I’ll just come out and say it: the Sony HDR-CX330 is a great home video camera. It’s not great at everything but for it’s intended target which is the casual home movie maker, it excels abundantly. And at a great price to match which heaps on value.
My tenure with the CX330 began this Christmas with a dilemma. I shoot and do professional videography work for clients on digital SLR camera bodies and I love the flexibility and creativity that an SLR can provide. But it occured to me as I began the time-consuming process of importing all our family’s decaying VHS tapes into DV-formatted files that at present, I truly lack the ability to casually film holidays and family get-togethers, and this mostly can be pinpointed on the fact that I haven’t had a workable consumer camcorder in quite some time.
There is something to be said about picking up a handheld video camera, pressing record and just filming. I am very grateful that my parents not only bought a camcorder early on in my life, but took the time and effort to document all these wonderful moments from my childhood. A dSLR can’t do that. A dSLR requires precision and creative authority and sometimes, I just want to record memories rather than a feature film.
So I ended up at Best Buy, initially drawn to the basement-bottom price of the Sony HDR-CX230 on sale for $129. $129! For a Sony camcorder?! It seemed too good to be true (which it was) and so I was easily swayed up-market to the more expensive CX330 at $279, on-sale from $379. Now mind you, my expectations were undeniably in a different realm from that of the footage a dSLR produces and my budget really was in the sub-$400 range anyways. To me, any home video camera that can produce as good if not better footage compared to the standard-definition Hi8 and VHS tapes of my parent’s past recorders is progression especially considering I don’t even have the capability to record casually anyways.
So I bought the CX330 and was immediately charmed by it. It’s very easy to operate, it’s absolutely light-weight and has a superb optical SteadyShot image stabilization system much to the chagrin of my shaky palm. The last camcorder my parents bought didn’t even have the optical option for stabilization and it cost $700 at the time (c. 2000). Some praise-worthy points worth mentioning are it’s fantastically wide-angle zoom lens that really lets you both pull far out of the shot and almost instantly deep back into it. I don’t think I’ve experienced a camcorder with such a range before, especially at the wide end. The super wide-angle makes getting great shots of a tight room possible which is very important for home movie shooters confined to small living spaces. However, the cost of such wideness is some barrel distortion at the right and left edges of the frame. Noticeable, but not distracting.
Over the Christmas holiday my parents and I took a walk on the farm with our family dog Champ and I toted along the CX330 for a good chance to see it perform in bright lighting (see below for clips from this journey). Much to my surprise, I’ve found that the best out-of-the-camera footage can be had while employing the “Toy Normal” filter. Normally I shun software filters in-camera which tend to make working with footage more difficult in post, in particular the abbreviated dynamic range and color gamut. However, the Toy Normal filter actually corrects much of the worst qualities of this camera’s sensor, namely the oft undersaturated image which tends to lean cold on the kelvin scale and it’s tendency to blow out highlights. The filter properly corrects both these quarrels, adding a bit of warmth, dialing down the exposure, adding a slight vignette (hardly noticeable), elevating color saturation that is consistent but not too saturated, and even correcting garish CFL and florescent lighting. My dad commented on watching the clips how wonderfully saturated all the colors were, in particular the sky, no doubt due to the slight underexposure of the highlights and introduced vignetting.
Watching our little walk in 60 frames per second was kind of a revelation for me. For years I’ve been enamored with the golden-standard of film which is 24 frames per second however, I can now see how much better a movie can be when it’s frame rate is essentially doubled. Every little detail is amazingly rendered in high-detail which seems more relaxing to the eye to rewatch. At least for home movies, having the increased frame rate makes the memories almost seem surreal. It’s something I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I am and it’s modified my thinking for my professional work that perhaps higher-frame rate capturing should be considered, if only to then use the greater detail of the 60fps master files to resample down to 24.
That said, I do wish there was the option to turn the framerate down to 30fps or 24. Unfortunately the CX330 is stuck on 60 frames for all image and quality modes, which I believe may be part of the reason why low-light video is so grainy: with a high shutter speed and low-light, the sensor must compensate and increase it’s ISO-equivalent sensitivity. If the camera were to shoot at 30fps instead of 60, necessary ISO for any given situation would be a whole stop less, at least in theory, lessening the noise in low-light. So say the CX330’s lens is at f2.8 in a dimly lit living room, at 60fps the ISO might find itself around 3200 which for almost all cameras is a very noisy ISO-rating. If the camera would let the shutter fall to 30, that ISO would be cut in-half, a 50% reduction in noise to ISO 1600. I would gladly forgo frame rate for the ability to lessen obtuse noise in this camera’s upper-end of the ISO range. If I could find a firmware hack to do this, I most certainly would apply it. Until then, the noise will need to be simply dealt with.
