HDR-FX7 tutorial

Prepare yourself before you go out there and shoot

Learn the basics of photography

  • Before everything else and if you’re not already familiar with all that, learn about exposure, iris, shutter speed, focus, depth of field, …You just can’t work around ignoring those things if you’ve already spent your money on an FX7.
  • The FX7 is not a Point & Shoot camcorder that would make your life easier just because it is more expensive. It will instead make your life more difficult with a promise for much better results — so you really need to master the basics.
  • For that, Wikipedia is your good friend but you might better want to buy a book.

Read the manual

Get Steve Mullen’s handbook

  • As Steve writes, the HVR-V1 and HDR-FX7 Handbook is not an “HDV for Dummies” book that simply expands upon the often poorly written camcorder manuals. It is a comprehensive introduction to HDV technology, HDV shooting, HDV post-production, and distribution.

Any question or comment on this article? Come over discuss it on our HD camcorders forums!

Major choices you have to make when shooting


Or manual focus?

Autofocus is your best friend, and most appropriate in many occasions.

Autofocus has several key advantages:

  • Whenever there is ample light and contrast in your picture, the camcorder’s autofocus is able to focus much more quickly and precisely than you would.
  • Autofocus is able to compensate for “focus shift” (a.k.a. “back focus issues”), retaining focus whenever you change zoom factor or iris aperture. Adjust lens settings as you need, and autofocus takes care of retaining precise focus for you.

Use autofocus in these typical situations:

  • Cities in daylight, garden, home backyard: there are ample hard contrast lines for the camcorder’s autofocus to focus on.
  • Groups of people: family, friends.
  • Indoors, provided that there is sufficient light – ensure at least 200-250W of incandescent light (or low-energy equivalent) for each 10 sq. meters of room surface.

1. Don’t use autofocus and switch to manual focus instead in low-contrast situations. Autofocus requires picture contrast to function properly. If there is insufficient contrast, the camcorder cannot choose any detail to focus on, and therefore “focus hunting” occurs.

Learn to identify low-contrast situations where autofocus may cause you trouble:

  • Low light: when light is insufficient, the camcorder cannot find where to focus on, or will change focus unexpectedly while you’re shooting.
  • People close-ups (portraits): people faces have low contrast, so autofocus might focus on the background instead.
  • Wildlife: wild animals have soft contours compared to vertical tree trunks. With autofocus, camcorders ordinarily focus on trees instead of the furry wild animal.

2. If your subject is off-center (camcorders usually focus on the center of the frame), focus on your subject first, then switch to manual focus and reframe your shot last. Otherwise you will lose focus unexpectedly because of the camcorder focusing on other parts of the picture.

3. If you expect that someone or something might cross your shot and come between your camcorder and the subject, switch to manual focus beforehand. Otherwise the camcorder will shift focus when that happens (focus hunting).

4. There are other situations where the camcorder can have trouble finding where to focus on, therefore requiring you to switch to manual:

  • Panning: when panning, the camcorder may lose track of what it is supposed to focus on, and therefore focus hunting may occur.
  • Shooting landscapes and wide open spaces.
  • With a high zoom-in factor (telephoto mode): zooming in results in shallower depth of field – fewer parts of the picture are in focus, and there are higher chances that autofocus would pick the wrong subject in the picture frame.
  • Shooting from a moving vehicle: in such situation, there isn’t a single sharp, steady subject for the camcorder to focus on. Determine the average required focus distance (thumb rule), and lock to it in manual.

Auto exposure?

Or manual exposure?

Auto exposure is only really useful when the light intensity around you, or the incoming light onto your subject, changes rapidly beyond your control:

  • ‘Run & Gun’ shooting situations: you don’t have time or the opportunity to ask your subject to wait until everything is set up properly. Concentrate on the action instead, frame your picture correctly, and let auto exposure take care of light intensity – this is your best bet.
  • That includes casual videos of family, kids, friends, parties: be unobtrusive, get out of people’s ways, just concentrate on capturing that special moment which will interest people or make them laugh when they watch the video later on. They don’t care about photography and properly-exposed video, they just want to remember the moment together.

Other than that, avoid auto exposure.

