The Sony FS7 – Cinéma Vérité Style

Up until recently, most non-fiction content was primarily captured by shoulder-mount camcorders containing 2/3” type CCDs (Panasonic AJ-PX800, Sony PDWF800, etc.). Many run-and-gun documentarians or low-budget filmmakers gravitated to compact, fixed-lens camcorders like the Sony PXWX200 or the JVC GY-HM650U. Although all of these cameras deliver great images, with smaller sensors ranging from 1/3” – 2/3”, it’s more difficult to capture cinematic shallow depth of field due to crop factors and the angle of view of a lens.

Non-fiction content has come a long way. Currently at film festivals like Sundance and South-By-Southwest, documentaries now receive much more attention than narrative features loaded with movie stars. While on television, travel shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and action series like Deadliest Catch have transformed the look of reality TV.

Unlike a DSLR in which you need to outfit the camera with a number of accessories to transform it into a cinema camera, the FS7 is a true motion picture camera.

One possible reason for the shift is that we’ve seen a number of large sensor camcorders targeted towards “cinematic” shooters. Canon released the C300 in 2011, which has become one of the most popular cameras for indie narrative and doc shooters. In 2013, ARRI released the AMIRA, a shoulder-mount doc-style camera that contains many of the same features of the ALEXA. The success of the C300 and AMIRA have proven that doc-style cameras can become a huge industry.

Not to be outdone, Sony has released a number of groundbreaking digital motion picture cameras. In 2012, they released the Sony F55 – a digital motion picture camera with a Super 35mm sensor that could capture 4K “on-board” files. For indie filmmakers, their NEXFS700U had some impressive specs, including an E-mount, a 4K-ready sensor, and the ability to capture slo-mo 2K footage up to 240-fps. The only problem was the its awkward, box-like body, making it impossible to perform handheld shooting – most popular for documentary shooting.

The FS7 has a rounder, more compact shape, similar to the Aaton XTR Prod Super16 camera

Well, you can add the new PXW-FS7 to Sony’s groundbreaking list. The FS7 can be described as a camera system that corrects every shortcoming of the FS700 and then some. Priced at just $9,599 (List: $7,999), the 4K FS7 is far less expensive than either the new C300 Mark II (MSRP: $20,000) and the AMIRA (MSRP: $39,999).

KEY FEATURES

• On-board 4K (3840 x 2160) and Full HD (1920 x 1080) recording

• RAW recording (with extension unit and outboard recorder, sold separately)

• Super 35 Exmor® CMOS Sensor

• E-mount system with 18mm flange back distance

• Slow and Quick Motion for over-and undercranking

• Dual XQD card slots

• Supports S-Gamut3Cine/S-Log 3 encoding

AATON-ESQUE?

Sony sent over a review unit of the FS7, along with the new Sony FE PZ 28 – 135mm f/4 G OSS zoom lens. Like many of the new digital motion picture cameras, the FS7 is compact but instead of the box-like shape of the FS700 or rectangular shoulder-mount ergonomics of the AMIRA, the FS7 has a rounder, more compact shape, similar to a 16mm film camera. In fact, one of its visual influences is the Aaton XTR Prod Super16 camera. But instead of loading film, you’re loading XQD cards to dual slots for internal capture. The camera’s magnesium build is also lightweight at only 4.4-lbs (body only).

The FS7’s LCD display also functions as a viewfinder with an included extension box that clips over the display easily

Say goodbye to workarounds. Unlike a DSLR in which you need to outfit the camera with a number of accessories to transform it into a cinema camera, the FS7 is a true motion picture camera. Because the FS7 is fairly compact, it’s difficult to perform handheld work with the camera over your shoulder or held out in front (similar to the FS700U). To shoot handheld, Sony has added a nice articulated handgrip that you can balance the camera with your right hand – almost like an extension of your body. Also with the arm extension controller, you can zoom, start/stop and assign different controls, similar to a Varizoom lens controller. Although not as comfortable in your hands as the Canon C300, the FS7 operates optimally with the body cradled against your shoulder, holding the extension controller with your right hand, your left hand operating the lens, and your eye fixed to the supplied viewfinder. One thing to note is that when you’re not shooting, you have to be lie the camera on its side while the arm is attached. It’s impossible to lie flat so be careful.

The FS7’s viewfinder is improved over the FS700’s, although it isn’t of the same quality as an ARRI EVF-1. Like the FS700U, the FS7’s LCD display also functions as a viewfinder with an included extension box that clips over the display easily. One of the big problems with the FS700U was the positioning of the LCD display/viewfinder, which was awkwardly positioned on the top of the camera, right in the middle. With an included 15mm rod mount you can position the LCD/viewfinder to the left of the camera (where it belongs) and position the viewfinder at high or low angles. I’m really glad Sony listened to camera operators and fixed this problem.

