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Review of the Sony A1 and L&M Bluefin


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#1 SomeAssembly

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Posted 13 April 2006 - 05:25 PM

Background

After following the discussions on this board for months trying to make up my mind, I finally ended up with the Sony A1 in an L&M Bluefin housing. The decision to get the A1 instead of the HC1 was made purely to get access to manual white balance through the assignable button. Early in my decision making I decided I wanted the ease of use of a housing with primarily electronic controls. I ended up with the Bluefin because it had the feature set I was looking for, it had been out for a while without any issues, and also because of the ability to buy from a dealer that I thought would be there for backup if there were any issues in the future.

I took the setup on a trip to Roatan in March and had a chance to try it out. Here is a summary of what I found.

Controls
The housing has a fairly complete set of controls done as a mixture of electronic and mechanical.

Electronic: Record, Zoom In, Zoom Out, Auto/Manual Focus, Momentary Auto Focus, Focus In, Focus Out, Photo, Lights, On. Full playback control when in Play/Edit mode.

Manual: Manual White Balance, Exposure (3 buttons), Telemacro, Expand Focus, CC Filter

I could reach all the controls except On and the filter without taking my hands from the handles. All the buttons were easy to find with bare hands. The exposure buttons might be hard to use with gloves.

Handling
The housing handled well. The housing without lights or monitor was slightly positive. It was well balance front to back, but a little heavier on the left side. Not enough to be a problem, and a small balance weight on the right would have evened it out, and also made it completely neutral. When used with the monitor the housing was slightly negative. The monitor made it a little top heavy. There was a slight tendency to want to porpoise, but not hard to control.

The compact size made it easy to deal with overall. It was not a problem getting it in and out of the water, and was very easy to maneuver underwater.

Optics
I was using the .55x, full zoom through lens that comes standard with the housing. Optics seemed sharp corner to corner. The lens seems to cover the entire sensor, since I saw no vignetting, even with stabilization turned on.

On wide angle, focus seemed to go right up to the front of the lens.

Telemacro worked fine as far as the lens was concerned (holding it steady is another issue!) It was certainly interesting to be able to shoot close-ups of cleaner shrimp from 18 inches away. Depth of field on Telemacro was very shallow, made worse because I was shooting without lights, so was getting f1.8.

Because field of view of the lens on the A1 is so narrow, even with the adapter on the housing, the FOV is not as wide as I would have liked. This is going to be a problem with any of the normal lenses that come with the various housings.

Setup
Setup was easy. The camera attaches to a mounting plate, and connectors for LANC, Monitor, and the microphone are connected. The mounting plate then slides into the housing and latches when it is in position. There are only two slightly tricky areas. 1. There is a lever that has to be positioned correctly to straddle the exposure control. 2. The camera has to be tightened down VERY firmly to the plate. If there is any slippage, the front of the camera will shift just enough when pressing the white balance to also press the Telemacro on the other side.

White Balance
I had no problem doing a manual white balance at any depth. I did use the filter most of the time. I usually flipped it on at 20-25 feet. I found the WB to be very sensitive. Minor changes in depth or subject distance made a noticeable difference to the balance. I set the balance before most shots if there was any change at all. I normally just balanced off sand at the same distance as my subject.

The one touch button made white balancing very simple. The button is in very easy reach. As often as I was balancing, I can’t imagine trying to do it with a system that required multiple presses on a touch screen. To anyone debating between the HC1 and the A1, I HIGHLY recommend getting the A1 for the assignable button.

Exposure
I used auto exposure, with exposure compensation. Under normal lighting, the camera overexposed slightly. I normally used –1 or –2 compensation, and generally got better results at –2. Once compensation was set, exposure seemed to be consistent.

Autofocus
Autofocus worked extremely well. The only time I saw any hunting was when I was shooting a low contrast subject out in the blue. The only other time I wished I had used focus lock was on the shark dive. With sharks coming in very close from over my shoulder, there would be a very brief moment when the focus was shifting to the new subject. After it got the new subject it tracked well.

