Sony DEV-50 3D Binocular Camcorder
The Year's Best Gadget
A couple of years ago I was invited to attend a Sony media event in California where quite a few fascinating new products were being introduced, among them the NEX-7 camera. Among the other "toys" on the shelf were a pair of hybrid digital binocular / camcorder called the DEV-5. I had an opportunity to play with them briefly during a session where we were photographing and filming hang-gliders, and I was captivated. 3D binoculars with HD video capture. Wow, how cool! But then my attention turned back to work, and testing and analyzing a number of new cameras and lenses that were more mainstream and relevant to reporting on this site.
But from time to time, when using binoculars for distant landscape views, or looking though a long lens, I found myself remembering the Sony DEV-5. I was also starting to work on a video project, a short documentary tentatively called "The Unseen". The idea was to film various landscapes (rural and urban) with a very long lens, searching out hidden views and vignettes, and showing some aspects of the world that for many people remain "unseen".
One day in early July, 2013 while I was out shooting some footage for the project, cursing my heavy shooting rig – a heavy Gitzo tripod with video panning head, 70-400mm Nikkor and Nikon D800e, and I remembered the Sony DEV-5. Google showed that it was discontinued, but that a replacement, the Sony DEV-50 had just been released. 30% smaller and lighter than the earlier model, this hybrid binocular / camcorder seemed just what I was looking for – optical reach out to almost 800mm, 1080P/60 HD video recording, and Active Stabilization. What would not be to like – other, of course, than the $2,000 price tag?
It's also not hard to remember the binoculars that Luke Skywalker and others used
in the Star Wars movies. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there wasn't some conscious
or even unconscious tribute by Sony's designers of the DEV series of digital binocular cameras
The Sony DEV-50 in The Field
On the premise that I could send them back if they weren't any good, I ordered a pair from B&H. There was no need to have been concerned. The DEV-50, while neither perfect as binoculars nor as a video camera, are so much fun, and so versatile, that I decided within minutes that they were a keeper.
I've now been using them for a couple of weeks, to shoot footage for my summer video project as well as simply learning their strengths and weaknesses. The following is a first look at what may be one of the most compelling gadgets of the season. The DEV-50 aren't likely to be of interest to the hard-core photographer or videographer, but for someone who travels, enjoys closely examining a distant landscape or sports event, while being able to record HD video of what is seen, the DEV-50 may prove of interest.
To summarize the DEV-50 in a single sentence is to also summarize its major features. These are a pair of autofocusing, optically stabilized, 0.8X to 12X power zoom binoculars with twin OLED eyepiece viewfinders and a 1080P/60 HD video recording capability. They can be set to view in 3D or 2D and to shoot video in 3D or 2D. There is a still image recording capability (2D only) and built-in stereo microphones for audio recording.
Features – Strengths and Weeknesses
The DEV-50 is not as heavy as it looks. On the other hand, it's not that light weight, and after a long viewing or shooting session your arms will feel it. No better or worse than a pair of Canon stabilized binoculars in that regard. The DEV-50's weight is 1lb, 10oz, or 765g.
Build quality is absolutely first rate. The surface is heavily textured, assuring a sound grip, and there are nicely recessed thumb indentations underneath the eyepieces. The various controls are, for the most part, nicely recessed to avoid accidental activation and yet in reach when needed. These "feel" like a premium product, going some of the way toward justify the price. The device is claimed water and dust resistant to the new IP54 standard. This means that there's no problem in the rain, but they're not submersible.
I was quite taken with the binocular's autofocus ability. We're all used to autofocus cameras, but autofocus binoculars are something new. One has to use them to appreciate what a pleasure this is, particular if the subject is constantly in motion. Even when switching from near to far subjects there's no hunting or lost time. Bang, the subject is in focus.
There is a manual focus mode, with an activation button and dial between the eyepieces. This can be handy, at a sports event for example, where there are people or objects coming between you and a fixed subject that you're observing, which would cause hunting if AF is on. For most of my usage though I found autofocus to work very well.
Stabilization in binoculars is nothing new. Canon has offered it for years. When you get out past about 6X with any binoculars it's almost a necessity. At 12X it's a must unless you're using a tripod or other support of some sort. The DEV-50's stabilization is excellent for hand-held viewing, and very good for all except the longest 12X reach, which is some 800mm equivalent in focal length. How well it performs at that reach is also dependant on how much caffeine you've had that morning, unless you're using a tripod, monopod or some other mount or brace.
The DEV-50's camcorder performance is decent. It shoots 1080P/60 and is very similar in image quality to Sony's current consumer camcorders, which means pretty good indeed. For anything short of professional applications it will be found more than acceptable. Highlights (bright clouds) burn out easily, but then there is manual exposure control available, so with a few button presses this can be corrected. The device's video controls are very similar to those of current Sony camcorders as well, so anyone familiar with that menu structure won't be too confused.
Be aware that the device can be set to shoot both 60i and 60P. Unless you have a specific need, and know what you're doing, be sure to set the DEV-50 at 60P. The recording codec is AVCHD at 28Mbps, the highest available rate for this format. (In PAL countries 50i and 50P. This is a world-camera).
There are two video activation buttons, one on top under the left hand's fingers and the other beside the right eye piece. Stills though are shot with a single button on the top panel.