Manual exposure has several key advantages over auto exposure:

  • Consistency and accuracy:
    • When you look at something, it has a color. Color isn’t just red, or yellow, or blue. It is also about brightness: bright green is not the same as dark green, and this is controlled by camera exposure.
    • And whichever way you look at that object or subject, it has that same appearance basically. Your brain doesn’t expect it to change color while you are looking at it.
    • That is what manual exposure lets you achieve: let your subject have a constant appearance and color throughout your shot.
    • For example if you are shooting outdoors:
      • With a wide-angle shot at the whole landscape (with sky and trees in the picture), auto exposure makes trees look dark. This is good. Trees are dark.
      • Zoom in and take a close shot: auto exposure brightens the picture and makes trees bright green. This is incorrect. Auto exposure has changed the trees colors, and your shot is inconsistent.
      • However if you use manual exposure, trees or grass won’t change color if you frame your picture differently. They will keep the same consistent color.
      • Therefore this is a best practice for shooting outdoors: always use manual exposure. Take this with a grain of salt though: make sure you don’t zoom in to full telephoto in the same shot, because this would close the iris and make your shot look darker. And watch out for clouds that may shade the sun.
  • Control:
    • Auto exposure can take wrong decisions because it essentially tries to average out the exposure on the whole picture. The camcorder cannot take an intelligent decision because it does not know which part of the picture is important to you.
    • Sometimes also, there is simply too much light contrast for your camcorder to handle, and you cannot have all parts of your picture exposed correctly. You’ve got to make choices.
    • Manual exposure solves such situations by letting you choose which part of the picture is to be exposed correctly.
    • For example, if you are taking a portrait of someone in front of a bright background, don’t let that person’s face become a dark shadow. Use manual exposure to sacrifice the bright background in favor of the person’s face and skin tone.
  • Special note about night shots and low-light situations:
    • Auto exposure would typically try to overexpose the picture, making the night look greyish instead of black.
    • Use manual exposure to control the night’s appearance and keep it black.

As a conclusion, take a close look at professional video on TV, documentaries, or even feature films: exposure is fixed, it never changes while the camera moves. Manual exposure is a downright professional best practice.

However, it does not need to be complicated. Setting manual exposure can be as simple as pressing one single button on your camcorder. So read on for helpful tips that will simplify your life in setting exposure.

DO’s and DON’Ts with the HDR-FX7 / HDR-FX7E


Setting manual focus

Focus is critical in HD, maybe the single most critical setting you should care about. Adopt safe focusing practices to always be “on the safe side”, regardless of how much of a back focus issue you think you have (or not) – this just isn’t a binary situation.

To set focus manually, use the technique that’s described by Steve Mullen in the thread Back Focus Again:

  • Only zoom in as far as you will really need during the whole shot – no more.
  • Then switch to manual focus and use the [PUSH AUTO FOCUS] button to set focus (works best), or adjust manually using the focus ring together with [EXPANDED FOCUS].
  • If necessary, zoom slightly back to the point where the shot will start. Anyway it looks best not to zoom during a shot, so you shouldn’t be using zoom at all when adjusting focus.

And if you change any optical settings of the lens (zoom factor or iris aperture), always check focus again.

Special note: shooting landcapes and wide open spaces is best achieved by using [FOCUS INFINTY] after you have assigned this function to one of the assignable buttons.

The HDR-FX7 / HDR-FX7E manual explains in the section [Adjusting the focus manually]: “Tips for focusing manually / It is easier to focus on the subject when you use the zoom function. Move the power zoom lever towards T (telephoto) to adjust the focus, and then, towards W (wide angle) to adjust the zoom for recording.

Don’t do that. Really just don’t.

Zoom lenses (actually most of them aren’t true zooms but varifocal lenses) cannot retain focus when you change zoom factor or iris aperture. This is called “focus shift” and is compensated by the camcorder adjusting focus automatically as you change zoom factor. This servo-controlled “back focus adjustment” happens behind the scenes and you don’t notice anything ordinarily.

However, this is not a perfect process. How well this really works depends on lens calibration and factory quality tolerances. Some HDR-FX7 or HVR-V1 units were shipped with a “back focus issue”, which means that they lose focus when you zoom out towards wide angle. The result is a picture that is slightly out of focus, with frustrating sub-HD sharpness. This is not a manufacturer downright flaw, just a manufacturing imperfection – maybe due to loosened quality assurance standards. Affordable zoom lenses all carry the risk of back focus issues to various degrees, and this basically applies to any manufacturer or model.

So pay close attention to focus. Carelessness to set focus correctly would remove any reason for you to buy an HD camcorder.