I make this noise problem sound far worst that it really is. Noise in this camera is not at all distracting unless the lighting is very dim in the scene. Again, look at the target market and for that, it’s a great performer. Comparatively, my past SD video cameras all exhibited similar noise levels. The CX330 is however shooting in HD which means you can actually see the noise more clearly than would be possible with a lesser-resolution shooter. Also the small, pixel-packed sensor is inherently going to produce noisy video and perhaps thats a bad thing, but what you loose in noise you gain in overall resolution which is certainly welcome. Sensors have come a long way indeed. At the bottom of this post I’ve included some demo videos exhibiting noise levels of this camera in-doors to give you a better understanding of what to expect.
Housing the sensor is a very elegant and simple body with little in the way of buttons and switches. Sony has clearly refined this Handycam formula into a very streamlined and focused device. There is a large record button, a lens open/close switch, zoom toggle, dedicated photo button, menu toggle stick, and playback button. Everything thing else is tucked away in the menus, for better or worst. I tend to enjoy this marked simplicity, especially for the consumer space. I don’t think my Grand Mother would have any trouble using this camera, which is a very good thing. Also of note, is the absence of a power button. Sony completely did away with it, instead coupling power-on/off functionality with opening the LCD display. It really is quite elegant. No need to worry about the device being switched on or off, just open it up and start recording. The only downside of this design choice is the camera wants to turn on every time I go to remove the memory card from it’s slot located on the inner wall of the camera body covered by the LCD. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to the ability to effortlessly power-on, run and gun. It’s also worth noting how fast this camera is at coming from standby to record. I estimate about 1-1.5 seconds.
The included Sony FV50 980mAh battery provides about 2.5 hours of shooting time on a charge. It’s adequate and doesn’t weight down the camera too much. Luckily for really long shoots, Sony offers their (pricy!) FV100 battery with a claimed 12 hours of record time. For me, I like the discrete size and weight of the FV50 so I bought a second one to charge while I’m using the other. This is where I have my biggest gripe with the way Sony designed the CX330: the battery charging system is integrated into the camera so when you want to charge one battery, the camera must stay put until it’s done charging. With no included external charger, this design is entirely frustrating. I ended up buying a cheap charger from B&H to solve this problem but it’s very clear this is where Sony decided to cut-costs. I get it, most people won’t have two or more batteries but for those that do, Sony really ought to have included the external charger or at least make clear on the packaging that an external charger is not included.
Beyond this gripe, the charging plug is cleverly built-in to the hand strap and also works double-duty as a USB data transport for camera footage to and from your computer. When I first opened the box I was concerned that something was missing as I didn’t seem to have the ability to charge the camera. But I soon found the hidden plug in the strap and it’s impressively simple.
Because of it’s lack of heft, holding the CX330 is surprisingly comfortable almost on the verge of being too lightweight. I found I never use the hand strap, rather I tend to hold the camera with my fingers and palm. It’s very ergonomic this way and surprisingly agile. The size of this thing lends greatly not only to it’s portability but also to it’s discretion in filming. People tend not to immediately see it which makes recording tender family moments all the more magical and spontaneous.
The CX330 has been a delight to use for home movies this holiday season. I am glad I acquired it. At $279 it was definitely a bargain, even it’s original price of $379 is not terribly expensive for a camera that works this well for it’s intended purpose. Don’t expect dSLR results and you will be very happy with it. It’s light, fast to record, smartly designed, and just gets out of the way so you can record great memories.
Super wide-angle fast f1.8 lens
28mbit PS 1080/60p h.264 AVCHD recording
Near instant power-on to record time
60 frames per second recording
Good battery life
Sleek, uncomplicated body
Powers-on when you open the LCD
Smartly disguised USB cable in hand strap
No external battery charger
Considerable noise in low-light
Can not alter frame rate from 60
Handles CFL light poorly
This video of our hike on the farm demonstrates the CX330’s daylight sensor capability as well as it’s long-range zoom and optical SteadyShot. I had the Toy Normal picture filter on for these clips but did not color-correct or alter the video in any other way outside of transcoding the edit back into 28Mbit h264 for the web. Audio was transcoded into AAC 160kbit Stereo from the original track. 724MB
Sample indoor CFL lighting noise clip, no picture mode
Unmodified, no transcode; raw capture MTS file direct from camera
Picture Mode Off
Length: 1 minute
Sample indoor CFL lighting noise clip, Toy Normal picture mode enabled
Unmodified, no transcode; raw capture MTS file direct from camera
Picture Mode Toy Normal
Length: 1 minute