The DEV-50 can shoot in 3D, and can playback in the viewfinder in 3D, as well as via a 3D TV. I did no testing of this later capability as I don't own or intend on owning a 3D TV.
Experienced vidiographers and film makers should note that the DEV-50 has no exposure controls other than exposure compensation. This means that there is no way to adjust aperture or shutter speed or ISO. Everything is automatic. The worst consequence of this is that the camera will shoot video with a high shutter speed in bright conditions, since there is also no way to attach an ND filter.Shooting video at 1/500th or 1/1000 sec makes for very staccato motion.
I was pleased to note that the HDMI output is live while viewing and filming and is without overlays. This means the ability to record clean video to an outboard recorder, but on the other hand, without overlays there's no way to tell what mode you're in – such as whether pressing record has actually happened. You need to sneak a peek though one of the eyepieces. But by adding a small outboard monitor to the accessory using the DEV50 as a super video telephoto becomes possible.
In addition to shooting full HD video, the DEV-50 can shoot stills (JPG only). There are a number of aspect ratio and resolution settings, but some are too low for practical use (5MP) and some are too high (20MP), producing nasty artifacting. These are video sized sensors, after all.
Some empirical testing showed that the best compromise setting is 15MP at 16X9 aspect ratio. Pixel peeping at 100% on-screen shows noticable artifacting, but overall no worse than what one sees from small sensor digicams. I wouldn't buy the DEV-50 for its stills capability, but rather regard it as simply a bonus for occasional use.
Be aware though that saving stills takes about 3 seconds, even with a fast card, and there doesn't appear to be a buffer of any size.
15 Megapixel at 16X9 Aspect Ratio
100% Magnification – equivalent to roughtly an 11X20" print
Looking at the EXIF data shows that the optical system offers from f/1.4 to f/3.4 and the lowest shutter speed that it will use is 1/60 sec. There is no manual shutter speed or mode setting. There is also no ISO setting available, and whether shooting video or stills the only control that one has is manual exposure compendation. The specs show a minimum illumination level of 11 lux, so don't expect any great indoor results. But then, one won't be using binoculars indoors, except at sporting events, in which case sensativity should be sufficient.
In summary, video capability is pretty good, and stills capability is just mediocre.
What can be a bit daunting at first is the joystick controller. This is located under the left hand's first two fingers and is activated by pushing forward, back, left, right and downwards. Because there is no external screen one can only access menu settings with the binoculars to ones eyes.
Just forward of the joystick is a video Start / Stop button and on the right side is a Left/Right oriented zoom lever. Zooming, either for viewing or filming, is variable speed, with the amount of pressure on the lever determining the zoom rate.
The top panel also features a 2D / 3D viewing button. This can be instantly changed at any time. 2D or 3D shooting is controled via the menu and is irrespective of whether one is viewing in 2D or 3D. Speaking of 3D viewing, I found that a combination of zoom and physical distance from the subject where the field of view is less than about 2 meters wide (6 ft) makes the 3D effect difficult to watch. Otherwise, at greater distances and magnifications it's very convincing and enjoyable to use.
There is an HDMI out, so that an external monitor can be used.
The DEV-50 is supplied with a leatherette carrying case and neck strap, covers for the front and rear lenses, and also large eyecups for blocking the sun. I found these mostly redundant, though comfortable to use.
There is a built-in GPS which embeds the current coordinates in both video and still files.
Though at first the single joystick seems annoying because it is used to set virtually everything that's menu based, the controls are customizable and both physical as well as virtual controls can be customized with the features that one wishes. In typical Sony fashion these settings can sometimes appear unintuitive, and one finds oneself locked out of certain settings for no apparent reason. But a bit of playing with the controls allows for a reasonable amount of customization.
Firstly, users need to accept that looking at a video screen, even a beautiful high-res 2.3M dot pair of OLED eyepiece screens, is not as clear nor as bright as looking through a pair of decent optical binoculars.
A couple of things to note are that when the DEV-50 is turned on it reverts to video mode, even if the last thing you were doing was shooting stills. Also, when in stills mode you can not view in 3D. I'm sure that there's a technical reason for this, but it is inconvenient for the user.
Battery life isn't brilliant. The supplied battery is a regular Sony NP-FV70, though the compartment is large enough to hold a larger and higher capacity model. Depending on whether one is zooming a lot, filming, or shooting stills a single charge might give between one and two hours. Having a larger or second battery would be a good idea.
I also don't like that battery charging is internal to the device. There is no external charger. That's dumb. Always has been. Always will. Buy an outboard charger to avoid frustration.
The Geek Factor
Here's the thing. If you're in a place where the use of binoculars is not unusual, then everything is fine. But, in a settings where it would be just plain weird to be using binoculars – walking down the street, or at a bathing beach, using these as a camcorder or stills camera will be looked at askance, since to everyone else these look like, act like, and are binoculars. Just be aware of not just the geek factor, but also the perceived pervert factor.
Is the Sony DEV-50 a success? Should you rush out and load up your Visa card to purchase one? In all honesty I can't give this device an unqualified thumbs up.
For ones $2000 entry fee these aren't the best binoculars available, this isn't the best camcorder available, and it certainly isn't a very good still camera. But, with those caveats understood the Sony DEV-50 is a unique device that provides a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure in use, and I have no regrets having purchased mine. It's just plain fun to use!