If you do have a back focus issue, then there is no way for you to fix it yourself inside the camera – you can only use the work-arounds explained here, so as to alleviate the problem. Or try & get the camcorder serviced and adjusted (back focus re-calibration), but with a consumer-grade camcorder such as the FX7 that you have purchased through consumer retail channels, the probability is extremely slight that you will find anybody able to understand the issue and ensure a reliable fix for you.

Be extra careful about your iris settings:

  • When the iris is wide open, the shallower depth of field makes focus more difficult to achieve.
  • Closing the iris down will increase depth of field, therefore reducing focusing difficulties.

Don’t close the iris further than f5.6, otherwise picture blurring will occur due to diffraction and the small 1/4” sensor size.

Best HDV video sharpness

There are 6 key aspects in HD video sharpness: focus (already explained), light, gain, optical settings of the lens, in-camera digital sharpening (computerized image processing), and stability.

Light and gain:

  • When light is low, the camcorder uses 2 techniques together to increase brightness artificially (like some sort of light amplification):
    • Digital gain: this shows up as noise,
    • Collating pixels together (reduced resolution): noise shows up as big pixels.
  • You need to provide as much light is necessary to keep gain under 12dB (i.e. 9dB maximum) at all times.

Lens settings:

  • Best video sharpness is achieved by:
    • Keeping an average iris aperture: it is ordinarily believed that the iris aperture “sweet spot” is f4, with the acceptable range being f2.6 – f5.6. When shooting, try to keep the iris around f4 as much as possible.
    • Zooming in a bit.
  • To prevent the camcorder from closing the iris while in auto exposure mode, go to the camcorder menu and set [AT IRIS LMT] = f5.6

In-camera digital sharpening:

  • Resist the temptation to increase in-camera sharpness. Set a custom picture profile with [SHARPNESS] = 6. This is the best compromise value, which keeps adequate sharpness while avoiding to create too many aliasing artifacts.


  • Stable, steady footage reduces motion blur and looks sharper. Stabilize your camcorder on a tripod, a monopod, or any stable surface whenever possible.

Light and gain:

  • Avoid low-light situations, and don’t let gain reach 12dB-or-higher values.

Lens settings:

  • Zooming out to full wide angle, or fully opening the iris, impairs the lens MTF (Modulation Transfer Function). This results in:
    • Lower picture sharpness,
    • Light halos around bright contrast (for ex: windows or doorsteps),
    • Chromatic aberrations.
  • Avoid full zoom-out (wide angle), keep a slight zoom-in instead.
  • Avoid a wide-open iris. But don’t close it further than f5.6.

In-camera digital sharpening :

  • You might initially feel that the picture is sharper and more precise when you set up a custom picture profile to increase [SHARPNESS] beyond the default value of 7. This is incorrect. Digital sharpening is only there to try and compensate for low-cost design choices in the optics and sensor. It does not create detail, it only makes edges stand out to your eyes.
  • Increasing [SHARPNESS] creates aliasing artifacts instead, and actually damages video quality. You might not notice aliasing artifacts in still pictures (like when using the Sharpen filter in Photoshop), but in video they show up as noise in the image when you move the camcorder. This is especially severe on surfaces that have fine detail, like brick walls or stone surfaces (producing Moiré patterns).

For further detailed reference about lens MTF and its impacts on picture sharpness, watch and read:

Setting manual exposure

Setting exposure correctly requires you to use 3 key monitoring tools:

  • Zebras: use the little switch to activate zebras at 100% setting, and watch out for any part of the picture with zebras on it because it means this part is bleaching out and losing detail. As a general rule, set manual exposure so as to avoid zebras.
  • The histogram: go to the menu and have the histogram displayed in the viewfinder at all times. Mastering it takes time and practice, and cannot be summarized in simple terms. Use it to monitor how your video is exposed, and whether it is too bright or too dark. Look for key parts of your video which appear distinctly on the histogram (like the sky essentially), and use them as a guide to set exposure correctly.
  • Camera Data Display: go to the menu and set [CAM DATA DSP] to ON, so that you have iris, shutter speed, and gain settings displayed in the viewfinder at all times.

