangeable-lens systems, the NEX-VG20 offers excellent value for anyone who prefers shooting video on a camcorder-style body rather than on a video-enabled SLR. Retailing at a touch under AU$3000 (and even cheaper when shopping online) the VG20 proves that excellent-quality filmmaking is accessible to those who can't quite reach the upper echelons of a RED or Canon C300, or even Sony's own FS100.