The Sony XDCAM PDW-F350
I found this camera in a dusty old bag, buried under the bottom shelf of a camera room in the studio I work at. "Wow look at this relic!" I thought. "It would be fun to break it out and see what it can do." And that’s exactly what I did.
But before exhuming it from its dusty tomb, I was eager to dig up some history on this vestigial video veteran. Delving into the depths of the web, I found that the Sony XDCAM PDW-F350 was released in 2006 under Sony's top-of-the-line CineAlta brand. It was a 3-CCD camcorder that could record MPEG HD video at 35 Mbps with 4 audio channels. It featured 3 built-in ND filters and the ability to record in slow- and quick-motion. Sony also released the HDCAM HDW-F900R around the same time, also under the CineAlta moniker—the main difference between these two cameras being the recording medium—the HDCAM used digital tape while the XDCAM used optical discs.
Shockingly, you can still buy these new!
The XDCAM disc is essentially a professional-grade version of the consumer-oriented Blu-ray Disc—both use a blue laser, but the XDCAM discs have higher data transfer rates, at a higher monetary cost. Being able to record on a rewritable disc is pretty neat! It's also much more efficient than digital tape—if you shoot an hour's worth of video on tape, you'd have to play it back in real-time and thus spend an hour transferring the footage. Also, to watch playback after a shot, you have to rewind the tape, which eats up precious time. But despite tape's inferiority, I found multiple films that were shot with the tape-laden HDCAM, but couldn't find any that used the forward-thinking XDCAM. I'm not sure whether that's due to Hollywood being stuck in its ways or if the HDCAM actually produced a superior image (or had some other tangible advantage).
Despite the disc system being better than tape, it isn't perfect: the eject button only works when the camera is on. And you might say, "Who cares? The XDCAM only takes three seconds to boot up!" Yes, that's true, but if you run out of batteries, it might present a problem.
Only ejects when powered on
Another issue with this camera is the menu operation—I could not, to save my own life, figure out how to access it. Fortunately, the multitude of buttons and switches on the camera body allow you to make most adjustments without having to open the menu. But my curiousity was piqued, so I dove into the user manual in search of the secret method to unlock the menu. Turns out it's a three-step process: First, you must press the display button on the monitor until it shows the “char display” (whatever that means), then hold down the menu knob on the front of the camera, and finally flip a switch on the side of the camera to open the menu. Jeez! I'm surprised they didn't make you enter a secret code as well. Anyways, despite reading and rereading the steps in the instruction booklet, I still couldn’t get the menu to open. Maybe one of the buttons is broken. Who knows?
Menu or no menu, I was determined to record some test footage, but I couldn't find any XDCAM discs at our studio. My workaround solution was to run the SDI out through an SDI-to-HDMI converter and into an HDMI capture card on my computer.
Lots of dead pixels
Recording media wasn't the only thing I couldn't locate—the XDCAM’s lens was nowhere to be found. The camera uses a ½" bayonet-type mount, which is seemingly uncommon. From what I gather, most of Sony’s professional camcorders used a ⅔” bayonet-type mount, which is incompatible with this camera. The other downside with this ½" bayonet mount is that there are no adapters (or at least I couldn't find any) that would allow you to use a PL-mount lens on this camera (a hindrance for cinema work).
I was able to capture some hazy images by holding a 20mm EF-mount lens in front of the sensor, but since the lens and camera weren’t designed for each other, it ended up looking like blurry old Super8 footage. All in all, a fairly unscientific test.
Feeling unsatisfied with this result, I harnessed the power of Google to find some proper test footage of this camera. Keep in mind that these stills have been compressed twice—once by YouTube and then again by this website on upload.
Aesthetic imagery or digital misery?
The image on the left looks great, even by today's standards. The image on the right, however, blows out the highlights in a style instantly recognizable as early 00's digital video. (Although, that could be the look you're going for. After all, early 00's fashion seems to be "in" right now).