Viewfinder/Monitor
I was using the 2.5 inch L&M compact monitor. This was the one area I was disappointed in. I felt the monitor did not have enough resolution to really be able to tell much. I had the output letterboxed, which may have made it worse. HD really needs a higher resolution, 16:9 monitor.

The quick connect L&M used to attach the monitor to the housing was very convenient. It allowed me to transport the housing with the monitor separate, and then attach it just before entering the water.

I found the viewfinder difficult to use. I just found the image hard to see from the distance required by the housing and mask.

Transportation
The housing is very compact and easy to transport. I removed the handles to make packing easier (the wrench used does not come with the housing, you have to buy the handle replacement kit). I use a rollaboard softside camera/computer case and was able to fit the camcorder & housing, my S70 & housing, and all accessories like chargers, cables, extra batteries, plus my computer in one bag.

Results

All my shooting was done without lights. Visibility varied from 40 to 80 feet. This was my first trip shooting video, so please excuse the camera movement.

Closeup
Like all underwater photography, the less water between subject and lens the better the results. Medium to close shots worked extremely well. Depth of field was very good even thought the lens is not very wide. On wide angle, focus went almost to the front element. Shots taken from 4 feet and closer were great. Detail was good corner to corner.

Wrasse

Lizardfish

Telemacro
Telemacro was interesting. I was not able to get anything usable since I was not able to put the camera on anything to steady it. I can see how it could be very helpful if the camera were supported and used with lights. The ability to shoot small subject from 18 inches away could work well in some instances. Without lights my attempts ended up at f1.8. That, combined with the long lens, created very shallow depth of field.

The following clip shows the same scene, shot from the same distance using full wide, and then Telemacro. Excuse the motion, this was hand held.

Shrimp

Reefscape
More distant, scenic type shots were a little more problematic. The fact that the standard lens on the A1 is so narrow causes two problems; the perspective is not as panoramic we are seeing from Z1 shots with 90 degree lenses, and scenic shots just are from too far away.

Reef

On more distant shots, the camera also seemed to be very sensitive to the direction of the sun. When the sun was in front of the camera, I had significant problems with a lot of haze in the picture, along with low contrast and saturation. That may be a problem with all cameras, but it seemed more severe with the A1.

Sharks

Low Light
Poor low light performance has been talked about in a number of posts. The low light performance was not great, but I did not have some of the severe, pixilated noise that some people are reporting. Some of that may be because I shot with sharpness set on –2. I had seen indications that the camera may tend to over sharpen, and may sharpen the noise under low light. Even before seeing these results, I would not have tried to shoot if it were any darker. The noise on the rocks in the bottom left is artifacts from rendering. It does not appear in the original.

Swim Through

Conclusions
Overall, I was very pleased with the results I got. Most of my throw away shots were because of my own errors. I thought the shots that worked were far superior to what they would have been with SD. I do think that shooting HD is going to be more demanding than SD. With the increased resolution, even small problems are more obvious. As an example, I have attached a clip that looks fine when previewed, or shown at SD, but when shown in HD, the last part of the clip is not quite in focus.

Trumpetfish

Thanks to Wags for making resources available to post theses clips.

#2 ronrosa

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Posted 13 April 2006 - 05:58 PM

Thanks for a great detailed review. :lol:

#3 SomeAssembly

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Posted 13 April 2006 - 06:17 PM

I've updated the telemacro clip. There was a rendering problem in the first version that has been fixed.

#4 Detonate

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Posted 13 April 2006 - 06:41 PM

Great review.

I'm really loving these clips!

#5 wagsy

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Posted 13 April 2006 - 11:03 PM

Hey I liked the Lizzard fish, I can see that telemacro on the camera will come in handy.

Great review and glad I could help with the uploading thing.
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#6 Drew

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Posted 14 April 2006 - 03:21 PM

Thanks for the review. The A1 is a very good macro camcorder with limited WA abilities, due to the lack of good lenses in all but the SWA44 lens from Fathom. But with the limited light sensitivity, it is not going to be a great WA camcorder anyways.
From what I've seen and heard, the 75° lens from L&M isn't great. You are using the standard zoom macro lens right? Not the 75°WA or the supermacro lens?