USABILITY/WORKFLOW

If I do have one criticism of the FS7 it would definitely be its menu system. Although they’re masters at hardware, creating an efficient menu system has never been Sony’s strong suit. Mobile devices such as the iPad have made us spoiled in terms of navigating menus by touch and menu systems like the Samsung NX1, or even the Blackmagic URSA, feels way more intuitive and quick than the FS7’s jog dial on the side of the camera. Although you typically get used to any menu system after spending weeks with a camera, I never got used to making changes within the menu with the slippery dial, especially with all of the formats the FS7 offers. Sort of frustrating Sony hasn’t caught up with this.

For my workflow, I was capturing UHD (3840 x 2160) XAVC-I files

Perhaps the FS7’s biggest strengths is the number of formats available, including the new XAVC Intra and XAVC Long GOP formats. You can capture 4K DCI (12-bit RAW), UHD (10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC-I, 8-bit 4:2:0 XAVC-L), 2K (12-bit RAW), Full HD (10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC-I, 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC-L, MPEG2 4:2:2), and 1280 x 720 (MPEG2 4:2:2). For XAVC-I, it’s the same 113-MB/s the Sony F55 uses. Regarding 4K RAW capture, it’s capable through an optional extension unit – the XDCA-FS7 – and Sony’s HXR-IFR5 and AXS-R5 recorder, or other 3rd party recorders like the Convergent Design Odyssey7Q. (I regret that I didn’t have time to test RAW recording with the review unit.)

For my workflow, I was capturing UHD (3840 x 2160) XAVC-I files (in an MXF wrapper) to a 32-GB S Series XQD card. The S Series can capture 180-MB/s but the new G Series of XQD cards can capture 400-MB/s. For both the G and S Series you can capture roughly 10-minutes of UHD XAVC-I 60p footage and 30 minutes at 24p. It’s truly a breakthrough that you can capture UHD 60p footage to cards for a camera at this price point. It’s also amazing that you can capture up to 180-fps at Full HD and 60p at UHD. Tested out the camera’s slo-mo features at a tennis practice and it worked like a charm.

Slow Motion example – Shot at 120-fps in 1920 x 1080 resolution

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The good thing about XQD cards is that they’re generally less expensive than CFast 2.0 cards, although that may change soon with the proliferation of CFast 2.0 cameras (AMIRA, C300 Mark II, Blackmagic URSA, etc.). A 128GB G Series XQD card will set you back roughly $800. Speed is not cheap.

THE E-MOUNT

A few years ago, one of the criticisms of Sony’s NEX interchangeable lens camcorders was its E-mount. Sony didn’t nearly have the amount of lenses that either Canon or Nikon had but it has grown exponentially in recent years. The FE PZ 28 – 135mm f/4 G OSS zoom I tested is a true cinema-style lens that has an excellent build quality and a remarkable retail price of only $2,499, which compared to the latest broadcast cine/servo lenses, is about 1/10th the cost (although it doesn’t have the same build or performance of an Angenieux or Fujinon broadcast zoom). On the FS7 Super35-sized sensor, it functions roughly like a 42-202.5mm lens. If you’re more of a prime lens shooter, Zeiss brought out two high-quality E-mount manual lenses – the Loxia 2/35 and 2/50. (The Loxias are specifically designed for the full-frame a7S.)

The FE PZ 28 – 135mm f/4 G OSS zoom is a true cinema-style lens with broadcast features

If you don’t own any E-mount lenses, there are also a number of excellent lens adapters such as the Metabones EF to E-mount Speed Booster Ultra, which increases your aperture by 1 f/stop and your angle of view by .71x.

One feature I really loved on the FS7 was its built-in ND filter system, which gives you a sturdy metal knob that gives you four settings – Clear, ¼, 1/16, 1/64. The system will save you significant cash on ND filters so you can go out and buy a new lens.

THE DIGITAL NEGATIVE

To capture the sensor’s full 14-stops of latitude, I shot with Sony’s new S-Gamut3.Cine/S-Log3 color space at the FS7’s native ISO (2000). I set my exposure levels using both the FS7’s waveform monitor and zebras. Instead of using a LUT in-camera in the Cine EI mode, I added an SLog3 to Rec 709 LUT in post using DaVinci Resolve 11 and then transcoded the files to ProRes LT files at their native resolution.

Here’s an example of SLog3 and then corrected with a Rec 709 LUT in post. (The setting was a courtyard with gray walls so a lot of color was drained even after the LUT was applied.)

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As expected, once the UHD files were corrected, they were extremely sharp and clean, typical of a Sony camera. Although this may be a subjective, un-scientific observation, I have always found the images Sony cameras produce to have a sharper yet slightly colder feel than images from a Canon or ARRI cameras. But I want to stress that “sharper” and “slightly colder” does not quantify inferior. Digital cameras are like film stocks and we should choose which stock (or camera) is best for the story at hand. The FS7 is an excellent camera for documentary or narrative filmmakers to capture high-quality images. I believe it offers the most bang for your buck of any professional camera system out there.

For more information about the FS7, please visit www.pro.sony.com.

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