I wish I had the right lens to experiment more with this camera. Weighing in at 8 lbs 7 oz (body only), it's lighter than even the original Venice (which is lighter than the current Venice 2). And with its integrated shoulder mount, it would be super portable for documentary/run-and-gun shoots.
Unfortunately however, if you felt the calling to add this camera to your collection, you'd have to put down a hefty $1,500 (not including shipping) to purchase one of these puppies on eBay. And at that point, you're entering treacherous territory, as most sellers don't test vintage cameras, but instead mark them as "not working", regardless of their condition, to avoid any kind of disputes from disgruntled buyers. Purchasing one of these is placing a $1500 bet that your new camera isn't actually a Sony-branded paperweight. Part of the appeal of older cameras is their low-entry cost, and while $1500 is much lower than the MSRP on a new Venice 2, I'd like to limit my spending to a few hundred dollars on something that has little-to-no practical use today.
The XDCAM PDW-F350 was a unique stepping stone in Sony's cinema history, but it lost the popularity contest to its HDCAM brother, and so it remains an obscure piece of technology from the dawn of the digital age. Did anyone use one of these in its heyday? If so, what was your experience like?
It’s funny to picture you unearthing the PDW-F350 out of the desert sand as if it was an ancient artifact. It also makes me feel really old because I owned an F350, and I’d already been in the business for more than 30 years at the time I bought it in 2006.
For its time, it was a good camera and I enjoyed using it for a couple of years. It was smaller, lighter, and much more reliable than the Betacams that were still the camera-of-choice at the time for sports, news, corporate video, etc. I loved the XDCAM optical media and still have a ton of archived disks. I even produced a 4-hour training DVD for the F350/F330/F355 series.
Of course, by today’s standards the camera was very primitive. The ½” sensors meant that it was a step down from Betacams with 2/3” sensors. Also, it didn’t record full HD. It was only 1440x1080, which is sort of an anamorphic version of HD. Also, it was only 8-bit 4:2:0 @ 35 Mbps and didn’t have great picture quality. It looked good enough compared to Betacam, but I felt it was always a little muddy looking and lacking some spark. Never made "stunning" images.
You were wondering why high-end productions continued to use the F900 after the F350 was released, and the lower specifications was the reason. The F900 was a far superior camera. Yes, it just wasn’t tapeless, but not being tapeless was not a big deal to people back in that era. In fact, a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable NOT shooting on tape.
For me, the F350 was a good investment and gave me and my clients an affordable entry into HD production. I retired both of my Ikegami Betacams in 2006 after the F350 arrived and I never shot another frame of SD video ever again -- while even big-budget shows like 60 Minutes and Survivor continued on with Betacam for several more years.
I sold my F350 in 2009 when I upgraded to the far more capable F800. The F800 basically replaced both the F900 and F350 and brought the best of both cameras together into one package. The F800 was a fantastic camera and many are still in use around the world, especially with reality shows that don’t need 4K yet.
I wrote a 300 page book on the F800, and it is still one of my favorite cameras of all time. But today, my 4K, 3-chip, 2/3” 10-bit 4:2:2 PXW-Z750 blows all the predecessors out of the water. The Z750 is a great camera to shoot with, and of course, I also wrote a 400 page book on the Z750.
Here’s something cool: Even though I sold my F350 14 years ago, it continues to earn money for me. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t sell stock footage that I shot with the F350. Now that is great ROI.
I know it is interesting to discover an old camera like that laying around, and I congratulate you on your curiosity about it. But in the long run, I wouldn’t waste too much time with it. Even today’s least expensive consumer cameras are for more capable than the old F350.
Thanks for the blast from the past. If you have some lingering questions about any of the XDCAM optical cameras, go ahead and ask. I don’t remember everything about them but I might be able to fill in some gaps.
The ergonomics and other advantages of a should-mount 2/3” 3-chip ENG camera cannot be matched by any other form-factor.
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