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#7 SomeAssembly

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Posted 14 April 2006 - 03:50 PM

You are using the standard zoom macro lens right? Not the 75°WA or the supermacro lens?


Yes, it is the standard zoom macro lens.

Like you, I have heard that the wider lenses are not working well with this camera. I'm hearing rumblings that there MAY be a wider lens in the works. I have my fingers crossed.

As far as the light sensitivity being an issue on WA, I don't think that will be a major issue for me. All my diving is tropical diving, generally under good conditions where there is plenty of light available. I just shoot for myself. For someone trying to earn a living from it, that may be another story.

#8 larsdennert

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Posted 15 April 2006 - 10:33 PM

That's a sweet housing. I recently had a chance to mess with one above water with the A1 inside. The controls are easier to get at than my Ikelite and it's really well built. Looks pricey though.

#9 biminitwist

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Posted 16 April 2006 - 05:47 AM

Good review! I have the same setup and have noticed similar issues. I was unable to open clips on my Mac but have been posting back and forth with SomeAssembly and would like to try the -2 sharpness for noise in my lower light/more pixelated shots. I have a question for Scubadru.

From what I've seen and heard, the 75 lens from L&M isn't great.

I have both lens, the 65 "standard" and the 75 WA. The guys at LM said there were issues with softening at edges using the WA with HD. Is that what your referring to? I would like to know what negatives you've encountered on their 75WA, especially since the Fathoms is out of my reach. Thanks.

#10 SomeAssembly

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Posted 16 April 2006 - 06:29 AM

biminitwist,

Sorry to hear you can't open the clips on your Mac. I'll look at finding a codec I can use that will work and repost the clips.

Also, something to be aware of when vendors talk about specific angle of view for their lenses. (like 65 or 75 degree) Those angles are normally based on use with a specific camera, often the TRV-900/950. With the A1/HC1 they are going to be noticably less than that. Sony did not do UW shooters any favors with their lens choice on this camera. :lol:

#11 biminitwist

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Posted 16 April 2006 - 01:03 PM

That is interesting considering on LM's site for the Sony HC1 Bluefin under Lenses it specifies: 65 for the zoom macro lens (that comes standard) and 75 for their "super wide angle" lens. That is for that camcorder and those lens. Of course that page looks identical to the one I printed up back when I bought the Bluefin for my PD 100. It would seem an inaccuracy to that extent would be corrected (or criminal)...

#12 peacedog

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Posted 19 April 2006 - 09:28 PM

What is the final word on this camera - can professional-quality clips be attained? I'm hearing that they can, but this thread seems to speak otherwise.

Thoughts?
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#13 DeanB

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Posted 20 April 2006 - 02:41 AM

The camera's part of the equation..The operator is the other..

Dive safe

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#14 biminitwist

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Posted 20 April 2006 - 10:59 AM

I am certain professional-quality clips can be obtained with the A1U but a great deal would depend on your application. If your serious, the FX/Z1 sounds like for the better low light performance and color saturation it would be ideal. For me, it's primary use is recreational though I want the highest quality practical. When I selected the A1U it was after I saw the HUGE Light and Motion housing for the FX1. Not an IMAX unit to be sure, but for me and my use not worth hauling thru customs. Now if I could write off equiptment and overweight charges that might be different. All that said, even with limited practice we have obtained some great video with the A1. Part of our disappointment with it is from the unit's worse than expected low light performance. The rest is just learning to shoot the seemingly more demanding medium of HD. An HD monitor would be a good start if your listening LM . Whatever you choose, good luck. John

#15 freediver

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Posted 22 April 2006 - 07:52 AM

I think the biggest issue I have with the current crop of HD cameras is the amount of interlacing artifacts I am seeing when light levels begin to drop. It's getting to the point where it detracts from the footage being watched. I am leaning right now more towards 720p as compared to the 1080i format purely because of this issue.

I was talking with a pretty well known pro a couple of days ago and his advice was to hold off another year until the manufacturers figure out what they want to do with the cameras - by that time, housings will be more in line with the offerings of HD cameras. The fact that SONY discontinued the HC1 less than 1 year after introduction makes me wonder if we aren't going to see production cycles of 9 months for consumer HD cameras for awhile...