Setting exposure manually does not require you to set iris, shutter speed, and gain individually. You can achieve all that quickly and easily with one single button:

  • Go to the menu and assign the EXPOSURE/IRIS dial function to [EXPOSURE].
  • In your picture, there’s almost always a brighter part and a darker/dimmer part that cause exposure to shift. Keep the camcorder in auto exposure, swing it around and let exposure adjust itself while you’re framing the shot through the viewfinder (keeping a close eye on zebras and the histogram).
  • When exposure is right, lock it to manual by depressing the EXPOSURE/IRIS button and there… you’re all set! Not only did you manage to set exposure quickly, you also leveraged the opportunity to check that exposure is correct for your entire shot.
  • If you then need to perform finer adjustments, use the EXPOSURE/IRIS dial.

In summary, when [EXPOSURE] is assigned to the iris dial, you have 3 exposure modes:

  1. Exposure/Iris, Gain and Shutter buttons OFF: AUTO EXPOSURE.
  2. Exposure/Iris button ON, Gain and Shutter buttons OFF: GLOBAL MANUAL EXPOSURE with dial (priority given to iris; gain only affected when needed).
  3. Exposure/Iris, Gain and Shutter buttons ON: INDIVIDUAL MANUAL EXPOSURE (iris, gain and shutter adjusted by their own buttons).

For shooting outdoors during daylight:

  • Frame the picture in the viewfinder with half sky / half ground, then lock exposure to manual. This should ordinarily be enough to set satisfactory exposure.

Using zebras:

  • Be mindful that sometimes you cannot avoid zebras. For example, during an overcast day you may need to let some part of the white sky become overexposed. Don’t underexpose your video too much, otherwise other parts of the picture will become really too dark.
  • Similar situation when shooting in cities with high buildings: so many parts of the picture are in the shade, you must let the sky overexpose a bit or else your video will be too dark.

Under bright daylight:

  • If you have set [AT IRIS LMT] = f5.6 and switch to manual exposure, you will find that the EXPOSURE/IRIS dial lets you close the iris beyond f5.6. This is not good for sharpness and you must avoid that.
  • There are 2 solutions:
    • Use an additional, external ND filter to reduce incoming light and open up the iris.
    • If you don’t have an external ND filter, lock shutter speed before you engage manual exposure and raise it to 1/100 – 1/150. That is, raise shutter speed enough so that you won’t be closing iris further than f5.6 after you have switched to manual exposure.

Best colors for shooting outdoors

To obtain best colors (esp. to preserve the green of trees and avoid yellow cast):

  • Use the OUTDOOR White Balance preset,
  • Set a custom picture profile with [WB SHIFT] = -1

Optionally if you like vivid colors, you can also set your picture profile with [COLOR LEVEL] = +1

Never use AWB (Auto White Balance) under the bright daylight. It will ruin your footage with random color casts (like yellow, green, blue).

If, for any reason and against the advice, you want to use AWB in some specific situation, go to the menu and set [AWB SENS] to LOW in order to minimize the random color casts introduced by AWB.

For further detailed explanations with extensive illustrations, read the comprehensive primer on obtaining best colors when shooting outdoors with the HDR-FX7E / HDR-FX7.

Sub-chapters include:

Other picture quality issues

Avoid flash photographers like the plague. Not that they aren’t nice people, it’s just that they will be causing 2 problems to your videos:

  • Pixellation: flashes cause extremely fast changes on the whole picture, which overwhelm the HDV codec. In order to keep up with the 25 Mbps fixed bitrate of the HDV format, the codec needs to reduce quality – which appears as big pixels in your picture (usually during one single frame).
  • Banding: CMOS camcorders implement a rolling shutter, which means that the picture is not captured instantaneously as a whole. Instead it is captured in several parts subsequently over time. As a consequence, flashes will show as bright bands in your video (not just a whole bright image instead).

There are no solutions or work-arounds in your camcorder for these issues.

3 thoughts on “HDR-FX7 tutorial”

  1. Hi

    This is very good and helpful.

    Could you include the problems with a still camera flash light causing pixilation? The FX7 is very susceptible during wedding filming especially in low light conditions

  2. Good point, I added a note. I didn’t care to mention that earlier because there’s not much to do other than avoid that situation altogether (which isn’t always practical).

  3. Thanks for your explanation. I have tried experimenting with different settings but could not resolve the phenomenon. The problem is more acute when the flash has the RED EYE set on. In my case it usually affects 4 frames which can be deleted during editing without showing up too much.

    I’m not a professional, it’s just a hobby and I discovered the problem when I filmed the wedding of a couple of my friends.

    Thanks again


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