Even though I'm not shooting HD, I still think properly shot MiniDV footage can stand on it's own merit if shot well.

But that's just my opinion...

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#16 peacedog

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Posted 22 April 2006 - 02:09 PM

Thanks for your input, Cliff, and I must say that your editorial at uwdv.com gave me real reason for pause as I prepare for the next step in my new career.

The question I have is this: what does the budding underwater video professional do to compete with the varsity or even junior-varsity player in his field? Stay shooting on an upper-prosumer level camera, while the leading pros keep setting a new, higher standard in image quality? It's a tough one, or maybe it isn't.

I agree with you 100% that there are going to be continual upgrades and reformats in the world of HDV. I am prone to believe that the HC1's of the industry will be constantly discontinued and retooled every year, largely because it's a prosumer-level. Do you believe that the FX1 and Z1 will be discontinued soon, though? Seems to me like the Z1 at least will be here for a while, and it seems to be setting a pretty serious standard.

I made my first documentary feature about a shipwreck off of Gloucester, MA last year. I ostensibly made most of it while working on my post-grad program in filmmaking at BU, and I consider it a real blessing and a it of serious luck that I was able to license it to broadcast. Having set a track record of documentary filmwork and releases, however, I'm at the point where I'm looking to jump in (sorry) with both feet to the market and I'm aware that there is an implied quality level that the majority of the industry is expecting. HD - and on our level, HDV - has been a big part of that. So the question remains - do you purchase a rig that will allow you to be competitive now while the standards are still being set, and which camera do you purchase to ensure you will not have to make another 5-figure investment in 18 months' time?


Sorry this is a bit off topic, although the A1U is one of two cameras I'm looking at, so I guess it's not THAt far off. I appreciate all of the input here and also privately.

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#17 freediver

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Posted 22 April 2006 - 02:52 PM

I had the opportunity to talk with Andy Sallmon at great length - not only is he a great pro shooter, but he is also a Sea & Sea Rep. We talked about this and his advice to me was wait it out until the cameras are at a place where they aren't changing every 9 months. Unless a housing manufacturer has enough advance warning on a new camera, they end up investing huge sums of money in production only to have the camera discontinued. Personally, I think if one is shooting one of the upper end SD cameras, you're probably ok. Reality is, from what I have even heard from others, that footage from the Z1 is considered sub standard by serious working Pros. Tom Campbell shoots the Sony HDW-F900 - he was one of the first to get one along with what I think was the first Amphibico housing. So I guess you have to ask yourself what your cut off point is. Personally - I am of the opinion that you just get out and shoot - let the chips fall where they may. Besides, the internet is going to change how content is shot and distributed. Pay for view of content online won't be in HD as the resources needed right now to view - most people can't even watch it on their computers. 480p is plenty good for online distribution - 720p is ideal at this time - anything above that seems overkill - for the time being. I see it being a solid 2 years before this issue really becomes a tipping point for content creators. Those who are shooting HD right may have an advantage currently, but as I stated before - the interlacing problems just aren't acceptable to my eye. I would prefer to see either 480p or 720p where there aren't any of those artifacts distracting me while I'm viewing the footage.

I'm still going to create content for my demo reel in MiniDV format on my TRV900 and L&M bluefin housing. If a client wants me to shoot in HD, I'll just incorporate that into the cost of the shoot. Unless your client is funding the purchase - there's no sense in going into the red anymore than necessary. That's small business management 101 advice...

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#18 Steve Douglas

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Posted 23 April 2006 - 06:55 AM

Cliff,
I noticed on your site the call for submissions to the Santa Barbera Film Fest. Are there prizes or anything associated with this, are the films judged for anything....couldn't really tell from the article.
Steve

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#19 freediver

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Posted 23 April 2006 - 08:23 AM

Not actually sure Steve - Annie Crawley would be the person to contact on this - you can reach her via email at annie@anniecrawley.com - tell her I sent ya.. :rolleyes:

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